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DAC buying guide

How to choose a digital-to-analog converter for home or portable audio

It has never been easier to discover new music, fire up a favorite song, or unearth a forgotten gem. That’s all good. But how do you get the best sound when you listen to Spotify, Apple Music, and other digital music on your phone or laptop?

Digital music files vary in quality, but they all have one thing in common. You can't listen to them in their digital form. That's where a digital-to-analog converter, or "DAC," comes in.

What is a DAC

What is a DAC?

A DAC transforms digital bits — those icy, functional 1s and 0s — into sweet music. It is a necessary, important, and often overlooked part of the audio chain. There's a tiny DAC inside your phone, and another one in your computer's sound card. However, not all digital-to-analog converters are created equal.

How is an external DAC better?

“An outboard DAC bypasses the inferior audio decoding of your phone and computer,” answered Crutchfield Advisor Charles Anderson. “It can deliver music with more precision.”

Charles is the head of our Personal Audio expert group, so he’s well-versed in the world of headphones, headphone amps, and DACs. Earlier this year, he led a training class for our Advisors, where he showed off the benefits of a high-quality DAC.

“An external DAC creates a stronger audio foundation for the rest of your equipment,” he said. Add in a solid amp and a pair of nice speakers or headphones, and you're in for a treat.

Charles teaching class

Charles recently put together an internal training to better school our Advisors on DACs and high-resolution music.

Which is the best DAC for you?

There are several different styles of DACs available. Some are ideal for driving your headphones. Others are only used with your home stereo. And many work well with both.

“At my training, I ran demos to show the home stereo benefits of adding a DAC,” said Charles. “listening through the larger speakers, the Advisors could really pick out the extra musical detail and better sense of place.”

But most of our DAC customers these days use them for listening through headphones. Charles pointed out that you get a tremendous amount of bang for your buck with a headphone setup. Simply adding a DAC and a good headphone amp can go a long way.

How are DACs similar and different to headphone amps? Read my headphone amp buying guide to find out.

Portable USB DACs

Dragonfly Cobalt with phone

The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt can connect to your laptop computer or phone (with the included USB-C adapter) for super-premium sound while you’re on the go.

A portable USB DAC primarily serves as a compact headphone amplifier for your computer. You can also use it to connect your computer to a stereo system.

Some models draw their power from your computer's USB port — no extra power supply is needed. Models that have built-in batteries are great for use with a phone or portable music player.

Shop our selection of portable USB DACs

Our best-selling DACs: the AudioQuest DragonFly series

By far, our most popular DACs are the AudioQuest DragonFly models. AudioQuest put the USB DAC category on the map with these ultra-portable devices. And there are now three models to choose from -- the DragonFly Black v1.5, DragonFly Red, and the new top-of-the-line DragonFly Cobalt.

These DACs are the roughly the size of a thumb drive, and plug into your phone or computer to deliver high-quality sound. All three have a built-in headphone amp for driving high-performance headphones. Each features a stereo 3.5mm mini audio output jack for connecting a set of headphones or a stereo mini-to-RCA cable.

The main difference is the audio circuitry inside of each. And the sound is dialed in a bit more as you step up through the models. You’ll find one version or another on many of our desks here at Crutchfield.

“The DragonFly Red is hard to beat for portability,” said Charles. “I use it with my work laptop, then unplug it and listen on the go with my iPhone and an Apple® Lightning® adapter.”

So when AudioQuest released the Cobalt, it caused a major stir around here. We tested and compared all three, and discussed it on this video:

Desktop USB DACs

Desktop USB DACs also connect to your computer through USB. Unlike portable DACs, some desktop models need AC power to operate. They feature line-level audio outputs for connecting powered speakers or an amplifier. You can also connect an external CD player or network streaming device to a desktop DAC. Many offer a headphone output for private listening.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus in a headphone setup

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus is a desktop stereo DAC/headphone amp that can drive high-performance headphones like the Denon AH-9200 bamboo headphones.

“At home, I use the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus desktop amp with my computer and headphones,” said Charles. “It may not be as portable as my DragonFly Red, but it has two Wolfson DACs inside, so it sounds even more spacious with better imaging. Plus I can also use it in my home stereo setup.”  

Shop our selection of desktop USB DACs


Wireless DACs

Audioengine D2 Wireless DAC

The Audioengine D2 uses a transmitter and receiver combo to wirelessly send audio up to 100 feet away.

