DAC Buying Guide 2021

Best DACs of 2021 Hero Image

The Easiest Way to Improve Your Sound, For Every Budget

DACs are one of the easiest ways to improve the sound quality of your music. They are the Google Translate of your audio system, and as such, not all translators are created equal. They come in various shapes and sizes, with different chips and different sounds and various ways of implementing them in your sound system. Each year new DACs are created which changes the landscape of audiophile gear. Updates to older products, both product versions and firmware can oftentimes create new demand. Sometimes it can be difficult to wade through the pages and products of various DACs, as there is such a variety of new products, updates, desktop, portable, USB, mobile, and so many countless others. We get calls all the time asking what is the best DAC, best portable DAC, best desktop DAC, best-selling DAC, and we just needed a place to put all this information so we can help direct you to the best DAC for your system.

We'll try to make it a bit easier for you, and here we will compile our list of the best DACs you can get in 2021. The categories are split into portable and desktop DACs, with portable DACs being those smaller variants that can run off battery power or fit in a pocket. The desktop versions we'll consider standalone or console units meant to sit on a desk or shelf permanently. So without further ado, let's check out the best DACs of 2021!

Table of Contents

Top Portable DACs

iBasso DC03 USB DAC

iBasso DC03 DAC - Big Neutral Sound, Small Size

The DC03 is a USB DAC as well, providing a plug-and-play experience for smartphones and tablets with Android 5.1 and above. The DC03 terminates in a USB-C connector and works seamlessly with Windows and Mac computers. It's built with dual Cirrus Logic CS43131 Master HiFi DAC chips, providing clean sound with a neutral sound signature, a great option for portable music listeners looking for powerful performance in a small package. The DC03 can output 2vrms, giving users plenty of power for most headphones.

You can't beat the size, power, and number of features for the price with the iBasso DC03. It's the perfect accessory to stow away in your bag and affordable enough that it will hardly make a dent in your wallet. Check out the iBasso DC03 USB DAC Cable. We like to pair the DC03 with a Silver Dragon USB Cable to really open up the music and expand the soundstage.

Sound Signature: Neutral

USB-C Connector

Great Value

EarMen Eagle DAC - Plug-n-Play Detail Machine

The EarMen Eagle is a compact thumb-drive size DAC that can literally fit on your key chain. In fact, it might be hard to distinguish it from your other thumb drives, since the format and styling looks much the same. The Eagle is the USB-A version of the Sparrow (USB-C), but doesn't require any dongles or cables for most devices like computers (though it will for phones). We really like the super compact design; it's very convenient.

At the heart of the Eagle is the ESS ES9281 SABRE DAC chip, a phenomenal sounding chip that has an incredibly low noise floor and includes HyperStream II modulation which aids in a stable sound field. The Eagle DAC also uses super high-end components and design, minimizing noise and improving the fine details in your music as a result. Sound signature is on the analytical side, providing a crisp and detail-oriented listening experience. Likewise, the EarMen Eagle DAC looks and feels premium, encased in a sleek glass-covered chassis. It's a very affordable DAC for those wanting to increase the fidelity of their music without breaking the bank or taking up a lot of real estate. If you're looking for a USB-A DAC then look no further - the Eagle is the best at this price point. Check out the EarMen Eagle USB DAC. We like to pair the Eagle with a Black Dragon USB Cable for a musical sound with some warmth and fullness. 

Sound Signature: Analytical

USB-A Connector

Small and Portable

Earmen Sparrow DAC

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EarMen TR-Amp DAC - Fun-Sounding Portable Powerhouse

The EarMen TR-Amp DAC is a formidable opponent in the DAC fight. The TR-Amp has power up to 400mW and can provide enough juice for just about every single headphone out there. Versatile audio inputs can accept PCM up to 768kHz, DSD256 via DoP, native DSD512, and MQA. The DAC comes with the ES9038Q2M SABRE reference chip, a great DAC chip providing crisp imaging, quality sound, and ultra-low distortion. Sound signature is neutral, but colorization can be characterized as V-shaped depending on what you're pairing it with.

There are some nice features on the TR-Amp, including an analog switch for direct DAC or PreAmp functions, analog volume control for PreAmp and Headphone Amp, and dual headphone jacks for simultaneous listening. Battery power lasts around 10 hours on a single charge, providing multiple listening sessions without charging for portable use. It's a powerhouse that's easy to implement into any sound system. Check out the EarMen TR-Amp Portable DAC/Amp. We like to pair the TR-Amp with a Silver Dragon USB Cable for added detail and clarity plus instrument separation.

