Best headphone DAC 2021: the best DAC for your phone and laptop

Get the best DAC to grab a massive improvement to your laptop and mobile audio quality

Best headphones DAC 2021, EarMen Sparrow connected to Android phone
(Image credit: EarMen)

Our guide to the best headphones DACs brings you devices that are designed to make it easy to massively improved the audio quality you get from devices such as your laptop, tablet or phone.

A DAC (or digital-to-analogue converter) transforms the digital music signal into something analogue that speakers can play. There's a DAC inside your phone and one in your laptop, but if you're looking to extract the best sound from your digital files you'll be amazed what a difference an external DAC can make. 

The best headphone DACs are designed to plug straight into your computer or phone, and pump out excellent, amplified sound to the best wired headphones. You can get DACs that are designed for hi-fi systems, which require separate amplification – we've got some great options for those in our best streaming DAC guide. We're only looking at options here that can drive headphones easily, though they could all also connect to a hi-fi too. But they'll need at least a 3.5mm socket.

Headphone-focused DACs tend to be a bit smaller than a unit designed for a proper hi-fi setup, though certainly not all are – some are pocketable for listening on the go and are powered by your device, while some want to sit permanently on your desk and take power from a socket.

What is the best headphone DAC?

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M is our pick as the best headphone DAC right now, because it not only provides the most comprehensive Hi-Res format support around and a built-in headphone amp, it's also offers aptX Bluetooth for wireless playback, and has connections to output to your hi-fi system too. It simply does it all, in a compact package, and sounds top notch.

The best headphone DACs in order of preference

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M on white backgroundT3 Awards 2021 winner

(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

1. Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M

Best headphone DAC for incredible future-proofing

Reasons to buy
+Excellent clear audio quality+Astounding format support
Reasons to avoid
-Only USB Type-B-No Wi-Fi support

This is not so much the Swiss army knife of DACs as the entire shop that sells the Swiss army knives. The format support here is just ridiculous, stretch far beyond the wildest dream of even the most ardent audiophile, and is a key part of why this won Best DAC in the T3 Awards 2021 audio category.

Its twin ESS Sabre DACs (one to handle each stereo channel) support up to 32-bit/768kHz files and DSD512 over USB. And you thought 16-bit/192kHz was exciting…

Aside from the USB digital input, you've also got two optical and two coaxial, combined with both balanced and unbalanced outputs, so whatever connection you need is handled here.

That even includes for headphones, hence its high place on this list – a headphone amp is built in, and there's a 6.3mm jack on the front.

On top of all this is aptX Bluetooth for CD-quality streaming, though sadly no Wi-Fi support, and no USB-C. We can live without that, though (though we wish it came with a USB Type-B cable in the box, at least, since they're a lot rarer these days than they used to be).

Between the simply superb handling of the actual audio, the small size, and the fact that it's an audiophile's dream in terms of future-proofing, it's a top headphone DAC to buy as long as you don't need portability. Here's our full Cambridge Audio DACMagic 200M review, if you want to dig further into why it's so impressive.

EarMen Sparrow on white backgroundT3 Approved badge

(Image credit: EarMen)

2. EarMen Sparrow

Best headphone DAC for USB-C connections

Reasons to buy
+Tiny yet powerful+A big sound upgrade+Big file support, including MQA
Reasons to avoid
-Very few features

The EarMen Sparrow is a mini DAC for a new generation – it's truly miniature, and has a USB Type-C connection as its sole digital input. It comes with both USB-C-to-C and USB-C-to-A cables included, so it's ready to go from anything.

Being no bigger than a pack of gum doesn't mean it's short on capabilities, though: it's able handle anything from PCM to DSD to MQA – somewhat uniquely, in the case of the latter – at up to 32bit/384kHz. So we're talking serious Hi-Res Audio chops. You can then pipe out its converted sound over 3.5mm or unbalanced 2.5mm connections.

Crucially, it's an excellent performer when it comes to audio quality too. Compared to the built-in DACs of a phone or laptop, you'll hear a clear opening of the soundstage, and addition of definition to help instruments stand out from one another. The dynamic range instantly steps up too, and along with a boost in volume, it means you'll get so much more from your favourite headphones. It's really impressive from something so small, but the Sabre ES9281Pro DAC is absolutely putting in a shift – we go into more detail in our full EarMen Sparrow review.

The one downside of its tiny size is that there isn't much in the way of features – there are no audio customisations, no wireless option, no on-board volume adjustment, no additional output options. We're fine with that, given the aim of this device – it's just something you need to know.

Best portable headphone DAC: iFi xDSDT3 Approved badge

3. iFi xDSD

Best headphone DAC for your phone (and more)

Reasons to buy
+Bluetooth option makes everything more convenient+Sounds brilliant+Inputs for your laptop and home kit too
Reasons to avoid
-Questionable 'bass boost' and '3D' sound options

This can be connected to your phone, laptop or any digital device with a USB or optical digital output, but it also has Bluetooth built in, so you can plug your headphones into it, and keep it totally separate from your phone. That means you can use your phone in the usual way when messaging, browsing and so on. It's portable, like the EarMen Sparrow above, though adding a load of extra features means it's a lot bulkier than that device, too.

