On today’s list of hidden technologies that you never knew you needed or used, we’re discussing the digital-to-analog converter (DAC). If you own any computer device that can play audio media, you’re already employing a DAC in some form. In this way, you’re not actually listening to “digital music” but the true analog form of it. Additionally, most DACs come with an amp on board for user volume control. Without these nifty little devices, nobody would be able to play audio from digital files, which makes them an incredibly important part of day-to-day technology.
Sound cards are different in that they contain a DAC and an amp in addition to other hard- and software that adds specialized effects and processing to improve audio delivery. Choosing an external DAC or internal sound card is essential for those who want to maximize music quality in home cinema settings and parties as well as quiet playback in study zones and noisy public locations like coffee shops. A poor DAC and amp combination will result in overly quiet, off-tune playback with audio judders, popping, squealing and the “tin can effect” — none of which are desirable.
Best DAC AMP Combo Comparison Table
|Product||Photo||Power supply||Sample Rate||Check Price|
Best High-End Choice
|Power Adapter, USB||16Bit/44.1KHz|
|Emotiva BasX TA-100||Power Adapter, USB||24Bit / 192 KHz|
|Micro iDSD Black Label|
Best Portable Choice
|Power Adapter, USB, Battery||up to 24Bit / 768KHz|
|Mayflower Electronics Desktop Objective2 ODAC Rev B.||Power Adapter, USB||16/44, 16/48, 16/96, 24/44, 24/48, 24/96 (bit/KHz)|
|FiiO E18 KUNLUN||USB, Battery||24Bit/96KHz|
|Aune X1S||Power Adapter, USB||24bit / 192KHz|
|SMSL M6||Power Adapter, USB||16bit-32bit / 32kHz-384kHz|
Best Cheap Choice
|USB||24Bit / 96KHz|
|SMSL Audio M3||USB||24Bit / 192KHz|
Best DAC AMP Combo in Category
Questyle CMA600i-S — Best DAC/Amp Headphone Combo
We’re just going to lead off with the straight-up best DAC/amp combination on the list: Questyle’s CMA600i-S. We think the “S” must stand for “Super”, but speculations aside, the price tag definitely speaks volumes about the kind of tech they packed under the hood.
Conversely, the specs are breath-taking. Support for high outbound wattage allows high-profile audio systems to be linked up and consume as much as they need. There are two headphone jacks next to an RCA out, and it goes without saying that this is the type of DAC that you’ll find in a studio environment. In other words, you’re getting the absolute best audio quality and volume output that any standard DAC/amp combination can give you.
Micro iDSD Black Label — Best Portable DAC/Amp Combo
If we’re going off aesthetics alone, this DAC is probably the top dog on this list. But that’s not what you’re concerned with when you’re rocking out to the Burr Brown support for PCM786, Octa-DSD512 or Double DXD raw formats on your audio files.
Even better is the portable nature of this beast, packing a 12-hour juicer with a 1.5A charge output for your smart device. With enough output for high-consumption headphones and a bevy of onboard software features to tweak your portable audio experience, this is the most well-rounded bang for your buck.
Micro iDSD Black Label — Best DAC/Amp Combo for Sennheiser HD650
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the best portable DAC/amp combination would also win the top spot for the audiophilic Sennheiser HD650 crowd, which probably forms a good chunk of those who are here to read about this.
Naturally, you’re getting support for top-end raw files for on-the-go decoding in a sleek, pocket-sized unit that charges your phone while powering your headset for hours on end — what’s not to love about that? There’s also software-enhanced surround sound and a bass booster on top, both of which do the job nicely on this DAC. Sennheiser users should find that this is the most sensible option to use with their headsets.
Emotiva BasX TA-100 — Best DAC/Amp Combo under $500
For starters, this machine is anything but portable. With the one and only downside out of the way, it’s time to focus on the complete array of supported connections going in and out along with a Bluetooth receiver and an inbuilt screen to adjust the software options on board.
The chassis is built to last and feel sturdy, but more importantly, you’re getting high-wattage, benchmark-level audio decoding, pre-amp, tuning and playback on Emotiva’s emotional DAC.
FiiO E18 KUNLUN — Best DAC/Amp Combo Under $300
While tailored toward Android devices specifically, the right adapters can make this compatible with Apple products as well.
This DAC/amp combination is a natural pick for smartphones and tablets due to the portable nature of it, packing reasonable battery life and the ability to send power to the media device that’s connected to it. It also supports USB On-The-Go (OTG), expanding the connectivity options between it and your portable smart device.
