Best DACs of 2020
The way that music is delivered to us has drastically changed over the years. Especially since music became predominantly mobile, and we’re used to carrying it around with us wherever we go.
Upgrading our music gear has become a sort of obsession. And one of the things you might often hear about but are not entirely sure what they are or how they work are DACs, or Digital-to-Audio-Converters.
Before you jump right into purchasing one, make sure you read our guide. First, you’ll determine whether you need one in the first place, and if that is the case, you’ll find some of the best models available.
See related: Best Stereo Amps
Best DACs of 2020 - Our Top Picks
1. Best Overall - Chord Electronics Hugo 2
- Size: 5.1 x 3.9 x 0.8 inches
- Weight: 15.8 oz
- 7 hour Battery Life.
- 768kHz Micro USB input
- Coax Jack input.
- Dual Data Mode jack input
- 96kHz Optical input
- Bluetooth Apt X input
Chord Electronics Hugo 2 Review
Chord Electronics Hugo DAC has been a fan favorite for quite some time now. And even though it had its share of downsides, just like any other piece of equipment, it feels like it didn’t need any more improvements.
Nevertheless, the guys at Chord decided to do some tweaking. Hence, the Hugo 2 was born. And it’s still a fantastic piece of audio gear. Now it’s just smaller and more expensive than its predecessor.
The first thing that’s noticeable from the get-go is that the edges feel crisp and smooth, and the overall build seems to be at the top of the game.
Like we’ve mentioned above, Hugo 2 is a bit smaller and compact than the first model. However, it’s still a larger model when DACs are considered. So, even though the manufacturer claims it’s a fully portable model, it might be a little far from the truth.
That being said, it is lightweight, but it’s just not easy to carry it around in your pocket whenever you need to use it.
All the Connection Ports You’ll Need
When talking about connectivity options, Hugo 2 offers pretty much everything you’ll need. Or at least, almost everything. There are digital optical input (TOSLink), digital coaxial, mini-USB, 3.5mm and 6.3mm headphone outputs, a couple of RCAs to connect the amp, aptX Bluetooth, and more. So, more than enough.
And most importantly, the sound. You’d be hard-pressed to find any faults in the Hugo 2’s process of converting and reproducing digital signals.
In fact, the bigger the file, and the higher the amount of information it has to deal with, you can bet the end result will be a crisp, detailed, and dynamic performance.
2. Best Portable - Audiolab M-DAC Nano
- Size: 1.8 x 1.8 x 0.5 inches
- Weight: 1.12 oz
- Bluetooth 4.2
- 30 mW per channel output
- 2 hours for charging
- 8 hours playing time
- 8-ohm impedance
Audiolab M-DAC Nano Review
Up until recently, finding a genuinely portable DAC option was kind of a hassle. In other words, if you wanted to get a DAC to make the sound of your phone or laptop much better, you didn’t have all too many options.
That’s where M-DAC Nano steps in. It is a really petite unit that can easily fit in any pocket. On top of that, it’s incredibly lightweight. But, even though these are all desirable traits, they’re not the things that separate this model from the rest of the portable ones.
No Adapters Needed
Convenience and ease of use are, on the other hand. To connect this device, you don’t need to carry any additional adapters around. All can be done wirelessly, via Bluetooth 4.2 version.
This means you can position it wherever you see fit once you want to connect it.
M-DAC nano does not use the power from your device when turned on. Instead, it uses an internal rechargeable battery which can last up to eight hours when fully charged. It could offer more in this department if you ask us.
When the device is inactive for 10 minutes, this DAC will automatically shut itself down. An excellent feature for preserving power. Check out our list of best subwoofers.
When it comes to Bluetooth dependent devices, the main concern tends to be sound performance. Generally speaking, it should offer a much better sound to compel you not to plug in your headphones straight into the phone simply.
In this case, that turns out to be the truth. The sound is obviously superior to that without the M-DAC Nano.
3. Best High-End - NAIM DAC V1
- Size: 19.3 x 14.6 x 9.8 inches
- Weight: 5 lbs
- 10-ohm impedance
- 1 x coaxial BNC
- 2 x coaxial RCA
- 2 x optical TOSLINK
- USB 1 x asynchronous USB (type B)
- 10Hz – 20kHz frequency response
NAIM DAC V1 Review
NAIM is a household name when it comes to audio production. This manufacturer usually tackles one area at a time, to make sure they’ve researched the market and got everything right.
So, it’s no surprise that this is the second DAC coming from this company. On the other hand, it’s the first one that can double as a headphone amp.
Hasn’t Changed Too Much Since the Beginning
Design-wise, nothing had changed about this model since 2013, when it was first introduced. It is packed in an aluminum body and sports an OLED display.
A bunch of menu buttons is placed at the front of the device, making it a breeze to make your selections. Or you can simply use a neat and user-friendly remote that comes with it.
As you’ll find out with many other DACs, this model, too, can also work as a preamplifier. For this purpose, you’ll find two optical inputs and three coaxial ones, so you can connect various other devices. Also, there’s a 6.3mm output in the front that serves as a headphone amplifier.
Since the introduction of this model, there have been a number of updates. Since the last one, there weren’t many changes to the overall sound of the DAC-V1. Which is a good thing, since the previous iteration worked perfectly fine.
