Portable USB DACs combined with a headphone amplifier are a booming market segment. In recent years, manufacturers have unleashed a veritable ninth wave of new products on users, with manufacturers from China and Taiwan confidently coming to the fore, offering the highest value for money.
Since the beginning of the year, many excellent models of portable devices have appeared on the market, combining a DAC and a headphone amplifier, which will allow you to turn your smartphone into an audiophile player. Rating, as usual, is compiled in ascending order of price.
9. FiiO Jade Audio KA2
Price – $59.99
This portable digital-to-analog converter and amplifier is designed for use exclusively with headphones equipped with a 4.4 mm plug. The FiiO KA2 model has only one balanced output of the corresponding format. The DAC block is based on a dual chip CS43131 from Cirrus Logic and works with PCM stream resolution up to 32bit/384kHz and DSD256. The user can select one of five digital filters. The body is completely made of aluminum, the LED indicator color indicates the resolution of the incoming digital signal. The model weighs only 12.3 grams and can run a proprietary application. The Lightning version costs $10 more. Output power – 153 mW at 32 ohms.
Pros – balanced design, aluminum body, low price
Cons – only one 4.4mm jack
Verdict: Inexpensive and well-equipped DAC
8. Moondrop DAWN
Price – $69.99
Another budget digital-to-analog converter and headphone amplifier built according to a balanced circuit. It also has two CS43131 chips from Cirrus Logic, plus two independent clock generators. The cylindrical body is made of aluminum alloy, the USB-C port is designed to supply a digital signal with a resolution of up to PCM 32/768 and DSD256. The built-in amplifier has a switchable gain level that provides either 4V or 2V line output, depending on the option selected. Output power is 230 mW into 32 ohms. A 4.4 mm jack is used to connect headphones.
Pros – PCM 32/768 support, good power, independent clock generators
Cons – Requires a 4.4mm mini-jack cable
Verdict: Miniature device for economical audiophiles
7. HiBy FC4
Price – $89
This model uses a dual ES9218PC chip from Saber Technologies and has two headphone jacks – a balanced 4.4 mm jack and an unbalanced 3.5 mm jack. The signal timing accuracy is provided by two independent FPGAs, the device supports PCM stream up to 32bit/768kHz and native DSD256. The body of the model is completely metal, with physical volume keys. The LED indicator informs in color about the type of digital signal coming to the input. The power of the model is up to 340 mW at 32 Ohms, the device weighs 21.7 grams.
Pros – high power, two types of output connector, physical buttons
Cons – nothing major
Verdict: A versatile and inexpensive option for different types of headphones
6. DUNU DTC 500
Price – $90
A cute little device that combines a digital-to-analog converter and a headphone amplifier. It has 3.5mm and 4.4mm headphone jacks, and output power is 200mW. The DAC unit is based on the ES 9038Q2M chip capable of working with PCM 32 bit/768 kHz and DSD 512. The model has a built-in clock generator for asynchronous data transfer, and the amplifier stage is implemented on two Ricore RT6863 operational amplifiers. The LED indicator in the device lights up in a different color depending on the sampling rate of the incoming signal. The weight of the model is 17 grams.
Pros – original design, two types of headphone jack, DSD 512 support
Cons – not the highest power, no physical keys
Verdict: Good compromise between features and price
5. Shanling UA3
Price – $109
The model is the first DAC in the UA series built on a chip from Asahi Kasei. The device uses the latest dual converter AK4493SEQ, two Ricore RT6863 chips are responsible for amplifying the signal. The model can handle PCM 32bit/768kHz and DSD512 streams via USB-C port operating in UAC1.0 and UAC2.0 modes. Two headphone jacks are provided – unbalanced 3.5 mm and balanced 4.4 mm. The physical volume keys are located on the wide side of the case. The output power reaches 211 mW into 32 ohms.
Pros – AKM DAC, Ricore op amps, two USB modes
Cons – unassuming design
Verdict: A versatile model with good sound
4. iBasso DC06
Price – $119
In this model, the DAC block is built on two ES9219C chips from ESS Saber Technologies, capable of working with PCM 32 bit/384 kHz, as well as native DSD256. The device also supports full hardware decoding of MQA files. A separate clock generator with femtosecond precision is responsible for maintaining the timing characteristics. Two headphone jacks are provided – 3.5 mm and 4.4 mm, a detachable cable with a USB-C connector is included. The maximum output voltage is 2V at 32 ohms at the 3.5mm output and 3.2V at 32 ohms at the 4.4mm balanced output. The novelty weighs 23 grams.
Pros – latest chip from ESS, work with MQA files
Cons – except perhaps the design
Verdict: One of the best models of the new season
3. FiiO Q3 MQA
Price – $149
The new generation DAC block of the popular model uses the AK4452 chip from Asahi Kasei, in addition, it received the ability to natively decode MQA files. The processing of the incoming signal is entrusted to the latest generation XMOS XU316 processor. There are three outputs for connecting headphones – balanced 2.5 mm, 4.4 mm, as well as the usual 3.5 mm. Battery life has increased to 23 hours in AUX mode and 12 hours in USB mode. The amplifying part is built on two THX AA-28 modules, the output power with a balanced connection is 370 mW at 32 Ohms.
Pros – amplification from THX, DAC on chips from Asahi Kasei, three types of connectors
Cons – Nothing for the price.
Verdict: Powerful model with excellent equipment
2. Moondrop Moonriver 2
Price – $189.99
The device is enclosed in a metal case, machined from a single billet of aluminum. The model has a fully symmetrical circuit, the DAC block is built on two CS43198 chips. A USB-C port is provided for signaling, and there are two jacks for connecting headphones – a regular 3.5 mm and a symmetrical 4.4 mm, both of which can work both in linear mode and in adjustable mode. The voltage at the output of 3.5 mm is 2V, at the balanced 4.4 mm – 4V. The package includes a USB Type-C cable.
Pros – unusual design, balanced circuit, the ability to work in linear mode, the flagship chip from Cirrus Logic
Cons – not everyone will like the design
Verdict: Compact model with powerful DAC and amplifier
Price – $249
The device uses a proprietary current amplification circuit implemented on CMA SiP modules. Its use allows you to connect even full-sized on-ear high-impedance headphones to a miniature gadget. The model’s DAC supports 32bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 streams as well as MQA files, while ESS Technologies’ Saber ES9281AC chip ensures excellent THD and signal-to-noise ratio. The model is equipped with two headphone jacks – balanced 4.4 mm and unbalanced 3.5 mm. The body is machined from a single piece of aluminum billet and equipped with a transparent cover that allows you to see the internal circuitry of the device. The model is available in two versions – with a USB type-C connector for Android devices and with a Lightning connector for gadgets on iOS. The retail price of the second option is $269.
Pros – current-boost circuitry, MQA support, clear window in case
Cons – not cheap, no physical keys
Verdict: Probably the best portable DAC/amp for a reasonable price