Are you looking for a DAC/AMP combo that will completely transform your audio listening experience? This article will provide you with the eleven best DAC/Amp combos across different budgets.
The DAC/Amp combo industry is riddled with jargon. The many difficult terms and technical aspects can someone new to DAC/Amps.
Therefore, deciding which DAC/Amp is the best can be very hard. Don’t worry, though, because, in this article, I will be simplifying all the technical jargon and putting it in simple words that novice audio enthusiasts can understand.
A good DAC/Amp is the cornerstone for an audio setup. It is the main component upon which entire audio setups are built; hence it needs to be good irrespective of the budget.
Excited to know about the top DAC/Amp combos? Without further ado, let’s dive straight into the article.
In a Hurry? A Quick Look at the 15 Best DAC Amp Combos
The following is a glance at all the amazing DAC/Amp combos I will review in this article. Eager to know more about them, aren’t you?
*For more info on the DAC/Amp combos below, click the “Jump to review” button to go to our in-depth review of that DAC/Amp.
1. iFi iDSD Diablo
On the surface, the iFi iDSD Diablo looks like an ordinary DAC/Amp. It is compact and has only basic ports, so why is it my top favorite? Simply put, the iFi iDSD Diablo is the best-sounding DAC/Amp combo you can buy before venturing into the professional audiophile-grade territory. There is no trickery here; the iFi iDSD Diablo is a simple, high-quality DAC/Amp made from the best components.
Design and Build Quality
The iFi iDSD Diablo has a unique design. Rather than opting for the boxy design, the manufacturer has gone for the rounded sides.
This is a good decision because it gives the DAC/Amp a more sophisticated look, which fits in better with the theme and the price of the iFi iDSD Diablo.
The iFi iDSD Diablo is only available in a bright red color. Although a little too much for my liking, I still have to give it to iFi for not going with the boring black or silver color scheme.
The rubberized black texture on the volume wheel is nice to hold, and its black color also contrasts with the red color scheme.
Moving away from the design for a second, you would be hard-pressed to know that the iFi iDSD Diablo only measures 166m in length, 72mm in width, and has a thickness of 25mm. It is astounding how small the manufacturer has managed to reduce the size of this DAC/Amp.
I am quite pleased that the quirky design and the small size have no effect on the build quality of the iFi iDSD Diablo.
It is built like a tank with solid materials all around it. The case is made from CNC-milled aluminum, while all the knobs and buttons are also carved out of metal for a consistent feel.
Input and Output
The iFi iDSD Diablo has just the basic input and output ports to cover the daily connectivity needs of the users.
This simple approach might be frowned upon by some people, especially since this product comes at such a high price point, but it is done this way to reduce complexity.
You will find a textured volume wheel at the front of this DAC/Amp, which feels very nice to grip. Due to its analog nature, rotating the knob is also very satisfying. The volume knob also doubles down as the power button.
To the right of the volume knob is the mode toggle switch with 3 different presets. This toggle switch adjusts the power output of the DAC/Amp, and when more power is needed, users can simply put this switch on high to drive the more demanding headphones with high impedance.
Lastly, there is a balanced 4.4mm headphone out and a 6.35mm or 1/4-inch output. Switching to the back of the DAM AMP, you will find the USB input and the SPDIF (Coaxial/Optical input) on the DAC.
Also present on the back of the iFi iDSD Diablo is a 4.4mm balanced output port and a 5V USB power port.
Features are not a strong suit of the iFi iDSD Diablo. This is a simple DAC/Amp made on the old formula of function over form.
iFi iDSD Diablo is a DAC/Amp with a lot of emphasis on the best sound quality. The extra things like features were not paid much attention to when designing this DAC/Amp.
Therefore, this DAC/Amp’s only noteworthy features are more related to enhancing functionality. I am talking about the mode toggle switch on the front of the device.
The mode switch comes in very handy, and depending on the power requirement of the headphone, you can quickly adjust your DAC/Amp to fulfill the power requirement of the headphones.
There are three positions which you can choose from: low, medium, and high. Low mode is for headphones with a low impedance that do not require a whole lot of power to drive. We are talking about 32 ohms to 100-ohm headphones.
The medium setting is for headphones that are relatively hard to drive. The headphones with an impedance of 100 ohms to 250 ohms come in this range.
The high mode is specially designed for headphones that require a lot of power. Think of headphones with an impedance of over 500 ohms. The high settings for these headphones will work great.
The sound of the iFi iDSD Diablo will blow your mind if you are coming from a low-end DAC/Amp or even cheaper iFi DAC/Amp because the sound quality you will find here is a cut above the rest.
The iFi iDSD Diablo focuses on enhancing sound by refining and cleaning it. As a result, the sound output here is very precise and clear. Through this DAC/Amp, you will start to hear the subtle nuances in the sound that you would not have been able to pick up previously.
The iFi iDSD Diablo does all that while maintaining a neutral and balanced sound signature. The Hi-Fi sound produced by the iFi iDSD Diablo is only possible because it comes with an industry-renowned Burr-Brown chip inside.
As for the technical specs, this DAC/Amp supports all types of hi-res files. It can play PCM 32-bit/ 786KHz files without any worry. It also has support for DSD 512 and MQA playback. You can enjoy the playback of these files on the audio device of your choice because the iFi iDSD Diablo has enough power to drive all sorts of headphones, speakers, or other audio equipment.
Best Under $2000
2. RME ADI-2 Pro
$2000 will get you the best-sounding and the most professional-grade DAC/Amp in the form of the RME ADI-2 Pro. This DAC/Amp delivers fantastic reference sound quality and can offer a wide range of input options. However, due to its complex structure, novice audio enthusiasts will find it challenging to use. Also, this DAC/Amp only comes to its own when paired with top-notch audio equipment.
Design and Build Quality
The design of the RME ADI-2 Pro is unaspiring to the least. It is a rectangular box that happens to contain some buttons and switches.
Some people favor this clean and simple design because it makes it much easier to integrate the DAC/Amp into different setups. However, if I am paying such a high amount, I don’t want my DAC/Amp to look like every other DAC/Amp available on the market.
While the design of this DAC/Amp might be generic, its build quality is spectacular. The entire body of this DAC/Amp is made from a single piece of milled aluminum.
The aluminum used to construct this DAC/Amp is very high quality. It has a refined and smooth texture, giving the DAC/Amp a premium feel in hand.
The buttons of this DAC/Amp are also carved out of high-quality materials mimicking the aluminum used for the body of the DAC/Amp.
Despite being a professional DAC/Amp, the size of the RME-ADI 2 Pro is quite compact for what it is. You can certainly use it on your desk without it interfacing with other devices on the desk.
Input and Output
The RME ADI-2 Pro comes with a host of multiple inputs and outputs. The connectivity this DAC/Amp offers through its input and output ports is simply outstanding.
The main thing that catches your attention is the LED screen at the front, which has very sharp visuals. To the left of the screen, you will find the treble and bass knobs.
Meanwhile, present to the right of the screen is the volume knob. The volume knob has an LED chapter ring around it, which glows in different colors depending on the current use case of the DAC/Amp.