It offers a well-balanced, subtle sound that is dramatic and punchy at the same time. Not many models can do that.
At times, it can be quite forward and throw itself at you. Therefore, sometimes you might even feel kind of overwhelmed by it, which in turn might make you feel unrelaxed.
4. Best Budget - Chord Electronics Mojo
- Size: 3.2 x 2.4 x 0.9 inches
- Weight: 6.4 oz
- Micro USB
- 3.5mm jack coaxial
- Optical Toslink
- Micro USB charging port
- 2. x 3.5mm headphone jacks
Chord Electronics Mojo Review
Want to get the best possible sound from your device, but lack the funds to go on a splurge? Then Mojo is a model for you.
It is a perfect fit for those who wish to get the same manufacturer’s high-priced Hugo model, but simply can’t afford it.
And even for an affordable price, this model is packed with a powerful processor. This is due to the manufacturer’s refusal to simply use just any DAC chipset to power its converters.
From the first glance, this model feels kind of strangely shaped, without all the Chord’s beloved trademark details. Then again, for a cheap product, it is an example of elegant, minimal built, with an eye-catching finish.
The whole build is in the spirit of minimalism. So, don’t be surprised that there are only three rounded control buttons. These take care of the power switching on and off and controlling the volume.
There is no display on the device, but rather those buttons change colors depending on various inputs. This can feel a little confusing at first, but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it.
For such a tiny unit, the Mojo is definitely packed with lots of connectivity options, like optical, coax, micro-USB, and a USB port that can be used solely for charging.
To get it fully charged, you will need to spend at least 10 hours, which is a lot, you’d agree? And after fully charging it, you’ll be able to use it for up to 8 hours.
But, this depends on the way you use the DAC. If you’re turning the volume up to the max, this number will decrease. So, it feels like it could do better in this department.
And lastly, and most importantly, it performs fabulously. It is able to handle a considerable amount of detail and sort them out in a cohesive manner.
Best DACs - Buying Guide
What Is a DAC?
First, we need to determine what DACs are in the first place. The answer is pretty simple, and it is hidden within the name.
DAC stands for Digital-to-Analog-Converter. And that’s precisely what it does!
It converts digital into an audio signal. In turn, your speakers or headphones will be able to reproduce sound.
Nowadays, it’s a pretty standard feature found in many devices, especially smartphones. As a related topic, read more about best digital audio players.
However, there was a time when they were quite rare and only found in audio-enthusiasts’ setups.
The increased need for better DACs came about due to the overall dissatisfaction with the audio playback quality that most devices (be it computers or smartphones) had to offer.
There was a time when it was hard to find a quality device that could easily match some high-quality speakers and headphones. So, the need for high-quality music led to the need for better quality DACs.
DAC Improves Audio Performance
Essentially, by plugging in an external quality DAC, you ensure that the average audio chipset of the device is avoided, and replaced with some high-grade hardware.
How do these things actually work? Let’s make it clear that any device that can reproduce audio has an already built-in converter inside itself. It’s just a matter of how good that converter is.
Such chips are usually positioned on the devices’ motherboard, and in most cases, their quality depends on the quality of the motherboard itself.
So, whether you have a built-in DAC or an external one, its primary purpose would be to transfer digital signals into analog ones.
In most cases, the built-in ones will be ok, and nothing more than that. Once you get a quality, high-level DAC, you’ll see all the difference it makes.
Why Should You Get a DAC?
The main question before getting a DAC is - why should you really get one? Is that something you absolutely need?
Like we’ve mentioned above, you don’t necessarily need it. However, sometimes your computer or your smartphone won’t be able to produce sound without outputting some noise. Or it might be incapable of audio output if your files have a higher bitrate.
The only other reason why you could consider getting a DAC is if you’re professionally recording audio. And that’s pretty much it.
Different Types of DACs
Basically, we can say that there are three types of DACs out there:
- DAC/Headphone amplifiers
- Portable DACs
Standalone DACs are usually USB-enabled boxes that often house a couple of analog outputs.
The USB is not only there to use data, but also to stream the voltage that makes it possible for that specific DAC to work. Sometimes these need a separate amp to function.
DAC/Headphone amplifiers house outputs for not only the speakers, but also another one for the headphones, as you might have guessed.
Portable DACs can connect with various different devices, such as smartphones, usually via USB-C port, but can also work as computer DACs. Almost always, they come with a headphone preamp.
Luckily, a DAC usually requires a pretty straightforward setup. Mostly, it’s just a matter of plugging it in and letting it do its magic.
Once you hook a DAC onto your computer per se, the computer will instantly recognize that it is there and what brand it is. Now, some DACs will require additional driver installation, while others will do that automatically.
The moment you connect it, it will become visible as one of the sound playback options, and all you need to do is go to your Preferences and select it as your preferred piece of hardware.
After that, you will have to unplug all your audio reproduction devices, such as your speakers, and connect them again to your DAC.
If you’re at all into audio, and the sound performance in general, chances are you’ll want to enrich and breathe new life into your headphones or speakers. And there’s no better way to do that than with a DAC!
It’s just a matter of determining whether you actually need one, and how much you are willing to spend for that pleasure.