Portable audio enthusiasts are faced with the choice of whether to buy a separate Hi – Res player, or to enhance the capabilities of their smartphone with an external DAC that doubles as a headphone amplifier?
Today, the choice of portable DACs on the market is very extensive, in our article we have collected ten of the best models, some of which can work not only on the go, but also serve as part of cabinet systems. As usual, the rating is in ascending order of price.
10. Shanling UA2 Plus
Price – $89
An improved version of the popular DAC, which received a balanced circuit. Changes from the original model include the use of two RT6863 op amps instead of one, a balanced 4.4mm jack on par with the regular 3.5mm, and an improved clock generator to reduce jitter. The DAC block is based on the ES9038Q2M chip from ESS Saber and allows the device to work with PCM 32-bit / 768 kHz and DSD512 streams. The device is compatible with devices on Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, there is also a special mode for working with Nintendo Switch. All functions of the model can be controlled using the Eddict Player mobile application. The amplifier delivers 195 mW into a load with a nominal resistance of 32 ohms.
Pros – Balanced circuitry, high quality DAC chip, Nintendo Switch support
Cons: None at this price
Verdict: High quality basic DAC
9. iBasso DC06
Price – $119
The DAC unit of the device is based on two ES9219C chips from ESS Saber, capable of working with PCM 32 bit / 384 kHz stream, as well as native DSD256 stream. The model supports full hardware decoding of MQA files. The timing of the signal is provided by a separate clock generator with femtosecond precision. Headphones can be connected to one of the sockets – 3.5 mm and 4.4 mm, a detachable cable with a USB-C connector is included. The maximum output voltage is 2V when operating into a load of 32 ohms at the 3.5mm output and 3.2V at 32 ohms at the balanced 4.4mm output. The model weighs 23 grams.
Pros – latest chip from ESS, work with MQA files
Cons – except perhaps the design
Verdict: One of the best budget models of the season
8. MUSE HiFi M3
Price – $149
The case of this DAC is machined from aluminum alloy on a CNC machine, two outputs are provided for connecting headphones – 3.5 mm and 4.4 mm. The digital-to-analog converter section is based on the ESS9038Q2M chip, and a separate ESS9603Q op amp is used for the amplifier. Signal processing via USB-C is entrusted to the SA9227 chip. The volume control has 60 steps, its physical key is located on the side of the gadget. The device works with PCM 32 bit/384 kHz digital stream, the digital filter has 7 different settings, thanks to which the user can adjust the sound to his liking.
Pros – quality components, nice design, switchable digital filter
Cons – there are slightly more affordable competitors
Verdict: A model for those who like to customize the sound to their taste
7. FiiO Q3 MQA
Price – $149
The updated version of the popular model is equipped with the AK4452 chip from Asahi Kasei, and the novelty also has the ability to natively decode MQA files. The input signal processing is carried out by the third generation XMOS XU316 processor. The model has three headphone jacks – balanced 2.5 mm and 4.4 mm, as well as unbalanced 3.5 mm. The battery life of the device is 23 hours in AUX mode and 12 hours in USB mode. The amplifying part is built on two THX AA-28 modules, while the output power with a balanced connection is 370 mW when operating on a load with a nominal resistance of 32 Ohm.
Pros – THX amplifier modules, Asahi Kasei DAC, three headphone outputs
Cons – considering the price, nothing
Verdict: Best value for money DAC
6. Moondrop Moonriver 2
Price – $189.99
The model has a metal body machined from a solid billet of aluminum. The DAC and amplifier circuits are completely symmetrical, the DAC block is built on two CS43198 chips from Cirrus Logic. The digital signal is fed to the USB-C port, there are two headphone jacks – a regular 3.5 mm and a balanced 4.4 mm, both of which can work in both linear and adjustable modes. The maximum 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 – original design, symmetrical circuitry, flagship DAC chip
Cons – design for an amateur
Verdict: An interesting model with basic functionality
Price – from $249
The main feature of the model is a proprietary current amplification scheme implemented on CMA SiP modules. The use of this solution allows you to connect full-size high-impedance headphones to a miniature gadget. The model’s DAC unit supports 32bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 streams as well as MQA file decoding and conversion, and ESS Saber’s ES9281AC chip guarantees excellent THD and signal-to-noise ratio. The device is equipped with two headphone jacks – balanced 4.4 mm and unbalanced 3.5 mm. The case is machined from a single piece of aluminum and features a transparent cover that allows you to see the internal circuitry. 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.
