For those looking to get the absolute best sound out of their device – be it mobile, desktop or otherwise – you've no doubt looked at a DAC. Essentially an external sound card, a digital-to-analog converter, otherwise known simple as a DAC, converts all the 1s and 0s in every MP3 and FLAC file into analog signals. Taking it outside of your PC or Android device reduces interference and also gets you better sound processing. Lucky for us there are numerous options that come in all sorts of sizes and designs, ranging from the inexpensive to high, high-end boutique options available. So, let's take a look at 10 of the best for the Holidays.
Aune T1 Mk 2
The Aune T1 is a curious piece of audio equipment and one that has a lot of versatility in it. It plugs into your PC, Mac or Linux machine using USB like any other DAC, but it uses a genuine vacuum tube to power the conversion, so changing the tube will change the overall sound signature, and you get that tube sound no matter whether or not you use the built-in headphone amp (which is solid state by the way) or output to a bug speaker setup. I've had one on my desk for a year or so, and I have no end of fun using daily and changing the tubes out. Something for the person who has dedicated space on their desk or are looking to introduce a laptop or PC into a HiFi setup.
FiiO E18 Kunlun
FiiO is a company that's been around in the portable audio game for a long time, and the E18 brings things firmly back down to the mobile side of things. A portable headphone amplifier and DAC for Android devices, the E18 does it all. It'll plug into any Android smartphone or tablet running Android 5.0 and above using a provided microUSB cable and will take all the bits from Spotify or Tidal and spit them out through a quality headphone amplifier. Well-built and perfect for those opportunities when you want to settle down with some good tunes in the library or away from home but don't want to take too much with you, the E18 can supercharge your smartphone's music capabilities.
Schiit is an audio brand that, aside from having a nuts name, is completely US-grown and all their products are made in the US, already the name Schiit doesn't sound anything like it should. The Fulla is all you need to add some much needed clarity and oomph to your laptop or PC setup on the cheap. It's under a hundred bucks, and it's just a simple plug and play affair. A great brand that has become popular in audiophile circles, the Fulla can bring you better sound without the pomp and hassle, and this is one product that isn't full of Schiit.
Audioquest Dragonfly V1.2
If you like the idea of the Fulla, but want something even smaller and more simple, the Dragonfly V1.2 is what you want. It's as simple as simple can be, there are no drivers, just find a USB port and jam it in, the output is a standard 3.5mm out so there's no need for adapters or whatever, either. This little guy punches well above its weight, and has a 24-bit Sabre DAC inside delivering excellent clarity and smooth audio no matter what you use it with, it's the Chromecast of the DAC world and is great for the space-conscious.
If you know someone that's looking for an all-singing, all-dancing option that will make the most of fancy high-res files but also won't look out of place in a HiFi setup, then Sony has the best option here. It's USB-driven, but will support up to 32-bit files and even DSD streaming for the extreme audiophiles out there, as well as DSEE which is a Sony tech that upscales those lossy MP3s. The UDA-1 will drive headphones as well as speakers from 4 to 16 Ohms and it supports line in, optical and more. All of this makes the UDA-1 pricey, but versatile all the same (she also comes in black, too).
The E10K has been a favorite of many for years now, and for good reason. It's affordable, well-built and is a great addition to a laptop bag, a small PC setup or even a gaming PC. With a simple bass switch on the front and a volume dial, the E10K just works. It supports up to 24-bit files, and while the headphone amp section of things could be better, this will get the job done on a budget and won't take up much space, either.
On to something more substantial, the Arcam irDAC is both a more competent (and more expensive) DAC that does it all with included infrared controls. Developed by some of the pioneers in the DAC game, the irDAC from Arcam is an excellent option for those looking to extend a HiFi setup or bring an unassuming, yet powerful option to their desk.
Cayin C5 Spark
The Cayin C5 Spark was born out of the Cayin C5, a popular portable headphone amplifier that's been taking off recently. This new version keeps the retro-cool look and feel while adding in a USB DAC for smartphones and mobile devices alike. It keeps the same excellent headphone amp but is more versatile and more useful for those looking to use this on the go.
Sony PHA 1A
Sony's PHA 1A is another portable option, this time from the big, bad Sony and it looks the part and has all the sound you could ask for. Part of their "Hi-Res" initiative, this is great for 24-bit audio and can be used with Android devices, PCs and more. It's also a headphone amplifier as well, but the Wolfson DAC chip is great for opening up your music and delivering more punch and clarity no matter the resolution.
Cambridge Audio DACMagic
The DACMagic from Cambridge Audio is yet another longstanding addition to the long list of quality DACs, but it's one that has a whole lot packed into its small little casing. From a well known HiFi brand, this delivers everything you want without the giant price tag, and is excellent value for money. Whether you're buying this for an audiophile or someone complaining about poor quality in their laptops, this will get the job done and then some.