Bluetooth audio has made huge improvements in the last few years, but despite all these strides, it still falls short of wired digital audio from the 80s. Wireless audio is super convenient, but there will always be people who want to trade that for better quality. It doesn't hurt that making that jump also makes earbud battery life a total non-issue.
While Bluetooth is still trying to take on 1980s audio wireless, wired audio hasn't exactly been twiddling its thumbs. Even though Spotify is still dragging its feet to launch a lossless tier, there's no shortage of other services streaming music to your phone that's significantly beyond what Bluetooth is capable of. Whether you're buying tracks from HDTracks or NativeDSD, listening to MQA files through Tidal, or streaming your lossless HiFi from Qobuz or Apple music, there's no shortage of services tailored to wired listening done best with a DAC.
With some options into the hundreds of dollars and others available for pocket change, there's something for any budget. Whether you're just an aspiring audiophile or looking to upgrade to an even better DAC, we've got something for you.
The FiiO BTR5 2021 has all the normal appeal of a mobile DAC, along with ample Bluetooth codec support, giving it extra functionality as a wireless headphone receiver. The high bitrate audio support, full MQA decoding, and high impedance outputs were enough to land it on this list, but the added flexibility of the Bluetooth support makes it even harder to pass up. The built-in 550mAh battery even makes it possible to use high impedance headphones without your phone's uptime taking a nosedive, even when it's plugged in. All of these features make it a Swiss army knife for the audiophile on the go.
With both a standard 3.5mm and 2.5mm balanced jack, the BTR5 works great for most headphones already in your collection, as well as plenty of fancy in-ear monitors you can pick up down the road. It's capable of playing the highest resolution files available on lossless streaming services like Qobuz or Deezer, so you have to make an effort to find anything it can't handle.
- Brand: FiiO
- Supported Formats: MP3, WAV, FLAC, ALAC, DSD, MQA
- Connector: USB-C, 3.5mm, 2.5mm balanced
- Weight: 44g
- Battery: 550 mAh
- Max Impedance: 150Ω (balanced) 100Ω (nonbalanced)
- Codecs: AAC, SBC, aptX, aptX LL, aptX HD, LDAC
- Buetooth: 5.0
- DAC chip: 2X ES9219C
The iFi GO bar is simultaneously one of the smallest portable DACs on the market, as well as one of the most powerful. With playback modes optimized for super sensitive IEMs or even demanding cans with up to 600Ω of impedance, the GO bar is just as useful for popping in your favorite earbuds on the go or sitting down with your most demanding headphones for some critical listening.
While there is no shortage of DACs sporting multiple outputs, one thing unique to the GO bar is how these outputs are wired. With most balanced outputs, whether it's a 2.5mm TRRS connector or a 4.4mm Pentaconn jack, a second set of DAC and amp chips are used to process both audio channels separately. This normally means that the non-balanced jack will only have half the output power as the balanced output, but since the GO bar handles this with a single DAC and amp set, the full power is always available no matter which output you're using.
- Supported Formats: FLAC and other PCM formats up to 32bit 384kHz, DSD up to 12.3MHz, full MQA decoding
- Connector: USB-C, 3.5mm, 4.4mm Balanced
- Weight: 28.5g
- Battery: none
- Max Impedance: 600Ω
- Dimensions: 65 x 22 x 13.2 mm
- DAC chip: 32-bit Cirrus Logic
The Jsaux Type-C to 3.5mm adapter isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you hear "DAC", but there's still a DAC chip doing the hard work of turning your ones and zeros into music. While it's nowhere near as powerful as the other DACs on this list, unless your phone is one of the increasingly rare ones that still came with a headphone jack, it's still good enough to give you a boost in quality over most Bluetooth options.
This adapter plus something like the is a hard to beat budget combo that outclasses Bluetooth buds costing nearly ten times as much. While having a good DAC can be a serious audio quality upgrade, this option is still closer to a baby step, and will give you a good idea if a higher quality option is right for you. It won't give you access to anything fancy like DSD files, or even high bitrate FLACs, but it's enough to try out lossless CD quality files, and that's a great place to start.