The options at the front of the DAC/Amp include the four dedicated toggle buttons for volume, I/O, EQ, and Setup. These four buttons are shortcut buttons for the respective options on the screen.
Lastly, on the front of this DAC/Amp, you get a balanced 4.4mm headphone out and a balanced 6.35mm headphone out.
Moving to the back of the DAC/Amp, this is where the main party is. Users can choose between USB in, optical in, S/PDIF, AES-3, and a proprietary port for digital inputs. A splitter cable comes in this DAC/Amp box, plugs into this proprietary port, and adds extra connectivity.
You have a pair of 3-pin XLR ports and two TRS jacks for the analog inputs. Besides all of these ports, there is also a DC power port on the back of this DAC/Amp.
The RME ADI-2 Pro has a consortium of industry-leading features that makes using this DAC/Amp combo better than others available in the market.
While a front-located LED screen is available on many DAC/Amps, the RME ADI-2 Pro takes it to a new level. The screen on offer here has crisp visuals and is filled with many useful options.
Hence unlike other DAC/Amps, the LED screen of the RME ADI-2 Pro is not just for stats padding but is also highly functional. It has important functions like input selection, filter selection, etc.
The screen is great, but this DAC/Amp combo’s most significant feature must be the ability to apply different EQs and switch treble and bass frequencies on the fly. For adjusting the treble and the bass, there are separate knobs that provide fine-tuning control to users.
Although the RME ADI-2 Pro provides many sound customization options, you most of the time won’t need to use them. The sound quality of this DAC/Amp is simply spectacular.
You can get a raw and unadulterated experience here. Without adding any coloration to the sound, this DAC/Amp brings out its crispness and richness. It cleans out the audio signal and amplifies it quite beautifully.
This results in utmost clarity, a characteristic you will get through and through with this DAC/Amp. It is hard explaining the sound quality of this DAC/Amp because it is oh so simple and clean yet so intricate and crisp.
For the folks looking for video playback specs, this DAC/Amp supports files up to 786KHz. It also has support for DSD 256 playback. A pretty standard set of specifications for any good DAC/Amp. No official MQA playback support here, though, which is somewhat disappointing if you use Tidal a lot.
Being a high-end DAC/Amp power should be of no concern either. As a result, the RME ADI-2 Pro can drive any dynamic or planar magnetic headphones quite easily.
Best Under $1500
3. Cambridge Audio CXA81
Cambridge Audio CXA81 straddles a fine line between the old and the new, the quirky and the functional. Although very expensive, Cambridge Audio CXA81 is worth the high asking price. However, despite its technical prowess, this DAC/Amp is not for everyone, and only audio enthusiasts with high-end audiophile headphones will be able to take advantage of the Cambridge Audio CXA81.
Design and Build Quality
The Cambridge Audio CXA81 is a large and heavy DAC/Amp; there is no escaping that. However, this necessary heft is needed to fit the top-of-the-line components to this DAC/Amp.
Cambridge Audio has played it safe with the design of this DAC/Amp. They have used the generic silver color, which meshes well into any setup and looks good in any surroundings.
Given that this DAC/Amp costs around $1500, I would have liked to see something extra. A little edgy design wouldn’t have hurt in making this DAC/Amp stand out from the rest of the pack.
While the company may have paid little attention to making the product look beautiful, they have certainly not skimped on the build quality.
The build quality of this DAC/Amp is simply excellent. The entire outer casing of the DAC/Amp is made from high-grade aluminum, giving it a premium feel.
Also, the entire DAC/Amp is put together really well. The casing is refined with no sharp edges, which shows great quality.
Input and Output
The Cambridge Audio CXA81 has many input and output ports, making it excel on the connectivity front. You will find contemporary solutions and more traditional ports on this DAC/Amp.
Starting from the front, this DAC/Amp comes with a 3.5mm output port, to the left of which is the volume knob
The intricacies of this DAC/Amp are endless. It has multiple buttons, some of which control very specific specialized tasks. You may not get any use out of them, but they are certainly good to have.
Moving to the back of the DAC/Amp, you will find hosts of ports needed for smooth connectivity.
From left to right, the ports include a pair of Toslink optical in, S/P DIF Coaxial in, USB Type-B in, and Bluetooth. These are all the analog and digital inputs available on this DAC/Amp.
Being a pre-amplifier, the Cambridge Audio CXA81 has dedicated ports for speakers and a subwoofer. Besides that, this DAC/Amp also comes with binding posts that allow you to direct power to the speakers of the Cambridge Audio CXA81.
To provide all these options, this DAC/Amp uses an AC power interface, and the power port is located on the far left of the DAC/Amp.
The features of the Cambridge Audio CXA81 mostly centered around enhancing the sound and power handling capability of this DAC/Amp.
The first significant feature that I would like to point out is the support for Bluetooth connectivity. Bluetooth connectivity makes everything so convenient.
Nowadays, almost all devices, like mobile phones, laptops, audio players, etc., can be paired instantly through a Bluetooth connection making this DAC/Amp an ideal option. However, that is all for this DAC/Amp’s features.
The sound quality makes the exuberantly high price tag of the Cambridge Audio CXA81 easy to swallow.
This DAC/Amp comes with top-of-the-line audio hardware. It has the ESS Sabre SE9010K2M DAC. This DAC supports the playback of 32-bit/384KHz audio files with up to DSD 256 data streams.
Technical bits aside, this results in the Cambridge Audio CXA81 having punchy and detailed audio. Detail is the name of the game here because this DAC/Amp can produce details and highlights you would not have heard otherwise.
This DAC/Amp does not shy away from keeping the sound as neutral as possible. Therefore, if you are not using an audiophile headphone with this DAC/Amp, you are in for a bad time.
The Cambridge Audio CXA81 also excels in terms of power handling. This DAC/Amp can easily support all sorts of headphones.
You can run entry-level 32ohm headphones like the SHP9500 or the $5000 Sennheiser HD 820 with this DAC/Amp without any issue.
However, you will feel the most drastic improvement in sound quality with audiophile high-end headphones.
Overall, the sound quality of Cambridge Audio CXA81 is fantastic. This DAC/Amp provides users with a crisp and detailed sound. If money is not an issue and you have a pair of really high-end headphones, then you cannot go wrong with the Cambridge Audio CXA81.
Best Under $1000
4. Monolith Liquid Gold
The Monolith Liquid Gold is the flagship DAC/Amp combo that gets all the bells and whistles. The hardware inside this unit is top-notch, which results in it having some of the best specs of any DAC/Amp Combo. The Monolith Liquid Gold is also under the Alex Cavali design range. Therefore, it gets some influence from the best in the industry. This DAC/Amp is not perfect. It lacks some features, which is a tough pill to swallow at such a high price.
Design and Build Quality
The Monolith Liquid Gold undoubtedly looks like a Monolith product since it has the trademark design language of the company.
The Monolith Liquid Gold is fairly compact for a high-end DAC/Amp. Don’t get me wrong, this DAC/Amp is still no portable powerhouse, but rather it has a very manageable size and will not occupy a whole lot of desk space.
