Best Budget DAC

Finding a good quality DAC, especially on a budget can be quite the head-scratcher, can’t it?

With so many choices and such a wide price range, it can feel an impossible task at times to find the best budget DAC.

There are lots of factors to consider when purchasing your DAC, and a lot of terminologies that for a first-time buyer can be overwhelming, and a little confusing.

Thankfully you have come to the right place! We have curated the best budget DACs in one place, alongside a handy buyer’s guide and FAQ’s to help you get exactly what you are after.

In a hurry? Check out our top pick below to get your basket filled quickly!

OUR TOP PICK

FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier (Black)


At an affordable price, FiiO offers an amplifier and DAC in one sleek package!

The converter features a micro USB port (which can be used to charge the converter), a headphone output, and coax digital output.

It's great for use with laptops, boosting and clearing out headphone audio signals, as well as performing well with other devices!

A versatile piece of kit that left customers seriously impressed with it!

The converter features a PCM102 chip that can support files up to 24-bit/96kHz audio resolution. It also has a built-in linear filter to help improve the quality and reduce distortions.

What’s particularly great about this converter is that it has a selectable bass boost and low-pass filter, which allows the user to customize their sound to their preferences.

It's a durable converter made with a brushed aluminum shell and chassis, making it strong and likely to survive life with a serial dropper (no, not me, never).

Some customers did find that it could overheat on times, so that is a factor to bear in mind when purchasing.

Pros:

  • Portable and durable
  • Multiple connections
  • Affordable
  • Can be customized
  • Easy to use with a laptop

Cons

  • Some customers found it to overheat on occasion

EDITOR'S CHOICE

DAC Converter, Techole Aluminum 192KHz Digital/Toslink to Analog RCA L/R Audio Converter Adapter with Optical Cable, Coaxial Cable, USB Cable Powered for PS3 PS4 Xbox HDTV Blu-ray Sky HD Apple TV

Listed as Amazon’s choice, Techole’s DAC converter is incredibly affordable, bringing good quality to every budget.

In an aluminum casing, this lightweight converter is durable and heat resistant, great features that mean this one is designed to last.

The converter also comes with a Toslink cable (optical) and a coaxial cable to transmit the signals.

A great thing about this converter is its compatibility with so many devices. Some of them include PS3, PS4, Xbox, Blue-ray, DVD, HDTV, and home theaters which have no RCA outputs or 3.5mm jack outputs.

The converter also supports uncompressed 2.1 channel PCM and LPCM digital audio.

It also boasts a 192kHz sampling function achieved.

Thanks to its anti-interference function you get pure and clear sound, exactly what you want from your DAC!

Customers were particularly pleased by the quality of the converter, especially given the low price tag!

It's easy to install as well, giving you more time to spend relaxing with excellent sound!

Customers did note that there is no volume control with this converter, so something to bear in mind.

Pros:

  • Heat resistant
  • Durable
  • Sound is clear and pure
  • Affordable
  • Comes with additional cables

Cons

  • No volume control

BEST VALUE

AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 Plug-in USB DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp

Costing a little more, but still great for those on a budget, Dragonfly offers a USB style converter.

Dragonfly offers enhanced sound, higher value, and lower power consumption than previously award-winning DAC’s by Dragonfly.

Thanks to adapters as well, you can use this converter with Apple and Android devices too!

The versatile converter improves detail, transparency, immediacy, richness, and tone in music.

It plays MP3, 24-bit/96KHz high-resolution files.

The plastic converter is in a handy USB design, great for those looking for a more portable DAC within their budget.

The converter can be plugged directly into laptops and drives headphones directly as well.

DragonFly also provides you with a stylish leatherette travel pouch for the DAC, who doesn’t love a handy travel pouch?

The set up is quick and easy, with customers praising this.

Some customers found that it did not perform as well for those with high-performance headphones as it made little difference to the sound.

Pros

  • Versatile
  • Works with Apple and Android products
  • Additional travel pouch
  • Quick and easy set-up
  • Enhanced sound quality

Cons:

  • Little difference noticed on higher-quality headphones

RUNNER UP

NextDrive Spectra Portable USB DAC - The World’s Smallest 32-bit DAC Headphone Amp for Truly Mastering Your Sound On-The-Go (Spectra USB Type-A)

Sitting at the top of the price point for those on a budget is NextDrive’s USB DAC.

