Getting great sound is a challenge overall.
We’ve done the hard work and looked at headphone AMP DAC combos that cover many budget ranges.
There are a few things that you should look for when picking up a good DAC.
You can come across an affordable DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) that has relatively the same basic function as two-thousand-dollar equipment.
Frequency response – The human ear is capable of hearing sound with frequencies of 20Hz to 20kHz, so a DAC should be able to cover these frequencies when reproducing sound.
Though it is rare that you will see equipment that will not be able to cover these frequencies, even with cheap DACs it is still a standard that they follow.
Crosstalk is the amount of signal that goes from one line/channel to another, so if you feed signal to line 1 and listen to line 2, there shouldn’t be anything coming out from it. If there is it should be very minimal, almost unnoticeable, the lower the number for crosstalk the better.
Sampling Rate THD+N is not readily available at times and the most common specification you will see for a DAC is its sampling rate. This is measured in kHz. The higher the sampling rate, the more your sound reproduction will be. Most of the modern equipment can provide higher than 44.1kHz which has been a standard for most audio recordings.
Bit-depth is also a critical feature when looking for a good DAC; it determines the dynamic range of the audio signal. In theory, 24-bit digital audio can reach a maximum dynamic range of 144 dB, compared to just 96 dB for 16-bit but today’s digital audio converter technology cannot come close to that upper limit. Several DACs offers 32-bit as well.
External Sound Card VS. External DAC
You might already have that big question mark on your heads as to what is this and that. I understand it is quite confusing; what is a DAC versus what is an external sound card.
To put it simply, a DAC has a sole purpose of delivering sound out to a speaker or a headphone; it does not have an extra line-in.
An External sound card, on the other hand, has more out ports and thus can support surround sound up to 7.1 channels, it also has line-in ports.
So let’s get into the best headphone amp dac combos.
9. FiiO K1 – Cheapest Headhphone DAC AMP Combo
This DAC from Fiio weighs 11g and measures 50 mm x 2.0.5 x 8 mm. It may be compact and small, but this DAC is packed with impressive power to amplify your audio, either from a computer or some select smartphones.
The Fiio K1 can be connected to an audio source via an included USB to micro USB cable. You can then plug-in your headphones to the 3.5mm jack.
This handy DAC gets power directly from the audio source; it does not require batteries or a power supply. Regretfully it doesn’t have any knobs or buttons to control the volume as well; you will need to control it directly from the audio source.
For the price you are paying for this DAC you are getting a lot more, it has a max sampling rate of 96kHz and a resolution of 24-bit. Sound going through this DAC is then amplified before going out of the headphone or speaker.
It covers all the frequencies the human ear can detect; having a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz.
That annoying hissing sound will be removed as well. with a SNR of ≥100 dB (A-weighted). All this is processed by its DAC chip, the Burr-Brown TI PCM5102.
This is plug & play; you don’t have to worry about compatibility. Plug it in, play the audio and listen to the crisp, clean sound. With all the quality of this external DAC, you’ll wonder how Fiio was able to put such a low price tag of $39.99 on it.
8. Schiit Fulla 2 – Best Headphone DAC AMP under 100 dollars
It is light and portable. The Fulla 2 is just 3.5 x 2.5 x 1.375” (including knob) and weighs 9 oz. The body has that anodized metal finish and has three rubber feet at the bottom. Unlike other small DACs, the Fulla 2 has integrated rubber feet.
Connection for this DAC/Amp is simple. On the front, you have a ⅛ inch Line-in port, and a quarter inch Line-out, to me this is a good choice for the main line-out, this gives you a more solid connection between the Fulla 2 and the headphone. If you’d notice headphones like the Sennheiser 650 has a quarter-inch jack, instead of a 1/8 inch jack. The line-in port will automatically take over the DAC, so even if something is connected v USB, the front line-in will still be the one heard playing. It automatically switches to the USB input once you unplug from the line-in port.
On the back of this DAC/Amp, you have four ports. There are two micro USB ports, one is power and data, and the other one is just power. The reason behind this is that if you are plugging in a phone using an OTG cable as an audio source, it will be drawing power from it and drain the battery faster; Schiit added a secondary power only port so it won’t drain your phone’s power.
There are also two ⅛ inch ports on the back, there’s one that is a variable pre-out, and another line-out for a 3.5mm jacked headphone.
As for its performance you can say you are getting your money’s worth. This chip used for this DAC is an AKM AK4490 with TI OPA1662-based filter stage; it has a max sampling rate of 96kHz and a bit-depth of 24. What makes it better than the Fiio K1, is that this DAC supports Direct Stream Digital. However, if you are to compare it to a Modi 2 which is a DAC only the Fulla 2 is a little bit inferior when it comes to sound.
Another drawback is that if you turn up the volume to about 75% you will notice a bit of a distortion, and if you go further then distortion will be really noticeable.
Overall if you are looking to buy a DAC and Amp combo with a reasonable price, then the Fulla 2 is a thing that you can take into consideration.
