Best Cheap USB DACs 2020

Are you a home-recording artist looking for your next, “secret weapon?”

Perfect, you’re in the right place. On this page, you’ll find our top 11 best budget dacs (or Digital-to-Analog Converters) available in 2020.

Unfortunately, with over 3,000 dac models flooding the web, the aspiring at-home artist is put at risk with too many imposters being out there. Let’s face it, with no dac; your digital music collection is worthless. You just have a bunch of 1s and 0s.

With a proper dac, you turn those 1s and 0s into beautiful harmonies that are crystal-clear. And here’s another secret, top-quality dacs don’t have to cost you a fortune when picked intelligently.

To aid your search, we’ve rounded up the best cheap dacs on the market all in one place, to help you avoid the duds. Now, let’s dive right in with our #1-rated best budget dac.

Ranking

Name

Feature

Current Price


#1


Refreshing aluminum finish, portable, handles high power guitars

#2

Plug and play system, high-quality audio, portable, 24-bit audio processor

#3

Coaxial or optical fiber interface, superb Hi-fi stereo quality

#4

Beautiful retro design, high-quality sound, in-built 12v 1A power adaptor

#5

Famous for "Ultra low jitter," supports coaxial and optical inputs at rate of 16-24 bit/44.1-192Khz

#6

Improve the sound of your laptop, tablet, or phone, with Asynchronous USB Input

#7

Budget-friendly, easy to install and use, affordable

#8

Avoid annoying "pop noise," with this model's superior DSD and pcm switching

#9

The "mini cute dac," this 2nd gen model innovates on form-factor

#10

Chic design, lithium-polymer battery, sturdy build, durable

What is a DAC and how does it work?

Every day in our daily lives, we hear a wide variety of sounds and noises, whether it be a conversation with a friend or the chirping of a bird. These sounds are essentially analog sounds which the human ear can process. Such sounds can be recorded for any number of purposes, and the recordings of these sounds are called their digitization. By digitization of sound, we mean the capturing of various characteristics of sound such as bass, treble, or any other such parameter. But these digital sounds require conversion back to its analog format if we are to experience the joy of hearing them. This is where a DAC comes into the picture.

In simple terms, a DAC is a device that is used to convert digital audio signals into analog formats so that it is executable by various devices and audible to the human ear. In all playback devices, whether it be a smartphone or a computer or even a PlayStation, a chip is fixed in the motherboard ha is responsible for converting the digital signals into analog so that it can be processed by the human ear. Generally, the chip is placed internally next to the audio output of the device. Although the inbuilt DAC chips are more than useful in heir ask, external DAC’s are in a league of their own when it comes to factors like sound quality and depth.

By purchasing the best budget DAC, the user is essentially bypassing a mediocre quality computer audio chip with a device that is specifically built for the purpose of audio playback.

What is the best DAC for you?

Portable USB DACs

Primarily a portable USB DAC is used to connect to various other devices such as smartphones or tablets. It also functions as a compact headphone amplifier for your computer, doubling up as a computer DAC. Specific variants of this type of DAC are able to draw power from the USB port of your computer, requiring no additional power supply. The portability factor should be considered while choosing the best budget DAC for people who travel frequently or use laptops and other on-the-go devices.

Desktop USB DAC

This DAC-type features line-level outputs of audio in order to connect amplifiers or powered speakers. A desktop DAC can also be connected to an external CD player or network streaming device. The catch with a few desktop DACs is that they need AC power to operate, unlike portable DACs. A number of varieties offer a headphone output as well for individuals who don’t like to disturb others while listening to music!

Wireless DACs

Wireless DACs frequently use a transmitter that connects to your computer through USB. The digital information is sent to a separate wireless receiver i.e. it broadcasts the digital content to a different audio system. RCA cables are used to connect a stereo or amplifier to your wireless receiver. Some wireless DACs use Bluetooth technology for transmission across multiple devices. Buyers should always check the broadcast range to make sure it will reach their equipment.

Headphone Amp/DACs

Music enthusiasts or those who use headphones unsparingly for viewing content or playing games should consider this product-type while deliberating on the best budget DAC. This type has a built-in amplifier that is designed to get the optimum quality and sound out of your headphones. Individuals who wish to make their headphone experience a lot more special will appreciate the high-sound quality and powerful performance thanks to this variety of DAC. Headphone amps can also act as an efficient digital pre-amp for individuals who wish to connect their home stereo systems along with their headphones.