SMSL M6 — Best DAC/Amp Combo Under $200
If you’re trying to keep things on the less expensive side of the fence while serving a wide spectrum of needs, this little DAC/amp combo should do the trick.
With USB input support for 32-bit, 384kHz files, the ability to accept fiberoptic inputs and an RCA output for 6.35 headphone jacks, this device manages to hit a sweet spot between amateur and professional usage.
This is intended to be an exceptional decoding powerhouse for the price, and despite its pocket-capable size, it doesn’t have a battery built in for one-the-go power. Regardless, at the given cost, there shouldn’t be any complaints about fidelity.
FiiO E10K — Best DAC/Amp Combo Under $100
Quality doesn’t always have to come with an inflated price tag in tow — not that the other options on this list aren’t worth it, but some people just don’t need that level of power.
For the thrifty among us, there’s the FiiO E10K: low noise floor and input support for 24-bit, 96kHz PCM files inside a brushed aluminum chassis that slides right in your pocket. You’re also getting a variety of connection inputs to support just about any portable or stationary output device that your heart desires, making this little beast well worth its cost.
Best DAC AMP Combo Reviews
Now we’re going to review the most powerful DAC we found: the Questyle CMA600i-S.
That’s the second time we’ve prepared a grand introduction for this device, the first being none other than the top spot in our Best In Category section. Let’s get one detail out of the way, however: The CMA600i-S is anything but portable or cheap.
The connection array isn’t the largest on this list — that honor goes to Emotiva’s entry. However, it supports up to three pairs of headphones, switchable voltage settings for international travel, and a sound-to-noise ratio that might as well lay flat on the floor.
The interesting array of power hookups entails that this is probably the most portable stationary DAC on the list. We’re not sure why this should be a selling point since the outbound power can’t possibly support stage-sized speakers unless a separate amp is used, but it’s not exactly a drawback either.
Another Best In Category winner in the bang-for-buck slot under $500, this is definitely reminiscent of a DVD player or old set-top box in its design, which should tell you a few things off the bat.
Firstly, it’s not going anywhere — find a comfortable place to set it down. Next, a device that emplaces itself so confidently probably has a lot going for it, and here’s the good news: It has just about every connection you could need in addition to Bluetooth of all things. Seriously, look at the back side of this thing — you won’t know where to begin.
To top it off, the solid and attractive design makes the sizable chassis forgivable and even welcome in any studio setup. This should be a device that you can look at with pride, and that’s what Emotiva has provided at a shockingly affordable price. While the audio is immaculate, however, some say that the tuner is the sole downfall of the BasX TA-100, but others cite that it functions at its price, so your mileage may vary.
A two-time winner of our Best In Category section, there are many kind words to speak of this device.
First off, let’s discuss the Burr Brown chipset, which blows open a whole new world for decoding high-quality and raw files that aren’t commonly supported: PCM768, DXD, and DSD512. Those numbers are, by the way, frighteningly good at this point in the review since none of the other DACs so far have been able to touch this level of compatibility or quality. But that doesn’t go without noting how expensive the Black Label is. Make no mistake: You’re getting what you’re paying for.
The main issue with the Black Label is the lack of support for Windows 10. Oddly, it works just fine with other Windows operating environments in addition to Android, iOS, and Mac, but that’s not going to be good enough at this price level. With Windows 10 still gaining in market share, more people will find themselves longing for a well-rounded decoder that handles everything they can throw at it, and this would have been it.
The name is quite a mouthful, but the simplicity of this DAC isn’t anything to sneeze at.
Supporting microUSB file transfer and leaning on a 120V power source, you have limited connectivity, but it plainly says on the box that it’s intended for headphones. Interestingly, there’s also a gain knob next to the volume control.
While the price is on the heavier end for a simple headphone amplifier, it offers a rather incredible punch for the buck. The only complaint is the lack of an RCA port, which is understandable given its ubiquity in other decoders.
Not to leave iPhone users out in the cold, but the KUNLUN advertises itself as strictly for Android users, and this is never more evident than in the highly USB-centric charging and quality audio conveyance that it supports.
In addition, there’s a smartphone-friendly amp onboard that supports USB OTG and allows the control keys on the side to function as an extension of smartphone controls. Topping it all off is a substantial charge life, and of course, it can share some of that power with your Android if the juicer starts to run dry.
This isn’t the one and only Aune X1 device on the market. To be precise, this is the fifth edition of it, bringing the latest in sound quality and amp updates to support professional-level audio media refinement.