Sound Signature: Neutral

Analog switch for Direct DAC or PreAmp function

Battery Powered

Clarus CODA DAC - Top SABRE sound in the palm of your hand

The Clarus CODA DAC is a new product we are picking up at Moon Audio. A Coda is defined as a concluding musical passage that brings a sense of completeness to the music. Connected via USB-A, the portable DAC is meant to be used with computers or mobile devices with a dongle attachment. The CODA is equipped with an ESS Pro series SABRE DAC producing clean audio quality as well as tight power supply regulation using multi-stage, low-noise, high ripple rejection CMOS based regulators. Keep in mind that the CODA DAC does not come equipped with an internal battery, so it will have to draw active power from the source device.

The CODA comes MQA compatible and includes 3 individual user-programmable filters. It's a capable DAC in a compact size, so you can pack it away in your computer bag and be assured that you're always ready for your audiophile-grade sound wherever you go. Check out the Clarus CODA Headphone Amplifier DAC. We like to pair the CODA with a Black Dragon USB Cable to add warmth and body without sacrificing any detail.

Sound Signature: Forward / Detailed

USB-A Connector

Programmable Filters

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Chord Mojo

Chord Mojo DAC - *Top Portable DAC*

The Chord Mojo is by far the most popular portable DAC on the market and a favorite at Moon Audio. The Mojo stands for "Mobile Joy" and is a true reference-quality mobile DAC and a high-level headphone amplifier. The reason it's so popular is that the Chord Mojo produces some of the cleanest quality sound and power equal to a product twenty times the price. its compact size makes it the perfect accessory to all your devices, but powerful enough to drive even some of the more power-hungry headphones out there. The Mojo can even drive two headphones simultaneously. Chord DACs are typically characterized as being more on the forward side, providing plenty of detail and a good option for all listeners, but great for analytical listeners in particular.

Chord Mojo is also fully equipped to play the highest resolution files - from 32kHz to 768kHz and even DSD512. Battery life in the device is certainly capable of multiple listening sessions on the go, and what's even better is that the Mojo can charge and play music at the same time if you want to connect it to a power source. It's a compact device that can be used with almost any source out there - and you can't beat the price. The Mojo should be in everyone's audiophile arsenal. Check out the Chord Electronics Mojo DAC Headphone Amp. We like to pair the Mojo with the Silver Dragon USB Cable for added clarity and resolution. 

Sound Signature: Forward

Micro USB Connector

Battery Powered

Ultrasone Panther DAC - A smooth sound for Apple users

The Panther DAC from Ultrasone is a sleek and sharp-looking DAC. Like many others on our list, the Panther also comes equipped with a headphone amp that has an extremely low noise floor. The big draw for the Ultrasone Panther DAC is the fact that it is MFi Certified, allowing official compatibility with Apple devices. Non-MFi certified accessories can damage your device, so certification is a big deal among Apple-users. The Panther has a relaxed and more musical sound signature.

The Panther has an amazing battery time of up to 20 hours, and considering its overall compact size, it's impressive. Smartphone, notebook or tablet: The PANTHER gets along with a variety of source devices and thus offers real added value in sound for different situations. The scope of delivery includes adapter cables for Lightning, USB-C, Micro-USB and USB-A connections. For maximum flexibility in the choice of headphones, the PANTHER has both an unbalanced 3.5mm and a symmetrical 2.5mm headphone output as well as a gain switch. For those looking for a sleek DAC to pair with their mobile devices, then look no further. The Panther will provide hours and hours of quality listening sessions without taking up a lot of space. Apple user? Get one. Check out the Ultrasone Panther Headphone Amplifier DAC. We like to pair the Panther with the Silver Dragon USB Cable for some top-end sizzle and a clean, open sound.

Sound Signature: Relaxed/Musical

Micro USB Connector

MFi Certified

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Chord Electronics Hugo 2 DAC - Flagship-level portable performance

The Hugo 2 is the most popular DAC of the Chord Electronics product lineup. The nice thing about the Hugo 2 is that it can do double duty as a portable DAC or fit right at home on your desk/shelf as a console unit integrated into your system. With plenty of input and output options, the Chord Hugo 2 is capable of file playback up to 768kHz and DSD512 (Octa DSD). The device is also equipped with crossfeed for headphones, meaning that it cross-feeds a 400-millisecond delay in shaping music from left and right output to different channels based on advanced binaural audio research to emulate the effects of listening to music in a room with a stereo and speakers. Sound signature is on the forward side, and the Hugo 2 provides amazing depth to your music especially on higher resolutions.

