Get Better Audio On The Go
It's that time of year again, and we're taking a look at our top products for 2023. There's no sugarcoating what our top gear is - because it's all based on what you fine folks are getting. These are not just the top DACs of 2023, but the most popular as well, and for good reason. Portable hi-fi audio is in - because if we can take our excellent sound quality with us wherever we go - then why not, right? DACs are by far the easiest way and first step to improving your sound quality. I'll risk being a broken record on that point because we say it so much. The other thing is that you don't have to blow your entire paycheck on a piece of gear.
So how does a DAC improve your audio quality? DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter – and they are necessary for taking the digital audio data and converting them to an analog signal which can then be outputted to a speaker or headphones so that we can hear them. Your ears can't hear data, so the DAC is an integral part of listening to music. Pretty much every consumer device on the market that has a speaker - like your phone, laptop, tablet, wireless headphones, and more - has a DAC. The problem is that these consumer devices use cheap, off-the-shelf chips that get the job done, but make some significant shortcuts when it comes to preserving the quality of your audio.
Your ears deserve better, and that's why standalone DACs ALWAYS perform better because they're designed to do one thing and one thing only: to make sure every bit of data gets efficiently converted to an analog signal so that you're getting the best sound quality. So without delay, here are our Best Portable DACs of 2023.
Best Portable DACs of 2023 (by price)
iFi Hip DAC 3
At a mere $199, this flask from the future has everything you need to pack a giant punch in your music. We're going ahead and updating this slot with the latest Hip DAC 3 that was just released at the time of publishing this guide, but the Hip DAC 2 still stands as a superb choice for those looking for a huge audio upgrade in a small package. I would have easily put the Hip DAC 3 a couple of spots up for what I thought it was worth - and iFi could rightly charge double the price for the sonic upgrade this DAC provides your listening experience. More power means more headroom with your music and better dynamics. If you’re wearing some full-sized headphones and want more meat to the music, the hip DAC 3 is a great option. With the Burr Brown chipsets you get in the iFi lineup, you’ll find a surprisingly natural and balanced tonality to the device – very little coloring, but if you want that extra bass and low end, the hip DAC can deliver. iFi’s X-Bass sound enhancement is featured here, and it’s much more prominent than it is on the Gryphon.
The size is just right for those wanting a more than capable DAC for a super-portable size. About the size of an external SSD enclosure, the Hip DAC is one of our favorite DACs on the list - primarily because it's astounding what huge sound you can get from such a tiny DAC. It's going to be a solid pick for lovers of RAP, EDM, Rock, Alternative, R&B, and much more. Excellent bass response, small size, balanced and single-ended jacks, and there's not much else you can ask for here. So Bass heads – look no further. It’s a steal at this price too.
Learn More about the iFi Hip DAC 3
Huge Bass and Big Sound
Balanced and Single-Ended Headphone Jacks
Astell&Kern HC3 Hi-Fi USB-C Dual DAC Cable
The HC3 dongle is new this year, providing an alternative and more popular 3.5mm headphone jack, as opposed to last year's HC2 which features a balanced 4.4mm connection. As in previous years, the Astell&Kern dongle is a great value for those who like a more analytical listening experience. With dual ES9219MQ DACs, the HC3 has a more robust sound putting it on par with some of their entry-level DAPs when it comes to clean and detailed sound. It’s even able to do native DSD 256 and 32-bit 384 support, which is impressive for a device of this size. Astell&Kern supports a plug–and–play approach with the HC3, just simply connect and you’re ready to go. There are no features, no frills, no gimmicks, just plain old great sound. The HC3 has a 3.5mm single-ended headphone jack and connects with the attached USB-C connector. They’ve also included a USB-C to lightning adapter for iOS-supported devices. The Astell&Kern HC3 dual DAC cable is a great option for those who just want a small plug-and-play device for clear and detailed sound.
