DAC’s or Digital to Analog converters have become an easy and inexpensive way to improve the sound coming from your laptop or smartphone. The easiest to use and most affordable is the portable DAC, which usually incorporates a headphone amp, hence the name DAC Amp. They also obtain the digital audio signal via a USB input, hence the name USB DAC Amp.
Because Portable DAC Amps have become so popular, it seems like new ones are released every day. That makes it difficult to know which ones are worth your hard-earned money.
Well, never fear; we’ve listened to a bunch of them, so you don’t have to. Just check out our list, and it should be easy to find the one perfect for you!
1.) The Best Portable USB DAC Amp Under $100: HELM Bolt DAC ($99)
For: Those looking to add extraordinary sound and/or a headphone jack to their smartphone.
- Headphone output level automatically detects headphone impedance and sets level accordingly (1V for 150 ohms)
- THX Certified Audio Output: Exclusively designed for ultra-low harmonic, crosstalk & crossover distortion.
- Supports MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) Rendering
- Sampling rates up to 384 kHz, or DSD files with sampling frequencies up to 5.6MHz
- Compatible with Android, iOS, Mac, and PC’s
What we love: HELM Audio’s BOLT DAC/Amp is a great option for a dongle DAC/Amp at the $99 price point. Especially if you’re looking for MQA. The sound is balanced, clean, and brings the best out of any headphones. (full review here)
What to think about: Doesn’t have power for the most power-hungry cans.
Where to buy:
2.) The Best Transportable USB DAC Under $500: iFi Hip-dac ($149)
For: Those looking for a powerful, inexpensive, balanced DAC/Amp with that signature warm iFi sound.
- Avg. 6 hrs of battery life
- Slim, lightweight design
- Can drive over the ear headphones with 400 mW max power output
- Balanced 4.4mm output
- Power Match gain adjustment and XBass bass enhancement
- Supports MQA Rendering
What we love: The Transportable $149 Hip-dac is actually iFi’s sleekest DAC/Amp to date, with more features (balanced out, L/H gain, XBass, MQA, DSD support) than they have ever included at this price. We love its ability to drive full-size headphones with enthusiasm, and we also love the crisp, wide-open, transparent sound. (full review here)
What to think about: There’s no included carrying case or bag as with past iFi products.
Where to buy:
3.) The Best USB DAC Under $500 Overall: THX Onyx ($199)
For: Those looking for the best balance of output power and sound quality in a compact package
- CNC-machined metal chassis that’s durable and easy to carry
- Compatible with microphone-equipped headsets
- Meets all rigorous THX Certification standards for mobile DAC/amps
- MQA renderer can reproduce digital Master Quality Audio recordings from services like Tidal
- A built-in magnetic clasp enables quick and convenient cable management
What we love: At $199, The THX Onyx may be the best value in USB DAC/Amps today. It has crazy power, a clean, transparent sound that is breathtaking, and a sleek design that makes it easy to carry around. The well-thought-out mix of features also makes it quite flexible for many different use cases.
Music lovers looking for a lightweight USB Dac/Amp that compete with Desktop models for both output power and sound quality should give the THX Onyx a look.
What to think about: It doesn’t have quite the depth and separation of the Dragonfly Cobalt
Where to buy:
4.) The Best Sounding USB DAC Under $500: AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt ($299)
For: Those who want top-notch sound but need something small.
- Resolution up to 24-bit / 96kHz
- 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 and Android Mobile Devices
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 most accomplished yet. It has the best sound with the most depth and separation in this product category. It’s also the smallest, lightest Dragonfly ever.
The Headphone Amp section will power just about any headphone out there, even the substantial Audeze LCD cans. It also comes with a handy USB-C adapter to connect with smartphones.
What to think about: Like many DACs based around an ESS Chip, there is a tad bit of edginess on some tracks. Not quite as powerful as the Onyx.
Where to buy:
5.) The Most Full-Featured USB DAC Under $500: Khadas Tone 2 Pro ($199)
For: Those who want more connections and control over DAC settings
- Up to 32bit 384KHz sample rate, bit-perfect DSD512
- “Balanced RCA line-out” with 3-pin output
- Hardware MQA Decoding – XMOS XU216 processor for full MQA decoding
- Dual headphone jacks(3.5mm and 4.4mm)
- ESS ES9038Q2M with x4 OPA1612 op-amps for superior audio quality
- Selectable Digital Filters
What we love: The Khadas Tone2 Pro is a very well-built and powerful DAC/Amp, which offers more connection options than other devices its size. It has a very crisp and detailed sound which is sure to open up darker, warmer headphones. It also has a wealth of features, including full MQA decoding (remarkable at this price point!), DSD compatibility and seven different DAC filters. (full review here)
What to think about: The controls take a little getting used to, not quite as powerful as the Onyx and Dragonfly Cobalt
Where to buy:
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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.