Best DACs 2024: Jump Menu
Our guide to the best headphones DACs brings you devices that are designed to make it easy to massively improve the audio quality you get from devices such as your laptop, tablet or phone.
A DAC (otherwise known as a 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, too, which require separate amplification – 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).
T3 Top Picks
Best for most people
Best overall DAC
The Chord has a sort of casual authority where dynamics are concerned that’s genuinely hair-raising. It can handle even the trickiest rhythms and tempos in an entirely naturalistic manner and peer deep into the murkiest mixes and emerge with a stack of information.
Best premium option
Best premium DAC
If wireless connectivity is as important as the wired equivalent, and if you’re in the happy position of being able to afford it, the Gryphon makes a huge amount of sonic sense: as a combination of functionality and performance it's is hard to lay a glove on.
Best affordable option
Best affordable DAC
The effect the iFi Go Bar can have on the digital audio information stored (or accessed by) your smartphone or laptop is always significant and occasionally revelatory. So good that it's possible to overlook the size and its not-so-helpful user interface.
The best DACs we recommend in 2024
Why you can trust T3
The Chord Mojo was a firm favourite of ours, so it's no surprise to see the Chord Mojo 2 in our best DACs guide seven years later. It even picked up the T3 Awards for Best DAC 2022. The sequel picks up where the original left off, delivering a thrilling audio experience with all the connectivity you might want – although while there's USB-C here the actual charging happens via micro-USB. It delivers greater compatibility with wired headphones and will make your laptop or desktop or phone sound spectacular.
As we said in our Chord Mojo 2 review: "It has a sort of casual authority where dynamics are concerned that’s genuinely hair-raising. It can handle even the trickiest rhythms and tempos in an entirely naturalistic manner. It can peer deep into even the murkiest mixes and emerge with a stack of information, then lay it out in the most confident, believable manner."
Although the Chord Mojo 2 is a great desktop upgrade, it's also portableish. The battery is good for around eight hours between charges and unlike its predecessor it doesn't get alarmingly hot while you recharge it either.
It’s possible to buy a more affordable product from iFi and get a big helping of the sort of performance that’s available here, it’s true. But if wireless connectivity is as important as the wired equivalent, and if you’re in the happy position of being able to afford it, the Gryphon makes a huge amount of sonic sense.
As said in our review: "as a combination of functionality and performance, it’s hard to lay a glove on the iFi xDSD Gryphon. When the biggest gripe about a product concerns the nature of the little tell-tale LEDs that indicate what’s going on inside, you know you’re on to a winner." That's what made it a 2023 T3 Awards winner.
It’s a measure of just how well the iFi Go Bar performs that it’s not only possible to overlook the size (both of the device itself and the price iFi wants for it) and its incredibly unhelpful user interface - it’s obligatory.
As we said in our iFi Go Bar review: "the effect the iFi Go Bar can have on the digital audio information stored (or accessed by) your smartphone or laptop is always significant and occasionally revelatory."
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, stretching 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 1/4in jack on the front too.
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.
Best for your phone
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.
The original Zen DAC was a brilliant budget home and headphone DAC, and the second generation improves on it with a newer processor that's twice as fast and has four times the memory of the v1. It supports PCM up to 384kHz and DSD up to DSD256 and is also an MQA decoder, with full on-board MQA decoding. If you're a Tidal HiFi subscriber you'll be delighted by that.
The iFi Zen DAC V2 is very slightly more expensive than its predecessor but it's significantly better sounding: it delivers truly exceptional sound quality for a relatively low price. If you've already got the first-gen it isn't an essential upgrade, but if you're looking for a brilliant budget DAC you should definitely have a listen.
How to choose the best DAC for you
With headphone DACs the most important consideration is likely to be size. Are you looking for a portable DAC that you can take with you, or is a desktop arrangement fine as you'll always be using it in one specific spot?
Next up there's what you want the DAC to be able to do, i.e. to what quality level are you looking for audio conversion/upscaling, and how much amplification may your headphone products also require (if any)? Many DACs support Hi-Resolution PCM files up to 32-bit, but you'll want to check, especially if you're more interested in MQA or DSD formats.
There are even higher-level DACs that you can slot into a system, such as a PC or rack, but those aren't really consumer level and aren't in discussion in this particular buying guide – largely because they often lack a headphones output at all.
How we test the best DACs
T3 is not only staffed by a panel of experts in its own right, we have access to some of the best authorities and journalists across the globe who have extensive experience in testing high-end products such as DACs.
So when it comes to testing out the best headphone DACs, whether in-house or using a qualified freelancer, it's integral to consider the product in numerous ways: what are the technical specifications in terms of codecs, bit-rates and other all-important high-end technical information that DAC owners will want to know about?; how much does it cost and does that constitute value?
But above all else we test headphone DACs as if they're our own, lived with and experienced like a real user, whilst deducing subjective opinions about the quality and effectiveness of the product from an output, design and usability point of view. With all this considered we can then apply a star rating, with 5-stars being the lucrative top-of-the-top score for only the very best products.