The HC3 Dual DAC cable is compatible with Android OS and Apple iOS devices, making it a perfect tool for plug-and-play high fidelity when you're out and about. It's also compatible with MAC OS and Windows with USB-C compatible devices. It's great for Classical, Jazz, and various Rock genres in particular. Combined with Astell&Kern's superb styling, analytical sound, and wonderful price, it's hard to go wrong with the HC3 Dual DAC Cable.
Learn More about the Astell&Kern HC3 Dual DAC Cable
Clean, Analytical Sound
Cool Design and Styling
Cayin RU6 Portable USB DAC/Amp Dongle
The Cayin RU6 is by far one of the best-sounding USB dongle DACs on the market. Yep - it looks like a flash drive, but it delivers superior sound and power in a small, portable package that you can literally take anywhere with you. The RU6 is compatible with iOS, MAC, Android, and Windows, and can also be configured with DAPs via USB audio output. You'll find a single USB-C port for connecting to your source device. Keep in mind that, unlike the other DACs we've covered so far, the RU6 does not have an internal battery, so you'll be powering it from your source device like a phone, laptop, tablet, PC, and more. It has both a balanced 4.4mm and a 3.5mm single-ended headphone jack. Physical buttons are a nice touch and it even has room for an OLED screen! It's amazing the amount of high-end tech they can pack into a device of this size, and the RU6 is certainly a premium device because of it.
The star of the RU6 is the 24-bit discrete R-2R DAC. It has an incredibly natural and dynamic sound for a DAC of this size, and it is an incredibly popular option for those looking for a small and simple, plug-and-play, DAC that works with all their gear. Due to it's signature, the RU6 is going to be great for all genres, classical, rock, jazz, alternative, R&B, electronica, and more. At an amazing price of $250, it should be in every audiophile's arsenal.
Learn More about the Cayin RU6 Portable USB DAC/Amp Dongle
Amazing R-2R DAC Sound
Display Screen, 3.5mm and 4.4mm Jacks
Clarus CODA Headphone Amplifier DAC
You've seen the Clarus CODA many times before in our various blogs - and it's one of the best buys you can make if you're looking for quality, detailed sound wherever you go. The CODA sports an ESS SABRE DAC - known for its strong attention to detail, clarity, and wide soundstage, and I'm personally a huge fan of the SABRE sound - and many people are. Looking like a true flash drive, the CODA has the USB type A connector attached to the chassis, complete with a cover that fits snugly over the connector. We like this design, like the RU6, because the device isn't dependent on the cable being attached - in case something were to happen with the cable, then you have a dead device, like on some dongles out there. It has a sturdy metal body, and physical volume up and down buttons that also double as filter selectors. There is no balanced option as it only has a 3.5mm headphone jack, but the form factor, sound quality, and small features make it one of the best small-form-factor USB DACs on the market.
It's plug-and-play for the most part when connecting to iOS, Android, PC, MAC, whatever. There's an included USB-A to USB-C cable so you can connect to more modern devices with USB-C jacks. Like the RU6, it'll run off the source's power, but it's also able to output about 2 Vrms which is more than enough for most headphones out there if you want to go portable. It's a more than capable USB DAC amp that would be a great fit for someone wanting a more analytical sound to their portable setup. Superb for classical, jazz, folk, and more. At just $300, the CODA might bring your USB DAC search to an end. Get it? (Like a CODA- which marks the transition to the ending of a piece of music)
Great SABRE Sound
Sturdy Construction, Physical Volume Buttons
iFi GO Bar Headphone Amplifier DAC
The Go Bar... raises the bar... from what other portable dongle DACs can do. iFi Audio calls this their top-of-the-line ultraportable USB digital-to-analog converter and headphone amp, and it certainly checks off the box for "ultraportable." It's about the size of a large, chunky flash drive, but the Go Bar has both unbalanced and balanced headphone connections, physical volume buttons, X-Space and X-Bass sound enhancements, digital filters, and more. For its size, the Go Bar packs quite the punch when it comes to power output, including a 6dB gain boost for harder-to-drive headphones. It also comes equipped with iEMatch - which attenuates power to suit high-sensitivity headphones and IEMs. Like other iFi products, the Go Bar is made with premium-quality materials and the build construction is superb. The Go Bar also comes in a shiny and sleek gold anniversary edition, which is constructed with a copper chassis and plated in gold. The limited anniversary edition also includes an enhanced power supply and is heavier than the original model due to the weight of the materials.