Battery life will get you about 7 hours on one charge, which considering the size and power of the Hugo 2, is pretty great. On top of that, Chord has developed a number of products that integrate seamlessly with the Hugo 2, providing even more functionality than ever before. The Chord 2GO will turn your Hugo 2 into a high-performance streamer and server via a wi-fi or ethernet-enabled device. The Chord M Scaler is also a great way to easily enhance the performance of the Hugo 2, as it has the ability to upgrade your standard definition digital input signals and output the resolution to 705.6 or 768kHz via the M Scaler dual BNC SPDIF outputs. The Hugo 2 is simply one of the best DACs on the market. Check out the Chord Electronics Hugo 2 DAC Headphone Amp. We like to pair the Hugo 2 with the Silver Dragon USB Cable for added clarity and resolution.

Sound Signature: Forward

Micro USB Connector

Industry Favorite/Versatile

Desktop DACs

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Matrix Audio Mini-i Pro3 DAC - Mini size, non-mini sound

The Mini-i Pro3 from Matrix Audio makes some great improvements from previous product generations with a slick look and improved user experience with an embedded 3.3in LCD screen and much more. The Mini-i Pro3 also sports a 4.4mm balanced headphone amp and jack. We are big fans of the 4.4mm and are glad to see it being implemented on more and more devices on the market. It also includes a full MQA decoder and can stream media from a number of sources, including being Roon Ready and support for AirPlay2. The Mini-i Pro3 DAC's sound signature is neutral but leaning slightly warm. It's smooth sound makes it an incredibly enjoyable listening experience.

The Mini-i Pro3 comes equipped with HD Bluetooth and dual-frequency Wi-Fi, meaning that the use of HD codecs will enhance your wireless audio experience transmitting up to 24bit/96kHz hi-res audio on LDAC and 24bit/48kHz via aptX HD. Say goodbye to streaming music on anything else; the Mini-i Pro3 DAC from Matrix Audio will be your new favorite music hub. Check out the Matrix Audio Mini-i Pro3 DAC. We like to pair the Mini-i Pro3 with the Silver Dragon USB Cable for a clean, clear sound and maximum detail retrieval.

Sound Signature: Neutral/Warm-leaning

Nice Display

4.4mm Inclusion

Chord Electronics Qutest DAC - Details as far as the eye can see

The Chord Qutest is a standalone DAC meant to replace the multi-award winning predecessor, the 2Qute. The Qutest is a pure digital-to-analog converter, and does not come with a preamp or headphone amplifier like other products in the Chord lineup. It is based on the proprietary FPGS technology developed for the Hugo 2, but in a different chassis design, larger and providing more protection for the components inside. Like most Chord DACs, the Qutest leans to the analytical side of the spectrum, but sounds great in just about any system.

Qutest offers Hugo 2’s proprietary user-selectable frequency-shaping filters and input selection controls, available via two fascia-mounted spheres, introducing useful flexibility. It also features RCA analog outputs for connection to integrated amplifiers, preamps, and headphone amps, plus high-resolution dual-data digital inputs for connection to future Chord Electronics products. Another feature is a user-selectable output voltage available in 1, 2 and 3V RMS outputs for flexible connectivity with a wide range of partnering devices. The Qutest is a great choice for those wanting to have a no-frills, excellent standalone digital-to-analog converter for their system. Check out the Chord Electronics Qutest DAC. We like to pair the Qutest with the Silver Dragon USB Cable for expanding the soundstage and providing amazing detail.

Sound Signature: Forward

Frequency-Shaping Filters

Small Footprint

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Matrix Audio X-SABRE DAC

Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro MQA DAC - The quintessential SABRE sound

The X-SABRE Pro DAC from Matrix Audio is one of the most popular desktop DACs on the market. The latest version of the X-SABRE DAC includes MQA decoding, the XMOS XU-216 USB chip, and the AK4118 SPDIF chip. It's a powerful piece of equipment, and Matrix Audio has packed it full of flagship-level features.