Wireless DACs broadcast digital content to an audio system in another location. Some connect to your computer and use a transmitter system. It sends the digital information to a separate wireless connected to your stereo or amplifier through RCA cables.

More often these days, wireless DACs use Bluetooth® for transmission from a smartphone or tablet. Some have extended wireless range, so you can move around more freely with your phone.  

Shop our selection of wireless DACs


Headphone Amp/DACs

Arche with headphones

The Focal Arche headphone amp/DAC includes a customized sound setting for each of Focal’s top-shelf headphones, like the closed-back Stellia model.

To get the most out of your headphones, consider a DAC that has a built-in amplifier that's designed to drive them. High-quality sound processing and robust power will bring new life to your 'phones. 

Some headphone amps also can be used as a very capable digital preamp. These are ideal if you're using your DAC to connect to your home stereo system as well as to headphones. 

Shop our selection of headphone amp/DACs


DACs for iPhone®, iPad®, or Android™ phone

AudioQuest DragonFly Black connected to an iPhone and headphones

The AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 connects to your iPhone via an Apple Lightning adapter (sold separately) and offers a serious sonic boost.

For many of us, our main music source is our phone. We have several DACs that will work with Apple devices or Android phones. Your phone may require a special Apple Lightning adapter, USB-C adapter, or micro-USB adapter.

Shop our selection of iPhone DACs


Component Hi-fi DACs

Cambridge CXN(v2) in a stack of digital gear

The Cambridge CXN (v2) component DAC is network audio streamer with built-in Wi-Fi® and Bluetooth. It can even be used as a preamplifier in a digital sound system.

Component Hi-Fi DACs are designed to connect to your full-fledged home audio system. You'll find large power supplies and advanced circuitry in theses DACs. They are ideal for two-channel stereo systems. 

Component DACs offer the widest range of connection options. And there are "jack-of-all-trade" models in this categories that have a built-in CD player, Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi. Some connect to your home network, so you can stream directly from music services and sources.  

Shop our selection of Component Hi-fi DACs


Important points for getting the most from your DAC

Adding an external DAC can make a substantial improvement to the sound of your digital music. Sometimes. “You may not always hear a night-and-day difference,” warns Charles. “But I use the analogy of spraying Windex on a smudgy window. You can still see through the window beforehand. But everything gets a little cleaner and clearer after.”

Charles system

Charles uses the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus as part of his home stereo setup (and with headphones).

Your sound quality ultimately depends on other factors as well. Here are four important ones to consider:  

1.  How good are your music sources?

Digital music comes in variety of different formats and quality levels. The amount of detail a DAC can resolve or pull from a recording depends on how much is there to begin with. 

Make no mistake: whatever audio you play should get a sonic boost. That includes music downloads, streaming services, and even YouTube™ videos. Just make sure you're using the highest resolution available. This can be as simple as changing the streaming settings in Spotify.

The most discerning listeners often choose high-resolution music or lossless streaming services like Amazon Music HD, Tidal or Qobuz. These large digital files retain more audio information than compressed MP3s. 

“With quality gear, stepping up in resolution can give you that extra 5 percent that really makes your music sound more lifelike,” said Charles. “The sound is more dynamic with better texture. And there can be a big difference in the bass — more focused and punchy. Vocals stand out more, too. Really, you get a more three-dimensional sound.”

2. What kind of system will your DAC connect to?

The quality of your system’s audio components has an impact on the improvements you’ll hear with an outboard DAC.  Be sure to use capable speakers and well-made headphones to get the most out of your system. You wouldn't want to use a $2,000 component DAC with a mid-fi home theater receiver. Likewise, if you have a rack of equipment with high-end amps, an entry-level DAC won't cut it. 

3. How’s your computer comfort level?

Getting the best performance from a DAC connected to a computer can take a little bit of extra work. You may get music to play by simply plugging in the DAC. But, some additional changes to your computer’s audio settings may be necessary to get the best sound. Some DACs also require downloading and installing a USB driver to operate.

Manufacturers typically include instructions. But, a basic knowledge of computer operation will increase your odds of success. We can help with any questions as well. Free lifetime tech support is included with every Crutchfield purchase.

Check out our guide to high fidelity computer audio, as well as AudioQuest's Computer Audio Setup Guide to get started.

