Best DAC 2018: Elevate your listening experience and enjoy crystal-clear audio, from £61

A DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) is a clever box that receives a digital audio signal – perhaps from a computer, laptop, smartphone or games console – and turns it into an analogue signal that you can enjoy through wired headphones or speakers. You can listen to music without investing in a standalone DAC; your various audio sources will all have their own built-in converters. However, the sound quality from these integrated chips is often quite disappointing.

A dedicated DAC can make all the difference, with cleaner sound and better effects processing. There are a few things to consider before spending your hard-earned money, however. Below you’ll find for our concise guide to the key features on a DAC.

Then, read on for our guide to the very best DACs you can buy today; we’ve got a wide variety of devices that’ll suit everyone’s needs, from expensive audiophile equipment to affordable portable models.

DAC buying guide: Pick the right DAC for you

Does the physical size of the DAC matter? High-end audio gear doesn’t have to be big. Most DACs are compact little things, while still delivering top-notch quality.

Larger units do however have space for more inputs and outputs – that’s the biggest benefit (pun intended) to choosing a bigger DAC. Which input should I pick? It depends on your particular set up, but you can’t go far wrong with a USB input from your PC, laptop or console.

For the ultimate in convenience, look for a wireless connection: this isn’t a standard feature, but some DACs such as the iFi xDSD support Bluetooth aptX, while the Chord Mojo supports both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi via the Poly add-on. Will a DAC make my headphones louder? All the DACs we’ve recommended below include a built-in amplifier, so you can plug your headphones straight into them and pump up the volume.

However, note that some DACs are more capable than others at driving high-impedance headphones. For example, Sennheiser’s HD800 headphone are rated at 300?, and if the DAC isn’t designed to cope with this then the sound may be very quiet. Your everyday gaming headset, for comparison, is rated at a much easier-to-drive 32?.

Should I care about sampling rate and bit depth? If you’re serious about audio, these two figures are important. They determine the quantity and quality of audio information your DAC is able to process, and as a rule of thumb, the higher the numbers, the better your audio should sound.

However, in almost all cases the limiting factor will be not your DAC, but the quality of the audio stream you’re listening to. There are a few services out there that take advantage of high sampling rates and bit depths (Tidal Masters is a good example), but unless you’re a die-hard audiophile, you needn’t worry too much about these figures.

Best DAC 2018: Our top picks

Here’s our guide to the very best DACs on the market at a selection of price points. We’ll periodically be updating this article with new devices – but we won’t ever recommend a DAC that fails to meet our expectations.

iFi xDSD: The best portable DAC

Price when reviewed: GBP400 – Buy now from Amazon
Why you should consider it: A versatile DAC with seamless Bluetooth connectivity and excellent sound quality

This stylish DAC runs off its own battery, and can either connect to your smartphone through Bluetooth or plug into a computer over USB.

It supports aptX on Android and AAC on iOS for the best sound quality, with a simple control button on the front that lets you add spaciousness and apply bass correction to your music. It’s not just technically clever – it also sounds fantastic. Sound separation might not be as spectacular as the Mojo (see below), but the xDSD has a fantastic bass tone, great high-end extension and a wide-open soundstage.

Combined with its simplicity and portability, that makes this undeniably a best-in-class DAC. Read our full iFi xDSD review for details Key specs – Dimensions: 95 x 66.5 x 19mm; Max bit depth/sampling rate: 32-bit/768kHz; Inputs: microUSB (power only), 3.5mm optical, USB (male); Outputs: 3.5mm jack, Bluetooth (aptX & AAC)

Chord Mojo: Small, stylish – and powerful

Price when reviewed: GBP380 – Buy now from Amazon
Why you should consider it: This compact DAC is smartly designed and puts out an incredible sound

Best DAC 2018: Elevate your listening experience and enjoy crystal-clear audio, from £61

The Mojo is one of the most popular DACs on the market, and for good reason – it’s colourful, it’s compact and it produces a stunning sound.

Sub- and mid-bass reproduction is superbly controlled and punchy; our only criticism would be a slightly restrained mid-range. Here, the Mojo is more present than the iFi xDSD, but not as forward as the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus (see below). The Mojo can run off an internal battery, though that’ll only last you around 10 hours on a charge, and it doesn’t support wireless input.

If that’s what you’re looking for, the Poly accessory adds Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as a microSD slot for local playback – but this add-on costs as much as the DAC itself, and isn’t as simple to set up as the xDSD. Read our full Chord Mojo review for details Key specs – Dimensions: 82 x 60 x 22mm; Max bit depth/sampling rate: 32-bit/768kHz; Inputs: 1x microUSB (power), 1x microUSB (input), 3.5mm optical; Outputs: 2x 3.5mm jack

Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus: Excellent sound with plenty of connectivity options

Price when reviewed: GBP300 – Buy now from Richer Sounds Why you should consider it: Great connectivity, and a spacious sound that pairs brilliantly with open-back headphones

Best DAC 2018: Elevate your listening experience and enjoy crystal-clear audio, from £61

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus is one of the larger DACs in our roundup, but it boasts an unmatched array of connectivity options, including both optical and coaxial digital inputs and balanced XLR outputs.

It’s also arguably the best sounding DAC in its price range. Its deep and open soundstage sounds fantastic on through open-back headphones. Instrument separation is incredible, far outclassing the Mojo and xDSD that cost a third more, and its engaging mid-range really brings vocals to life.

