Best DAC 2020: best headphone DAC and portable DAC for phones, laptops and more | T3

Best DAC 2020: best headphone DAC and portable DAC for phones, laptops and more

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

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 Ifi xDSD is a properly portable DAC that can even be connected via Bluetooth (AAC and aptX) to improve the sound output of your phone. That means you can use your phone in the usual way, without it being umbilically linked to a 2nd device. There are also optical and USB connectors so it can serve as a more traditional DAC, boosting the sound of anything you choose to plug into it and/or connect to it via Bluetooth. The iFi xDSD is a mini marvel, in short.

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:

The best portable DACs in order of preference

Best portable headphone DAC: iFi xDSD

1. 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

Portable DACs were originally marketed more as a way to get the most out of audio from your laptop, and until recently studiously ignoring the fact that most people listen to music via their phones. 

The Chord Mojo (below) changed that to an extent but it's a quite hefty thing that can only connect to your phone via a wire. The result off adding a Mojo to your mobile is that your phone is suddenly four times as wide and three times as heavy, with wires coming out of it like some kind of science experiment. 

Enter the iFi xDSD. This can also 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.

A few years ago, hi-fi buffs would have been throwing up at this point 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.

Best portable headphone DAC: Chord Mojo

2. 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.

3. 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.

Best portable headphone DAC: Audiolab M-DAC Nano

4. Audiolab M-DAC Nano

Best ultra-portable DAC

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.

5. Astell & Kern XB10

Cookie sized Bluetooth streamer and DAC is older but still cool

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.

6. Meridian Explorer 2

Best headphone DAC for lovers of MQA audio

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.