4. Don’t forget the cables

The quality of the cable you use with your DAC can have a sonic impact. Upgrading from the cables included in the box usually pays off in better sound quality. Check out our USB cables for your computer, and our optical digital and coaxial digital cables for your CD or network music player. 

You'll also want to be sure you have the right analog cable to connect your DAC to your stereo. Check out our selections of stereo miniXLR, and RCA patch cables.

Get DAC advice from our specialists

At home with Charles

Charles designed his enviable home system to squeeze every musical detail from his high-res collection — and he loves to help others with their audio setup.

How do you choose the best headphone/amp/DAC combination? Or figure out which DAC will fit in best with your current home stereo setup? Talk to one of our personal audio experts, like Charles.

  • Mun L from Santa Clara

    Posted on 11/23/2021

    I play my music CDs via Sony dvd player UBP-X800M2 which has no DAC. So the digital output goes to my 70wpc Yamaha RXV385 receiver dac. If I want to upgrade which dac (or integrated amp-dac) do you recommend? I listen to 2 channel stereo only (70s,80s,jazz genre), with the bi-amp capable Jamo C97ii speakers bought from you.

  • Joel Leef from Carpinteria

    Posted on 8/28/2021

    I have a ifi Zen DAC V2, what bookshelf speakers do you recommend for use with it. Looking for something that can handle decent bass and it not be distortred.

  • John Telakis from Bonney Lake, Wa. 983

    Posted on 2/27/2021

    I have a portable battery operated CD player which does a great job on my fine CDs. I have used an amp with it which actually improves the sound. Is there such a DAC Amp combo that are made for such an appliance? To now I've onlyread where a dac is used with a home system computer and such. Please reply or if I don't hear from you I can assume the reply is negative...thanks!

  • Joe from MATTHEWS

    Posted on 11/30/2020

    I run my audio sources through a 482i sonic maximizer and into an old Philips 7871 receiver. This setup works perfectly for my record player, phone, and laptop connections. However, I haven't been able to find a DAC to hook my TV's optical audio to the system. I tried bypassing the sonic maximizer, and using it, and both setups result in a clicking sound that I can't quite place. It sounds a bit like static but it's different. Looking for a DAC that might help solve this. Thanks.

  • Karl K. from Quebec City

    Posted on 6/14/2020

    With regards to using a desktop DAC I believe it's important to inform customers opting for a USB-powered unit based on perceived value that their computer's PSU has to be relatively powerful (over 600 watts) in order to send enough juice to the USB ports. This has a nothing short of spectacular impact on sound quality, and I mean really spectacular, as in day and night. Assuming of course that the buyer has a good quality self-powered headphone amp that can swing the volts. Also, when using a USB-powered DAC one must make sure to disable onboard sound in BIOS settings. Failing to do so will cause the audio signal to be routed through the computer's own very basic DSP system and as a result the external DAC will receive a degraded signal and regardless of what heaphone amp is being used, the SQ will just be godawful horrible. Switching off on-board audio will allow the signal to bypass the audio circuit and be sent directly to USB then straight out to the external DAC.

  • Vik dsouza from New york

    Posted on 5/21/2020

    Great info... You guys are good

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 5/21/2020

    Thanks, Vik!
  • Bob from Brecksville

    Posted on 9/5/2019

    I did not see any mention of the McIntosh DAC in your article. My C47 is 100 times superior to the Peachtree I used to use.

  • Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/3/2017

    You're right David. You certainly want to think about these nuances while choosing a DAC. While this article is meant to serve as an introduction to the category, I think you'll find the specs you mentioned on most of our product pages. Our Advisors can also help you sort through all the details and find something that will work for you.

    You can reach them by phone at 1-888-955-6000.

  • David Dunn from Somers CT

    Posted on 5/3/2017

    With all this talk about DAC's I don't see any mention of actual analog audio output quality . You know, old school considerations like signal to noise ratio, total harmonic distortion, frequency response, dynamic range. And the article attempts to convince us that there is audible 'magic' obtainable from external DAC's without knowing what the internal DAC's qualities are. For all anyone knows, lacking audio specs for comparison, you might actually be downgrading the sound with your add-on. Bits ARE bits. If you want to argue that point you have to come up with some actual data (pun intended) that shows some kind of digital decode errors and then prove that the new device solves the problem.

  • Commenter image

    Kramer Crane from Crutchfield

    Posted on 4/10/2017

    Hi Angel, I've passed your inquiry on to our advisor team. They'll reach out to you with a recommendation shortly.