- Supported Formats: Mp3, FLAC, WAV up to 16bit 48kHz
- Connector: USB-C, 3.5mm
- Weight: 10g
- Dimensions: 7" x 0.4"
The FiiO BTR7 has all the same features as the BTR5, along with some spec bumps for the audiophile elitist crowd. With a larger display, bigger battery, and a 4.4mm balanced output instead of the BTR5's 2.5mm port, it's easy to see where the extra cost comes from. Some improvements are clearly from the land of diminishing returns, and also make the BTR7 less portable than the BTR5, so it clearly isn't for everyone.
The 4.4mm Pentaconn jack is quickly becoming more common than the 2.5mm 4-pole connector found on the BTR5, so that upgrade makes the BTR7 a bit more tempting for anyone that doesn't already have a collection of balanced cables or cans. If you have your eyes on any of those headphones, like the , the BTR7 is one of the best pocket DACs you can choose.
- Supported Formats: mp3, FLAC, and WAV up to 384kHz 32bit, and DSD up to DSD256
- Connector: USB-C, 3.5mm, 4.4mm balanced
- Weight: 68g
- Battery: 880mAh
- Max Impedance: 3.5mm 100Ω, 4.4mm 150Ω
- Codecs: LDAC/aptX Adaptive/aptX LL/aptX HD/aptX/AAC/SBC
- Buetooth: 5.1
- DAC chip: 2X ES9219C
The iBasso DC06 has support for some of the most demanding audio files you're likely to encounter, and a tiny footprint that makes it easy to bring with you anywhere. With dual pairs of DAC and amp chips for its 4.4mm balanced output, you'll be able to hear details you never noticed in your favorite albums. Even with the 3.5 mm jack, you're sure to get a noticeable bump in quality.
While it's lacking a lot of the features that make more expensive DACs so nice to use, like different listening modes and support for high impedance headphones, the DC06 is a great option for anyone looking to play massive song files without a huge upfront cost. With a color-changing LED to let you know at a glance what kind of file you're listening to, if you're a Tidal HiFi+ subscriber, you can be sure you're listening to the MQA files you paid extra for.
- Supported Formats: Mp3, FLAC, WAV up to 32bit 384 kHz, up to DSD256, MQA
- Connector: USB-C, 3.5mm, 4.4mm Balanced
- Weight: 23g
- Dimensions: 50mm x 23mm
- DAC chip: 2X ES9219C
The Bolt by Helm Audio is a powerful entry-level DAC with a focus on the files you're most likely to encounter. It doesn't have a balanced output, and isn't suggested for headphones over 150Ω, but those aren't exactly common for casual music listening. If you want to make the most of your Tidal Hifi Plus subscription, the Bolt is one of the most affordable options on the market.
While it doesn't have volume controls, the Bolt automatically increases power to the amp when it detects higher resistance from harder to drive headphones. This makes it a lot less convenient to adjust the volume if your phone is in your pocket, though. While the integrated USB cable makes the Bolt less flexible, it's still very small, and barely any larger than a Type-C to 3.5mm adapter.
- Supported Formats: Mp3, FLAC, WAV up to 32bit 384kHz, DoP, MQA
- Connector: integrated USB-C cable, 3.5mm
- Weight: 7.1g
- Max Impedance: auto-impedance compensation up to 150Ω
- Dimensions: 0.5" x 4.4"
- DAC chip: ES9281A Pro
The Lavaudio DS100 has integrated volume and pause controls, support for 120Ω headphones, and 32bit 384 kHz or DSD256 files. If you're in the market for an entry-level DAC, those features are probably more than enough to satisfy, but it doesn't give you a lot of room to grow. Most people are probable fine with these limits, but if you want a single extra feature, you're out of luck.
It may not support MQA or have a balanced output, but that doesn't stop it from being able to deliver high quality audio. It's impressively thin, making it super convenient to bring with you, and more than capable of playing the most demanding files most people will ever encounter. The built-in controls of the DS100 may be hit or miss on your computer, but if you're listening on the phone in your pocket, they're definitely an appreciated convenience.
