While there’s been a bit of controversy around MQA Audio (read more about it here) and its contribution to hi-fi, we here at Hifitrends believe there’s no question this technology is a positive development for music lovers. MQA packs studio master sound quality in a file format small enough to download and stream over most networks without issue. If you use TIDAL as your music streaming service, then you should really be interested in MQA since they use it to power their Tidal Masters tier. Tidal Masters streams hi-res files to your phone or laptop and we think you’re not experiencing the service fully if you’re not using MQA.
In order to hear MQA in its full glory, you need a DAC equipped with an MQA decoder, something you can get without spending a ton of money! There are many great ones at many different price points, so we have rounded up the ones we really love and use regularly. Check out the list below!
Zorloo Ztella Headphone DAC/Amp
What we love: At just $99, the Zorloo Ztella (MQA Version) is an excellent option if you want to dip your toes in the MQA waters. It’s a very capable DAC based around a quality ESS DAC chip, and besides MQA, it also decodes PCM up to 384 Khz and Double Rate DSD (5.6 MHz). It’s also super slim and lightweight, being not much larger than the headphone dongles included with some smartphones. You can take it anywhere. The detail throughout the audioband is excellent.
Watch out for: It’s not the most potent DAC/Amp, so if you’re trying to drive some big planar headphones, this may not be the best choice. It also suffers from the brightness exhibited by lower-end ESS DAC chips, but match it with the right headphone, and it can be magic. I suggest the Meze 99 Classics or Neo.
(Zorloo Ztella, $99; BUY HERE)
iFi Hip Dac Headphone DAC/Amp
What we love: The $149 hip-dac is iFi smallest DAC/Amp to date, with more features (balanced out, L/H gain, XBass, MQA, DSD support) than they have ever included at that price. We love its ability to drive full-size headphones with enthusiasm, and we also love the crisp, wide-open, transparent sound. If you’re looking for a lightweight DAC/Amp to improve the audio from your laptop or smartphone, this is a no-brainer. Especially if you already love the iFi sound signature.
Watch out for: There are no markings on the volume knob for reference. There’s also no carrying case or bag included as there was with past iFi products. (However, they do include the USB-C adapter, which they didn’t before) No dedicated line output.
(ifi hip-dac $149; BUY HERE)
iFi ZEN DAC Desktop Headphone DAC/Amp
What we love: You can think of the $129 iFi ZEN DAC (One of our 2019 Products Of The Year, BTW) as the desktop version of the hip-dac mentioned above. It has a lot of the same features, like a balanced amp circuitry, bass enhancement, MQA, and native DSD, plus a gain control.
On top of that, due to the desktop form factor, you also get RCA line output, 1/4” headphone out, and a little bit more juice for power-hungry cans. If you’re looking for a low-cost desktop amp/preamp with MQA, there is no better option out there. As far as listening goes, it has that beautiful warm, detailed sound iFi is known for.
Watch out for: For all its virtues, the ZEN DAC is still missing a couple of things, in my opinion. For one thing, there is no DC power supply. That means you have to power it from your laptop’s USB port. If you want to use it with a smartphone, keep in mind that the phone may not have enough juice to power the ZEN on its own. We also wish the ZEN DAC had a power button. If you leave it plugged into the computer, it will go off when the computer does. But if you do use it with an external power supply (available separately), you’ll have to unplug it every time you’re done.
(iFi ZEN DAC $129; BUY HERE)
Dragonfly Cobalt USB DAC/Headphone Amp
What we love: 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, and it’s also the smallest, lightest one ever (thanks to a flagship ESS DAC Chip).
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 that are missing a headphone jack.
Watch out for: There’s no external volume control, but that’s par for the course with a USB DAC. Like many DACs based around an ESS Chip, there is a tad bit of brightness on the top end.
(Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt $299; BUY HERE)
Topping D90 MQA Dedicated DAC
What we love: If you’re looking for a top-notch hi-fi MQA DAC under $1000, then the $799 Topping D90 MQA DAC is the one to look at. It’s a DAC only, so unlike the other options on this list, you need to pair it with a quality headphone amp like the matching Topping A90 or the Headamp Gilmore Lite mk2 to do a headphone setup. It can also be used as a 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 just about any device under the sun. 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.
Watch out for: A little difficult to operate—there’s a bit of a learning curve to get the best out of it.
(Topping D90 MQA DAC $799; BUY HERE)
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My hunger for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.