One interesting element I like about the design is the dual vents at the top of the DAC/Amp. They cool the Monolith Liquid Gold down because it can get very hot due to its high-end hardware.
When it comes to the build quality, no corners have been spared. The case of this DAC/Amp is made from very high-quality aluminum.
The case’s finish is between a matte and shiny; all things considered, it gives the DAC/Amp a premium feel.
The Monolith Liquid Gold not only feels premium, but it is also built-in that way. The body of this DAC/Amp has no flex whatsoever, and the whole unit is solid and durable.
Even the knobs and the switches are made from metal and have a premium feel.
Inputs and Outputs
The Monolith Liquid Gold has just the right number of ports. All the ports here are ones that you will frequently use. However, some salient connectivity options are missing on this DAC/Amp.
Starting from the front, you have a gray volume dial. Besides the volume dial, one button is used to select the input source, between digital and analog. Another button allows users to toggle through each digital or analog source to select one.
Also, you get a gain button, which is used to toggle between high, medium, or low gain. Lastly, the power button is to the right of the DAC/Amp.
As for the outputs, this DAC/Amp has a balanced 4-pin XLR out and a 6.25mm non-balanced output.
Turning to the back of the DAC/Amp, you will find multiple digital and analog inputs. Users can choose between Coaxial, USB Type-B, and Optical In for the digital inputs.
On the other hand, the analog outputs include unbalanced RCA inputs and a pair of 3-pin XLR inputs. Besides the input ports, there is also an auto-off button.
Using this will automatically shut off the DAC/Amp when it is not in use, saving power and elongating the life of the Monolith Liquid Gold X.
There are not many features baked into the Monolith Liquid Gold. This is purely a DAC/Amp for audio enthusiasts that don’t care about the features and, in return, want a sublime audio experience.
However, being subjective at the $1000 price point, this is a shortcoming of this DAC/Amp. I believe the company should have at least added Bluetooth connectivity for users looking to pair this DAC/Amp wireless to their mobile phones.
I can see many people not buying this DAC/Amp because of its lack of features, which is a deal-breaker, especially since Monolith is charging such a high price.
The Sound is where the Monolith Liquid Gold truly shines. This DAC/Amp delivers sublime sound quality, and it can truly make your audio listening experience special.
At the core of this device is the AKM AK4493EQ DAC. This is a very high-end DAC found mainly in very capable audio devices.
The AKM AK4493EQ supports PCM inputs up to 768KHz. The amplifier in the Monolith Liquid Gold is also amazing. However, specs are only a small part of the equation, and the main deciding factor is real-world performance.
When paired with a headphone like the Sennheiser HD 800, DAC/Amp brings out the best of the headphone. With this DAC/Amp, everything sounds crisper and detailed.
It also seems like the DAC/Amp has made the headphone produce more intricate sounds, which were not present before. This clearly shows that the Monolith Liquid Gold can handle the headphone well.
This DAC/Amp adds a little warmth to the sound without sacrificing clarity or accuracy.
When it comes to headphone pairing, you can safely use the Monolith Liquid Gold with most headphones. It can drive all the top-level headphones with crazy high impedance rates.
Overall, the Monolith Liquid Gold is a phenomenal sounding DAC/Amp. If a Hi-Fi audio experience is all you are after and you can sacrifice some features, then the Monolith Liquid Gold should be right up your alley.
Best Under $800
5. HIFIMAN EF400
HIFIMAN is known for making some of the most killer magnetic planar headphones on the planet. The EF400 is their introduction into all-in-one DAC/Amp audio space, and boy, have they nailed it. This DAC/Amp combo delivers some of the best sound in the business, and I am comparing this DAC/Amp with more expensive devices. Despite that, there are some drawbacks with the HIFIMAN EF400, but overall, it is a great sub $800 DAC/Amp combo.
Design and Build Quality
The design of the HIFIMAN EF400 is simple. For their first AIO offering, they wanted the device to have a low-profile and understated look.
The HIFIMAN EF400 is more compact than I thought. Despite having very high-end components, the company has managed to keep the dimensions of this DAC/Amp down. It measures just 246mm in length and has a width of 228mm and a thickness of 61mm.
The boxy design of this DAC/Amp is reminiscent of the other DAC/Amps, and the matte black color is also quite generic. However, the front of the DAC/Amp is finished in a silver tone to break the black symmetry.
The two-tone finish looks decent at best. However, most of you will not care about how their DAC/Amp looks, so the more important thing is to check its build quality.
I am pleased to report that the build quality of the HIFIMAN EF400 is spectacular. This DAC/Amp is made with great precision and uses some of the best materials.
The case of the DAC/Amp is made from thick CNC milled aluminum. Not only that, all the knobs and switches are also made of the same material, giving the HIFIMAN EF400 a premium feel.
The complete DAC/Amp is screwed together very solidly, and there is no rattling noise or flex.
Overall, the HIFIMAN EF400 is undoubtedly built very well, but there is a small nitpick I would like to point out. The black text on the DAC/Amp is not legible on the silver background. This is a slight downside of this DAC/Amp.
Input and Output
HIFIMAN played it safe in the input and output department and did not take any unwanted risks. As a result, this DAC/Amp has all the core and fundamental connectivity.
The first thing you will immediately notice are the knobs on the front. Surely, both of them cannot be volume knobs, right?
The left knob is the volume knob, while the right-side knob acts as a 4-level function switch. Through this knob, users can choose between high gain NOS, high gain OS, low gain NOS, and low gain OS.
There are also LED indicators besides this knob to let you know which mode you are in. Sandwiched between the two knobs are the 3.5mm headphone out, 6.35mm output, 4.4mm balanced output, and a 4-pin balanced XLR output.
On the back of the device, your options are relatively straightforward here. You can choose between USB type-B and USB Type-C for the digital inputs.
As for the analog inputs, you get a pair of 3-pin balanced XLR inputs. There is also a single pair of RCA outs connecting to the speakers.
Lastly, the AC power port is separated from the right side of the DAC/Amp, which has a dedicated power switch.
The HIFIMAN EF400 mainly focuses on providing the best sound quality; therefore, it does not contain any frills. The priority of this DAC/Amp is the best sound, which the HIFIMAN EF400 achieves with flying colors.
The features of the HIFIMAN EF400 are more sound centric. The 4-level function switch is a nice addition because it allows users to quickly toggle between the different gain levels of the DAC/Amp on the fly.
Besides that, there are no salient features, which is disappointing because the price tag of DAC/Amp is very high, and cheaper devices offer more features.
The HIFIMAN EF400 has been shaping up to be an excellent DAC/Amp until now, and the only thing left to discuss is the sound quality.
HIFIMAN has made tall claims in the sound segment, so does this DAC/Amp live up to all of them?
The HIFIMAN not only delivers on those claims but surpasses them. The HIFIMAN EF400 has an R2R DAC, which delivers extremely natural and warm audio.
As a result, this device has a very smooth and detailed sound signature. I want to emphasize the smooth part. This DAC/Amp rounds off the unrefined edges in the sound to maintain smoothness without sacrificing the natural tonality of the sound.
