Do you listen to Spotify, TIDAL, Qobuz, or Apple Music? Has digital streaming become your primary way of listening to music at home with the family in the living room or in your home office? Contrary to any nonsense you might have read online, you don’t have to sell off one of your kids for the best DACs anymore.
That’s not to say that you can’t get state-of-the-art playback from a unit that sells for a stratospheric amount of money but we can’t understand spending that much when the technology changes so rapidly and the sound quality of what is available for below $3,000 is so good. $3,500 buys you a Porsche in the DAC world in 2021 and that’s just a fact.
Consumers love digital streaming and its percentage of the market is on track to hit 90% by the end of Q3 2022. DACs play an important role in the digital playback chain and every smart device that you might own and use for music playback utilizes one.
A DAC converts a digital signal into an analog one (a smart device still utilizes an amplifier on the other end of the DAC – which is rather impressive considering the lack of physical space inside a smart phone or headphone ear cup) and that signal can be fed to a pair of active loudspeakers, or an amplifier on the other end.
Desktop audio or home audio systems often include a laptop or dedicated digital streamer as their primary digital source.
If a smart phone has access to the same digital streaming services that are available on your laptop or through a streamer – why does anyone need to use one, let alone a DAC?
Sound quality. A huge uptick in sound quality that isn’t hard to discern through loudspeakers or your favorite pair of headphones.
DACs do not sound the same. Listen to two or three of your favorite albums through each of the selections below and you should be able to hear some subtle – and not so subtle differences between all of them.
iFi Zen ($129)
iFi offers a wide range of headphone amplifiers/DACs that disappear rather easily on your desktop and are almost always the hub of your playback system. We’ve been listening to their products on a regular basis for the past 5 years and their performance has only improved with each new generation of components that continue to deliver excellent versatility, sound quality, and value for the money. If you’re looking for a Swiss Army knife type of product for all of your desktop headphone listening needs, the iFi Zen DAC ticks off almost every box.
The Zen can handle high-resolution digital playback up to 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD 256 which pretty much covers 99.99% of available digital music – something that is pretty rare for a product that only retails for $129. The Zen also doubles as a headphone amplifier with both single-ended and balanced outputs making it an option for those with headphone cables terminated with the Pentagon 4.4mm connector. The Zen can also be used as a standalone DAC for use with a pre-amplifier or with active loudspeakers. iFi has designed the Zen to be powered by your laptop through the USB input; users can upgrade the sound quality with the optional iFi power supply.
Is there another desktop headphone amplifier/DAC that can deliver this level of performance/functionality for under $150? Not really.
- For more information: ifi-audio.com/products/zen-dac/
- Where to buy: $129.99 at Amazon
Schiit Audio Modi 3 Multibit ($249)
There is no brand that has pushed the value proposition harder in recent years than Schiit Audio who have carved out a niche for themselves in the personal audio, home audio, and desktop audio categories. Every product is assembled in America – something that is unheard of considering the affordability of its products and their outstanding performance for the money.
Schiit sells directly to the public and that allows them to offer products like the Modi 3 for under $250. The Multibit version offers a rather steep upgrade over the base unit that retails for $119; improved resolution, deeper bass, increased soundstage depth and width. If you’re looking for a DAC to connect and forget – this is the one to get. Partner with their Magni 3+ headphone amplifier for an affordable desktop headphone rig that will work with a lot of headphones and not feel obsolete for a very long time.
- For more information: schiit.com/products/modi-1
- Where to buy: $249 at Amazon
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt ($329.95)
AudioQuest practically invented the portable DAC/headphone amplifier category with the original DragonFly; the Cobalt USB DAC/headphone amplifier takes the technology to the next level with a significant jump in price as well. If you use a laptop, tablet, or smartphone as your primary streaming device, there is no better option. The Cobalt supports MQA-playback, 24-bit/96kHz high-res audio playback and can drive a wide range of headphones. The Cobalt is smoother sounding than the DragonFly Red and a better long-term option if concerned about listening fatigue. Learn why in our AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt review.
- For more information: audioquest.com/dacs/dragonfly/dragonfly-cobalt
- Where to buy: $329.95 at Amazon
Topping D30 Pro ($399)
It’s very hard to not be impressed with Topping who have carved out a very nice niche within the DAC and headphone amplifier categories. If you’re looking for value, solid engineering (they measure with the best at any price), reliability, and support for almost every format one could possibly want in 2021, the D30 Pro is a winner. You can read our review here and learn more. It’s likely to be replaced during the next product cycle but it’s a steal at $399.00.
- For more information: topping.audio/productinfo/590763.html
- Where to buy: $399.95 at Amazon
Denafrips ARES II ($835)
One of the great things about the hi-fi space right now is that smaller companies are driving innovation; even when they implement older technology in their products. Digital audio has taken enormous strides in recent years and competition within the DAC vertical is particularly fierce. Direct-to-consumer brands like Denafrips are not only taking on more established high-end brands but eating their digital lunch. By removing the middleman, Denafrips can keep products like the ARES II R2R DAC below $835; the price has gone up recently due to chip shortages and supply chain issues that are hitting this category particularly hard.
But even at $835, the ARES II is a steal. Tarun (AKA “The British Audiophile”) who is our man across the pond recently did a video review and found much to like about this DAC. The engineering is top rate, it’s compatible with almost everything, and it’s decidedly analog-sounding in its presentation. More than a few high-end reviewers (myself included) use the ARES II and it’s not something one would want to replace.
- For more information: Denafrips ARES II
Chord Qutest ($1,945)
Chord is one of the leading manufacturers of high-end DACs in the world; with both affordable portable and desktop options, and reference-level products designed for the world’s most expensive digital playback systems. The Qutest fits somewhere in the middle of their line-up, and while not inexpensive, features galvanically isolated USB-B, optical and coaxial digital inputs, giving an instant performance upgrade to any digital source that you may connect to it. The coaxial digital input works especially well with CD transports and streamers like the Bluesound Node.
With support for up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM playback, and native DSD, the Qutest is way ahead of the competition at this price level as far as compatibility with high-resolution codecs. It may not deliver the deepest soundstage, but its resolution, detail retrieval, and level of engagement puts it in very select company. Some people find the operation of the DAC slightly confusing but once you find the settings that sound the best to you – set it and forget it. The Qutest delivers beautiful sounding music and that’s all that matters.
- For more information: chordelectronics.co.uk/product/qutest/
HoloAudio Spring3 Kitsuné Tuned Edition ($3,098)
A boutique online manufacturer, HoloAudio, is distributed by KitsuneHiFi, and even with the long wait time for delivery, this is one DAC worth waiting for. The recently introduced Spring3 still starts below $2,200 and gives music listeners a real taste of what reference quality digital audio can sound like. With support for native DSD, and high-resolution PCM digital audio, the Spring3 KTE USB DAC sounds more like a high-end analog source with layers of detail, a warm tonal balance, low noise floor, and superb top-to-bottom coherency.
Connected to a CD transport or streamer, this DAC makes music come alive. If you’re wondering if it makes sense to spend this kind of money on a DAC when digital technology is evolving so quickly, the answer is that a great DAC doesn’t lose its value as a component just because something new comes out. 95% of available digital music is red book CD quality (or less) and the 5% that qualifies as high-resolution digital audio will always be supported by this DAC. If streaming platforms like Tidal, Deezer, Spotify, or Qobuz are your primary sources of digital music – the Spring3 KTE will allow you to uncover a lot of great sounding music for years to come.
- For more information: HoloAudio Spring3 KTE