Best DAC 2018: portable headphone DACs to improve the sound of your phone and laptop

Get a massive improvement to your laptop and mobile audio with the pick of the new breed of DAC

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A DAC (or digital-to-analogue converter) transforms those digital 0-1-0-1-1 into sweet, sweet music. 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.

What is the best portable DAC?

The Chord Mojo, despite being an odd little lump with twiddly round buttons, was until recently leagues ahead of the competition, offering a price defying upgrade to your digital music collection without any of the faffing usually associated with high end audio products.

However, the Ifi xDSD, whilst not necessarily being as good sounding a DAC as the Mojo, has recently kicked things up a notch for mobile users. This is not only because it's notably lighter and more compact than the Mojo (and more attractive, but that's perhaps less important than usual, if you're keeping it in your pocket) but also because it allows you to connect via Bluetooth as well as with a USB/Lightning cable. Voila: greatly improved usability.

Alas, the xDSD is not quite available in the UK yet, but it might be a bit of a game-changer when it drops. Well, a game changer in the portable DAC world. I'm not trying to claim it's the bloody Manhattan Project or something.

How to buy the best portable DAC

We're concentrating on portable DACs here, with some relying on your laptop's battery for power, some with built-in juice, which - assuming they can be plugged in – makes them great for upgrading the sound squirting from your digital music players and smartphones. Almost all portable DACs also include amplification to help drive your headphones.

All the models tested vastly improve the sound quality of your digital files, but whether you're streaming from Spotify, or have a NAS drive full of ripped CDs, make sure you're using the highest resolution possible. The more detail you put in, the more magic the DAC will make.

But all that magic is meaningless if you're using a pair of cruddy earbuds. Don't even think about buying a portable DAC until you've upgraded your headphones. May we suggest any of these superb options:

1. Chord Mojo

Easy to use and exceptionally built this is the best portable DAC by far

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

With nothing in the way of on-trend colourways or Scandinavian cool, the chunky all-metal Chord Mojo is hardly a head turner, but with the Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA processor on board, happy to work with any music file from 44.1kHz up to 768kHz and DoP DSD (PCM, WAV, AAC, AIFF, MP3 and FLAC), it's an exceptional head nodder.

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, after a while it starts to feel like a total bargain. 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 brilliantly.

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. It's a nice touch, and there's a similar feature on the Explorer 2, but to be honest, we didn’t listen to a single file – in any resolution - that wasn't improved considerably but being fed through the Mojo. 

Sure, you need a USB to lightening cable adapter for iPhone connectivity, but if you're serious about your sound it's worth the extra £29. You could also get the Chord Poly for £429 and stream wirelessly to it via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi (UPnP) – there's even an SD card slot on the thing, so it's like a mini 'hub' almost.

The only caveat to add here is that the soon-coming iFi xDSD DAC, which is blatantly positioned to try to take way Mojo's mojo, is the same price, sounds great, and comes with AAC/aptX Bluetooth connectivity built in, so you don't need to physically tether your phone, or buy an add-on module for 400 quid. Hi-fi buffs will puke into their porridge at this notion, but a lot of punters will love it, we suspect. 

02: Best looking - Oppo HA-2 SE

Exceptional performance and killer looks

Reasons to buy
+Sounds awesome+Looks terrific+Very compatible
Reasons to avoid
-Bass boost unnecessary

If your budget can't quite stretch to the Chord Mojo, but you're not prepared to sacrifice style over sound, the Oppo is a perfect compromise, offering exceptional performance from both the headphone amp and DAC all the while wrapped in sumptuous real leather.

Impressively the HA-2 SE can handle hi-res music files up to 32bit/384 kHz PCM and DSD256 files, but whatever plug into it you'll be rewarded with a dynamic performance full of detail. There's a bass boost button if you can’t get enough of those rumbling frequencies, but it's the only weak link here, offering more boom than taught, precise rumble.

Connectivity is impressive, offering up USB for your MacBook, microUSB for Android smartphone and 3.5mm socket for virtually everything else, and Oppo has even included cables for each.  

The 3000mAh battery – which can also charge your smartphone – can manage seven hours digital and 13hrs analogue playback which is long enough to get even the fussiest audiophile through the commute.

03: Wireless power - Astell & Kern XB10

A cookie sized Bluetooth streamer and DAC

Reasons to buy
+Instant sonic boost+Lightweight+Easy to use
Reasons to avoid
-Plastic build-Limited hi-res support

This 23g cookie sized Bluetooth streamer adds wireless functionality – 5hrs music playback, adjust volume, skip tracks, answer voice calls - to any pair of wired headphones, but thanks to the built-in 24bit DAC it can stream hi-res music wirelessly…well, only if you've got a compatible aptX phone or media player.

It also packs in a 192kHz/24-bit DAC and analogue amplifier which, regardless of the file size you're playing will give your tunes a massive lift. If you like your music loud, this tiny device delivers a fuller, wider and LOUDER performance, even if you're streaming a cruddy MP3 through budget earbuds, or plugged into the car stereo.

Upgrade to a aptX compatible hi-res player like the Astell & Kern KANN and a decent pair of wired headphones (the XB10 can drive some pretty formidable cans, and even has a 2.5mm plug for balances ones) and performance takes another leap, all with the added convenience of Bluetooth.

04: MQA Master - Meridian Explorer 2

Reasons to buy
+Handles files up to 192kHz (4x standard streaming)+Simple to use+Dynamic performance
Reasons to avoid
-USB only

Designed to give your laptop some serious sonic chops, this slender aluminium design takes over audio output via USB-powered DAC and has both 3.5mm analogue line out for your hi-fi and 3.5mm headphone jack. It can handle hi-res file resolutions right up to 24bit/192kHz and is the first of its kind to support MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), which packages original recordings into smaller files that are easier to download and stream but offer better than CD quality sound.

Currently the best way to listen to MQA files is through a Tidal Premium Hi-Fi account, and with the help of the Explorer 2 you'll be treated to exceptional detail and vibrancy, far beyond typical streaming quality. Blur's Modern Life is Rubbish in MQA Studio quality is worth the subscription fee alone.

Obviously streaming quality drops off a little when you use the Explorer 2 to stream from Spotify or iTunes – although there's still plenty of punch and urgency in delivery - but there's still a massive gulf of difference compared to your laptop's native output.