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.
- Best streaming DACs – do for your home speakers what these do for your headphones…
- Best over-ear headphones
- Best in-ear, wired headphones
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.