Best DAC/Amp Combo

The continuous evolution of technology always intends to do better. When you are involved in the audio world, you will realize there are more than high-end speakers or headphones. The audio source needs to be passed through a DAC/Amp so that you listen to the audio without losing quality or eliminating external noise.

DAC is built-in in Laptop, soundcard, mobile, or headphone, then why do we need an additional DAC/Amp? The reason is the quality of the built-in DAC isn’t always good and it can’t avoid the unwanted noise inserted by the source into the sound.

If you have a DAC/Amp, it will ensure that you hear audio with clarity. You can also get standalone DAC or Amp but here we will talk about DAC/Amp Combo. This article will focus on some of the best DAC/Amps with different features and different price ranges.

What is the function of a DAC and an Amp?

The audio sources store soundtracks in digital format that is, 1s and 0s. The purpose of a Digital-to-Analog Converter or DAC is to convert the digital signal to analog signals so that we can listen to music. You can connect it to the audio source by USB, Coax-SPDIF, or Fibre-SPDIF.

Once the conversion is complete, the purpose of Amp is to amplify the low voltage analog signal and pass it to the device with which you will listen to music (headphones, speakers, etc.). Speaker amps are powerful than headphone amps which can deliver 100W or more. Headphone amps generally give one or two watts of power.

What does a DAC/Amp do?

DAC/Amp as the name suggests works both as a DAC and an amplifier. If you have this single device, then you don’t need two separate devices for DAC and amplification of your signal. There are different kinds of DAC/Amps, Desktop DAC/Amps, or portable DAC/Amps.

Why do you need one?

Is it a must to have a DAC/Amp? Well, not everyone needs a DAC/Amp. If you think your audio source like Computer, Laptop, Smartphone isn’t adding any noise to the audio signal then you don’t need a DAC. However, if they do introduce noise or can’t produce music at the same bitrate as you file you need a DAC and for amplification, and Amp.

The use of DAC/Amp will simply enhance the audio quality of your sound, ensuring you get distinct, clear, and music without external noise. If you have a powerful speaker or headphone that needs more power to run and your audio source can’t provide that power. Then you need an amplifier to feed them so that the audio track can get louder.

Factors that affect the quality of the DAC/Amp:

Streaming service or File size:

What is your audio source? It is recommended not to use portable sources like iPad to store audio because they have storage limitations. You can use a PC or Laptop to store lossless audio files with high resolution. While streaming, to enhance the quality of your audio source you can try to shift from Spotify to Tidal, Amazon Music HD, or Qobuz.

Since you are going to spend on an external DAC/Amp, choosing the accurate streaming service or file type is crucial to make a difference. You can keep your files in any of the formats given below:

  • FLAC: this stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. Although the FLAC has a smaller size, 16bit/44.1kHz, they maintain a high resolution of the audio. It is widely used and also found in Tidal. All DAC/Amps support this file.
  • ALAC: this stands for Apple Lossless Audio Codec. The Apple Music stream deploys this type of file. It has a ‘lossy’ character which means some data and quality is lost from the original source. Unlike FLAC, the sample rate/bit depth is not fixed.
  • Ogg Vorbis: While FLAC is found in Tidal, the Ogg Vorbis belongs to Spotify. They are also lossy in nature like ALAC. Although they have a sample rate of 44.1kHz, they don’t have bit depth. Compared to FLAC the quality is not so good.
  • MQA: Master Quality Authenticated format belongs to Tidal and has high-quality files that has a high sample rate/depth. A ‘fold’ method is used for these files and a DAC/Amp with an ‘unfolding’ nature can decode it.
  • CD: although rarely used, this has a 16-bit/44.1kHz sample rate/depth.

Quality of files:

The quality of audio files can be measured by sample rate and bit depth. As stated above a regular audio file like CD has 16bit/44.1kHz. a better and higher file resolution may have specs like 24bit/ 192kHz. While most DACs will work with FLAC/ALAC/MQA, it is suggested to go with the best quality of files for optimum performance of the DAC/Amp.

There are other examples like 32-bit/768kHz, 24bit / 44.1Khz, etc so you need to look for these specs of your audio files and match a DAC/Amp that supports it. While some DAC/Amps can be found for low or medium quality files, like from Spotify, others will support files from Tidal.

