You may not realize this, but you probably use a DAC as much as you use underwear. Every day, right? (Right?) Digital-to-analog converters, to use their unabridged name, can be found in most audio sources today, including phones to laptops, and perform the vital role of transforming digital music (a bunch of ones and zeros) into the analog form (an audio waveform) that headphones and speakers can understand. (Want to learn more about DACs? Head this way to our DAC explainer).
So if you already have DACs in your devices, why even consider buying another one? Well, for better sound quality. DACs – essentially small chips that convert the audio before it is output through, say, the device’s 3.5mm audio port – are often not of great quality in such multitasking devices, so get a good, dedicated external DAC device that more accurately converting from digital to analog, and thus enjoying a stored music file or streaming data more in the process, will make a huge difference to the music listening experience.
In many cases, external DACs can play a game with phones, laptops and even hi-fi systems, although some are designed more for one purpose than another. For the Which Hi-Fi? Awards, our team of review experts have first tested or revisited 15 DACs from the industry’s biggest brands – AudioQuest, iFi, Chord Electronics, Cambridge Audio, FiiO and Helm Audio – and here are the six we highly recommend for use of mobile phones, desktops and hi-fi systems.
For use with portable telephones
A little over 10 years ago, AudioQuest more or less founded the portable USB DAC. The groundbreaking DragonFly Black garnered a sea of raised eyebrows in 2012 with its humble USB memory stick form factor, which plugged directly into laptops/computers on one end (yes, just like a USB storage key) and placed on the other. offered 3.5mm wired headphones. other. This magical intermediary is still available (albeit in a more updated version), though it was soon superseded by the superior DragonFly Red, and now the popular line is topped off with the DragonFly Cobalt, a multi- and up-to-date What Hi-Fi ? Prize winner.
It’s just over double the price of the Black, but those who can afford it rather than the Black and Red siblings will be rewarded with a very worthwhile leap in audio quality through their phone or laptop. In our mind, it represents the biggest performance-per-pound value of the lot. The Cobalt is still shaped like a USB stick, but while that might seem a bit outdated for laptops and phones that are increasingly using USB-C connectors, you can just use it with a USB-A to USB port. C adapter, which is included in the box.
The world isn’t short on portable DACs these days, with an increasing number of dongle DACs (like the Helm Audio Bolt) in particular hitting the market, but the AudioQuests remain the strongest propositions we’ve heard.
Alternatively, a more contemporary and convenient option is the five-star iFi Go Blu DAC. Like the AudioQuests, you plug headphones into one end, but the Go Blu is pocketable can wirelessly connect to your phone/laptop via Bluetooth, essentially taking one cable out of the equation if you want. Whether connected via Bluetooth or via the USB-C input, the Go Blu gives your source device a real boost from top to bottom, not only in clarity and weight, but also in openness and detail. You’ll get better performance for your money if you go wired with the AudioQuests, but, to quote our review, “when portability is paramount and convenience is key, you can’t currently beat the iFi Go Blu”.
For desktop laptop use
As mentioned earlier, the above four examples can be linked to laptops just as easily as they are to phones. That said, if portability isn’t a priority and you want something more substantial that can be a mainstay on your desktop, our entry-level pick is undoubtedly the iFi Zen DAC V2, another Which Hi-Fi? Prize winner.
With more outputs (6.3mm, RCA and balanced 4.4mm) and an asynchronous USB Type B input, plus custom sound modes, full MQA audio decoding (advantageous for Tidal Hi-Fi Plus subscribers), and the ability to working in a budget hi-fi system and with a computer/laptop, the Zen DAC V2 not only sounds excellent, but is also more versatile than its previously mentioned peers.
However, a price increase doesn’t necessarily mean you get more features and flexibility, as the best sounding DAC to date demonstrates. The award-winning Chord Mojo 2 is a few steps up the ladder when it comes to performance – and yes, price – offering much of the performance of the three times the award-winning, also award-winning Chord Hugo 2. Our choice of desktop DACs is the Mojo really is exceptional when it comes to the sound quality that can be offered by something at this level, but bear in mind that it doesn’t have the ease of use of the iFi or the flexibility of something price-comparative like the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M.
The palm-sized device can greatly amplify sound from virtually any digital source thanks to its USB-C, optical, micro-USB and 3.5mm coaxial inputs – even mid-range hi-fi systems if you’re willing to get around the omission of RCA outputs and therefore navigate to an alternative cable solution.
For hi-fi installation use
While the Chord Hugo 2, like the Mojo 2, runs on batteries, its price, performance, and connectivity make it just as suitable for system environments as it does desktop environments. This is essentially the Mojo 2 on steroids, offering one of the most transparent and musical performers on the market. “There is no other DAC around that comes close to this kind of award that can communicate so fiercely, so unambiguously or so effortlessly,” we concluded in our review of the multi-award winning winner. (That said, those with bigger budgets and sonic aspirations can go model up to the Chord Hugo TT2.)
There are hi-fi system-friendly inputs – namely coaxial, optical and aptX Bluetooth – but while RCA outputs are on board for connecting it to an amplifier in a speaker-front system, much of the design of the Hugo 2, like any other DAC mentioned so far, aimed at powering headphones. However, if you’re not a huge fan of headphone listening and would be happy with a DAC that can sit purely between a digital source and amplifier to make a sonic difference in a hi-fi speaker system, then we refer you to another Chord (yes, Chord Electronics largely dominates this market) – the Qutest.
Essentially a Hugo 2 without the headphone stage, built-in battery and Bluetooth (and the extra cost associated with those things), this multi-Product-of-the-Year winner sets the benchmark before you head into truly high-end territory .
Read our longer shortlist of the best DACs you can buy
What is a DAC? And do you need one?
7 reasons why a DAC could be your music purchase of the year