Both audio enthusiasts and hobbyists will find the engaging sound of the HIFIMAN EF400 to be very pleasing.
The other aspect that this DAC/Amp excels at is power handling. The amplifier, coupled with the R2R DAC, is also quite fantastic.
The HIFIMAN EF400 can easily drive all the high-end headphones. Even the HIFIMAN Susvara, the flagship HIFIMAN headphone costing upwards of $6000, can be driven using the HIFIMAN EF400 DAC/Amp.
All in all, the HIFIMAN EF400 punches far above its weight. The sound out of the HIFIMAN EF400 is simply sublime, and its power handling delivery is also amazing. So, if you are looking for your first high-end DAC/Amp that can do it all, then you cannot go wrong with the HIFIMAN EF400.
6. FiiO K9 Pro ESS
The FiiO K9 Pro ESS is a truly unique DAC/AMP. On top of providing a very clean sound, the FiiO adds a slight warmth to it. This makes hearing gunshots and explosions in games much more enjoyable. The FiiO also provides a feeling of depth and openness in the sound, which results in better sound precision. This DAC/Amp also contains many handy features, which greatly benefit gamers.
Build Quality and Design
The FiiO K9 Pro ESS is a reasonable-size DAC/Amp that can happily live on your desk. It measures just 200 x 224.5 mm and has a thickness of 72mm; hence you can slide it under a monitor riser.
The case of this DAC/Amp is made from CNC machined aluminum, which gives it a very robust and solid feel. The aluminum used in making the case of this DAC/Amp is also quite thick, and tapping on the case produces a thick and chonky sound.
FiiO has gone for a boxy design, which looks quite good but is sharp to the touch. At the sub $1000 price point, I shouldn’t be getting a DAC/Amp with sharp edges, so that is an oversight on their part.
The aluminum is finished in a smooth matte black color. Although the quality of the case is excellent, the company has skimped on the buttons. The volume dial of this DAC/Amp is fairly loose and, therefore, does not exhibit any feeling when rotating it. There are also no clicks to let users precisely adjust the volume.
The text on the DAC/Amp around the ports and the buttons blends in with the matte black finish and is not visible under direct light. Only at certain angles are you able to see the text, which can get quite annoying.
Input and Output
Luckily, this FiiO K9 Pro ESS makes up for the lack of build quality in the input section. The FiiO K9 Pro ESS comes with all the ports you want in a modern DAC/Amp.
At the front of the DAC/Amp, to the right of the volume dial, you get a balanced 4.4mm output and a 6.35mm port. Hiding under the small round cover is a 4-pin XLR output as well.
You will find some ports and switches to the left of the volume dial. You have an output switch, a gain switch, an input button, and a power button from right to left.
Since the FiiO K9 Pro ESS is both a preamp and a DAC, you can select how you want this DAC/Amp to act through the output switch. The gain switch allows users to switch between the high, medium, and low presets.
Moving on, the input button lets you cycle through the different modes of transmission that this DAC/Amp supports. There are five LED indicators on the top right of the DAC/Amp, illuminating based on the selected input. At the last position is the power button, and you already know what that is used for, so let’s switch to the back of the DAC/Amp.
On the back panel, you will find a plethora of ports, but the most interesting one is the power toggle switch, which allows you to choose between the AC 110-115V output or the 220-230V output.
Next to the power switch is the section for the digital inputs. The Fiio supports Bluetooth, Coaxial, USB Type-C, and an optical Input.
Moving on, you will find all the analog inputs on the DAC/Amp. These include 4.4mm line-in, RCA line inputs, RCA line outputs, and XLR balanced outputs.
A USB Type-C port on the right side of the DAC/Amp provides easy connectivity to mobile devices and laptops. All in all, the connectivity of this DAC/Amp is quite excellent, to say the least.
FiiO K9 Pro ESS has a very impressive feature. The two most noteworthy features provided with this DAC/Amp greatly enhance the user experience.
The first is Bluetooth connectivity, which allows users to connect this DAC/Amp wireless to their mobile phones and Bluetooth speakers. This comes in handy when you just want to listen to a couple of songs to brighten the mood before moving on to any other task of your day.
Technically speaking, the Bluetooth connection of this DAC/Amp is also very stable. During my use, I didn’t encounter even a single signal drop. Also, the latency when using Bluetooth is also quite minimal, which results in only a slight but bearable delay.
The second most interesting feature this DAC/Amp has is its support for the FiiO Control App. This mobile application lets users adjust the settings of this DAC/Amp on the fly.
With the app, you can add different EQs to the DAC/Amp, apply various filters, adjust its input settings, etc. This handy mobile application is a great add-on for this DAC/Amp and comes in clutch when using the DAC/Amp on a Bluetooth connection.
Enough about the chatter. Let’s move to the main reason you want to buy the FiiO K9 Pro ESS, which is its sound profile.
The FiiO K9 Pro ESS has top-notch specs. It comes with a dual ES9038PRO DAC on board. This results in the FiiO K9 Pro ESS supporting DSD256 with PCM 32BIT/384KHz audio playback.
For amplification, the FiiO K9 Pro ESS has a THX788+ amplifier. The THX788+ delivers very clean power and gels with a high-quality DAC. The DAC/Amp also supports MQA.
If you are not much of a stats faff like me, then all of this translates into a device that can deliver crisp, clean, and clear audio.
However, FiiO has added its spin to it. The soundstage when using the FiiO K9 Pro ESS is much wider, which results in an open and airy sound.
This is quite great for gaming because it results in the following;
- Less ear fatigue due to no harsh sounds
- More precise directional audio
These two characteristics are very important for gamers. Therefore, the FiiO K9 Pro ESS is an ideal choice if you want to take your gaming headphones to the next level.
Best Under $500
7. xDuoo XD05 Bal
The xDuoo XD05 Bal is a banger in the sub $500 price range. This DAC/Amp has the ideal blend of top-notch hardware and head-turning features, which makes it suitable for both audio enthusiasts and hobbyists. There are some drawbacks of the xDuoo XD05 Bal, but none of them is significant enough to ruin the overall user experience. Hence, the xDuoo XD05 Bal is a solid all-rounder at the sub $500 price tag.
Design and Build Quality
The xDuoo XD05 Bal has a muted and simple design. The boxy shape and the matte silver color of this DAC/Amp are uninspiring and bland.
While not for everyone, the simple and clean design of this DAC/Amp makes it easily blendable with any environment. This is great if you want to use it as an all-in-one DAC/Amp for all your audio needs.
The one thing I find particularly odd in a good way about this DAC/Amp is its small size. Given the specs and the hardware, I was expecting the xDuoo XD05 Bal to be a medium to large size DAC/Amp, but to my surprise, it turned out pretty compact.
The xDuoo XD05 Bal measures just 130mm long, 75mm wide, and has a thickness of 23mm. The numbers speak for themselves, and you can see how small and compact this DAC/Amp is.
While not exactly a portable DAC/Amp, you can take the xDuoo XD05 Bal out with you when going to your friend’s house or an event
For this purpose, the build quality of the xDuoo XD05 Bal is fantastic. The case of this DAC/Amp is made from aluminum. It has no sharp edges or unrefined textures, which gives it a premium feel.