Audio source

What is the source with which you want to connect the DAC/Amp? Whether it’s a headphone or a speaker, you need to make sure they are of high quality. Otherwise even after adding a separate DAC/Amp you will not notice any difference.

If you have a high-end system make sure you use a better quality DAC/Amp with advanced features whereas match an entry-level DAC/Amp with an ordinary source. Also, choose the DAC/Amp based on the type of source such as Desktop, Headphone, speaker, smartphone, iPad, iPad, etc.

Computer knowledge

Some DAC/Amps need you to install a particular software on your computer. So you should have some level of knowledge regarding how to download and install certain software. Although they will come with instructions, if you are an expert, it will be easier for you to work with the device.

Cables

Along with devices, the cables and wires play a huge role and if you want more details you can see How To Choose Best Speaker Cable. Generally, you should the cables that come with the box such as USB, optical, coaxial, stereo mini, XLR, RCA patch cables.

Types of DAC/Amp:

Stationary DAC+/Amps

These days almost all DAC/Amps supports connectivity to both headphone and speakers. You can find these in the different price ranges. Whereas some DAC/Amps are entry-level equipment, others are powerful to serve for high-end devices.

Questyle Audio CMA600i DAC Headphone Amplifier: Best high-end

Frequency Response(20Hz-20kHz/25ohm)
DAC ChipAK4490 chip
Signal to Noise Ratio94.6dB / 110.3dB(Aweighted)
Gain Control1.6 dB (GAIN=L)
8.8 dB (GAIN=H)
DAC32-bit/768kHz
Connectivity1 x optical digital audio, 1 x coaxial digital audio, USB Type-A, 1 x stereo analogue audio
Outputs: 1 x stereo analogue audio (RCA), 1 x stereo analogue audio (XLR), 1 x coaxial digital audio, 2 x 6.5mm headphone, 1 x 4-pin balanced headphone
USB InputUSB Type-B
Weight3.2kg
Dimensions330x55x300mm
Headphone Output3.5 mm stereo Jack
Output Impedance 0.83-0.98ohm
Output Power 993mW(1% THD into 25ohm)
Total Harmonic Distortion0.15% at 10mV to <0.0005% at 3V

The Questyle CMA600i is one of the best DAC/Amps. It is heavy that weighs around 3.2kg but has several features that other DAC/Amps miss. The device can handle any file type and supports 32-bit/768kHz files. It uses the patented ‘Current Mode Amplification’ CMA.

It can avoid RFI/EMI interference and supports DSD64, DSD128, and DSD256 as well as LPCM music files up to 384kHz/32-bit. It has balanced line outputs and a four-pin balanced headphone output. There are 6.35mm or ¼-inch headphone sockets and one four-pin socket for balanced operation. It is suggested not to pair three headphones together.

It has USB type B, S/PDIF digital inputs, Toslink optical and coax (RCA). It analog outputs, there is RCA phonos and balanced XLRs. Once you connect it with your audio source, it will deliver clean and clear audio revealing musical instruments without adding coloration.

Although the device is costly, it delivers a natural sound effectively converting to analog and amplifying it for the optimum experience.

Fiio E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier: Best Budget DAC/Amp

Frequency Response20 Hz-20 kHz
DAC ChipPCM102
Signal to Noise Ratio>105 dB (A weighted)
Gain Control1.6dB (GAIN=L)
8.8 dB (GAIN=H)
DAC24-bit/96 kHz
Connectivity1/8 " ± headphone jack, a rear-panel 1/8"± line output, and a rear-panel coaxial digital output,
USB InputMicro USB
Weight77g
Dimensions49.1 mm×80 mm×21 mm
Headphone Output3.5 mm stereo Jack
Output Impedance <1.04 Ω
Output Power 200 mW (32 Ω/THD+N< 1%)
Total Harmonic Distortion<0.006% (1 kHz)

Compared to Questyle, the Fio E10K is very small and lightweight. It has a sleek Aluminium body with rounded corners. It has a bass and gain switch, volume dial, and 3.5mm headphone port.  It is one of the best DAC/Amp that you can get at a cheap price.

The audio quality is warm and natural with a low noise floor which makes it perfect for audiophiles. You can easily get clear and amplified audio with powerful headphones like the HD600 or HD650. It enhances the soundstage as well as focusing on low-frequency audio.

