Choosing a DAC Amp for the Best Value Headphone under $500!
A Reader Writes:
I’m wondering if you can give me your recommendation for pairing up a DAC for the Hifiman Sundara headphones.
I have not purchased either item but I’d like to do so as soon as today.
I’ve been unable to confirm what is the best DAC for these headphones in a Windows PC – USB DAC setup only.
This is to be used in my office only but certainly would be moved into the family room where I have a moderately priced Doby Atmos Home System in which power requirements are not an issue.
Therefore, I’m currently looking into the DragonFly Red or Cobolt, as well as the Helm Bolt ($99.99) model with MQA.
In addition, I would like the DAC to include MQA as I already have the Tidal streaming subscription.
Thank you for any assistance that you can provide as I look forward to your response.
Thanks for your question! I decided to publish this because the Hifiman Sundara, at its current price of $350, is pretty much my favorite headphone under $500, at least for home use.
It’s not perfect, the cable is somewhat funky and curly, plus the sound is a little peaky in the upper treble. But overall, it has a nice clear midrange along with a tastefully done sub-bass that makes most music sound quite airy and engaging. That’s something you don’t usually get at this price point.
So let’s talk about the question at hand. What’s a good DAC/Amp for the Sundara? First of all, I must say, this headphone is very sensitive and can sound good plugged directly into any cellphone or laptop.
So, if you’re looking to pick up the Sundara, and don’t have the cash to pick up a DAC/Amp at the same time, don’t worry. You can still enjoy them without one.
That said, if you want to hear the Sundara in its full glory, with full dynamics and realism, then you need to get an external DAC/Amp at some point.
To that end (and to answer the reader’s question), I have three recommendations of USB DACs that I liked with the Sundara. Funny enough, two of them were mentioned in the question itself. All are compatible with MQA (renderers) as requested.
I’ll tell you, the Bolt/Sundara combo is probably all you need to hear to understand what the headphone hobby is all about. The clean, warm, natural sound brings out the Sundara’s richness and takes away some of the ruff edges I talked about earlier. It lets you hear the beautiful way this headphone presents timbre.
What the Bolt lacks is the depth and resolution that you get from a more expensive DAC/Amp like the second option I recommend. That would be the $299.95 Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt (also mentioned in the inquiry), which asserts its dominance over the Bolt as soon as you play some tunes.
I guess most would say, “of course it’s better; it cost three times the price.” And yes, they would have a point. But others would ask, “is it three times better?” and to that, I would say, “yes, yes it is.”
That’s because the Cobalt has some serious DAC performance for its tiny size, giving you next-level instrument separation, air, and, as I said before, depth. On songs where the recording provides a sense of the room acoustics, the Cobalt will make it more apparent. The presentation will sound more 3D and layered than the Bolt. Instruments and vocals will sound more lifelike as well.
I listened to Norah Jones’s “It was you over the Sundara with the Cobalt, and it was like she was in the room!
The only issue with the Cobalt is that it can be a little peaky up top, so it may exacerbate the Sundara’s inherent edginess for those who are very sensitive to that sort of thing. I’m pretty sensitive to that stuff, and it didn’t bother me.
For my third suggestion, I want to recommend something different that wasn’t mentioned earlier. That would be the $149 iFi Hip DAC. It’s a USB DAC, but not a dongle DAC like the other two. That means it has a nice volume control on the unit, plus gain control for headphone matching.
It also has iFi’s analog Bass Boost function (XBass), which does a good job providing additional warmth without muddying the midrange (not needed for Sundara, IMHO).
The Hip DAC is warmer sounding than the other two DAC suggested, lacking some of their top-end sparkle, but in its place, it provides possibly the most engaging sound of the three. Instead of giving you an upfront look at me detail, the Hip-DAC has a more laid-back approach that draws you in, especially in the midrange.
Vocals are just velvety smooth, as are strings and horns. The resolution and depth are probably somewhere between the Bolt and the Dragonfly, and it just sounds divine with the Sundara. The rich, open midrange enlivens and superbly balances this headphone, especially if you listen to a lot of jazz and acoustic music.
The top-end is a little more rounded off on the iFi DAC, but if you like mellow highs, then the Hip-Dac may be your favorite out of the three.
So if you’re looking for a DAC/Amp combo for the Sundara, I believe I have outlined three great choices for this excellent $349 headphone. The $99 Helm Audio Bolt will probably make most people who buy the Sundara happy, as it has exceptional detail and a pretty rich presentation for the price. (this DAC is SO good, it’s currently out of stock everywhere till the end of March)
The $149 iFi Hip-Dac is a nice step up from the Bolt, especially if you like a warmer, more laid-back presentation; it also has a little more depth, meaning you can “hear into” the music more. It also has some additional features you can’t get on a “Dongle DAC.” That means it’s also larger than the Dongle or USB Stick type DACs, however.
However, the $299 AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt is the most technically proficient of the three DACs I suggested, providing the most separation, detail, and depth. It’s remarkable because it probably provides the most “high-end” DAC sound, coming from a device about the size of a stick of gum.
I hope that helps!
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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 thirst for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.