DACs for iPad/iPhone/Android

The quality of playbacks can be increased manifold using this type of DAC and is ideal for connecting any playback device to the home stereo. DACs are playback devices that are generally battery powered and generally completely portable. There are certain models which provide a wide range of diverse options for connectivity by featuring multiple USB inputs.

Component Hi-fi DACs

These mean machines offer the broadest range of connectivity options and are hardwired to connect to a full-fledged home audio system. These DACs are endowed with advanced circuitry and are optimally suitable for twin-channel stereo systems as well as high-end home theatre receivers. Specific Component DAC models are also equipped with a volume control feature allowing their use as a preamplifier in digital sound systems.

Getting the optimal output from your DAC

Quality of Music Files

Nowadays, music files are available in a number of different formats and sizes. From mp3 to high-end formats like FLAC, it is vital for anyone who seeks the best budget DAC to understand that the product is not an end in itself. The level of detail that a DAC can extract from a particular recording depends mostly upon the quality of the recording in itself. In order to get the most from DAC, users should ensure that their music files are of the highest resolution possible. If you’re streaming music on sites like Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes, make sure you change the streaming settings to get the best results! And if you’ve never heard anything besides mp3 music, then just check out your favorite song in a .FLAC format and see if you can tell the difference for yourself.

Quality of System Components

Another factor that influences the performance of your outboard DAC is the quality of your system’s constituent audio components. Things like cable speakers and well-crafted headphones go a long way in complementing your DAC. For instance, a $2500 DAC paired with a mid-fi home theatre receiver will not produce value-for-money results. Similarly, it would be foolish to add an entry-level DAC to an extensive system of high-end amplifiers.

Level of expertise in Computer operations

Although a DAC plugged into a computer can get you playing your music straight away, a greater knowledge of software operations will help you get the best out of your product. Any ideas about the physics of sound or even music theory will help individuals to extract optimum performance out of their DACs. It is prudent to make specific changes to your computer’s audio system in order to get optimum sound quality. Some DACs require users to download and install USB drivers to operate. The good news is that DAC manufacturers usually provide relevant instructions with their products. However, it is advisable to do some research on the topic and understand the fundamentals of computer operations.

Quality of Cables

The quality of cables you use on our to connect the DAC to your playback devices also has a strong impact in determining the ultimate quality of sound that you get in the final analysis. It is advisable to upgrade the cables provided with the DAC box, as it usually results in better sound quality. Make sure to use good quality USB cables for our computer and optical digital and coaxial digital cables for your CD or Network music player. It is also vital to ensure that the right analog cable is used to connect the DAC to your stereo.

Top 10 Best Budget DACs 2020

1. Focusrite Scarlett Solo (3rd Generation) USB Audio Interface with Pro Tools

focusrite scarlett

(Editor’s Choice)

The Focusrite Scarlett is a dream for heavy-music enthusiasts, especially guitarists, as it is designed to handle high powered guitar pickups. It also has a stereo line that outputs on RCA phono to connect to home speakers and a headphone out equipped with gain control.

This product comes with a range of Pro Tools such as First Focusrite Creative Pack, Ableton Live Lite, and Softube Time and Tone Bundle. As far as compatibility goes, it works on Windows 7 and higher, Mac OS X 10.10 and higher. It also has a healthy frequency response of 20 Hz – 20kHz 0.25db and provides sample rates up to 192kHz/24 with super low latency, so you can comfortably use your plug-ins in real time without the need for a Digital Signal Processor(DSP).

Why we chose this:

The Focusrite Scarlett with Pro Tools is simply the best you can buy at this price range. It’s highly-reviewed for a reason.

Pros
  • It provides you with best-in-class audio, at a shockingly low price that can’t be beaten
  • It has a beautiful red and black finish, that looks professional
  • It is portable
  • You can connect to a laptop through the USB
  • You can connect a microphone or guitar directly
  • It handles high power guitars well
  • Mac users don’t need additional drivers before use
Cons
  • There are cheaper dacs out there, but they can’t match the Focusrite Scarlett’s performance (It’s a #1 Best Seller for a reason!)

 

2. Audioengine D1 24-bit Digital to Analog Converter

audioengine d1

This is an entry-level product with simple plug-n-play features either on your Mac or on your PC. This Audioengine D1 represents one of the best budget DACs that are available in the market today. The D1 shows marked versatility in accepting inputs as it does so from both USB and optical sources.

Whether you’re using a PC or a TV or even DVD/BluRay player, the D1 is always ready to give you the best. Another enticing feature of the D-1 is that it also acts as a high-quality portable computer headphone amplifier. It is capable of processing digital audio at any bit depth up to 24 bits and any sample rate up to 192khz.

