An external DAC is one of the most important pieces of equipment that an audiophile can invest in. While music streaming platforms have made digital song files easily accessible at a low price, it is still difficult to compare the quality that you’re getting with true analog mediums like cassettes or vinyls. But Vinyls and turntables are hefty purchases that also require additional time and effort, while cassettes now are retro and difficult to find. This is where external DACs can come into the picture. DACs are designed specifically to convert digital input inputs into analog outputs, and any piece of technology that has the ability to play music has one, be it your computer or laptop, phone, or music speakers. Standalone DACs, however, have the capacity to vastly improve audio clarity and accuracy to deliver high-quality and mind-blowing performance once you hear it. Once a DAC has been introduced into your set-up, it’s difficult to go back to listening to music without one. And the more you look into the world of DACs and the range of possibilities out there, the more you can explore different ways to beef and amp up your listening experience so that you’re getting as much as you can out of your music.
There are a lot of types of DACs out there at vastly different price points, and it still may be difficult figuring out where to begin if you already have some exposure to DACs. That’s why we’ve put together a list of our favorite DACs for under $500. Read on for our 2020 reviews and recommendations for the best DAC on the market right now.
Our Favorite DACs under $500 In 2020
At the lower end of the price spectrum, the M-DAC Nano is a great way to improve the sound quality of your laptop or phone without breaking the bank. Its small and portable design allows you to bring this with you whenever you want a little extra boost to your listening device of choice, and has the added bonus of having bluetooth connectivity so that you can do everything wirelessly, especially if you’re on the move. It also features a built-in microphone to enable hands-free calling when you connect the M-DAC Nano to your smartphone, and can also be used to enable Siri or the Google assistant. The only downside of this is the battery life; the charging time is 2 hours and the playback time is 8 hours, but it takes a 30% hit once you switch to upsampling mode, which delivers a bolder and more balanced sound. Nonetheless, this is a great overall DAC to invest in. One reviewer captured it perfectly by saying “this is great for anyone who wants better quality audio streamed from their phone. Sound quality is awesome and the portability can’t be beat.”
AudioQuest is beloved among audiophiles because of the sleek design of its DACs, ranging from black to red and cobalt. All of them feature a portable, USB design, and are compatible with laptops and computers as well as iOS and Android mobile devices (you’ll need a lightning-to-USB adaptor and USB adaptor, respectively, if you want to use this with your phone though). The Dragonfly Cobalt, in particular, has greater dynamics and an even better sense of timing than the black or the red. This model has a more advanced DAC chip and new microprocessor, which bumps up the DAC’s processing speed and ensures higher quality playback. It has a USB Type A input with a 3.5m output, and native resolution up to 24bit / 96kHz, and a LED that changes color to indicate playback status or sample rate. Although it has fewer features than other DACs on the market due to the sleek and portable design of the Dragonfly, the convenience factor and sound quality really can’t be beat. One reviewer assures that “cobalt is worth the upgrade from red… music is clearer and instruments more well defined.”
Considering all the features, inputs, and outputs that you get with the Azur DacMagic for your high-end conversion purposes, this is truly one of the best DACs under $500. This is specifically designed for use at home but is compatible with a range of options. You can use it as a standalone DAC in a home audio system, connect it to a pair of speakers, drive a power amp, or a preamp with a DAC built-in. Cambridge Audio is a well-known manufacturer and delivers with the audio performance here, due to the support circuitry and 24bit Twin Wolfson structure. Surprisingly, this also comes with wireless connectivity and bluetooth so that it can be as hassle-free as possible. One reviewer commented that this is “a truly excellent DAC for the price. Plug this thing into the noisiest USB hub in your system and the DacMagic still shines.”
- CHORD Electronics Mojo, ultimate DAC / Headphone Amplifier, USB, Coaxial, and Optical, Black – Read Reviews
For its small and portable size, the Mojo–short for mobile joy–elevates music to a whole new level. CHORD Electronics is based in England and manufactures products that are the choice of BBC sound engineers all across the United Kingdom. Although it’s only 6.4 ounces and battery powered, it is the ultimate DAC and headphone amplifier for your phone or computer. The Mojo can play almost any audio file that you can find, up to 768kHz 32bit, and quad DSD 256, while the audio quality is more nuanced and delivers more realism with finer accuracy. Two lithium polymer batteries are required, but once you pop them in you can charge the Mojo in only about four hours to get between 8-10 hours of continuous playback. There are two 3.5mm outputs so that you and a friend can both listen, and coaxial, optical digital, and micro-USB inputs to give you greater flexibility when pairing this with your existing set-up. One reviewer raved “wow! The sound quality improvement is stunning! Worth every penny! Everything else just sounds flat!”
- Authentic Chord Mojo that is entirely designed and manufactured in Great Britain. All Mojo devices come with a 12 month warranty by Chord Electronics Limited in the United Kingdom.
- Mojo, the ultimate DAC/Headphone Amplifier for your smartphone, iPhone or Android. Simply connect Mojo to your iPhone, Android phone, PC, or Mac, plug in your headphones and you can experience crystal clear audio the way you would hear it in the recording studio.
- Inside Mojo is a massively powerful headphone amplifier that will deliver crystal clear audio whether you use in-ear buds or large studio cans, it will even play almost any audio file that you can find, up to 768kHz 32bit, and quad DSD 256. Thanks to the latest Li-Po technology, Mojo is able to charge to full in only four hours and will give between eight to ten hours continuous use.
- Mojo plays all files from 32kHz to 768kHz and even DSD 256. With two 3.5mm analogue outputs you and a friend can listen too! Mojo is fully automatic and remembers its last used settings. Its case is precision machined from a single solid block of aluminum.
- You may think that good quality headphones are the be all and end all, but they are just the beginning. By using Mojo between your smartphone and headphones you can experience crystal clear audio the way you would hear it in the recording studio.