The device supports the conversion of 24-bits/96 kHz. It minimizes delay and ensures that no phase shift occurs. You can plug it with your computer, headphone, and others and get excellent audio. Once you attach it with your computer you need to install software for E10K drivers.

Fostex HP-A3 32-Bit Digital to Analog Converter/Headphone Amplifier

Frequency ResponseHeadphone output: 20 Hz to 20 kHz +/- 0.3 dB (32 Ω loaded, 100 mW)
Line outputs: 20Hz to 20kHz +- 0.3 dB
DAC ChipAKM 32bit DAC AK4390
Signal to Noise Ratio>105 dB (A weighted)
Gain Control1.6 dB (GAIN=L)
8.8 dB (GAIN=H)
DAC24bit/96kHz
ConnectivityInput
1x USB 2.0 full speed
1x S/PIDF digital connector: optical, square (32 kHz to 96 kHz)
Output
1x 1/4" headphone output
2x RCA line outputs
Maximum outputHeadphone output: 100 mW (32 Ω loaded)
Weight450g
Dimensions108mm(W) x 36mm(H) x 140mm(D)
Total Harmonic DistortionHeadphone output: < 0.01% at 1 kHz, 32 Ω loaded, 100 mW
Line outputs: < 0.01% at 1 kHz

The Foster HP-A3 32-Bit is made in Japan. It has a sturdy body with several features. While the Fiio E10K is very lightweight and the Questyle the heaviest, the Foster falls in between and weighs 450g. it has a powerful chip that supports up to 32bit and 216kHz sampling rate.

The USB and Toslink support 24bit/96kHz. The sound quality after the DAC and amplification of the audio from the source is precise and neutral with good soundstage. It sounds natural and warm as well. It focuses on instruments so that the overall audio quality is enhanced.

You can charge it with a lightweight USB instead of an AC adapter. Overall this is a great DAC/Amp that you can use with your audio source.

Some other well-featured DAC/Amps from which you can choose:

Symba Sonic

FX Audio Dac-X6

Portable DAC/Amp

If you don’t want to remain in one place attached to your computer or speaker, then you need a portable DAC/Amp. Once you attach the DAC/Amp to connect the headphone and the mobile you are good to go.

iFi Nano iDSD Black Label Portable USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier

DACDSD, DXD, PCM DAC by Burr Brown Bit-Perfect DSD processing, Bit-Perfect DXD processing
Format DSD 256/128/64/12.4/11.2/6.2/5.6/3.1/2.8; DXD 384/352.8kHz; PCM 384/352.8/192/176.4/96/88.2/48/44.1kHz; MQA 88.2/96/176.4/192kHz filters
inputUSB2.0 male type A “OTG” Socket (with iPurifier technology built-in)
Output3.5mm line out, 2 x Headphone Audio 3.5mm, Direct and iFi iEMatch, compatible with balanced and single-ended connections
Battery 6-8hr
Dimensions96(l) x 64(w) x 25.5(h)mm
weight139g
MQAFixed MQA filter
Output Impedance <240ohm
Total Harmonic Distortion & N(0dBFS Line): < 0.004%

Most DAC/Amps has some common features with each other, but not all support MQA. This device supports MQA and DSD256 and PCM up to 32/384 kHz. Compared to the iPhone, it has several times powerful headphone amp of dual-mono 285 milliwatt.

It supports the file format of DSD, DXD, PCM, MQA so it is more versatile compared to other DAC/Amps. The build quality is durable that has an Aluminium body and sleek look. It is compatible with different kinds of headphones up to 600ohms.

The audio has a decent, clear, and neutral tone. No matter what your audio source is, it will make sure you hear audio with clarity. At this price range, the compatibility and versatility are excellent.

Audioengine D3 DAC/amp

D/A converterAKM4396
USB controllerTI1020B
Input bit depth16 bit, 24 bit (upsampled to 24 bit)
Input sample rate48.1kHz-96kHz native playback
188.2kHz & 192kHz re-sampled to 96kHz
OutputAnalog 3.5mm mini-jack stereo
Frequency response10Hz-25KHz (+/- 0.5dB)
SNR(DC to 20kHz) >110dB
Dimensions65x20x10mm
weight500g
Recommended headphone impedance range10 ohms to 10K ohms
Output Impedance 2ohm
Total Harmonic Distortion(1kHz FS 96kS/s) <0.002%

One of the smallest powerful devices is the Audioengine D3 24-bit DAC/Amp. It helps to convert audio via its DAC and amplify it so that you can hear the purest form of audio. It is made of aluminum supports 24 bit/96kHz files and is a plug-and-play setup. It is lightweight and portable so you can carry it everywhere.

