Best DAC 2022 – digital to analog converters for the desktop


Best Desktop DAC

Audiolab M ONE DAC Amp 1

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.

Output voltage

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.

Sound quality

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’.

Sample rate

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

chord mojo dac amp

1x Micro USB, 1x 3.5mm Jack, 1x Coaxial, 1x Optical TOSLINK