It’s that time again! This is when we look back at some of the best gear we’ve come across this year. The mission of HI-FI Trends is “Helping audiophiles to build affordable high-end audio systems,” and to that end, we’ve picked some of the best affordable high-end gear available right now. You can use these pieces to upgrade existing systems or use them as building blocks for a new one.
When I started my hi-fi journey, DACs or Digital-to-Analog converters were only considered by the most well-heeled audiophiles. They were usually companions to fancy CD transports. Now in this digital/computer music age, DACs are ubiquitous, present in both portable/desktop or component forms.
Portable DACs are made for use on the go, connecting to a cell phone or laptop as an upgrade to the inferior (in most cases) DACs built-in to those devices. Desktop DACs work similarly to portable DACs except they usually pull power from a wall outlet, and have more connections and functionality. Component DACs are basically the same as a Desktop DACs, except they are usually sized to fit on a hi-fi rack as opposed to on a desktop.
Due to their larger size, Component DACs usually have even more connections and features than a Desktop model, as well as more complicated DAC circuitry. That allows them to provide the scaled-up resolution necessary for a full-sized hi-fi rig. Many also have preamp functionality. However, some Desktop DACs are good enough to be used in a full-sized setup, like the one we have in this awards round-up!
Nowadays, a lot of DACs are sold as DAC/Headphone Amp combos, especially the Desktop and Portable versions. They are a great value since they both improve the sound of the digital signals coming from your devices as well as the sound of your favorite headphones. Because of this, our Portable Headphone Amp award selection is also a great DAC. We also have a powerful standalone headphone amp that matches our Desktop DAC selection.
Rounding out the awards on this post is our Portable Music Player award selection, an excellent Android-based player that also doubles as a headphone amp and DAC. How’s that for full-circle!? Without further ado, here are our awards for Best DAC, Headphone Amps, Portable Music Players.
Product Of The Year-Desktop Headphone Amp/DAC: Topping A90/D90 MQA Stack ($1299)
Flagship Desktop DACs and Headphone Amps cost a lot. I mean a few grand is nothing to spend for a top-of-the-line DAC/Amp combination. That was until Topping, a Chinese company known for well-built, value-priced gear, came out with their flagship DAC/Amp separates, the A90 Desktop Headphone Amp ($499) and D90 Desktop MQA DAC ($699). Never has this level of performance been available for a little over a grand. It allows a lot more people to put together a top-notch headphone rig. That’s why this combo is our Product Of The Year for Desktop Headphone Amp/DACs
Pros: If you’re looking for the best hi-fi MQA DAC under $1000, then the $699 Topping D90 is the one to look at. It’s a DAC only, so if you want to use headphones, you need to pair it with a quality headphone amp like the matching Topping A90 . You can also use it as a standalone DAC or DAC/Preamp (has volume control and remote control) in a full-blown hi-fi system. Just pair it with a stereo power amp, or analog integrated amp like the Audio By Van Alstine Set 120 Control Amplifier.
This dedicated DAC has high-end audio construction, basically made out of what seems to be a solid chunk of aluminum. It also has a top of the line AKM Velvet Sound AKM AK4499 DAC chip, next-level inputs/outputs like HDMI, Balanced XLR, or Bluetooth 5.0 w/LDAC, so you can connect it with just about any device under the sun. The USB and IIS (HDMI) inputs support up to PCM32bit / 768 kHz and DSD512 Native.
The sound is also next-level, with an extraordinarily black background, amazingly refined high-end, and one of the most transparent midranges I have ever heard. DAC Filters allow you to tailor the sound, and the super-bright display keeps you abreast of the myriad functions and features.
The matching A90 amp is a fully-balanced powerhouse which has a smooth volume control, and nice dip switches to control input selection, gain, and preamp functions. It’s also super quiet which makes it a perfect partner to the D90. It will drive any headphone out there, even the most power-hungry planar models. The three-gain settings let you match volume with a whole range of headphones.
This Amp/DAC stack is for the avid headphone enthusiast, that wants the best sound without spending the equivalent of a used car to get it. I think every headphone junkie should try these pieces out at some point. The Focal Clear or Beyerdynamic T1/Beyerdynamic T5 are perfect headphones for this setup.
Cons: The DAC is a little difficult to operate—there’s a bit of a learning curve to get the best out of it. Some functions have to be controlled via the remote, which can be a big pain if you lose it.
- Support Hi-res music of DSD512 PCM32bit768kHz
- Bluetooth 5.0 redefining the Hi-res wireless audio with LDAC
- AK4499 Flagship DAC, AK4118 receiver, OPA1612+LME49720
- Various input interfaces-AES/USB/OPT/COAX/IIS/BT
- Switchable power voltage for global use
- Full balanced + SE headphone output—A90 has three output headphone jacks of 4-pin-XLR，4.4 balanced and 6.35 SE to meet different usages.
