Beginner's Guide to the Best USB DAC Headphone Amps, 2016

Even very good sound cards need a little help to turn digitally stored music into genuine, top quality sound.

If you store most of your music on a Mac or PC, a dedicated digital to analog converter will go a long way in making your investment in a fine pair of headphones worthwhile.

Whatever your heart’s desire, from a concert hall experience to a full-on beat-fest, good conversion will bring your digitally stored music to life.

Even MP3 files on your phone or tablet will become less “lossy”. Lossy file compression results can produce a watery sound and reduces the dynamic range of the audio. A DAC helps fill in the gaps.

Want More than Just a Music Amp?

A lot of people will want to use a digital-to-analog converter amp to get the best sound from movies and videos. Sounds from a cable box get a big boost in quality. Game console sound can be greatly improved.

Portable Units for Smart Devices

Portable DAC's have been the big growth area in the last few years. Geek Out, Microstreamer and other devices give great options for quality sound from smartphones and tablets on the move.

Improve Speaker Sound

Some external headphone DAC's have RCA outputs. This is useful to turn a laptop into a quality, portable music player or to make being tethered to a desktop more enjoyable.

What a DAC Does

Step wise digital is converted to smooth analogue by a DAC
Step wise digital is converted to smooth analogue by a DAC

DAC's are used to convert digital audio to an analog signal that speakers and headphones can convert into sound.

All digital information is a stream of ones and zeros. Analogue signals have a much more subtle wave form.

Digital storage is preferred these days because so much more data can be stored in the same space. Old-style vinyl LP's store music in analog form and can sound better than CD's, music on a hard drive, or anything that is streamed, but they are huge.

Reconstructing Music in a Digital Form

The best sound from a digital source is only achieved by processes that interpret the fixed points of digital code in an intelligent way.

Fixed points in digital format need to become smooth, flowing electrical signals without gaps or disjunction. This 'filling in' or reconstruction process needs to be subtle. A single musical instrument can achieve many different tones, with a huge variety of effects.

The human ear is exceptionally good at reading the emotional quality of music, and also very good at noticing when emotion is missing (a common complaint with digitally stored music).

Also, whenever a signal is converted from one format to another, there is a potential loss of quality. This is why it is important to have a high-quality DAC whenever you are converting audio signals.

The same holds true when recording music in digital form. This needs an an analog-to-digital converter, or ADC. There is not much you can do if poor quality ADC recording equipment has already stripped the life out of a performance.

Luckily, you can do a lot to get the best from well-recorded digital music. Further down the page are some of the best DAC's available.

Are Valves Better than Solid State?

Amplifier valves can be a thing of beauty.
Amplifier valves can be a thing of beauty.

Tube amps will always have their fans. The sound tends to be warmer and smoother. This does not mean the sound is better quality.

At the lower and medium price points, a tube amp can be a good investment. For audiophiles who want to get as close as possible to the sound of the music as it was laid down, the better kinds of solid state devices are a good choice.

Disadvantages of Tubes

Portability is not a tube amp selling point. Tubes are big, hot and they break if you drop them!

Will an External DAC improve iPod Sound?

An endangered iPod
An endangered iPod

Apple may be dropping the iPod, but many people still have these devices and this is a common question.

iPods have good quality DAC's onboard so the answer is more likely to be 'no' than 'yes'.

Having said that, sound beauty is in the ear of the listener and many people will swear on their sound system that a DAC improves iPod sound while using quality headphones.

Is a DAC worth the Investment for MP3's?

A good DAC can greatly enhance the playback of MP3's, especially those using the 320 kbit streaming rate.

The improvement is most noticable for a PC with a merely average sound card, and a smartphone or tablet.

Even so, you will never get as much from an MP3 as a lossless file format like WAV, FLAC, ALAC (from Apple) or WMA (Windows).

Outputs On a Headphone DAC

Typical inputs and outputs on a larger DAC
Typical inputs and outputs on a larger DAC

Most DAC headphone amps offer outputs other than a simple headphone jack.

NuForce and Audioengine products usually have the headphone jack at the front and RCA and Coaxial outlets behind (pictured above). This means it can feed into almost any sound set up.

