How can we achieve studio-quality sound at home? After purchasing some high-quality headphones and speakers it’s possible to feel like something is still missing. This could lead you to discover DACs or Digital to Analog Converters. These can cost an arm and a leg but there are some solid budget options within the $200 price range. Our favorite in this range is the Audioengine D1 as this USB powered device provides such a well-defined, balanced sound.
However, there was some stiff competition for our purchase and our circumstances may be different from yours. All of the DAC’s on this list are accomplished units and you would be unlikely to be disappointed with your purchase if any of them.
What we like: Volume control, Universal compatibility, Well balanced sound
Not so much: Lacking slight rhythm fluidity, Lacking a little precision, Bulky for a portable unit
Inputs – USB-B, Optical (SPDIF) Outputs – RCA, 3.5 mm Headphone Max sampling rate Up to 192khz MQA – NO DSD – NO
The Audioengine D1 is a combination of a DAC and a headphone amplifier and is USB powered which makes it absolutely portable. Its optical input means you can listen to music at a sample rate above that of its USB input, up to 192khz, although its likely primary function will be through the use of it’s USB port.
This unit is plug and plays at it works on both PC and Mac without having to go to the effort of downloading extra drivers. Out of the box, this DAC comes with a 2m USB cable which can be upgraded if you so choose. The Audioengine D1 features a lot of dynamic push coming through uncompressed songs with high intensity and strong detail.
The sound has enough bite to keep you coming back to listen but not enough that you get any excessive hardness. The D1 is a versatile DAC that can power a number of different headphones and is not lacking much sonically, say for a little fluidity with rhythm and slight precision missteps.
What we like: Wireless, Punchy, refined sound, Compact
Not so much: Battery life, Bluetooth audio is not completely lossless, No wired charging option
Inputs – Bluetooth Outputs – 3.5mm Headphone jack, Bluetooth Max sampling rate 384khz MQA – NO DSD – NO
One of the best things about the Audiolab M-DAC Nano is its trues portability. It works primarily with Bluetooth which makes it one of the best DACs to use with your phone as it doesn’t require you to carry around an extra cable.
The unit itself is very small and can fit into your pocket or a small compartment in your backpack but it also comes with a belt clip that you can clip on to yourself. Audiolab claims the rechargeable battery inside the M-DAC Nano should last about 8 hours between charges. The unit is very lightweight and although the build quality seems dependable it can feel a little unsubstantial in your hands.
It sounds incredible if you are looking to improve the sound quality while you are on the go through Bluetooth but they fall a little short compared to models that have a wired option as well. I would primarily recommend the M-DAC Nano for those of you that feel like you need to improve your sound of the music coming from your phone as in our opinion they do a fantastic job of this.
What we like: Good connectivity, Nice design, Great bass response
Not so much: Some might see the extra bass response as ‘boomy’, Indelicate highs, Sound lacks a little reach
Inputs – USB-B, 2x Coaxial, Optical (SPDIF), Outputs – RCA Max sampling rate 192khz MQA – NO DSD – NO
The variety of connectivity is a real selling point for the DacMagic 100 by Cambridge Audio. This feature packed unit can easily be plugged into a TV, set-top box, stereo, Xbox, Playstation or a computer.
This DAC is asynchronous which according to Cambridge Audio makes the data transfer to the unit more efficient which in turn improves the audio quality. This unit provides an open soundscape that feels very spacious and if you are into energetic bass than this could be a perfect match for you.
I fell like the treble frequencies for this unit were lacking a little clarity and made for a slightly murky experience in some songs but overall the sound was still of exceptionally high quality. The DacMagic 100 is a capable and versitile machine that is worth looking into in this price range.
What we like: Convenient, Small, High output for driving demanding headphones
Not so much: Low max sampling rate, Finish is easily chipped, Easy to lose
Inputs – USB-B, Outputs – 3.5mm jack Max sampling rate 96khz MQA – YES DSD – NO
The Dragonfly Red (from AudioQuest) is the mid range USB stick portable DAC from AudioQuest with the Black being the basic model and the Cobalt heading up the bunch.
The Red offers the user many upgrades on the Black such as ‘bit perfect’ volume control and higher voltage. These upgrades are the reason why it’s in this list instead of the Black. The Red sounds excellent carrying a lot of weight throughout all the frequencies. This does not happen to stop the detail coming through the mix either, creating a well-rounded, articulate experience for the listener.
This unit comes with a travel pouch which should be used when you can as the amazing looking finish seems a little flaky so you will want to look after it to keep it appearing new. This is an incredibly convenient device because of its size and should be considered if you don’t need a lot of inputs or outputs and just need to plug your headphones in directly.