- A90 is provided with a wide range of adaptations to headphones.—The SE 25Vpp / balanced 49Vpp high output voltage along with high output current & less than 0.1 Ohm output impedance,
- A90 is equipped with three gain settings of -9.5dB/ 0dB / 9.5dB for SE and -35dB / 6.0dB / 15.5dB for balanced. The noise of merely 0. 2uVrms makes A90 easily adapt to all types of headphones from extremely sensitive IEMs to most power demanding full sized over-ears.
- It’s a great companion of active monitors stacked with D90 DAC when A90 works as a pre-amp
- DAC + Pre-amp appplication
Topping A90/D90 MQA Headphone Amp/DAC Stack
$1299 (for both)
D90 DAC:SHOP NOW
A90 Headphone Amp:SHOP NOW
Product Of The Year-Portable Headphone Amp/DAC: Dragonfly Cobalt ($299)
When it came to picking our favorite portable DAC this year, it came down to two. One was the Zorloo Ztella, which is a relatively powerful and detailed MQA DAC under $100. However, it doesn’t have the depth of sound and separation of the DAC we ended up picking, the Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt. At $299 it’s an outright bargain, providing sound quality never heard before in a USB dongle DAC. That’s why we picked it as our Product Of The Year-Portable Headphone Amp/DAC.
Pros: This small USB DAC/Headphone Amp is a powerhouse! The latest addition to the acclaimed Audioquest Dragonfly line, the $299 Dragonfly Cobalt is the best yet. It has the most power, the cleanest sound (thanks to a flagship ESS DAC Chip), and it’s also the smallest, lightest one they have ever made. As stated above, Cobalt has a depth to its sound that we’ve never experienced in a USB DAC. It separates the various elements of a mix like a full-sized component DAC, allowing you to hear “into” a recording. You can hear each instrument and vocalist in their own little “bubble”, which is the hallmark of a good DAC.
If you want top-notch MQA sound, but don’t have a lot of room on your desk, or want something to cart to the local Starbucks, this is the ticket. This thing will power just about any headphone out there, even the substantial Audeze LCD cans. It also comes with a handy USB-C adapter to work with smartphones missing a headphone jack. Try the Hifiman Sundara headphone for a perfect paring.
Cons: There’s no external volume control or gain control, but that’s par for the course with a USB DAC.
Dragonfly Cobalt Specs/Features:
- Native Resolution up to 24-bit / 96kHz
- DAC Chip ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip with minimum-phase slow roll-off filter for more natural sound
- Plays All Music Files: MP3 to MQA and Hi-Res
- Compatible with iOS Mobile Devices (requires Apple Lightning-to-USB adaptor) and Android Mobile Devices (requires USB adaptor)
- Dimensions: 57mm (l) x 19mm (w) x 12mm (h)
Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
Product Of The Year-Portable Music Player: Fiio M11Pro ($649)
We picked the Fiio M11 Pro as our Product Of The Year-Portable Music Player for one simple reason: It’s the best player you can get under a grand. Hands down.
Pros: The M11 Pro is the culmination of all the good stuff FiiO learned over the years making Digital Audio Players. They have taken a lot of the cool features introduced in earlier products (including the equally as awesome M11) and darn near perfected them.
This player is super fast and smooth when playing music, switching apps, etc., something you couldn’t say about some earlier FiiO Android players.
We love the amazing array of features, like the USB DAC option, the ability to use it as a Bluetooth headphone amp, and the digital output. Combine the digital out with Fiio Link smartphone remote control, and you can use it as a streamer/transport connected to an external DAC.
As you would expect with a DAP above $500, file format support is extensive…especially love that it decodes MQA on the FiiO Music and TIDAL apps.
The sound quality is awesome, super black background, no fuzz, very detailed and balanced. Try the SIMGOT EK3 IEM as a good match.
Cons: Slow transfer of files to the player (via USB). Even though the THX Amp has a lot of clean power, sound can be anemic with less sensitive Planar Headphones. For a power boost, we recommend the FiiO K5 Pro DAC/Amp, which we also reviewed. Unlike some of the FiiO DAPs we have reviewed in the past, there is no protective case or screen protector in the box. We recommend you factor these into your budget.
Read our full review here.
- Powerful hardware configurations: Six-core processor chip Samsung Exynos 7872 + High-Performance DAC chips dual AK4497EQ+ Fully balanced THX AAA-78*2 to give a more powerful output.
- Supports aptX/aptX HD/LDAC/LHDC wireless streaming, which allows you to enjoy high-quality wireless audio via Bluetooth. FiiO M11 Pro digital audio player also supports most Hi-Res lossless formats such as FLAC, WMA, WAV, Apple, LOSSLESS, DSF, and DSDIFF. Native support for DSD 128/256, PCM up to 384Khz/32bit.
- More features:9.5hours battery life+2.5mm/3.5mm/4.4mm headphone outputs + All To DSD + Two-way LDAC Bluetooth + Two-way Type-C + USB Audio/DAC + SPDIF output + QC2.0/MTK PE quick charge + 2.4/5G WiFi + DLNA + WiFi file transfer + FiiO Link + AirPlay
- Storage: 3GB RAM (free to install and run any third-party Android apps according to your needs) + Up to 2TB expanded storage.
FiiO, M11 Pro High Resolution Digital Audio Player
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