This is spoken for in its decoding horsepower handling 384K.DSD128 at 32 bits over USB although the price makes this specification more expected than surprising.
There are a couple issues worth noting, one being that the sound output can be grating when the optical port is used. Users report that this is mainly an issue with Macs, so it may not come down to the DAC itself.
The amp is also cited to be less than perfect, pushing audio into the colder end of the spectrum with some grain on top, ruining some of the distortion control that comes with this device. Collectively, users agree that this isn’t the biggest bang for your buck, but if the array of connectivity options is down your alley, you shouldn’t find yourself wanting.
The price tag isn’t exactly light, but neither is the performance. This black box from Fostex is capable of supporting input files of up to 24 bits and 96kHz while a 32-bit converter works from a USB power source to provide ultra-clear music and movie audio.
It has a pretty standard gamut of connections ranging from USB and RCA to Toslink, and it can forward digital audio to optical for a little flexibility. It’s not the most versatile DAC ever, but it’s a flawless piece of tech within the boundaries of its design.
Users note that the amp that’s built into this DAC is incredibly loud if you want it to be, and the system manages to hold the quality together despite that, which is a claim that other converters here can’t stake. Really, there’s nothing to nitpick about. The design is straightforward but functional, and there’s enough power to sustain anything you hook up to it.
Right off the bat, the simple design would fool anyone into believing that the offerings underneath are mediocre, but in truth, it’s just a utilitarian approach to the “black box that does things”.
When you notice that it supports up to 32 bits of 384kHz audio over USB asynchronous transference, it’s a more compelling offer at the asking price, and there are plenty of connections to spread the love with. A PC USB in is even included, and who sees that around much these days?
Now, this is a small set-top solution for stationary, high-output decoding, so while it fits in your pocket, don’t plan on taking it in the car without a power adapter. However, once you decide that crystal-clear decoding makes a fine complement for your desktop rig, this is very difficult to beat for the price. It doesn’t offer much else, but we’re not complaining.
As the winner of the Best DAC/Amp Combo Under $100, there are kind words to say about FiiO’s little decoder.
The module comes with a convenient volume dial that works the amp half of the setup while a 3.5mm headphone jack graces the front side along with a bass booster to boot. The device is small enough to tuck right in your pocket, and while the output quality isn’t top-of-the-line, it exceeds expectations for the price tag. You can effectively hook this little beastie up to any PC, smartphone or tablet for instant results. Just plug your headset or speaker system into the jack and make the magic happen.
The reviews don’t say much against the E10K. It’s cited as reliable and “just working”, taking up nearly no space to provide an exponential boost over the typical OEM DAC chips that the untrained ear would call “nice”. One of the common points that the E10 gets people on is the complete lack of distortion when playing front-and-center audio bites at higher volumes.
Alright, now we’re leaning into slightly more technical territory on the low-price end of the spectrum.
SMSL has delivered a decoding solution that supports AV- and microUSB-in for on-the-road audio enhancement. Packing a rechargeable battery that can route power to your phone or tablet for a little juice, the M3 makes a fine companion to carry around in your pocket throughout the day. The selling point, as SMSL pegs it, is the convenience factor: This is meant to be easy to plug in, use and put away when you’re finished.
There’s not much to show off on the front other than a knob for the amp and an LED grid that shows which inbound ports are being used and at what sampling frequency. Without even looking at a specs sheet, you can immediately see that different ports support different sample rates: 48, 96 and 192kHz for the microUSB, Toslink and AV composite respectively. It’s a nice surprise to see that it can convert rates that high, but there are drawbacks that offset this advantage — namely the M3’s penchant to quit decoding files on one particular port or all ports at once.
Best DAC AMP Combo Buyer’s Guide
This is a measurement of how much interference is in the audio. When you listen to any form of audio that has an unintended hissing, whirring, popping or other background noise, this is the observable form of a higher noise floor, which is a bad thing.
This metric is measured in kilohertz (kHz) and determines the fineness of audio detail when it’s stored as a digital file. As an analog format, audio is infinitely qualitative and limited only by the laws of physics. However, data can only store that infinitely detailed signal with a limited level of fidelity due to space and processing constraints.
Because data only stores and processes in timed bursts as opposed to analog’s sustained waveform consistency, a digital audio file must plot out the continuous waveform using a series of update ticks called samples. This can be thought of as how deeply the digital file describes the analog representation of the audio.
Also called bit depth, this metric describes the range of audio expression that a file or system can support. Where sample rate measures how deeply the audio is described, bit rate measured how well it’s described.