The GO Bar is a great tool for various portable setups - it's kind of like a smaller Hip DAC - with some more tricks up its sleeve. It has a Turbo mode which ramps up the gain by 6dB for more power-hungry headphones. X-Bass and X-Space are included, IEMatch, MQA, PCM, DSD, DXD - it does it all. The GO Bar is great for Jazz, R&B, Folk, Classic Rock, and more with the sound of the Cirrus Logic DAC chip inside. iFi's portable DACs just can't be beat when it comes to the ratio of performance and value.
Learn More about the iFi GO Bar Headphone Amp DAC
Great Controls, Functionality
Turbo Power Mode, Hi-Res Compatibility
iFi xDSD Gryphon Headphone Amp DAC
If you haven't seen it already be sure to check out our face-off A/B test that we did between the Gryphon and the Mojo 2. The Gryphon might be one of the most feature-packed DAC amps on the market, and one of the biggest advantages that it has over its main competitor is that the Gryphon has all of the features that people wanted in the Mojo 2 - but never got. Namely, Bluetooth connectivity, an OLCD screen, and a 4.4mm balanced connection option. So if those things are important to you, then it's an easy choice. The Gryphon has an amazing selection of inputs and outputs for both single-ended and balanced connections, as well as settings for high-sensitivity IEMs. It comes with the standard plethora of iFi goodies and sound enhancements, including the X-Bass and X-Space settings - and they actually do A LOT to enhance the audio quality if that's what you're looking for. Because of these sound options, the Gryphon has amazing bass response and will be a great fit for those who like a more musical presentation, or more bass response. It's superb for RAP, R&B, EDM, live music, and tons more.
Since the Mojo 2 is close in price at $650, it's a tough choice. For me the decision comes down to the type of music you listen to - and which device is going to best serve that. Also, the type of features you want. Look - both the Gryphon and Mojo 2 are some of the best audiophile devices on the market as far as we're concerned, and you can't go wrong with either. The Gryphon is a stellar DAC and headphone amplifier that uses premium components - an excellent burr brown DAC, tons of power, USB audio, hi-res Bluetooth codecs, and a dynamic and fun sound, it's hard to say anything bad about the Gryphon at all.
Insane Amount of Features and Controls
Bluetooth, OLED Screen, I/O
Earmen Angel Reference Portable DAC, Amp, Pre-Amp
If you haven't already, be sure to check out our other face-off between the Angel and the Diablo. These two headphone amp DACs are roughly in the same category with different approaches to their sound. The form factor is much like a portable power brick, but the Angel has a great selection of I/O, power for full-size headphones, and wonderfully clean sound for a portable hi-fi system. The Angel portable DAC amp is equipped with the very versatile and popular ESS ES9038Q2M chip that has great SNR and THD-N measurements. It's a great-sounding DAC and is capable of decoding up to 768kHz/32-bit PCM, DSD256 via DoP and MQA Studio. The Angel has some great transparency across the spectrum and certainly shows off its attention to detail. Classical and Jazz sound expansive, and the presentation is surprisingly impactful for rock genres as well. The Angel is able to produce some nice and thumpy low-end - tight but not restrained. Kick drums and bass guitars have a natural resonance that comes out in the performances. Bass lovers won't feel left out by the Angel's performance. Vocals really shine with the Angel. There's a clarity in the midrange.