This DAC/Amp is quite robust and will survive the test of time due to its excellent construction.
I have no complaints in the build quality segment, and this DAC/Amp has thoroughly impressed me in this regard.
Input and Output
All good DAC/Amps need a solid set of input and output so that it is easy for users to connect the DAC/Amp to different sources and devices. xDuoo has understood this need, which shows in the port selection of this DAC/Amp.
The xDuoo XD05 Bal has all of the input and output ports users will like a modern DAC/Amp combo to have.
On the front of the xDuoo XD05 Bal, you will find a 4.4mm balanced output flanked by a 6.35mm or a 1/4 inch output. To the left of these two ports sits the OLED display that displays various information about the DAC/Amp.
Under the OLED screen, you will find 3 different switches. The first one adjusts the gain between high and low settings. The middle switch is used to toggle between the different boost levels, while the last switch acts as the power button.
Switching our attention to the back, you will find all the input ports of this DAC/Amp. They include Coaxial/optical in, Aux, USB, and an AES mini-XLR port.
Last but not least, you also get the 5V DC USB port and a power toggle switch. The power toggle switch allows users to choose between USB and battery power.
However, this is not the end of the ports; you will also find them on the sides of this DAC/Amp. On the side, you get an OLED screen, which displays stream information in real-time (source, sampling rates, and the mode in use).
Besides the OLED screen, there are three buttons (input, filter, and Bluetooth). They allow users to change the input source, apply different filters and connect the xDuoo XD05 Bal using Bluetooth, respectively.
The xDuoo XD05 Bal has many features that users will find very beneficial. For starters, this DAC/Amp comes with not one but two OLED screens configured to display different information.
This makes interacting with the DAC/Amp very easy. All the DAC/Amp information is available on these two screens; hence, users can use that information to quickly configure the settings or change presets. It adds a new layer of convenience, which I am sure many users will appreciate.
Besides that, another key feature of the xDuoo XD05 Bal is its Bluetooth support. While other DAC/Amps do this, this one does it better than others. The difference is not anything staggering, though.
You would be delighted to know that this DAC/Amp can also be powered via battery. Although the battery only lasts 4 hours on a single charge, it is more than enough for listening to music on the go with the xDuoo XD05 Bal.
Then we come to many geeky features that this DAC/Amp has, which will be appreciated by audio enthusiasts. It comes with a dedicated filter button, which is quite handy.
The Included separate toggle switches for the gain and the bass boost are quite beneficial. Especially the bass boost switch because many users like to have a high bass for some songs, and this DAC/Amp having the ability to adjust bass boost on the fly, comes in very handy.
The xDuoo XD05 Bal has an impressive DAC and Amp under the hood, resulting in pleasing sound production.
This DAC/Amp is all about the fundamentals. It does not add any extra flair to the sound or alter the frequency. It delivers a clean and neutral sound that accurately represents the headphones’ sound signature.
The amplifier, however, does pronounce the sound of the headphones. The power handling capability of the xDuoo XD05 Bal is also quite good.
This DAC/Amp can handle most headphones relatively well. However, don’t expect it to run very power-intensive magnetic planar headphones.
Overall, the xDuoo XD05 Bal is a great mid-range DAC/Amp that can serve you well. Pair this DAC/Amp with good dynamic headphones, and you will have an amazing audio experience.
Best Under $400
8. Topping EX5
Topping makes some very good quality DAC/Amps, and the EX5 is one of them. This DAC/Amp has top-notch specs for the price, resulting in a very clear and precise sound. However, the Topping EX5 is not perfect. The lack of features can be a deal breaker, but if you are willing to sacrifice them, the Topping EX5 is a great DAC/Amp combo for under $400
Build Quality and Design
The Topping EX5 is very well constructed. The body of the DAC/Amp is made from aluminum and has a good heft. The feeling of quality becomes quite apparent when you hold it in your hand.
The smooth matte finish is very refined with a smooth texture. This DAC/Amp is solid and can survive occasional wear and tear without any issue. The edges of the Topping EX5 are rounded off, which makes it quite easy to hold.
The Topping EX5 is a compact DAC/Amp. It measures just 174 x 138mm and has a thickness of 45mm. The size of this device compared to the specs, as you will find later, is quite great.
Input and Output
The Topping EX5 has decent connectivity that gets the job done. While nothing fancy, the I/O of this product is more than capable for most people.
At the front of this DAC/Amp, you will find a 4-pin XLR and a 6.35mm or, otherwise, a 1/4 inch connector to the right. In the middle is a large LCD screen with all the crucial information about the DAC/Amp.
To the left of this big screen, you will find the volume knob. I know what you might be wondering: where are the switches and the buttons of the Topping EX5. Well, they are neatly integrated into the volume wheel, doubling down as the power button and the input selector.
Besides the MQA labeling and the Topping x Shenzhenaudio branding, there is not much at the front of the DAC/Amp, so let’s move to the back.
You will find all the input ports at the back of this device. The digital inputs include Coaxial, USB Type-B, and an Optical in. Meanwhile, the analog inputs of this DAC include RCA outputs and dual XLR ports.
Besides that, you will also find a Bluetooth antenna on the right side of all the input ports, which is then succeeded by an AC power socket.
The Topping EX5 has some features but not up to the extent of other DAC/Amps in this price range. This is the only segment you are getting short-changed with the Topping EX5. However, the couple of noteworthy features it has are executed fantastically.
The implementation of the LCD screen on the front is done rather nicely. The orange font on the screen is very legible when you are far away from the DAC/Amp. The screen is also interactive, and users can cycle through the different menus on the screen via the volume button.
Users can change the input, configure the different presets and even alter the setting of the Topping EX5 using this screen. The only slight negative is that the screen is not the easiest to navigate through, but functionality-wise, it gets full marks.
The other main feature of this DAC/Amp is its Bluetooth connectivity. The Bluetooth connection works quite well with minimal lag. Honestly, most DAC/Amps have gotten quite good with their Bluetooth connectivity, so it is quite hard to find a quality DAC/Amp these days that has a terrible Bluetooth connection.
With this DAC/Amp, I did not experience hiccups, nor did the Bluetooth drop signal through my extensive use.
Other aspects can also go so far in making a DAC/Amp great. The main selling point of any DAC/Amp is its sound quality, and I am pleased to report that the Topping EX5 does pretty well.
At the heart of the Topping EX5 is a dual ES90038Q2M DAC. This high-quality DAC is fitted to some of the best Topping products. Naturally, the sound quality of this DAC is quite amazing.
Topping has also made sure to use high-quality hardware. The amplification of the Topping EX5 is very good, and truth be told, it is quite comparable to more high-end DAC/Amps on this list.
However, for the price, The Topping EX5 delivers a very clean and crisp sound. It gives the sound a warm texture, which results in a better listening experience.
This DAC/Amp pairs well with mid-range dynamic headphones like the Sennheiser HD 598. It brings those headphones to life; however, don’t expect to power 600 ohms headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT 880 very well.
You get away with using the Topping on some high impedance headphones, but it will not bring out their full potential, so it is better to use a more high-end DAC/Amp for those headphones.