This is a unit of volume measurement. While this is rarely seen on volume control interfaces short of industrial or professional equipment, it’s always relevant to the concept of how loud your audio can be.
The chip inside each DAC is limited in the kinds of files that can be supported, which affects the DAC’s ability to decode the digital signature of certain files into an analog signal. Much like WAV video and DNG photography, PCM audio is a lossless, ultra-fidelity format that’s commonly used with DACs because the quality is far higher.
A lossy file type is a format where the audio data has been compressed to save drive space at the expense of sound quality. MP3 and AAC are two of the most popular lossy file types, and while they sound great through a decent set of headphones, there’s a totally different world out there when you step into lossless territory with audio files like PCM and DXD. These files haven’t been compressed, meaning they’ve retained 100 percent of the content that was originally captured and stored. These provide the fullest quality range for bit and sample rates. But they need to be utilized by a DAC that supports them and output hardware that can let the full range of data be expressed.
Best DAC AMP Combo FAQ
A) “Wait, so why do I need an external DAC if there’s already one built into my PC, laptop and smartphone?”
The DACs that are built into your devices are usually not nearly as potent as a dedicated, external one. This means that the audio that’s projected from your headphones, phone speaker or PC will have more of that tin-can sound, whirring, popping and other interference in addition to generally flat-sounding music.
External DACs are a beefier version with support for higher bit, sample and refresh rates, yielding a more clean, crisp and detailed audio experience when played through speakers or headphones that can support audio quality of that level.
B) “How do you use a DAC with headphones or speakers?”
Most portable DACs will employ a USB input for linking with the media source — a phone, tablet, laptop and so on — to receive the signal and convert it into audio. Some DACs will also support AV, fiberoptic and coaxial inputs. This is where the audio-out port is important since this is what connects the DAC to speakers or headphones for playback.
C) “What’s the difference between a sound card and a DAC?”
Although people sometimes use them interchangeably, they’re not quite the same thing:
- A DAC is any chip that takes the digital expression of audio and turns it into an analog signal that speakers and headphones are capable of playing.
- A sound card is a larger concept that includes a DAC in addition to other features that improve or modify the analog result.
This can be compared to a simple chair versus a recliner: The chair is made for sitting, but a recliner is a chair that also has a reclining function and sometimes includes a foot rest to improve the sitting quality. Sound cards are like recliners while DACs are simple chairs. However, not all chairs have to be recliners in order to be comfortable, so DACs on their own can be excellent without additional processing, filtering or other components.
D) “Is there any reason to use a discrete amp instead of one that’s combined with a DAC?”
Amps that are included with DACs are typically more than enough to boost volume to desirable levels. It’s often not necessary to invest in an entirely separate amp unless you’re pushing concert-level audio.
E) “Does the quality of my headphones or speaker have any bearing on the quality of the DAC’s output?”
In a nutshell, yes: If the output device is unable to accommodate the level of quality that the DAC is converting, then the DAC’s output will just be dumbed down to whatever can be supported. This is why you’re not recommended to use a DAC with cheap earphones or speakers. They won’t allow any of the DAC’s advanced decoding to come through where you can appreciate the difference.
F) “What bearing does the file type have on audio quality?”
There’s a major difference between lossy formats (MP3 and AAC) and lossless types (PCM or DXD), but you need the right equipment to make the difference apparent. In the way that cruddy speakers can defeat the point of a DAC, a lossy file type will render studio-level equipment pointless all the way down the line.
Your audio is only going to be as good as your narrowest choke point, which means that in order for one high-quality component to count, all components (file, DAC, and speaker) need to have comparable quality.
Generally speaking, not everyone who listens to music needs a DAC, let alone one with an amp built in. It’s not all that uncommon to purchase a multimedia device that already packs a quality DAC, and for most people, that’s good enough. With the levels that our operating systems and silicon chips are reaching, the high end of audio technology has been brought well within reach of the average consumer, and many of them don’t even realize that they have it in the more expensive smartphones, tablets, and PCs.
Still, what comes inbuilt with these devices can usually be improved by routing the data through an upgraded sound card or an external decoder.
Regardless, introducing a DAC to your media hardware collection can only help. In the way that smartphones are gaining on PCs and smartphone cameras are gaining on DSLRs, mobile sound cards are creeping up on DACs and pushing them into a state of diminishing returns.
Those who need professional-grade sound manipulation will definitely require the big guns here, but many listeners wouldn’t know the difference if you employed a standard OEM DAC chip in a high-end mobile device. That alone is already a testament to the closing technology gap.