There are variations, though, so it is best to make sure you are getting a device with outputs that match your needs.

Devices for Use at Home

These are bigger than anything you would want to carry around and need an external power supply.

Denon converter
Denon converter

Denon DA-300USB

Short of spending $20,000 on a Light Harmonics Da Vinci, this DAC amp from Denon is probably the best dedicated DAC headphone amp. This amp can be a very useful part of a home sound system.

There are inputs galore with RCA sockets, an asynchronous USB-B socket, coaxial in and 2 optical digital inputs.

The front end is simple with a 6.3mm headphone socket and the volume control. RCA and coaxial outputs are hidden away behind.

Criticism of the device centers on its soft tone. The bass has less kick than some prefer. For other people, the softness is a plus.

The Audioengine D1

The D1
The D1

The Audioengine D1 is super easy to use with its plug and play capability and there is no need for an external power source beyond a USB port.

This amp weighs less than a pound, and is roughly four inches by four inches with a thickness of only one inch. It may not be quite as portable as the new rPAC described below, but it will travel.

It uses 192kHz sample rates from the optical digital input. USB allows only 96kHz. The top quality RCA outlets make it a pleasure to use with speakers that have built-in amps.

The Audioengine D1 could be a great hub for your sounds in an office or bedroom as well as a very fine headphone amp offering wonderfully rich, precisely delineated sound.

More than Just a Headphone Amp

The D1 is a great companion for quality speakers. There are a pair of RCA outputs, and a coaxial output, in back.

D1 as a speaker amp
D1 as a speaker amp

Hi-Fi Man EF2A Valve Amp

Valves are not dead...
Valves are not dead...

For the price, the EF2A is very hard to beat for sweetness of sound. Tube amps easily out-compete solid state systems in the less expensive price ranges and this one sounds as good as most SS DAC's selling for twice the price.

The conversion is a two stage process with a Burr-Brown PCM2702 chip set up front and the valves to smooth out the sound.

It will take RCA analog inputs, as well as USB. Plus, it looks great too.

There are no RCA outputs for use with speakers.

Back end of the HIFIMAN USB DAC
Back end of the HIFIMAN USB DAC

NuForce uDAC-3

The NuForce unit, pictured, is a very popular, mid-priced unit. The aluminum shell will take some knocks. The analog output packs respectable a punch at 2V.

It offers analog RCA, digital coaxial or headphone outputs and can make a laptop or PC the center of a versatile sound system.

Portable Devices

Want to get the best on the move?

iFi Nano
iFi Nano

The Battery-powered iFi Nano

The iFi Nano is designed for use with Apple iOS, Android, and computers.

It has a rechargeable battery that makes it truly portable with around ten hours of usage per charge. If you hook up to a powered USB source the battery will recharge.

The disadvantage is the size. It is not heavy at 160 gms but it will not slip easily into a pocket.

The makers claim that the clean battery power is the great advantage in sound quality and the device is certainly smooth. The SPDIF coax digital output is a plus though, for a truly portable device.

Geek Out
Geek Out

Geek Out 1000

The '1000' is the 1,000mW max power output that this device can pump out - enough to make your skull vibrate as the sound waves try to escape.

It is designed for use with laptops primarily, rather than smartphones.

On the downside, it can run hot but then very few portable devices have the power to drive top end headphones like the Sennheiser HD 800.

Microstreamer
Microstreamer

HRT - Microstreamer

This is essentially a high quality, portable sound card with an analog output that you can take anywhere.

It can connect a computer to either headphones, powered speakers or a home sound system so size does not mean sacrificing versatility.

It does not have the most powerful amplifier around (try the Geek Out 1000 if you want ear-bleed) but is a wonderful addition to the repertoire of relatively inexpensive DAC's.

Audioquest Dragonfly V1.2

The latest Dragonfly, released in 2014, is noticeably smoother in the treble range than the previous version.
The latest Dragonfly, released in 2014, is noticeably smoother in the treble range than the previous version.

Not an Amp! But Worth Mentioning

If all you need is a DAC, the Audioquest Dragonfly is insanely small but very functional. The tough, rubberized, metal shell will survive well in bags or even in your pocket.