If for some reason you aren’t in the mood to purchase on a different website The FiiO E10K on Amazon is also very good, but lacks the 2 line input.
7. Optoma NuForce uDAC5
- ESS SABRE Hyper stream DAC for the best file conversion
- High performance 140mWat32 Ohm headphone amplifier
- Supports virtually all file formats including DSD256 and up to 24bit/384kHz PCM
- USB-powered, no external power supply required
- Supports Windows and Mac
Unlike the Fulla 2 and the K1, this DAC from Optoma cannot connect to a smartphone without a ton of wires and adapters. It doesn’t have a 3.5mm port or a micro-USB.
The connections it does have, is an L/R RCA port and an optical port on the back and a USB for input and power. On the front that’s where you have the volume/power knob a power indicator and the 3.5mm line-out.
The Optomoa NuForce uDAC5 has an ESS SABRE for its DAC chip, it has a max sampling rate of 24-bit/384kHz and supports DSD playback. This also has a built-in amplifier to drive even those big cans.
Interestingly, the frequency response of this equipment depends on the audio source. Listening to an LP has a range of 10Hz – 30kHz, if you are listening to a CD, it covers 20Hz – 20kHz, for SACD it has a wider coverage of frequency at 10Hz – 70kHz and with DSD you have 10Hz – 30kHz.
The only downside I can see is that it is not that universal since the input is limited; if they included a 3.5mm line-in and a separate power port, then this could have been a more versatile DAC, which is the reason why I think this equipment is a bit expensive for its features and design.
6. TEAC HA-P50SE – Best Portable DAC
The design looks great; it has an aluminum body with a nice anodized finish.
The front has the volume/power knob, the power indicator, and the 3.5mm line-out. On the back of the HA-P50SE, you have the micro USB type B input and a USB type-A input port; a switch is also including for you to select which source is active.
This DAC is portable but it is not that light, but you can say it is not enough to strain. The dimensions of this DAC is 64mm × 21.7mm ×112mm (excluding protruding guards). Because it is made of solid aluminum, it weighs 210g that’s almost quarter-kilo.
One great feature of this DAC is that it has a dual power source, you can use a 5V DC adapter to power this device, and you can also use the built-in battery that can provide up to 8 hours of use. Though this has an integrated amp, it lacks DSD capability. However, if you are just listening to MP3, then this equipment is more than enough.
You can get one of these HA-P50SEs at around $210. Or you can get something better if you are just willing to extend your purchasing power.
5. Meridian Audio Explorer2 – Best Headphone DAC AMP under 200 dollars
- Extended-range 0-100dB volume control that allows for finer adjustments
- Increased DSP power
- Trademark apodizing filter
- Combination USB DAC, preamplifier, and headphone amplifier with exceptional 24-bit/192kHz resolution
- Asynchronous USB, a six-layer circuit board with audiophile-grade components, an auto-sensing headphone input, and 192kHz-derived analog outputs
It has a very simple, yet solid build. It is somewhat cylindrical, and you can see that the interface is quite straight-forward. On the front, you will see two 3.5mm ports, one for the line-in and another for the line-out. Even with this, the line-in is not supporting Smartphones and tablets. So the input source is limited to direct Laptop / Desktop. For power, you need to connect it via USB.
The body of this DAC has a nice glossy finish; it is almost the size of a cigar so you can just easily slip it into your pocket. The Explorer 2 supports DSD, as well as MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), streaming services like Tidal, are trying to make a thing of this MQA file format.
In this price range of sub-$200, the performance is a very reasonable if you are looking for a good quality DAC/Amp. However, it feels too minimal-looking, and there isn’t much option for output and controls. Let’s face it; it’s not just the sound quality we are looking at when we are choosing a good DAC.
4. Musical Fidelity V90DAC – Best Headphone DAC under 300 dollars
The V90DAC has three inputs; two Toslink/optical ports and a SPDIF port. As for the output, it has the L/R RCA; you can still connect it to a headphone, all you need is an RCA to 3.5mm stereo adapter.
The performance of the V90DAC improved slightly over its predecessor, it has the same sampling rate of 96kHz, but the bit-depth is now 32-bit. It produces good-quality audio for a relatively small amount of money (comparatively of course).
Down-side is always present in any review, and I felt that without a built-in amp or DSD support, it is a major upset for users especially if they are paying $300 for equipment. Another thing is that it only has a 96kHz sampling rate, a bit low for its price range. However, even if this DAC lacks those two features it still compensated with other benefits you are getting from this equipment;
The DACMagic Plus has an optional Bluetooth module you can connect to this DAC to make it connect wirelessly; it even uses AptX to make sure it does not have any lag when connecting to the source.
You get very low chances of crosstalk from this device; it shows -104dB in frequencies between 20Hz and 20kHz. The Signal to Noise Ratio is also great at -117dB. All of its conversion processes is done by a Burr-Brown PCM1795 installed in this DAC.
