The modern era is one that is unquestionably dominated by digital media. Music files are also overwhelmingly digital in his age that are located and executed from a variety of devices such as computers, laptops, phones and play stations. All of these devices require what is called a Digital-to-analog converter and if you’re looking for the best budget DAC, you’re in luck! All fun and jokes aside, buying a DAC can be tricky, especially for someone who is unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of modern technological systems and their functioning.
This article will equip you with all the tools of knowledge you require to make a shrewd purchase, even if you’re someone who hasn’t ventured into the technicalities of modern gadgets. We will go through all the factors that should determine your purchase so that you can make a rational informed choice by taking your personal unique usage expectations into account.
What is a DAC and how does it work?
Everyday 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 recording of these sounds is what is termed as 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
Essentially 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. Certain 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 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.
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 widest 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. Certain 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 largely 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 certain 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. 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 important to ensure ha the right analog cable is used to connect the DAC to your stereo.
Top 10 Best Budget DACs 2018
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, Softube Time and Tone Bundle amongst others. 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 bit with super low latency, so that you can comfortably use your plug-ins in real time without the need for a Digital Signal Processor(DSP).
This is an entry-level product with simple plug-n-play features either on your Mac or on your PC. This product represents one of the best budget DACs that are available in the market today. The D1 shows marked versatility when it comes to 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.
3. Fiio E17K ALPEN 2 USB DAC Headphone Amplifier
This portable headphone amplifier and digital to analog converter have a built-in rechargeable Lithium battery and USB charger that allows users to charge the device not only on their PCs but also with a USB adaptor. The E17 K has a mechanism for intuitive agile control as it is equipped with a new multifunctional wheel that responds to both turns and clicks. The device supports up-to 96 khz/32 bit with DSD decoding feature also present.
It is also capable of USB audio decoding and can be used as an external sound card. Other impressive features include a lower distortion rate and greater linear digital-analog conversion characteristics.
4. FX Audio DAC-X6 24 bit/192 Optical/Coaxial/ USB Digital Audio Amplifier DAC Decoder
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.
5. Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100
This visually appealing DAC model has a certain class attached to its outlook. It comes with 1 USB, 2 coaxial digital and 1 optical as input options and is compatible with any PC or MAC or virtually any device with a digital audio output. It offers a healthy frequency response, ranging from 20Hz-20khz. The DacMagic 100 believes in securing greater detail reducing distortion to great lengths.
It provides a sound that is clear, detailed and has a strong undercurrent of scale and drama. Because of its unabashed commitment to quality and performance, the DACMagic 100 gives you great capacity for sound extraction on all kinds of gadgets and playback devices.
6. SMSL Sanskrit 6th 32 bit/192 KHz USB/Optical/Coaxial to Analog Audio Decoder
If you go by the looks of this DAC model you might be forgiven to think that it’s old school! It looks simple but performs consistently making this one of the best budget DACs available in the market. It seamlessly converts USB/Optical/Coaxial signals into analog signals with input options including smartphones, TVs, computers etc.
The optical/coaxial input supports a sampling rate of 24 bit/192 kHz. The USB input, on the other hand, supports a sampling rate of 32 bit/192 kHz sampling rate characterized by asynchronous transmission.
Windows versions XP, 7, 8, 8, 10 are all supported by this device along with MAC versions of OS X10.6 or higher. It is also compatible with Android devices with an OTG cable.
7. Fiio D3 (D03K) Digital to Analog Audio Converter
The Fiio D3 is often considered the mother of budget DACs and it’s no exaggeration to say that it is one of the best budget DACs available for entry-level users. It presents a very fast and efficient way in which digital audio output is converted to high fidelity stereo analog sound. It is compatible with a host of devices such as Digital TVs and HDTVs – CD, DVD, BluRay and HD-DVD players – Apple TV, Google TV and also game consoles like PlayStation 4, Xbox One etc. The D3 is crafted specifically for interfacing between modern digital audio/video devices with analog amplifiers or even self-powered speakers.
The Micca OriGen G2 boasts of a strong and sturdy frame starting with a steel tube chassis. It also comes capped with an anodized aluminum top plate that provides durability and it’s all metal construction ensures that it is duly protected in rough conditions. This studio master grade digital audio playback device also supports high-resolution audio up to 24 bit/192kHz. For individuals looking to set up a solid high-functioning compact desktop computer audio system, the G2 is an easy choice. It’s a powerful pre-amp and headphone amplifier has the capacity to unlock the full sonic potential of your music library.
9. Fiio E10 USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier (Titanium)
The solid yet elegant E10 is a DAC model that is fine-tuned for excellence. The device is capable of handling PCM files up-to 24 bit/96 kHz. An interesting feature of this model is the low noise floor that is achieved through the optimized low-pass filter and selectable bass boost. It has a micro USB connection that can connect the device to your laptop and also provide power to the device. Regarding the issue of design, the E10K is adorned with a sleek, brushed aluminum shell and chassis that enables durable as well as portable use. It is also equipped with a rear-panel coaxial digital output, which allows users to send their digital audio to a different destination. This model features an LMH6643 op Amp that is designed for transient response and driving power.
10. iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label Portable DAC and Headphone Amplifier
This product 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.
You might be wondering after all this, why do I need this product? The answer is simple in that it gives you a much higher sound quality so that you can enjoy the experience of audio-visuals to the fullest. 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 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 and we hope that you choose wisely. 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 make an informed choice as a consumer, we wish you Godspeed! Go out there and get the best sound you want for yourself because you deserve nothing less.