The Angel is also a fully balanced DAC amp. There are no changes in the audio signal from the DAC to the output. Earmen designed the device so that there are no additional capacitors or components that would introduce distortion or noise throughout the entire path of the audio signal. It'll do the job with ease if you need additional power requirements or just want a full and robust sound on the go.
Clean and Natural Sound, Great Soundstage
Lots of Power for Most Headphones
Chord Electronics Mojo 2 DAC Headphone Amplifier
Our No. 1 seller this year was the Hugo 2, but close on its heels was the little brother - the Mojo 2. Like the Hugo, the Mojo is another DAC and amp combo, providing a smaller form factor, fewer taps, and less power, but superior portability and excellent Chord sound. It's probably equally popular due to the lower price point and still retains a lot of features that make the Hugo 2 great at the same time. The Mojo 2 is a completely refined and even more feature-rich product than the original Mojo. Mojo stands for "Mobile Joy" and is a true-reference quality mobile DAC and high-level headphone amplifier that fits in the palm of your hand. It's one of our favorite products here at Moon Audio due to its size, amazing functionality, and sound of the DAC. It's also our top-selling portable DAC ever. New to the Mojo 2 is an added button, providing more options and control in their expanded menu system. You can now effectively control individual frequency bands to cut or boost, choose multiple filters, run it in desktop mode so you don't run out the battery while being plugged in, high and low gain settings, crossfeed, and more.
Like the Hugo 2 and the 2Go, you can pair the Mojo 2 with the Poly, effectively making the Mojo act like a complete music server and streamer. The Mojo is known for its superior clarity and detail, and the Mojo 2 adds a bit more control over the bottom end if you prefer more bass presence. It also has dual 3.5mm headphone outs for simultaneous audio out if that is important to you. The Mojo 2 will excel with just about any genre out there, especially for detail freaks who like to pick out every little nuance in their music. The added bass clarity also makes it more accessible to genres like R&B and EDM too. The Mojo 2 is a tiny DAC amp with a big sound, and at $650.00, it's hard not to recommend it for just about everything.
Analytical, Hyper-detailed Sound, Clean
Lots of Control, Crossfeed, Filters
iFi iDSD Diablo-X DAC Amplifier
If you want more than enough power for your headphones away from home then look no further. The Diablo X from iFi is the most powerful portable headphone amp in their product line. New this year, the X is an update from the original Diablo, the flashy red color scheme has been replaced by a menacing black finish with metallic red accents. Making a deal with the devil never sounded so good. Packed with a dual-Burr-Brown DAC chip and fully separate left and right channels, the Diablo X forgoes any of the bells and whistles found on other iFi devices and focuses merely on great, natural sound quality. No X-Bass and X-Space, no screen, no Bluetooth - the Diablo gives you everything you need for great sound: good materials, excellent circuitry, and design, and balanced and unbalanced headphone connection options. With three gain stages, you can provide just enough juice as needed to your headphones or IEMs. With an estimated max battery life of 12 hours, the Diablo X is the perfect accessory to bring your power-hungry headphones everywhere you go.
New to the X are custom-designed bias, EQ, and amp circuits for xMEMs headphones. xMEMs is a relatively new technology and only benefits compatible headphones or IEMs. The Diablo X still has an incredible amount of power in such a portable package and will be able to power most headphones out there, apart from electrostatics. The old bright red color scheme was polarizing, but the new black finish with red accents is stunning and sexy. The Diablo X will work great for those genres needing a lot of headroom and energy behind the music: Metal, Rock, Alternative, EDM, and more. We think the Diablo X is a touch more detailed-sounding than the original, but the X retains the fun and dynamic sound quality that made the original so pleasing to listen to. If you want a lot of power or a DAC amp that will blow your sock off, the Diablo X is for you.