Why we chose this:

If you want high-end warm rich full stereo sound, the Audioengine D1 is a great choice. It’s a tad more expensive, but worth every penny.

Pros
  • It is easy to connect to Mac and Windows PCs
  • Has a plug and play system that compatible with all PCs
  • It has a high-quality headphone amplifier
  • Provides high-quality audio
  • Compact and conveniently portable
  • Has a 24-bit audio processor
  • The interface is simple and easy to use
Cons
  • The volume control could use a line/marker (not a big deal though for sound-junkies like us, considering its top-shelf performance, and excellent price)

 

3. SMSL SD793-II

SMSL SD793-II

The SMSL SD793-II is one of the best DAC performers in the market today. It may be larger than others, but it offers great features and high-quality sounds. 

One of the best things about SMSL SD793-II is that the design is very intuitive. The reason behind this is because you can see everything that you need at the front panel. There’s no need for you to check your computer’s back because everything is at the front.

Another good thing about SMSL SD793-II its that it has great technical parameter. This means that everything that you need in a DAC is here.

Why we chose this:

This budget dac is a fantastic value for the money. If you’re looking for a cheap way to get every ounce of juice out from your sound system, the SMSL SD793-II is a great choice.

Pros
  • Op-amp is turned on automatically when earphones are connected
  • Two available outputs, one for 1/4” earphone out and an RCA line out
  • Sound quality is amazing
  • Pairing with an earphone is easy
  • Switching from RCA to earphone is easy
Cons
  • The cheap price makes this model an entry-level dac (but it gets the job done for the burgeoning audio-artist)

 

4. FX Audio DAC-X6 24 bit/192 Optical/Coaxial/

FX Audio DAC-X6

The X6 from FX Audio has a very impressive build and a sturdy frame that inspires confidence in users. It also comes with a 12V power adapter 1A and 3 separate DAC chipsets as well as headphone amplifier chipsets. Standard input interface includes computer USB/ coaxial as well as an optical fiber with a toggle switch.

The X6 boasts of an impressive frequency response: 20hz-20khz and distortion of equal to OR less than 0.001%. As far as budget DACs go, this model is right up there with the best, owing to its sturdy frame and value-for-money features.

Why we chose this:

This FX Audio DAC-X6 is perfect as a desktop unit, with bookshelf speakers, or as a powerful headphone amp.

Pros
  • It has a beautiful retro design and sleek finish
  • Allows various input methods
  • Offers high-quality sound for headphones
  • Comes with an in-built 12v 1A power adaptor
  • It has 3 DAC chipsets
  • Offer low audio distortion
  • It has a low energy consumption rate
  • It offers high performance for its price
Cons
  • It has stepped volume control (not an issue for everyone, but something to be aware of)

 

5. Topping D30 DAC

topping d30 dac

The Topping D30 DAC is known to have a lot of connections, while also having support for high resolution formats, such as DSD. This DAC comes with a good package, which will make sure that the item inside is well protected.

When using Topping D30 DAC, it is recommended to use together with the Topping D30 headphones, though you can also use different devices for both output and input. The Topping D30 DAC supports high resolution contents for up to DSD128.

Why we chose this:

If you’re experiencing an annoying “popping” noise while switching from DSD to PCM, go with this Topping D30 budget DAC for quiet effortless switching.

Pros
  • Made from high quality materials, solid build
  • Modern yet simple design
  • Transparent sound
  • Clean output
  • Supports content of 24bit/192kHz
Cons
  • It’s not for users looking for complexity (performance made simple)

6. AudioQuest-Beetle Optical DAC

audioquest beetle dac

The AudioQuest-Beetle Optical DAC is known for having a great audio, which can handle amazing audio quality. One of the best things about this DAC is that it can use a 3.5mm earphones, so you have that option if needed.

Another good thing about AudioQuest-Beetle Optical DAC is that you have the option to adjust the volume of the audio. You don’t have to worry about anything because the accuracy will be maintained. 

Lastly, worry not because AudioQuest-Beetle Optical DAC comes with different accessories so you don’t have to purchase other things.

Why we chose this:

The AudioQuest-Beetle Optical DAC is durable, cheap, and gets the job done.

Pros
  • Bluetooth functionality is excellent
  • Zero dropouts
  • Decent range for both outputs and inputs
  • Very versatile
  • Sounds amazing
Cons
  • The relatively high-price, compared to previous models on this list

 

7. FX-Audio DAC-X6 Mini

FX-Audio DAC-X6 Mini

The FX-Audio DAC-X6 Mini is known to have amazing features, including coax S/PDIF inputs, optical, and it also has a USB. The consumption of power from the USB is at 50 milliamps. It’s amazing to get features like that for the price range that this DAC has. 