Along with a simple setup, it doesn’t require you to install any software on your computer. You can connect a wide variety of audio sources including headphones, speakers, etc. Compared to other costly DAC/Amps, it can deliver similar performance due to better SNR and lower distortion.

The user manual explains everything in detail for ease of use. You can connect headphones of 12 amp or more than that with this device. It comes with an adapter with which you can connect it to 6.3mm headphone. To control the volume of audio, you will use the volume of the computer OS. Overall, it will deliver high-quality audio to make sure it sounds just as it was recorded.

NextDrive Spectra Portable USB DAC/Amp

D/A converterAKM4396
USB controllerTI1020B
Input bit depth16 bit, 24 bit (upsampled to 24 bit)
Input sample rate48.1kHz-96kHz native playback
188.2kHz & 192kHz re-sampled to 96kHz
OutputAnalog 3.5mm mini-jack stereo
Frequency response10Hz-25KHz (+/- 0.5dB)
SNR(DC to 20kHz) >110dB
Dimensions65x20x10mm
weight500g
Recommended headphone impedance range10 ohms to 10K ohms
Output Impedance 2ohm
Total Harmonic Distortion(1kHz FS 96kS/s) <0.002%

As you can see from the image, it is one of the smallest DAC/Amp ideals for traveling. It has a metallic body with a non-flexible cable. It’s a ‘magical wand’ that will be compatible with your smartphones or a wide variety of headphones. The audio is very clean and undistorted without any coloration from the device.

It recommends that you use files from HDTracks, Primephonic, Chandos, Onkyo Music, Mora, music.jp, Ototoy, Victor Studio HD-Music, and Tidal. Due to its thinnest design, you also have to compromise some of its features, such as it doesn’t have any control knobs or buttons.

If you connect it with Windows, you need to install the Spectra audio driver. The ESS Sabre 9018Q2C chip allows it to power high-end headphones. It can be said to be an audiophile product because it supports DSD and PCM with 32 bit.

Some other portable DAC/Amps are:

MPOW Dongle

FiiO BTR3

DAC/Amp for gaming:

Schiit Hel High Power Gaming DAC/Amp 

Audio Engine D1 24-Bit DAC/Amp

Creative Sound Blaster E5 Amp

Read how you can select amps for your speakers

Conclusion

DAC/Amps are the little inclusion that can make a huge difference in sound quality. Before buying a DAC/Amp look for the features and specifications of it. The build quality, compatibility, supported rate, and files are important factors.

In this article, I have listed some of the famous and best DAC/Amp combos that audiophiles often use. A DAC/Amp will add extra clarity, no-noise, and deliver undistorted audio which otherwise is not possible to hear. if you are new at this, you can always try with an entry-level device at an affordable price range.

While most DAC/Amps have some common features, if you want advanced features like MQA support then you should look for this into the DAC/Amp. If you have a sturdy DAC/Amp that delivers a neutral, natural, and warm sound without coloration of the audio, then it is worth having it.

FAQ

Q: Does DAC/Amp improve audio or is it a myth?

Answer: This depends on the situation. Some audio sources might not need a DAC/Amp. If you can’t hear any hissing sound or you hear audio with extreme clarity and loudness, then you don’t need it. However, DAC/Amp is not a myth. If you can choose correctly, then it will provide a noticeable difference in the audio.

Q: If I listen to Tidal, which DAC/Amp should I get?

Answer: Even if you don’t listen to Tidal, you should do it. This is because DAC/Amps always encourage us to listen to high-quality music so that they can effectively perform the conversion. However, if you listen to Tidal, then you must look at whether the DAC/Amp supports MQA. Because this feature is not available on all devices.

Q: Can I only use the DAC instead of a DAC/Amp?

Answer: You can use a DAC without a DAC/Amp because a DAC/Amp is not mandatory. If you think you have powerful headphones or any audio source that delivers audio with optimum loudness, then you don’t need an amp.

You may like to read suitable amps for bookshelf speakers for more information and preamp and amp comparison also informative.

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Power Amplifier vs Integrated Amplifier: Which is The Best?