- Supported Formats: mp3, FLAC, WAV up to 32bit 384 kHz, DSD256
- Connector: USB-C, 3.5mm
- Weight: 82g
- Max Impedance: 120Ω
- Dimensions: 2.4" x 0.8" x .25"
- DAC chip: CS43198
Moondrop is a leader in affordable audio, and the Dawn is another great example of that. It punches well above its price tag with support for files up to 32bit 768kHz or DSD256, but it's still a budget DAC at the end of the day. The square body can be a bit awkward to pocket, and the integrated USB cable doesn't help on that front either. There's no listed max suggested impedance, either, but that's unlikely to be an issue if you're in the market for an entry-level DAC.
It may lack a balanced output, but the 3.5mm jack is still wired the way a balanced output is. This may be a cost saving measure, since Moondrop also sells a version of the Dawn with the same internals and a 4.4mm balanced Pentaconn jack, but the result is still the same. Physically separating the audio processing for both channels can lead to less interference, though being concerned with that is well into diminishing returns.
- Supported Formats: mp3, FLAC, and WAV up to 32bit 384 kHz, and DSD256
- Connector: Built-in USB-C cable, 3.5mm
- Weight: 11.5g
- Dimensions: 4.5" x 0.5" x 0.5"
- DAC chip: Cirrus Logic CS43131
What to look for in a DAC
There's a few specs to keep in mind when DAC shopping. First is the audio it can handle, which is usually listed in bitrate and format. Without getting too in the weeds, higher bit-depths at higher frequencies lead to three things — bigger files, harder processing, and better sound. The highest bitrate you're likely to encounter is 24bit 96kHz (unless you're a classical fan, that is), but that's not the only way DACs can process audio. MQA unfolding and DSD streaming are also important considerations for some people, but you won't just stumble onto those files.
The DAC chip isn't the only important hardware in a DAC, though. Amp chips determine how much power is sent to your headphones. The higher the resistance rating of your headphones, measured in ohms, the more powerful your amp needs to be to achieve the same volume. Most standard headphone jacks are acceptable for 30-50 ohms, but with much more impedance than that, you need extra amplification if you actually want to hear your music.
If you're trying to squeeze every bit of quality out of your DAC, you might be interested in balanced audio. Balanced connections promise a cleaner signal with less noise and interference, depending on how much audiophile snake oil you're willing to buy into. Grain of salt aside, there's an unintended benefit to balanced outputs. Because the vast majority of balanced outputs are wired with two DAC chips through two amps, most balanced outputs can drive much more demanding headphones.
What's the right DAC for you?
If all you want is to beat Bluetooth for as little as possible, the Jsaux adapter is the clear answer. It's also the smallest option here, as an added bonus, so you can leave it attached to the end of your daily carry earbuds if you're worried about losing it. If you want a similar form factor with a huge upgrade, the Bolt by Helm Audio isn't much bigger and offers a similar plug-n-play experience. It also supports full MQA unfolding, so you can make the most of your Tidal Hifi Plus subscription. If you wanted to stay closer to the pocket-change-pricetag of the Jsaux, and awkward size isn't an issue, the Moondrop Dawn is a great middle ground.
For anyone who doesn't want to give up Bluetooth for good, the BTR5 is the audiophile jack of all trades for you. It can handle the same heavy-duty files that all the more expensive DACs on this list can, comes with a balanced output, and can also be used as a Bluetooth receiver if you want to keep listening while you plug your phone in to charge. This combination of power and versatility made it a clear pick for Editor's Choice. The closest thing it has to an Achilles heel is that it's not good at driving high-impedance headphones. If that's what you want from a DAC, the iFi GO bar is your best option.
While any of these DACs can be used with your computer in a pinch, the GO bar is the only one I'd put in the same class as a full-blown desktop DAC/amp setup. It may be the most expensive option here, but it's also the most feature-rich and the most powerful. With a rated max of 600 ohms, it keeps up with amps that plug into a wall. There's plenty of good to say about it, but if all you're trying to do is get better audio with a DAC, more affordable ones on this list can do that too.