If you are interested in the technical specs, this DAC/Amp does DSD512 and PCM768KHz. It also supports MQA and has a per-channel output of 1300 mW.
All of this translates into a DAC/Amp that is quite lively to use with dynamic headphones with an impedance of 32-250 ohms.
Best Under $300
9. Khadas Tone2 Pro
The Khadas Tone2 Pro has no right to be as good as it is. This little DAC/Amp sounds amazing for its size. It also has very good functionality, making it all the more likable. There is not a lot wrong with this DAC/Amp, and it also enjoys the position on this list for being among the few mini portable DAC/Amp that sounds good.
Design and Build Quality
You will be flabbergasted by the size of the Khadas Tone2 Pro. It comes in the size of a credit card, well, not literally, but you get the idea. It is quite remarkable to have such a small DAC/Amp that weighs under 100grams.
However, despite being lightweight, the build quality of this DAC/Amp is quite superb. The Khadas Tone2 Pro case is made from aluminum and has a dense feel in hand.
The robustness and rigidity of the Khadas Tone2 Pro are next to none. The design of the Khadas Tone2 Pro is also quite intriguing.
Unlike traditional DAC/Amps, the Khadas Tone2 Pro has a modern design with precise cuts and sharp lines. It is not your run-of-the-mill boxy DAC/Amp that looks like an old VCR.
The Khadas Tone2 Pro is also available in bright and blingy colors of red and baby blue; however, if you don’t fancy them, a black version is also available. Overall, the Khadas Tone2 Pro has a distinct and unique design, which is saying a lot because this is a statement rarely used for a DAC/Amp.
Input and Output
If you are worried about this DAC/Amp being too small to provide any meaningful connectivity, then don’t worry. The Khadas Tone2 Pro comes with a very healthy input port selection.
At the top of the device, you will find a volume knob. This volume knob is the main control center of the DAC/Amp; with a push, you can activate the secondary functionality of the volume knob.
This volume knob is used for many things. It allows changing the input selection, filter type, gain, and mode you use. You can also play/pause and skip tracks using this volume knob.
This is a clever use of design. However, using the volume knob efficiently for all these tasks will take time, a small negative that users will have to bear.
The main outputs on the Khadas Tone2 Pro are found on the right side of the device. They include a 3.5mm out and 4.4mm balanced output.
On the back of the device, you will find the input ports that the Khadas Tone2 Pro comes with. They include USB-C, Coaxial, and balanced RCA outputs.
Granted, these ports are nothing extraordinary. However, users will find these ports plenty for normal use like connecting to PC speakers or laptops. Also, the USB-C port is a big plug for a portable mini-DAC/Amp combo like this because it makes power delivery so much easier.
The Khadas Tone2 Pro does not have many features, which is to be expected. Not only does this DAC/Amp come at a reasonable budget-friendly price as far as DAC/Amp combos go, but it is also quite small, which limits the feature you can put it in.
Due to the small size, the manufacturer has favored more of the substance over the features approach. Most of the effort is gone into making this DAC/Amp sounds as good as possible for the least possible size. So, let’s move on to the sound section and see how it stacks up there.
At the heart of the Khadas Tone2 Pro is the ESS 9028Q2M chip, a new and high-quality DAC. Without diving into the specs, the DAC of this Khadas Tone2 Pro produces a neutral and clean sound without any added smoothness or tonality.
This gives the Khadas Tone2 Pro an edge over the other devices in the sub $300 price range because there are not many DAC/Amps that can deliver the same clean and precise sound as the Khadas Tone2 Pro.
The amplifier used in this device, however, is not the best. It works okay for medium impedance headphones but cannot power headphones with over 200-ohm impedance.
Therefore, stick to low-impedance headphones if you want to use the Khadas Tone2 Pro and don’t venture into the planar magnetic category with this DAC/Amp.
You will receive a crisp, clean and neutral sound. It will display the headphone’s raw character without adding unnecessary fluff.
This experience is liked by many audio enthusiasts, and if you are like that, you are going to enjoy the Khadas Tone2 Pro.
Best Under $200
10. LOXJIE A30
The LOXJIE A30 is a fantastic sub $200 DAC/Amp combo that blows away its competition due to the high-end specs. This DAC/Amp has top-quality hardware for the price and produces a very clear and natural sound. Of course, you are not getting everything with this DAC/Amp, but it is a great buy for less than $200.
Design and Build Quality
The LOXJIE A30 follows a modern design language. Rather than having a boxy shape, the sides of the DAC/Amp are rounded off to give it a more sophisticated look. The matte grey color of the LOXJIE A30 is also a nice departure from the matte blacks we see often.
In terms of size, the LOXJIE A30 is a very compact DAC/Amp. It will easily sit on your desk while occupying minimal space. As for the dimensions, the LOXJIE A30 measures 151 x 170mm with a thickness of 38mm.
Although not expensive, this DAC/Amp has very good build quality. The casing of the LOXJIE A30 A30 is made out of CNC milled aluminum, which gives a robust and rigid characteristic to the DAC/Amp.
This DAC/Amp can take a beating before it seriously wears off. The ports are also designed in this way, and they come with gold-plated connectors to ensure durability.
Input and Output
The LOXJIE A30 has a decent array of inputs. While nothing special, you will find all the frequently used common ports available on this DAC/Amp.
The front of the DAC/Amp is dominated by a large LCD screen display. The quality of the screen is simply amazing, but more on that later.
You have a 6.35mm output port to the right of the screen, and next to it is the volume knob. The volume dial controls the volume and can also be used as a controller for the LCD Display.
The good thing is that LOXJIE has not made it confusing to use the volume dial. Every control is well thought out and intuitive to use.
Turning to the back of the LOXJIE A30, you will find a plethora of ports. It has extra ports that you would typically find in a dedicated amplifier. You can choose between Coaxial, Optical, USB, and Bluetooth for the digital inputs. As for the analog inputs, they include a pair of single-ended RCA.
This DAC/Amp has a dedicated SW out port and speaker terminals. Besides all of these ports, to the extreme right sits a 24V power port of the DAC/Amp. This rounds up all the input and outputs ports on this DAC/Amp.
I did not expect the LOXJIE A30 to come with this many features for the $200 price. More surprising is that all of these features are implemented with great finesse.
Starting with the screen, the quality of the screen is impeccable. The large font makes the LCD screen highly legible and readable.
It makes the display visible in a dark room or in direct sunlight, which is not something I can say for even some of the more expensive DAC/Amps.
The only minor gripe I have with the LCD screen is that the volume indicator is small and recessed to the corner of the display.
The LOXJIE A30 also comes with a remote that allows users to control each and every aspect of the DAC/Amp. Users can configure different settings, change inputs, or set a profile; everything can be done through the remote.
The remote and the Bluetooth connection together make an excellent pairing. It allows users to direct all the audio to the DAC/Amp through any Bluetooth device and, simultaneously, control the audio playback through the remote.
This eliminates the need to physically interact with the DAC/Amp, as everything can be done from the comfort of your chair or sofa.
