Best Desktop DAC
Audiolab M-ONE DAC/Amp
What is a DAC?
We should probably cover what a DAC is before telling you to go out and buy the best one. Without being aware, you’re probably using one right now, and if you aren’t, you definitely have in the last couple of days. DAC stands for digital to analog converter, and there’s one in your phone. DACs are a necessary piece of tech to convert digital data to an analog signal. This is needed as amplifiers can’t understand digital information, and if they don’t understand the incoming signal, you don’t get any sound.
How we test
Regardless of what we’re testing, be it gaming keyboards, or office chairs, our fundamental process remains the same. If possible, we get hands-on with the product in question and spend a few days playing around with it. We do this via various tests, related applications, and by just using it on a day-to-day basis. This allows us to formulate an opinion and then write a review to cover all the bases.
What to consider when picking the best DAC.
As mentioned earlier, DACs run the gamut from literal trash to devices fit for a movie set or pro recording studio. Given this range of capabilities, there is a limitless amount of different variables and we can’t possibly cover all of them. However, there are a few fundamentals that remain identical and important regardless of your budget, so let’s have a look at some of those for you now.
It’s worth noting here that if you already utilize an AMP, you’ll be aware of these issues already. Conversely, if you’re looking for a DAC with a built-in amp, read this paragraph carefully.
This is the first and foremost aspect you should be keeping in mind when checking the specs of a DAC. If it’s underpowered, it might not have the oomph to drive headphones with higher resistance. This will mean that you’ll have to max out the volume to hear anything, and this can reduce audio fidelity. Remember that generally speaking, the better quality a set of headphones are, the higher resistance (measured in ohms) they’ll have. This isn’t true in 100% of cases, but it’s true for the vast majority so we’ll run with it for now.
But what about the inverse of this problem? Well, if you buy a DAC that’s too powerful, you could be facing two primary issues, the first is less exciting. You’ll have spent too much money, and are now stuck with a device that won’t ever be fully utilized. The second issue is far more fun as putting too much power into a set of headphones can quite literally blow them up. This can be a fun party trick if you have a set of cheap, unused earbuds if you don’t mind the smell of burnt plastic.
Anyway, look up the resistance of the headphones, headset, or earbuds you’re going to be using, then get a DAC that has enough power to power them, and use that as your initial guide.
As mentioned earlier, DACs work by converting digital information to an analog signal, however, this can lead to a problem. Given how different in nature these two are, so something will always be lost in translation. The analog signal produced by the DAC will only ever be an approximation. This approximation can vary from almost perfect to flat-out inaccurate depending on the quality of the DAC, but an approximation all the same.
Essentially, as each bit of the digital information is processed by the DAC, a corresponding voltage will be produced. As this happens in real-time it forms the audio that you listen to by the end of the process. Depending on whether the DAC uses a bank of resistors or a converter chip, it will interpret the signal differently. This difference doesn’t correlate with the final quality of the sounds, but it can have a different ‘feeling’.
This refers to how granular the DAC’s conversion from digital to analog is. The higher the sample rate, the less information will be missed. This means that higher is better. However, this rate falls victim to the law of diminishing returns and falls victim hard. So you’ll reach a point of paying loads more, for not much extra in the way of the sample rate. Essentially, past a certain point, you won’t be able to notice. According to some knowledgable folks over at the head-fi forums, the sweet spot appears to be one that can handle between 96kHz and 192kHz. This will sound good, but won’t require thousands of dollars
Type of DAC: Desktop, USB, portable
This will mostly influence the size and capability of the DAC. Desktop daks will generally be the largest, often with a dedicated power cord and will almost always have the highest number of inputs and outputs. These are good for those of you with an extensive gaming or music production PC setup.
USB DACs are the smallest and lowest-cost options. They usually require no external power source and can only handle one or two outputs. You might already be familiar with one of these as they are sometimes included with budget gaming headsets and referred to as a ‘sound card’.
Portable DACs are an interesting category. The idea is to improve the quality of music from portable devices like MP3 players and smartphones, However, few people use them for this purpose. They are more often used in place of desktop DACs for people who don’t need as many options, and value space-saving.