The X-SABRE Pro DAC is an MQA-enabed DAC that can fully decode the original MQA files without any assistance from third-party software (MQA Core Decode). It can decode up to 24bit 384kHz per MQA limitations. The device itself can support DSD1024 and PCM audio streams up to 32bit/768kHz sampling rates. The line output of the DAC can be configured with a +18dB digital gain. It's not necessary to add an additional preamp for low-gain active speakers. The X-SABRE Pro can also work with a power amplifier more conveniently and flexibly. It's an excellent DAC with an impressive soundstage and imaging. The signature of the X-Sabre Pro is wonderfully neutral, so it will feel at home in any system. For those wanting many features and configuration options, the X-SABRE Pro DAC by Matrix Audio will scratch the itch. Check out the Matrix Audio X-SABRE Pro MQA DAC. We like to pair the X-SABRE Pro with the Silver Dragon USB Cable for added detail and clarity.

Sound Signature: Neutral

Support for High File Resolutions

MQA Enabled

Matrix Audio Element X Music Streamer - *Our #1 Desktop DAC*

The flagship model of the element series, element X combines years of development and tuning experience with the industry-leading ESS ES9038PRO DAC chip to push the hardware to its full potential. The Element X uses the industry-leading ESS ES9038PRO D/A converter along with the professional grade ultra-low noise LDO ES9311 and the Crystek CCHD-950 femtosecond clock.

The Element X has up to +10dB of analog gain, making the need for adding a preamp to the device redundant when using active speakers. It is also a dual-mode headphone amplifier based on the LME49600 and consisting of four independent amplifier units - being able to drive a pair of balanced headphones in balanced mode or in single-ended mode, it can drive two single-ended pairs of headphones each having its own independent stereo amplifier. The construction of the Element X is also a point of pride for Matrix Audio, not just aesthetically but functionally, too -- eliminating the fixed resonant frequency of the materials. It's one of our favorite desktop DACs at the office and it should be for your home, too! Check out the Matrix Audio Element X Music Streamer. We like to pair the Element X with the Silver Dragon USB Cable for some top-end sizzle and a clean, open sound.

Sound Signature: Balanced

Flagship-level Quality & Features

Superbly Engineered / All-in-1 Functionaliity

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Bryston BDA-3.14 Streaming DAC - Insane number of ports, insane sound

3.14? That's an odd product number. Until you realize it's Bryston's combined BDA-3 DAC and streamer, the BDP-Pi. The BDA-3.14 offers streaming capability via a built-in music player that delivers access to network-connected storage and USB drives as well as streaming services such as Qobuz, Tidal, Roon and Internet radio. The BDA-3.14 also features a digital volume control, enabling users to drive an amplifier directly. An updated version of Bryston’s Manic Moose user interface for phones, tablets and computers provides users with intuitive control overall functionality. The DAC from the BDA-3 is very clean and neutral sounding.

For maximum flexibility, the BDA-3 has an astonishing ten discrete inputs including four 2-channel HDMI, asynchronous USB, AES/EBU, TOSLINK, and digital coax. It also includes Bryston’s network module, which facilitates control via TCP/IP and RS-232—a must for integration with modern smart home platforms. The Bryston BDA-3.14 is an amazing value for everything you are getting in one sleek package. It's difficult to find another unit on the market with the number of inputs/outputs and overall amazing sound and features. Check out the Bryston BDA-3.14 Streaming DAC. We like to pair the BDA-3.14 with the Silver Dragon USB Cable to open up your music with detail and air.

Sound Signature: Neutral

Lots of inputs and versatility

Great Transparency and accuracy

Chord Electronics Hugo TT2 - No detail escapes unnoticed

The Hugo TT 2 is one of Chord's most popular tabletop DACs. As expected, it delivers radically improved technical specifications and measurements across the board and exhibits drastic sonic benefits over its predecessor with 768kHz PCM and DSD 512 playback, five times the processing power of the original Hugo TT 2, and double that of the award-winning Hugo 2. This powerhouse DAC supports most headphones, including harder to drive ones like the Sennheiser HD800S and most planar magnetic headphones, such as the Audeze LCD-3 and LCD-4.