The LOXJIE A30 DAC/Amp comes pre-configured with 7 different EQ presets. So, depending on the genre of music you are listening to, the DAC/Amp allows users to switch EQ quickly.
The LOXJIE A30 sounds reasonably good for the price. For a sub $200 price tag, it delivers a sound beyond expectation in this price range.
The LOXJIE A30 has a MERUS MA12070 amplifier, mated to a high-quality DAC. This results in a DAC/Amp combo that delivers clean sound without distortion.
The amplifier of this DAC/Amp is particularly very good. It enhances the audio without adding any unnecessary adjustments to the audio.
The power handling ability of the LOXJIE A30 is also surprisingly great. The DAC/Amp supports a maximum power output of 40W. Unlike the other DAC/Amps, the power here is clean and interference-free.
This results in next to no background noise, a great departure from other sub $200 DAC/Amps, which are littered with distortion and noise.
As far as headphone pairing is concerned, this DAC/Amp can easily power headphones with an impedance of 32 to 250 ohms. The amplifier does a good job driving even the higher impedance headphones without a hitch.
Besides the headphones, this DAC/Amp also powers the speakers well. The speaker terminals on the back of this DAC/Amp allow for an easy connection, or users can also use Bluetooth to connect to their speakers.
All in all, the sound quality of the LOXJIE A30 is simply outstanding for the price. I won’t compare it with more expensive DAC/Amps, but in the $200 price range, the LOXJIE A30 is hard to beat.
Best Under $200
11. Fosi Audio Q4
The Fosi Audio Q4 is an entry-level DAC/Amp combo. It works well with budget-end Hi-Fi headphones like the Philips SHP9500. There are negatives with this DAC/Amp as well, but for the price, you would be hard-pressed to find a better option that is this well-rounded in terms of performance and connectivity.
Build Quality and Design
The Fosi Audio Q4 is a compact DAC/Amp. It is about the size of a palm and not that thick. As a result, this DAC/Amp also carries no significant heft and is lightweight.
The build quality is nothing fancy. It is what you would expect from a cheap budget DAC/Amp. The DAC/Amp is made from aluminum and will last the test of time.
However, the coarse finish on the case of the DAC/Amp reminds users that this is a budget device. The unrefined finish of the Fosi Audio Q4 makes it hard to hold in hand, and the sharp edges make it uncomfortable against your fingers.
Also, the design is too generic, exactly like all the other DAC/Amps you will find for under $100. However, on the whole, the Fosi Q4 is quite solid and robust due to being made from metal. Therefore, it gets a pass in the build quality segment.
Input and Output
The Inputs of the Fosi Audio Q4 are managed quite well. Despite being a budget DAC/Amp, it provides great connectivity and has all the ports most users buying this device will use.
This may not be the most versatile DAC/Amp in terms of connectivity, but it is adequate for use with a computer with occasional signal passes through to speakers.
At the front, there is your typical volume knob, but this DAC/Amp does differently from its competitors by including bass and treble knobs.
The volume knob is flanked by a single 3.5mm port. To the right of the 3.5mm port, you will find a toggle switch that allows users to change the input source on the fly.
At the back of the DAC/Amp, you have an optical, coaxial, and USB Type-B. Lastly, a DC 5V port powers the device and makes it functional.
The Fosi Audio Q4, a budget DAC/Amp, has no noteworthy features. This is expected because most money has gone into making it sound good.
However, a design element that can be counted as a feature is the addition of a treble and a bass boost knob on the front of the DAC/Amp.
These knobs allow users to quickly change the dynamic of their sound. The knobs also have click rotation, allowing users to fine-tune the treble and bass in small increments.
The sound quality of Fosi Audio Q4 is nothing spectacular, but it fares well for the price. The DAC used on the Fosi Audio Q4 is decent. It provides a clean audio playback as long as you use this DAC/Amp with low-impedance headphones.
Being a budget-oriented DAC/Amp, the Fosi Audio Q4 has respectable power. It can easily drive entry-level audiophile headphones like the Sennheiser HD 598 and other 32 ohms headphones.
For those interested in the exact power figure, this DAC/Amp can produce 100mW of power at 32 ohms.
Although the sound quality of this DAC/Amp is nothing impressive like all budget DAC/Amp, the one thing that particularly favors the Fosi Audio Q4 is its lack of sound floor.
Many lower-end DAC/Amps tend to have a lingering background hiss, but I am happy to report that this DAC/Amp is devoid of that issue. There is some background noise, but it is not prominent when listening on medium to loud volume.
IEMs, on the other hand, presents a different story. This will be great with IEMs and gaming headsets like the HyperX cloud series or the Logitech G series.
How to Choose the Best DAC/Amp Combo – The Buying Guide
The buyer’s guide is the section in which I will go through the different technical terms and explain them to you.
This section will also look at some aspects of DAC/Amps that are common to most. Evaluating these aspects and comparing them between the different DAC/Amps will allow us to pick the best DAC/Amp for our needs.
The main outcome of the buyer’s guide is to inform users on how to pick the best DAC/Amp combo for their needs, and this can only be done if you know the fundamentals of how a DAC/Amp works.
Wherever possible, I will be referencing some of the DAC/Amps included in this article for the different sections of the buyer’s guide so that you can understand better.
With the basic introduction out of the way, let’s dive straight into the Buyer’s Guide.
Why the Best May Not Be Suitable for You?
Making a smart purchase decision does not involve buying the best DAC/Amp, i.e., the iFi iDSD Diablo, and calling it a day. Perhaps the best DAC/Amp is not suitable for you.
More often than not, people fall for the “best” trap. Something that may technically be best does not mean it is automatically the one you should get.
Let’s take the example of the RME ADI-2 Pro. The RME ADI-2 Pro is technically the best DAC/Amp combo, but its use is mostly in the professional audio space. Someone who owns a medium-grade audiophile headphone or speaker may not even utilize 20% of this DAC/Amp.
Hence, in that case, buying the RME ADI-2 Pro will be more of a waste of money than a great buying decision.
Therefore, it is important to not fall into the “best” product trap and choose the product that fits your needs and requirements the most. This way, you will end up with a DAC/Amp that you will enjoy using.
But how does one get the ideal DAC/Amp for his needs? Well, I am glad you asked because next, I will tell you how exactly you can do that.
How to Know Which DAC/Amp Combo Works Best for You?
I will tell you a simple way to let you decide which DAC/Amp works best for you.
There are a lot of different technical aspects surrounding DAC/Amp, but for now, you need to know none of them. The procedure I will tell you does not require prior knowledge.
The simplest way of deciding which DAC/Amp works the best for you without knowing about the technical stuff is simply half the cost of your headphones and get the DAC/Amp combo according to that price.
For example, if your headphones cost $300, then a DAC/Amp combo worth $150-200 will suffice. This is not any hard and fast rule and is prone to variance. Many headphones may require a DAC/Amp combo that is more expensive than the headphones.
On the contrary, some headphones will run on a lower-priced DAC/Amp just fine. However, you will get along fine in most situations by staying within the 1/2 target price for the DAC/Amp combo.