One of the best thing about FX-Audio DAC-X6 Mini is that you don’t need to install anything. That is how easy it is to operate and use, which make it reliable enough to be used in different formats available today.

Why we chose this:

The X6 Mini makes our countdown for its superior ability to maximize the performance of high-end headphones.

Pros
  • Perfect for headphones
  • Has a frequency response of up to 20hz to 20khz
  • Lightweight at 1.1lb
  • Has a certificate of conformity 
  • Easy to operate
Cons
  • There are better quality dacs that are higher on our list, for around the same price

 

8. Topping D30 DSD

topping d30 dsd

One of the best things about Topping D30 DSD Audio Decoder is that it has an output protection, which means that it will automatically turned the output off once you loose input signal. This will surely help protect your ears when things like that happens. 

Another good thing about Topping D30 is that it will never sound too analytical or too bright. You surely won’t hear any POP or the like so there’s nothing to worry about.

Why we chose this:

This model makes our list because its simple to use, but highly effective.

Pros
  • Durable and sturdy build
  • Thick sound
  • Full and clear sound
  • No weird sounds
  • Output protection
Cons
  • It’s higher price, when competitors offer better deals

 

9. SMSL M100

smsl m100

The SMSL M100 is the second generation of the USB audio solution. It supports native DSD and PCM signal for up to 32bit or 768kHz. One of the best things about SMSL M100 is that it has a built in high power module and LDOs that are low noise, which are both sufficient for the analog circuit. 

The back panel of SMSL M100 shows the decoder, which is powered purely by USB. This device supports OTG, Coaxial, and optical USB input. Lastly, it has a two ultra-low noise so you don’t have to worry about anything.

Why we chose this:

The SMSL M100 makes our list because of its superior ability to reduce distortion.

Pros
  • Low distortion
  • Small but very powerful
  • High quality which makes it durable
  • High power decoder
  • Status display
Cons
  • There are better performing dacs in this price range
  • Doesn’t look quite as professional (cute though)

 

10. iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label

iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label

This iFi Audio Nano iDSD is designed to be efficient and performance oriented with a small and lightweight body. The model comes with rechargeable Lithium polymer battery that allows its users non stop musical entertainment for up to 10 hours. It is capable of playing all high-resolution audio formats including DSD256, DXD384, PCM 3384khz. In addition to this, the device can be connected directly to your smartphone or PC. It’s powerful dual mono 285 milliwatt headphone amp is 6 times more powerful than an iPhone empowering users to drive the headphones to maximum performance. A combination of extensive features coupled with a desirable price makes this product one of the best budget DACs you can get your hands on.

Why we chose this:

For the price, it provides better than average performance.

Pros
  • It has a chic design suitable for tech-savvy users
  • It allows various input options
  • It has a lithium-polymer battery that lasts up to 10 hours when fully charged
  • It is has a sturdy build and is durable
  • It’s powerful allowing users to enjoy optimum headphone capacity
Cons
  • There are fewer features than previously reviewed models at this price level

Conclusion

Still not sure which budget dac is right for you? If so, go with our #1-recommended: Focusrite Scarlett Solo with Pro Tools.

The initial emergence of this device came about as a response to consumer complaints regarding poor audio quality and if you’re someone who is tired of the same redundant MP3 sound format with limited textures in your audio, you need to get a quality DAC. 

In this article, our aim was to comprehensively cover all information regarding what a DAC is and how you should go about purchasing it and getting the most out of it. Essentially the DAC works as a plug and play device i.e. the operating system of the computer or any other device connected to it, immediately recognizes its presence as well as the functions it’s supposed to perform. Two important variables to consider while choosing a DAC are it’s sample rate and bit depth. For your purposes, without getting into technical details, you’d want both these variables as high as possible. In order to give you a better understanding of the concept of bit rate, consider the differences in audio quality when you’re streaming a music video on YouTube and compare the experience with a stream on iTunes or any high-quality streaming service. 

We have also given you a list of the 10 best budget DACs out there so you can’t go wrong no matter which you choose. Although many more are available in the market, our vision and focus was to make you acquainted with the ones that give you the best value for money in relation to your own individual needs and requirements for wanting to purchase a DAC. Now that you are all strapped and ready to take your next audio project to new heights, we wish you Godspeed!

Go out there and hook up your Focusrite Scarrlet and get the most out of your equipment. You deserve nothing less!

Jeff Day
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