What we like: Great build quality, USB-C, Multiple outputs
Not so much: Not enough driving power on 3.5mm jack, Highest frequencies rolled off, Limited depth
Inputs – USB-C, Outputs – 2.5mm jack. 3.5mm jack, 3.5mm line out, Coaxial, Optical (SPDIF) Max sampling rate 384khz MQA – NO DSD – YES
This DAC is one of the best looking units on the list and also has some of the most versatile range of outputs. If either or both of these factors are strong selling points for you then it’s definitely worth looking into the Fiio K3.
To back up its looks the K3 also has strong sound quality. It has a very robust bass and sparkling mid-range. The treble tones roll off slightly but it is hardly noticeable in most genres. Overall, the K3 is an impressive listening experience with a very decisive and accurate sound that still sounds natural.
However, we feel like the soundstage could sometimes feel a little bit shallow when listening to music that has a lot of space in it. We would recommend using the balanced outputs for this particular DAC as it gives more drive and power to your headphones.
What we like: Built tough, Multiple inputs, Choice of USB or external power
Not so much: Boxy, boring design, Single output, Micro-USB ports
Inputs – Micro-USB, Optical (SPDIF), Coaxial Outputs – RCA Max sampling rate – 192khz MQA – NO DSD – NO
The Schiit Modi 3 has one of the lowest price points of the DACs we have listed but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the sound quality that comes with it.
The Modi 3 has open highs, delicious mids and is responsive in the bass frequencies as well. The soundscape never appears to be too sharp and carries a strong weight and drive. Strangely the Modi 3 uses micro-USB ports both for power and to draw audio input
This is an older technology and makes us wonder why they didn’t include USB-C or the more traditional USB-B like other DACs. This does provide the benefit of being able to power the unit with an old phone charger cable if anything happens to the one that comes with it.
Modi 3 has a particularly robust sound and a great build quality at an excellent price and if you think you can get around its basic appearance then it is a perfect buy for your first DAC or an upgrade of an old model.
What we like: Balanced Tone, Adaptable, Long battery life
Not so much: Dynamics a little forthright, Timing a little blurry, Tight soundstage
Inputs – USB-B, Outputs – 2 x 3.5mm jack (iEmatch). 3.5 mm line out Max sampling rate 384khz MQA – YES DSD – YES
As the only DAC on the list with native support for both MQA and DSD audio, this system is suited for someone that interacts with both of these formats such as using a subscription to Tidal streaming for MQA audio.
The Nano iDSD also comes with a unique output called iEmatch which is intended to compensate for the especially sensitive nature of in-ear headphones. We think this a particularly awesome feature as not everyone uses over-ear headphones and it’s nice to see the other part of the market catered too without sacrificing a separate input for others that do use over-ear headphones.
The iDSD has a very neutral tonality which can be considered a strong point but we also found that the dynamics in certain songs had noticeable volume shifts. The LED indicator on the unit will change color depending on the file type you’re listening to. This provides a fun way to compare the audio quality of the different file types.
What we like: Gold plated outputs, Neutral sound, Tight bass
Not so much: A bit bulky, No cushioning pads, Low dynamic range
Inputs – USB-B Outputs – Coaxial, RCA Max sampling rate 384khz MQA – NO DSD – YES
NuPrime is known for its high-end build quality and the uDSD lives up to that standard. Tonally, this DAC offers a presentation that is just on the warm side of neutral. This is a really clean signature NuPrime sound that may interest you if you’re already familiar with it.
The bass frequencies come through tight and the unit shifts through the frequencies with breezy ease. All of this amounts to a positive listening experience from the NuPrime uDSD. This DAC does not come with any ‘feet’ for it to rest on so we think it would be a good idea to buy a small set from a craft or hardware store to create some more longevity for the finish on the outside of the unit.
There is incredibly built-in noise filtering which makes this DAC a good choice for those of us that like to use in-ear monitors. The sound really seems to open up and feels less compressed while listening with in-ears through the uDSD’s superior dynamic range and clean presentation.
The Nuprime uDSD is one to consider if you’re upgrading from an older model as it’s high sampling rate as DSD compatibility make it a modern and proficient entity.
DAC under $200 – what to expect?
The highest cost DAC to be produced was the limited edition Vivaldi One with a whopping $80,000 price tag which makes you wonder what you can get from a unit that costs a mere $200 and the truth is that you can get a completely capable unit for this price.
You may just have to miss out on a few bells and whistles for the sake of saving a little money. The build quality of most DAC units is generally very sturdy and none of the ones mentioned in this list is an exception to that rule.
Many of the DACs also serve a secondary purpose such or providing the ability to play certain audio codecs like MQA or DSD. These file types also provide higher quality sound so it’s worth noting while you are in the market. There are also dedicated gaming DACs.
We feel like it is crucial to mention that whichever product you decide on you should make sure you buy it from a reputable source. There is an apparent booming market of knock off DAC units out there and you will not get the same quality as you would from buying a genuine brand name DAC.
This is just something to keep in mind when you make your purchase, so don’t let it deter you from shopping around for the best deal for you.
Last update on 2021-10-14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
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