Important Consideration: Set a Budget and Stick By It
Setting a budget should not be difficult now since, in the previous section, I have already told you how to pick the best DAC/Amp combo for your needs.
This point mainly reinforces my earlier point about not falling for the “best” trap. Once you have picked a budget for your DAC/Amp, you will often be tempted to buy a much more expensive one. However, stick with your budget and get the best DAC/Amp combo you can.
DAC/Amp Combo vs. DAC and Amp Stack: Which One Is Better?
DAC/Amp combos are getting very popular due to their convenience. However, does that mean the traditional way of stacking a separate DAC to a separate Amp is less superior?
Technically speaking, if you want to go all out with a DAC/Amp setup, then buying a separate DAC and an Amp is a way to go. This is because buying them separately allows for greater control over which specific component you buy. Hence you can mix and match different DACs and Amps together to end up with a superior-sounding setup.
That being said, buying a DAC and Amp separately will cost you a lot of money with little audio difference. While it is true that on the higher-end of the spectrum, separate DACs and Amps are superior, only when we are talking about $5000+ DAC and Amp setups.
Besides the minimal difference in audio, a DAC/Amp combo is clutter-free as opposed to a separate DAC and Amp setup. In a separate setup, you will have to deal with the endless pit of cables running across your desk, which can be quite challenging and annoying.
DAC/Amp combos are also hassle-free. With a separate DAC and Amp setup, you have to deal with compatible issues that are non-existent in DAC/Amp combos. This is another plus point, especially for people who are just looking to get into DAC/Amps and don’t know much about these audio gadgets.
On the whole, a separate DAC and Amp setup might produce marginally better sound quality but for most people going with a DAC/Amp combo is a much better choice. DAC/Amp combos are easier to use, hassle-free, and, most of all, very convenient to operate.
Factors Affecting the Characteristics of a DAC/Amp Which You Need to Know
There are some fundamental factors regarding DAC/Amp combos that you need to know if you want a better-suited device for your needs. These factors shape the characteristics of the DAC/Amp combos and, therefore, are the main reason behind a DAC/Amp combo being good or bad.
Sound quality is the bread and butter of a DAC/Amp. It is the most important characteristic based upon which you choose a particular DAC/Amp combo.
Not every DAC/Amp is equal in terms of sound reproduction. Hence, you may end up with a DAC/Amp that offers terrible sound quality. Therefore, in this article, I have included only the best-sounding DAC/Amps to relieve you from this worry.
Even though all of the DAC/Amps in this article offer good sound quality, they don’t all have the same sound signature. Allow me to explain.
The sound you hear is based on the different frequencies. Typically, these frequencies are put in three groups.
- Bass frequencies
- Mid frequencies
- Treble frequencies
Each DAC/Amp produces these frequencies differently. Some DAC/Amps combos might boost the bass, while others may favor a more treble-forward sound output. On the contrary, some might stick to a more neutral sound signature.
You must decide what works for you and get the DAC/Amp accordingly. I will stick to a neutral sound signature if you ask me because it provides better flexibility. You can always tweak the frequency later on through EQs. This is not saying that a slightly colored or warm DAC/Amp combo is wrong; it is just a matter of personal preference.
No matter how good a DAC/Amp is, eventually, everything boils down to connectivity. If a DAC/Amp cannot provide an adequate amount of input and output ports that a user wants, then the technical prowess will be all for nothing.
Therefore, you should always analyze if the DAC/Amp you are looking to buy has all the ports you are seeking for. Output ports typically range between 3.5mm, 4.4mm, 6.35mm, and XLR.
As for the input ports, they are divided between digital inputs and analog inputs. The digital inputs are more modern solutions like Bluetooth, while the analog is more contemporary ports that have been around for a while.
Choose your DAC/Amp combo according to which ports you are comfortable using. The best advice I can give you is to reflect upon your use and buy a product with every connection you need.
DAC/Amps can come in various sizes because there is no restriction on any shape or dimension.
Usually, manufacturers try to strike a balance between size and performance, but that is not always the case. Lately, we have seen DAC/Amps in either of the two sizes, i.e., desktop or portable.
There is no right or wrong size, so choose the form factor according to your desktop or the shelf where you want to put the DAC/Amp combo.
Another important factor you need to consider is that if you plan on using your DAC/Amp on the go with a mobile device, then you should look into portable DAC/Amp because they have a small footprint, and most can fit into the pocket. If you want a more powerful and do-it-all Amp, you should look for the desktop DAC/Amp.
File Size and Playback Support
Many different types of media files are used for playing the audio. Since there are so many different formats, not every format is supported by every DAC/Amp combo.
The two most popular audio standards are DSD and MQA. Ideally, in a DAC/Amp, you are looking for DSD-256 support at the bare minimum.
MQA is a video playback exclusive to tidal, and having it supported by your DAC/Amp means you will have a better time streaming music through the platform.
The file size also matters. There is a certain limit to the file size that a DAC/Amp can render. Obviously, the better a DAC/Amp combo is, the bigger the file size it can handle. Ideally, a DAC/Amp should be able to handle a file of 786KHz in size.
For most people, a DAC/Amp is a long-term investment. Therefore longevity is an important concern, and manufacturers should not cheap out on build quality.
Regarding build quality, look for something made out of metal, preferably aluminum, with a good design. A good design shows that the manufacturer put some thought into their product.
Power and Performance
The power and performance of a DAC/Amp is another crucial aspect because we see many people buying a DAC/Amp that is overkill for their current setup or getting a cheap DAC/Amp to go along with a decent pair of audiophile headphones.
In the first instance, you will get away because more power is not necessarily bad it’s just that all of that unutilized power is getting wasted.
The second situation is much worse because a cheap DAC/Amp is not powerful enough to drive high-end audiophile headphones, so, in the end, you will regret buying both because you will not be satisfied with either of the products and find it lackluster, which leads us nicely into our next point.
There are all sorts of different DAC/Amps combos available in the market built according to different hardware specs. Hence, the compatibility of DAC/Amp combos is vastly different.
Ideally, ensure that the DAC/Amp combo you are buying is compatible with the rest of your audio gear. Audio equipment is not just mixing and matching different products and seeing if they work.
The best advice I can give you is to strike a balance between what you buy. Do not buy expensive high-end headphones only to buy a low-end DAC/Amp or vice versa.
With all the 11 DAC/Amp reviews done, this article comes to a close. Ultimately, I want to emphasize the importance of getting the right DAC/Amp combo for your needs. All the DAC/Amp combos I have reviewed in this article are good in their own right.
However, they don’t all cater to the same audience. The RME ADI-2 Pro, for instance, is the Hi-Fi grade DAC/Amp combo for professional listening.
It is best suited for high-end audiophile headphones; hence buying it for a $500 headphone will be a waste. For a $500 headphone, you are better off with a Topping EX5.
I can’t mention the application of all the above-mentioned DAC/Amps because that will require a separate article, however, get a general idea. Just buy the DAC/Amp combo that makes sense for your setup, irrespective of where it is priced.
Before signing off, do let me know in the comment section which DAC/Amp combo you bought. While you are at it, mention which audio device you will use your new DAC/Amp combo with.