It is labeled as the world’s smallest 32-bit DAC and is incredibly slimline.

Made of strong aluminum to provide great durability and peace of mind while using it.

The premium quality DAC is ultra-portable thanks to its size and no battery.

It works well with high-resolution audio, supporting PCM files up to 32-bit/314KHz and DSD to Quadrate 11.2MHz.

Customers are advised to check the volume level before beginning to avoid any nasty frights, yes the volume on here really is that good!

This converter is not suitable and does not support IOS (iPhone or iPad) or Android devices.

Some customers found that this DAC worked better with high-quality headphones to notice the difference.

Customers were particularly pleased with how easy the converter is to use, a bonus for those wanting to get set up quickly!

Pros:

  • Ultra portable
  • Strong and durable
  • Easy to use
  • Works well with high resolution files
  • Loud volume

Cons:

  • Does not support IOS or Android devices

RUNNER UP

Fiio K1 Portable Headphone Amplifier&DAC and USB DAC, Titanium

Another affordable option is Fiio’s DAC which also doubles as a headphone amplifier!

The DAC uses a USB input and features two standard headphone jacks.

It has a driveability of 16 to 1000hms and a sample USB rate of 96kHz/24bit supported.

The upper frequencies are sharper and the low-end is more defined.

This converter removes some of the murkiness from the mids as well.

You get a noticeable difference in sound with this device, a common complaint among competitors! This converter will allow you to play much better sound quality compared to your phone.

The audio output is only available via the headphone jack, although you can plug into monitors via an aux cable, opening up the versatility of this converter.

The converter is made of brushed metal and designed to last, good for those on the go who give their equipment a bit of a beating (my clumsy hands included there!).

Customers did note that the headphone port is loose within the unit and can be damaged if you are plugging in and out repeatedly, something to consider if you aren’t permanently leaving headphones in!

Fiio’s converter does not come with a USB connector, which does make the device smaller to handle, but leaves you with an additional cable to carry around.

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Strong and durable design
  • Noticeable quality difference
  • Versatile
  • Wide range of file support 

Cons:

  • The headphone port sits loosely in the converter which can become damaged over time

Best Budget DAC Buying Guide

To help you navigate the audio world, follow our buyer’s guide for helpful tips for what to look for as you make your purchase!

Will an external DAC help?

Any device that already plays sound will have a DAC fitted as standard (head to our FAQs if you want to read more about this!)


An external DAC can enhance your sound experience as I’m sure you know! But for those on the fence or new to the audio world, let's have a look in detail…


The external DAC will take over the conversion of digital to analogy and are made with more efficient circuitry.


Modern DACs are fitted with internal digital clocks to reduce any timing errors, what we experience as jitters in the sound. This provides you with high-resolution sound (much like scaling up in TV quality).


An external DAC is also going to be quicker and more accurate as well.  The external DAC will improve the accuracy and cleanliness of the sound. With less jitter, you will also hear less harmonic distortion.


The difference in clarity between your computer/laptop/phone DAC and an external one may just blow your ears off when you first hear it!

Type

There are a few different types of DAC’s, be sure to consider which one will best suit your needs.


Desktop DACs are small enough to fit on your desk (hence the name!) but not as small as their portable brothers.


These days most desktop’s run on USB power and generally come with a built-in amplifier and headphone jack.


Portable DACs are designed to be traveled with or used on the go.

These are often cheaper DAC’s to purchase so great for those on a tight budget!


Generally, portable DAC’s come with built-in amps and a headphone jack. Most also run on USB power, although some headphone models will use battery power too.


Headphone DACs are designed specifically for headphone use on the go. These are usually powered by a battery too.


You can get non-portable versions of these too which are designed to work with specific headphone brands.


Compared to portable chargers, headphone DACs are bulkier, usually to make room for the battery.


They typically have two ports, a line in, and a headphone jack. Headphone DACs are generally charged by USB, similar to portable chargers.