A few years ago, hi-fi buffs would have been throwing up at the mention of Bluetooth as, clearly, Bluetooth is not a 'hi-fi' audio source. However, Bluetooth now seems to be acceptable in the hi-fi community, and most people will just listen to this and think, 'wow, my phone's music now sounds way, way better. 

The Bluetooth stage employs the 'CD-quality' aptX and AAC codecs alongside more hi-fi-tastic wireless tech and a 'Cyberdrive' analogue  headphone amp to get the most out of the connection. Those wanting better than CD quality sound will love the support for hi-res audio and MQA. 

To be honest, I start to glaze over a bit when brands start going on about bit rates and 'balanced topology', but the iFi xDSD is without doubt a great sounding DAC/amp. It's made by hi-fi nuts, but people who aren't hi-fi nuts can fully get behind it.

With USB and mini optical digital inputs on the back you can use it with just about any other bit of kit you care to wire it to, as long as you have the right adaptors, and it does a stand-up job with them too. It's main purpose is clearly for mobile however – and that can include Astell & Kern-style digital audio players as much as smartphones, if that's your bag.

The addition of 'Xbass' and '3D' audio settings is probably a bit surplus to requirements – their effect is so subtle, it's barely there – but you can always just turn them off. The battery will last you up to 10 hours (realistically more like 6 when using Bluetooth), and they will be pleasurable hours, I assure you.

Chord MojoT3 Approved badge

4. Chord Mojo

Best portable DAC for your laptop (and more)

Reasons to buy
+Sensational sound+Solid build quality
Reasons to avoid
-Odd look and a bit hefty

The Mojo is a real audiophile's delight, but while it's marketed – quite reasonably – as a portable device, it's only hardcore hi-fi heads who will be happy to use it with a phone or DAP. For phone use, it just can't compete with iFi's device in terms of convenience because it can only be used wired. You'll also need a USB to lightening cable adapter for iPhone connectivity, but if you're serious about your sound it's worth the extra £29. Sound-wise, you can't quibble with the Mojo. We didn’t listen to a single file – in any resolution - that wasn't improved by being fed through it. 

It's expensive for a portable DAC, but given the performance is closer to its big brother, the £1,400 Chord Hugo, than the rest of the competition here. Even so, it makes practically everything sound better, and given that you can use it with your phone, laptop, or anything with an optical audio output, it's as near to a bargain as you'll ever get with a Chord product. 

Pluck some superlatives from the big audio thesaurus and you'll have no issues applying them to the Mojo; intricate, articulate, fulsome and powerful all work. Easy to use, and exceptionally built in aircraft grade aluminium, it lacks a display but you can see the file quality you're playing via the power button that lights up red for 44.1kHz, green for 96kHz and white for DSD – a nice touch. 

The on-board Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA processor is happy to work with any music file from 44.1kHz up to 768kHz and DoP DSD (PCM, WAV, AAC, AIFF, MP3 and FLAC). Most people listen to music from their phones, and the Mojo will do a great job for those people so long as they don't mind all the wiring and in-pocket bulk. Really, though, it's aimed at those with rather loftier needs.

Audiolab M-DAC NanoT3 Approved badge

5. Audiolab M-DAC Nano

Best headphone DAC for ultra-portable Bluetooth connection

Reasons to buy
+Absolutely tiny+Sounds great
Reasons to avoid
-Not as versatile as its rivals

The above DACs are quite portable but this is properly portable. For older readers, it's like an iPod Shuffle, rather than an iPod Touch. For younger readers, what I'm saying is, it's small.

Taking the idea of the iFi xDSD and running with it, this is actually more like a very high end Bluetooth receiver. All it can do is receive audio via aptX, AAC and SBC Bluetooth, and output it to wired headphones (or anything else you can connect a 3.5mm jack to – your car, perhaps). 

You have the choice of two sonic modes: standard, which sounds perfectly alright, and an upscaled mode which, 'upscales 16-bit 44.1 kHz files to 32-bit 384 kHz resolution'. 

Well, obviously, it can't do any such thing, as that would involve actual magic, but in this mode the Nano gives a noticeable sonic boost to any half decent digital audio file sent its way. 

Battery life isn't amazing at around 4 hours (supposedly 8 on the non-upscaled setting, although I question that slightly having used it) but the M-DAC Nano not only recharges fully in 2-3 hours, it does so via a very hand wireless pad that'll also work with any Qi-compatible phone or other device.

At about 150 quid it's a nice little 'affordable luxury' buy, to reward yourself with. It won't work miracles but it will make everything most people have on their phones sound that bit better.

Duncan Bell
Duncan Bell

Duncan has been writing about tech for almost 15 years and fitness ever since he became middle aged and realised he could no longer rely solely on his boyish good looks. He used to be on telly loads, but an unfortunate incident put a stop to that, so he now largely contents himself with telling people, "I used to be on the TV, you know."
Pre-lockdown Duncan was widely regarded as the best-dressed man ever to work for T3 – admittedly not saying much. Post-lockdown he is looking forward to wearing clothes other than shorts and hoodies again very soon, assuming he can still fit into them. He currently writes about cycling, fitness tech that isn’t too heavy, and all things kitchen and home related.