Compared to the 256-tap filters of traditional chip DACs, Hugo TT 2 is an infinitely more powerful Xilinx Artix 7 FPGA, custom-coded by Chord Electronics’ Rob Watts with 86x 208MHz cores running in parallel to create an advanced 16FS WTA 1 filter with 98,304-taps. Hugo TT 2 also upgrades from a 4-element design to a 10-element design, which works in harmony with the radically upgraded FPGA and code to deliver unrivaled audio (also creates a sonic powerhouse when paired with the Chord M Scaler). With a more forward-leaning sound signature, the Hugo TT 2 DAC will be sure to bring out all the details in your music. Check out the Chord Electronics Hugo TT 2 DAC & Headphone Amplifier. We like to pair the Hugo TT 2 with the Silver Dragon USB Cable for added detail and clarity to your music.

Sound Signature: Analytical

Huge upgrade from previous generation

Lots of power and great sound

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Bricasti Design M3 DAC - Balanced and clean control over your music

The M3 DAC is an incredible piece of technology from Bricasti Design, offering multiple configurations to tailor the device to your system. It features two fully differential conversion channels, separate conversion for PCM and native DSD, and a balanced analog level control circuit, making the M3 suitable for all applications. Internally the M3 utilizes two independent linear power supplies for the analog and digital processing to ensure low noise and superior isolation. The M3H adds a headphone amplifier option with balanced inputs for expanded utility in your audio system.

The M3 is based on the same proven design used on the M1 - a dual/mono signal path, true balanced topology, linear power supplies, and a separate digital signal engine. It's a high-end machine made with high-end components. It's one of the best true balanced sources on the market and we can't recommend the M3 enough. You can also equip the M3 with a headphone amplifier if desired (see M3H). Check out the Bricasti Design M3 DAC. We like to pair the M3 with the Silver Dragon USB Cable to increase the soundstage and add detail to your music.

Sound Signature: Neutral

Dynamic and great timing

DAC can be configured with amplifier

Chord Electronics DAVE DAC - Flagship sound and performance

The DAVE is Chord's flagship DAC. It's the most advanced DAC they've made, featuring some of the best technology available in a DAC/Preamp on the market. Period.

The DAVE is a reference-level headphone amplifier and a digital preamp. At its heart lies a newer version of the advanced Spartan 6 Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) with 1,000x the processing power of market-standard DAC chips. DAVE's FPGA is loaded with over a million lines of code to confront complex timing issues head-on, with speed and precision. Equipped with a full-size display, the DAVE can also drive almost any headphone out there. It supports up to 768kHz and DSD512. The DAVE has an extremely clean and forward-leaning sound signature that sounds amazing in any system. There's not much it can't do, and that's why the Chord DAVE makes our top DACs list year after year. Check out the Chord Electronics DAVE DAC/Preamp Amplifier. We like to pair the DAVE with the Silver Dragon USB Cable for added detail and clarity to your music.

Sound Signature: Analytical

Class-leading performance and sound

Powerful - can drive any headphone

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Warwick Acoustics Aperio Headphone System - Dedicated to accuracy

OK, we thought the Chord DAVE was going to be the most expensive product on this list. Well, it's not. The Aperio headphone system from Warwick sets a new standard in audio fidelity from their flagship product. The Aperio is designed as a reference studio monitor headphone system for high resolution audio production, mastering, mixing, and recording applications. However, Warwick realized that the details and minute reproduction of the music is also a desired trait for the ultra-high-end home consumer and audiophile, and the Aperio does not disappoint.

For the sake of this list, the guts of the Aperio we admire is the state-of-the-art dual 32bit, 8 channel DACs. There is one per channel in dual mono configuration, to achieve a SNR of 131dB. Each channel's DAC section is housed within separate EMI shields and supplied by isolated, local, ultra-low-noise power regulators. It's an impressive piece of equipment and if you have it in the budget, we doubt you'll find any reason to not be completely floored by the Warwick Aperio system. Check out the Warwick Acoustics Aperio Headphone System. We like to pair the Aperio with the Black Dragon USB Cable for added warmth and fullness to your music.

Sound Signature: Reference

Accurate and Detailed

Headphone + console, but expensive

Related Materials

The Dragon Cable Experience

You’ve heard the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, right? Well, the same applies to your brand-new audiophile-grade headphone or other audio components. The weakest link, in this case, is your stock cable or the cheap interconnects the manufacturer threw in the box just to get you up and running. We customize cables for virtually every pair of headphones on the market. From connectors to sound signatures, the possibilities are endless. Each line of our Dragon Cables has been engineered to bring out the best in headphones with specific characteristics.

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