Component DAC’s are designed for home audio systems. They are large and complex devices, designed to provide the best possible audio quality.  This makes them usually the most expensive DAC’s.


They have a range of ports and usually use AC as power. 

Some of these higher-end models are focused solely on audio processing and will require external amplifiers. 

What is it connected to?

When taking the plunge and purchasing your DAC, consider what system you will be connecting your DAC too.


This should allow you to narrow your search and speed up the process!


Those looking to connect to their phones will need a battery included for power or face the dreaded attachment to USB power all day, the horror.


If you are looking for support for your computer, a plug-in desktop DAC may be a better option, provided you have space on your desk and a spare plug/USB port!


If it's a DAC for your laptop you are after, a portable DAC is a good option for you! The USB power will provide you with ease when traveling.


Those looking to hook a DAC up to their home hi-fi system should opt for a component DAC which can access the AC power it needs. You’ll need a lot of power and significant amplification, a component is the best for your needs.


Be sure to consider the use before purchasing to get the right one for you!

The ins and outs

When purchasing your DAC, take a moment to consider the inputs and outputs available.


There are several different inputs such as optical, coax, and USB. 


Generally, it's worth opting for a device that offers different input types so that you are covered across a wide range of devices.


In terms of outputs, most support the 3.5mm jack output (designed for headphones). You will find that some modern devices also support BT connectivity now. 

A wiry mess

The downside of technology is often the tangled wires we throw behind the TV in the hopes no-one ever sees its cluttered, knotted horror.


It is worth considering when purchasing your external DAC whether you should treat yourself to some swish new cables too.


Investing in new cables, especially ones that transfer audio signals without distortion or outside noise will only enhance your listening experience.


These don’t have to be expensive of course, and are an added extra that is worth considering, especially if the budget DACs listed here are leaving you with money to spare!


Be sure to check what outputs are on your DAC before you purchase cables and remember that these are extra and not essential to fork out for.


Look out for DACs as well that come with complimentary cables to save you some more money!

Formatting

As so many of us store our music digitally now, files are often compressed or formatted.


MP3 for example is highly compressed, part of that compression destroys part of the audio file too. This means that your DAC won’t be able to do a lot with it. Yes, it can amplify the sound, but in terms of quality, there won’t be much of a difference.


Look for a device that can work with CD quality or higher to get the most from your hard-earned money.


Devices that support formats such as WAV, FLAC, ALAC (Mac), or PCM without loss, or DSD (those on a smaller budget may struggle to find DSD) will be the best to opt for. 

Price

DAC’s as I’m sure you know can range in price, from affordable to quite expensive. Whilst this is a budget DAC article, it is still worth setting a clear budget before you begin your search.


Typically, portable USB style DAC’s tend to be the cheapest for those working with a smaller budget. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a DAC?

A DAC (digital to analog converter) converts digital signals to analog so that headphones can create sound.


It converts the digital sounds you are hearing, now stored as 1s and 0s thanks to binary code into the wave that you hear as music.


You will already have a DAC in everything that plays a sound, your laptop, headphones, phone, television, etc. This will be a standard one.


Purchasing your own DAC can improve the sound quality, especially on higher resolution files.


An external DAC will work quicker and more efficiently than the standard one in your device. It can also help to eliminate jitter, distortion, and vastly improve the clarity and volume of your sound too. 

Do I need an amplifier too?

There is an argument for having an external amplifier as well as your DAC.


If your signal from the DAC is not strong enough to be heard over headphones or speakers then adding an amplifier will help.


The amplifier will take the signal from the DAC and amplify it, making it more audible for you to hear.


Good quality amplifiers will also help to improve the cleanliness of the audio. 

These days, most budget DAC’s come with a built-in amplifier to boost the signal enough for headphones or speakers.


If the DAC does not come with an amp and your budget allows, an external one will improve audio quality. However, with so many DAC’s offering built-in amplifiers, those on a budget can grab one of those instead! 

Will a DAC improve Spotify?

Generally, no. As Spotify uses a lower quality of a compressed file, even by spending big bucks on a DAC, there won’t be that much of a sound difference.


It will increase the volume, but other than that, it's better to use your DAC with higher resolution files to hear the benefit. 

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