Learn More about the iFi Diablo-X DAC Amplifier
Tons of Power in a Portable Package
Crisp and Dynamic Sound, Resolute
Chord Electronics Hugo 2 DAC Headphone Amplifier
Our best-selling portable DAC of the year was the Hugo 2 by Chord Electronics. The Hugo 2 is one of the best-sounding DACs on the market, which is why it tops our list year after year. It's a testament to the overall quality that a product that is six years old is still the one to beat since it was released in early 2017. The nice thing about the Hugo 2 is that it also doubles as a headphone amplifier, which goes a long way to what the DAC amp can do for your sound quality. Chord uses their own proprietary FPGA and the Hugo 2 has a whopping nearly-50-thousand taps. We don't have time to get into taps, but generally speaking people consider the more taps - the better the sound (though this is not entirely the full picture). Bottom line - pristine and detailed sound. This is only topped by the Chord Hugo TT 2 and the DAVE DAC. The nice thing about the size and capability of the Hugo 2 is that it can do double duty as a desktop DAC - with plenty of processing power and amplification, it will certainly feel at home - in your home. With an average 7-hour battery life, feel free to take it with you too whenever you leave.
Feel free to pair it with the Chord 2Go to essentially make it a fully-capable music server and streamer. You can also add the Chord M Scaler for a powerful upsampling system that sounds absolutely stunning. Chord products play well also with other devices outside of their ecosystem. Chord products tend to lean more toward an analytical sound signature - bringing out extensive detail and tight bass response. It performs well with genres like classical, jazz, alternative, folk, and more. With an excellent selection of I/O, crossfeed functionality, filters, and more, the Hugo 2 is flagship-level portable fidelity. The Chord Hugo 2 has a price of $2,500, and if you're looking for the best DAC on our list, this is it.
Learn More about the Chord Hugo 2 DAC Headphone Amp
Best-In-Class Sound Quality, Detailed/Analytical
I/O, Crossfeed, Filters, 2GO Compatibility
Honorable Mention - Astell&Kern ACRO CA1000T
The ACRO CA1000T all-in-one Head-Fi Audio System is an honorable mention on this list. Whilst it does meet the requirements of being a portable DAC since it has an internal battery, it can do double-duty as a true desktop headphone amplifier, DAP, DAC, and music streamer in one device. Think of it like a fully-fledged Astell&Kern DAP, with an additional desktop headphone amplifier attached. The ACRO CA1000T is the latest version, introducing the "T" with the integrated tube circuit, much like the popular SP2000T DAP music player.
The ACRO CA1000T is equipped with the new ES9039MPRO in a dual-DAC design, providing an enormous amount of clarity, fidelity, and dynamics to your favorite music. The ACRO supports four levels of gain settings so that almost any existing headphones can be driven to an optimal state. The clear and overwhelming output expresses the original sound without distortion. 2.5mm, 3.5mm, 4.4mm, and 6.35mm output circuits are physically separated by applying tiny, independent relay components. The tube circuit works in much the same way as the SP2000T, giving the user the ability to select the tube or solid-state audio circuit based on their listening preferences. To boot, you can even select varying degrees of each circuit, so you can tailor how much of the tube versus the solid-state signal you want coming through. It's an innovative design that we're big fans of here at Moon Audio because it gives the user complete control of how they want to listen to their music. The I/O selection is phenomenal as well, with two types of balanced and unbalanced headphone jacks in the front, and Mini XLR and RCA outs on the back. Also included on the back are optical, coax, and 4.4mm, USB inputs. Micro SD card expansion allows you to add additional local storage and the large volume knob gives you the ultimate precision and control over your music. It's a stellar device, even if it wears a bunch of different hats, it does each job tremendously well. If you're looking for an all-in-one unit with portable functionality and an incredibly small footprint then be sure to check out the ACRO CA1000T by Astell&Kern.
Learn More about the Astell&Kern ACRO CA1000T Audio System
High-End DAC, Amp, DAP, and Streamer In One
Great Sound, Lots of Power, Desktop I/O