Pros – current gain, full MQA support, transparent window
Cons – no physical keys
Verdict: The next level of quality will cost a lot more
Also read: Top 8 best Hi-Fi players early 2022
4. Topping G5
Price – from $299
This model is distinguished by the presence of a built-in Bluetooth adapter with support for all major audiophile codecs, including LDAC, aptX HD and aptX Adaptive. The DAC section is based on the ES9068AS chip from ESS Saber. When connected via USB, the D/A converter supports PCM streams up to 768 kHz and DSD512. The amplifier section uses the proprietary NFCA circuit, the body of the device is completely machined from aluminum alloy. Two headphone jacks are provided – unbalanced 3.5 mm and balanced 4.4 mm. Signal sources can also be connected via the 3.5 mm analog input. The output power is impressive – up to 1,200 mW at a balanced output when operating on a load with a nominal resistance of 32 Ohms. The model weighs 265 grams.
Pros – high power, balanced circuit, convenient physical volume control
Cons – the weight is already felt in the pocket
Verdict: Powerful DAC with a quality Bluetooth adapter
3. Dethonray Pegasus SG1
Price – $399
A very beautiful portable DAC and amplifier designed to connect wired headphones and receive a signal both via USB-C and via a wireless module with support for all major codecs, including LDAC, aptX HD and aptX LL. The model uses an ES9038Q2M DAC block from ESS Saber, and the body of the device is fully machined from aluminum alloy, and there are two colors to choose from. There are two outputs for connecting headphones – unbalanced 3.5 mm and balanced 4.4 mm. The built-in battery has a capacity of 2,000 mAh, and its charge lasts for 8 hours of continuous operation. The user can choose between two different firmwares to give the amplifier a different sound signature. The output voltage is 2.9 V at 32 ohms single-ended.
Pros – beautiful design with a triangular volume control, symmetrical layout, high-quality Bluetooth adapter
Cons – battery life
Verdict: Nice and stylish DAC with great sound
2. Fio Q7
Price – $750
FiiO’s flagship DAC can operate as both a portable and desktop device, powered by an external AC adapter. You can send a signal both via USB-C, and via coaxial and optical inputs. The model also has a Qualcomm QCC5124 Bluetooth adapter with LDAC and aptX Adaptive support. There are as many as four jacks for connecting headphones – unbalanced 6.35 mm and 3.5 mm and balanced 4.4 mm and 2.5 mm. The digital-to-analog converter is based on the top-end ES9038Pro chip from ESS Saber and works with PCM signals 32 bit / 386 kHz and native DSD256 stream. Amplification is provided by two THX AAA 788+ modules delivering an incredible 1,500 mW into a 32 ohm load in handheld mode and 3,000 mW into 32 ohms in desktop mode. In fact, the amplifier is able to “pull” any headphones, except for electrostatic. Built-in battery has a capacity of 9200 mAh, the device weighs 620 grams.
Pros – two power modes, the most powerful amplifier on THX assemblies, top DAC
Cons – weight on the verge of acceptable for a portable device
Verdict: A versatile device for different listening scenarios
1. Shanling H7
Price – $830
Shanling’s top-of-the-line digital-to-analog converter and headphone amplifier is housed in an aluminum chassis and features rotary volume controls and gain switches – three different levels are available. The DAC block is built on the AK4191EQ and AK4499EX chipsets, the model also has a Bluetooth adapter with support for the LDAC codec. The signal entering the USB-C port is processed by the XMOS XU316 receiver, the device works with PCM 32-bit / 768 kHz streams and native DSD512 and also fully decodes MQA files. There are three jacks for connecting headphones – 3.5 mm, 4.4 mm and 6.35 mm, the maximum power at the balanced output is 1,300 mW when operating on a load with a nominal resistance of 32 Ohms. The device can also work as a desktop DAC, it has a line output on RCA connectors. The device is equipped with an OLED screen size 1, 44 inches diagonally, overall dimensions – 142 x 85 x 25 mm. The device weighs 352 grams.
Pros – powerful amplifier, top chipset, works with PS5 and Nintendo Switch
Cons – you have to pay for everything good
Verdict: Compact DAC with very powerful hardware