Now, if you want to get the best out of this DAC, you need to make sure you use a linear power supply and upgrade the power supply that came with it. The V90DAC becomes more sensitive and efficient if used with a linear power supply.
3. Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus
The DACMagic Plus can up-sample a regular CD audio to give it extra quality during playback. This feature works well with lossy/compressed files like AAC and MP3s. This DAC has a max sample rate of 192kHz and a bit-depth of 24-bit. You can always be sure of great audio every time you plug in your speaker or your headphone.
Background/Ambient noise is not going to be a problem for the DACMagic Plus. It has an SNR of 112dB and Crosstalk is rated at less than -130dB @ 1KHZ, less than -112dB @ 20KHZ. No hiss, no crackling sound. You can hear the lowest and the highest frequencies from your audio since this DAC has a respectable frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz.
This DAC has two modes. You can use it as an amp and also as a pre-amp. I must say that the switching between the two is kind of annoying since you need to hold the volume knob down while you are turning on the device to make it switch from amp to pre-amp and vice versa.
There is a wide variety of digital connectivity as well as output ports, all of these are located on the back of the equipment. On the front, you have the power switch the volume switch and the 3.5mm line-out. This is not a portable piece of equipment… weighing 2.6lbs and measures 8.5 in x 7.5 in x 2 in.
Be aware, that to get high-res formats you will need drivers for Cambridge Audio. So high-res formats are limited to just the computer (Mac or PC).
Even with that, its features and relatively affordable price, this DAC is easy to be loved by its user.
2. iFi – Micro iDAC2
- USB3.0 (USB2.0 compatible)
- Output: 2.1V (+/-0.05V) fixed
- SNR: > 114dB(A) @ 0dBFS
- Weight: 0.58 lbs.
- Dimensions: 6.2" x 2.7" x 1.1"
At 0dBFS this DACs Signal to Noise Ratio is 114dB (Weighted – A), you’ll only hear the clearest sound you can get from your music. The Total Harmonic Distortion +Noise on this DAC is also impressive it is rated at less than 0.0025% @ 0dBFS (100k Load) and less than 0.025% @ 0dBFS (600R Load). Even at full volume on your headphones, you won’t be hearing any distortion.
The conversion process from digital to an analog signal is handled by a Burr-Brown chip from Texas Instruments in place of the ESS Sabre that was initially installed on the first iDAC. It has three modes of filters Bit Perfect, Min Phase and Standard. It supports both PCM, DXD and DSD playback.
You have a USB 3.0 Audio-in connection that goes to your computer. Right next to the audio in you have a Digital Output SPDIF port. The output ports are located on the back of this DAC; you have an L/R RCA and a 3.5mm (amped) port, this port is controlled by a knob next to it. I wish they had the switches and ports on the back instead of the sides.
The design is minimalistic and looks sturdy, it only weighs 0.58lbs and measures 158 x 68 x 28mm, so it is very portable and easy to carry. It does not require a separate power supply it will run when connected to a USB port.
We’re starting to get quite expensive with these headphone DAC AMP combos, audiophiles start to have to pay a decent amount to get high-quality audio.
1. Benchmark DAC3 HGC – The Best Headphone DAC AMP Around
- Active 2nd and 3rd Harmonic Compensation
- Asynchronous 192kHz USB Audio 2.0
- 32-bit D/A conversion system
- High-Headroom DSP
It is just the same size of a hardback book, it measures 216 mm x 249 mm x 44.5 mm and weighs 3lbs (DAC only).
But let’s take a look at what’s under the hood, and see its features, and probably end up with a justification why we chose this to be at the top spot. The DAC3 HGC (Hybrid Gain Control), has an ES9028PRO chip, this allows this device to reproduce high-quality audio in different formats. The sample rate of this DAC is 192kHz with a bit-depth of 32 bits. However this depends on the Input; the optical inputs are limited to signals of 96kHz, while the others can cope with 24-bit/192kHz.
For the outputs you have dual 6.3mm ports on the front, If you use the port on the left, it will mute both the XLR and RCA line output, everything is kept active if you are to use the one on the right (greedy little lefty!). Both of these port is driven by an HPA2 module that can power even the most power hungry cans.
The front panel is like a landmine of LEDs you have You have seven lights to indicate the source, one shows if you have Home Theater bypass mode active, two for bit depth (16 or 24-bit) and four more to show sampling rate and DSD. It’s hard at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.
As for sound quality, most of the frequencies common to the human ear is covered (20Hz to 20kHz). There’s virtually no noise and distortion present in your output, SNR is rated at 128dB, and THD+N is 0.00032% @–3 dBFS @20 to 20 kHz test tone. Because of the DAC chip configuration crosstalk is also eliminated. It has eight channels grouped into sets of four to make stereo outputs.
The result of all this is super clear, clean and crisp-sounding audio, that can blow your mind out. Surely its not for everyone, and really only for the purest of audiophiles. But for people who can spend a lot on audio equipment then this thing is undoubtedly going to get your attention.