The only downside is that it’s a little light on the bass front. Buy now from Richer Sounds Key specs – Dimensions: 215 x 191 x 52mm; Max bit depth/sampling rate: 24-bit/384kHz; Inputs: 2x S/PDIF coaxial, 2x Toslink optical, USB Type-B, DC connector (power only), USB (for optional Bluetooth connectivity only); Outputs: Right & Left XLR balanced, L/R Phono unbalanced, S/PDIF coaxial, Toslink optical, 6.3mm jack

Audioengine D1: The best DAC under GBP200

Price when reviewed: GBP140 – Buy now from Amazon
Why you should consider it: High-end audio quality on a mid-range budget

Best DAC 2018: Elevate your listening experience and enjoy crystal-clear audio, from £61

For under GBP200, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-value DAC.

The Audioengine D1 delivers stupendous amounts of power, and sound quality that belies its price. Its smooth, balanced sound signature will appeal to everyone, while its soundstage reproduction has good depth and excellent instrument separation. It doesn’t sound quite as open or provide the same dynamism as the Chord Mojo or the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus, but it’s impressively close – and a lot cheaper.

Key specs – Dimensions: 89 x 95 x 25mm; Max bit depth/sampling rate: 24-bit/192kHz; Inputs: USB Type-B (input and power), Toslink optical; Outputs: L/R Phono, 3.5mm jack

Creative Sound BlasterX G6: The best DAC for gamers

Price when reviewed: GBP130 – Buy now from Amazon
Why you should consider it: An affordable DAC with neat game-centric features and a dedicated 3.5mm mic input

Best DAC 2018: Elevate your listening experience and enjoy crystal-clear audio, from £61

The sleek and stylish Sound BlasterX G6 focuses on features: Scout Mode boosts the treble, which is great for listening to footsteps, while SBX boosts the G6’s sound profile and Dolby Audio integration adds 7.1 virtual surround sound in your ears. It also has something no other DAC in this roundup has: a 3.5mm microphone input, allowing you to directly connect your gaming headset. And it’ll work on both PC and consoles, making it a great choice for any gamer looking to upgrade their audio experience.

Key specs – Dimensions: 110 x 70 x 24mm; Max bit depth/sampling rate: 32-bit/384kHz; Inputs: microUSB (input and power), 3.5mm optical; Outputs: 1x 3.5mm jack, 1x 3.5mm microphone jack

FiiO Q1 Mark II: The best portable DAC under GBP100

Price when reviewed: GBP88 – Buy now from Amazon Why you should consider it: A convenient and very affordable way to turn your smartphone into a high-end audio centre

Best DAC 2018: Elevate your listening experience and enjoy crystal-clear audio, from £61

If you’re in the market for a portable DAC, but can’t stretch to the iFi xDSD, the FiiO Q1 Mark II is a great alternative. It connects directly to your smartphone with a USB-OTG cable – and a Lightning adaptor is thoughtfully provided for iOS aficionados. Its slender design has plenty of power for regular earphones, but it’s not powerful enough to drive high-impedance headphones.

It also sounds a tad muffled in comparison to the Audioengine D1, with less vibrant mids and a warmer overall sound signature. The bass certainly kicks, though, and there’s a real energy to the treble response. Key specs – Dimensions: 99 x 59 x 12.5mm; Max bit depth/sampling rate: 32-bit/384kHz; Inputs: microUSB, 3.5mm optical; Outputs: 3.5mm jack, balanced 2.5mm, 3.5mm optical

Lindy DAC: The best DAC under GBP100

Price when reviewed: GBP77 – Buy now from Amazon Why you should consider it: If you’re all about sound quality, and don’t care about the design, this DAC is a superb budget option

Best DAC 2018: Elevate your listening experience and enjoy crystal-clear audio, from £61

The Lindy DAC isn’t the prettiest thing in the world, nor the easiest device to plug your headphones into – but it sounds sublime.

It has a fun sound signature, an expansive soundstage and incredible instrument separation that’s hard to believe at this price. We have to admit, the sound isn’t quite as bold as on more expensive DACs such as the D1, nor are the mid- and sub-bass frequencies quite so well controlled. Even so, in terms of bang per buck the Lindy DAC can’t be beaten.

Key specs – Dimensions: 180 x 260 x 40mm; Max bit depth/sampling rate: 24-bit/96kHz; Inputs: S/PDIF Coaxial, Toslink optical, USB Type-B; Outputs: L/R Phono, 3.5mm jack

FiiO E10K: A budget small-sized DAC

Price when reviewed: GBP61 – Buy now from Amazon Why you should consider it: For those on the tightest of budgets, this DAC does the job – and looks good into the bargain

Best DAC 2018: Elevate your listening experience and enjoy crystal-clear audio, from £61

The tiny E10K is the perfect size to tuck away or pop in a laptop bag. It has limited connectivity options but it’ll suffice for most, and despite its diminutive design it’s powerful enough to drive high-end headphones. Sound quality is predictably a little compromised – the Lindy DAC definitely sounds better – but if you’ve been living without a dedicated DAC, the E10K is a definite step up.

With the bass switch toggled on, there’s a good solid mid-bass slam and good sub-bass extension. The highs extend well, too. If you’re looking for a sleeker, smaller-sized alternative to the Lindy, this could well be the one.

Key specs – Dimensions: 79 x 49.1 x 21mm; Max bit depth/sampling rate: 24-bit/96kHz; Inputs: microUSB (input and power), SPDIF Coaxial; Outputs: 1x 3.5mm jack, 1x 3.5mm Line out

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