The best DAC 2022
So, that’s the nerd stuff out of the way, let’s get to the most dastardly DACs you’ve ever seen (At budget-friendly prices!)
Chord Mojo DAC/Amplifier
1x Micro USB, 1x 3.5mm Jack, 1x Coaxial, 1x Optical TOSLINK
Supreme build quality
Colored buttons are confusing and unnecessary
IF you’ve been in the audio engineer/audiophile circle for a while you’ve no doubt heard of the Chord Mojo. Beloved everywhere for its unibody aluminum construction and ability to explode cheap earbuds as often showcased by DankPods. The unbeatable balance of size, weight, and power makes this, without a doubt the best portable DAC you can get.
We’ll start with the design of the brushed aluminum case. Not only is it constructed super solidly, but it looks fantastic too. with softly chamfered edges and rounded corners. As a bonus, the buttons are recessed into finger-sized cutouts, meaning that the Mojo can be fully controlled in the fist of your right hand. This sort of ergonomic design is absolutely key when it comes to portable tech, which is why we are saddened when companies continue to ignore this aspect of product design.
Given the diminutive size and weight, the amount of I/O on the Mojo is very impressive, with enough sockets for any reasonable mobile DAC use case. They’ve even included two 3.5mm outputs so two people can listen simultaneously, which is uncharacteristically conscientious for a tech company.
The downsides of the Chord Mojo come in the form of the weirdly spherical light-up buttons. The lights are intended to visually illustrate what will happen when you press them, but in practice, they just end up confusing you or blinding you if you’re in a dark room.
AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC
Powerful for it’s size
I know we called the Chord Mojo diminutive in size, but the AudioQuest DragonFly deserves that word more, and might even befit an upgrade to ‘microscopic’. It resembles a regular old USB flash drive in weight and size but houses a truly mind-blowing amount of DAC power within that tiny shell.
THe AudioQuest DragonFly has been around for a while, but its latest revision has been internally beefed up with a more efficient microprocessor and an improved DAC chip that results in what AudioQuest calls ‘more natural sound’. This is due to an effect known as ‘slow roll’ and it makes the sound feel a bit more expressive, making this an absolute killer for portable movie watching. If you can afford it, adding this to your next carry-on bag will be a gamechanger for in-flight movies.
Overall, if you need an instant, easy, and portable audio upgrade and have no use for multiple outputs or wireless capabilities, the AudioQuest DragonFly is exactly what you need. Just as long as you can stomach the ~$240 price.
Audiolab M-ONE DAC/Amp
1x USB A, 1x USB B, 1x COAX, 1x OPT, 1x Bluetooth, 2x RCA ,1x 3.5mm
Finally, we get to the man himself, the big kahuna, the absolute unit that is the Audiolab M-ONE. IT’s far from portable, but that’s ok as it’s currently the best (that doesn’t cost $10+) desktop DAC that you can get. This explains its formidable size as its capable of producing 40 Watts of room-filling sound without breaking a sweat.
Taking a look inside you can see why the Audiolab is capable of such power as when you open it up you see a gigantic shielded transformer taking up almost a quarter of the space in there. It’s positioned right next to a large heatsink to help dissipate all the heat produced when this thing is pumping. Additionally, the transformer’s shielding prevents electrical noise from interfering with the signal, making for crystal clear audio without a hint of that abominable hissing noise that plagues the cheapo DACs found on the likes of AliWxpress and Amazon.
Given the Audiolab’s power, build quality, and a full complement of I/O, it’s no surprise that it’s the best desktop DAC this year, and it’s even managed to gain the prestigious title of WePC’s best DAC of 2022.
Related audio pages
Audio-obsessed? CHeck out our other Audio pages below.
Best DAC 2022: Final word
DACs are a particularly tricky product category for consideration. There are many specs, stats, and confusing numbers that need a lot of research and hands-on experience to truly understand. Hopefully, this page has managed to give you a sense of understanding so that you can shop for the Best DAC you can afford with peace of mind.
Overall, we recommend the Chord Mojo as it strikes a balance between cost and capability. And its 8+ hour battery life means that it will be suitable for desktop use so long as you remember to charge it.