Not much bigger than the average flash drive, it can be carried anywhere and plugged into any device with a USB port. Your headphones plug into the other end and you are ready to listen.

The size and simplicity of use has made the Dragonfly very popular. The recent update to version V1.2 has really taken the DAC market by storm.

In an area where subjectivity rules, pretty much everyone agrees that this device is a clear leader on price and portability, standing comparison with much bigger and much more expensive products.

Useful for 5.1 Surround Sound, this device will convert digital output into 5.1 surround sound for a home theater system. It has the advantage over many similar systems of recognizing a wide range of encoding including most Dolby Digital formats and DTS.

The input is optical coaxial and the output is standard RCA 5.1.

Useful for 5.1 Surround Sound, this device will convert digital output into 5.1 surround sound for a home theater system. It has the advantage over many similar systems of recognizing a wide range of encoding including most Dolby Digital formats and DTS.

The input is optical coaxial and the output is standard RCA 5.1.

Useful for 5.1 Surround Sound

This device will convert digital output into 5.1 surround sound for a home theater system.

It has the advantage over many similar systems of recognising a wide range of encoding including most Dolby Digital formats and DTS.

The input is optical coaxial and the output is standard RCA 5.1.

Grado: fine retro detailing and affordable
Grado: fine retro detailing and affordable

Recommended Headphones

Grado Prestige Series SR225i Headphones.

Grado has fine retro detailing and is quite affordable, at approximately $200. Not as comfortable to wear, maybe, as the Sennheiser below but it boasts an interesting retro design and dynamic, detailed sound and great customer service. The 32 Ohm impedance makes them ideal for lower powered portable devices.

Sennheiser HD 650.

These 300 ohm headphones need plenty of power to sound good. And they will sound very good, indeed. Pairs especially well with the Audioengine DAC described above. Lists for around $500

HiFiMan - HE-300

50 ohm. Great sound from a low impedance set. Lists for around $250.

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Comments 10 comments

nelson 3 years ago

HelloWill. What's your about Fiio E10?

Thanks.


Will Apse profile image

Will Apse 4 years ago Author

I use the JRiver Media Center because it delivers whatever is on a CD or drive direct to the DAC AMP. There is no involvement of the windows audio engine. So I'm sorry to say that I can't really recommend anything around the VLC player.


John 4 years ago

I recently bought portable DAC/AMP that I connect to USB of my laptop which recognize it immediately and I can listen to the music.

What confuses me is that I can turn up the volume at the task bar, VLC player and AMP itself.

How should I configure it for best results?

Should I set the volume from PC and VLC player to 100% and than use AMP only to regulate it?

I mean as DAC is happening at external device does changing of volume level at laptop has any impact to the sound quality?

Thanks!!


Will Apse profile image

Will Apse 4 years ago Author

If you have quality headphones you should get a good result. The FiiO E11 would probably fit the bill. An alternative is an iPod. They have far better DAC's on-board than any smartphone.


justin 4 years ago

question. I am new to DACs... lets say I am buying the new HTC one X or Galaxy s3... they come with built in DACs how will a portable DAC help my sound quality if I use the phone for listening to music in my car with an aux cable or headphones will working out


Will Apse profile image

Will Apse 4 years ago Author

That is a pretty subjective judgement, Dave. One of my neighbors claims Hi-Fi Man valve sets will beat any solid state amps. I like my NuForce Icon-2 better.

I know for a fact if I recommend any device too strongly it won't be right for everyone. So I am just offering these models as being very good examples of what you can find right now.


Dave 4 years ago

judged on sound quality alone, which is the best of these?


Will Apse profile image

Will Apse 4 years ago Author

Well, that is much more appreciated than just being called a geek! Thanks.


Derdriu 4 years ago

WillApse, What a carefully presented, clearly written and logically organized summary of DACs and their accessorizing amplifiers, inputs and power sources! It's particularly helpful how you briefly describe each option within the context of its strongest and weakest points. Additionally, I like the way that you consider appearance.

Thank you for sharing,

Derdriu


PhoenixV profile image

PhoenixV 4 years ago from USA

I bookmarked this because I am seriously interested in getting some better sound. I have been using Sony, Phillips and JVC headphones and am definitely looking for some better audio. Thanks a bunch.

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