There’s a lot of confusion around when it comes to choosing the right DAC.
Buying the perfect DAC is not a child's stuff...
...because for an incremental audio experience; you’re spending a lot more money.
In a market filled with duplicates, and products not worth the price; it’s important to choose what’s right.
Banking on this problem...
...I have created a list of our favorite budget USB DAC for the money just for you.
Here we go...
Top 5 Best DAC under $200 for High Resolution Audiophile Grade Music
Audioquest Dragonfly V1.5
Creative Sound Blaster E5
Price not available
Price not available
Price not available
#7: Audioquest Dragonfly v1.5
An updated version to an already famous Audioquest Dragonfly v1.2; we have the much popular Audioquest Dragonfly v1.5
If extreme portability is your watchword, guys this is it!
- 32-bit ESS 9010 Sabre DAC
- Offering tremendously enhanced sound, higher value, and significantly lower power consumption than the original award-winning DragonFly
- Works with Apple and Android phones and tablets when paired with a simple adapter
- This versatile DAC improves everything detail, transparency, immediacy, richness, tone associated with your music
- Plays everything from MP3s to 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution files
How much better can it get? When a high class Digital to Analogue converter costs under $200 and is the size that of your regular pen drive.
With a rating of 4.5/5 stars on Amazon; this small wonder can power up anything from your regular headphones, Desktop speakers, studio monitors and can even power up high impedance headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro or the Sennheiser HD 650.
For a USB DAC that weighs only 0.77 ounces; the package is big and comes included with a carry pouch.
Well! I don’t want to go into the technical mumbo jumbo.
However Audioquest DragonFly v1.5 brings life to FLAC and Apple Lossless files; you can definitely notice difference when you’re listening to a 16bit/44.1kHz audio file and a 24bit/96kHz audio file.
Planning to listen 128kbps MP3 files on this?
Audioquest Dragonfly v1.5 plays music as per the format; hence you will notice major issues with the sound quality when it comes to lossy MP3 files compared to lossless FLAC files.
This DAC does justice to your audio, so if your audio is of low quality - it will be noticed when using DragonFly v1.5.
Learn more about bitrates by clicking here and all about FLAC file format by clicking here.
Supporting Asynchronous transfer; it makes sure your audio isn’t lost while conversion. To know more about it, check out its full review on WhatHifi.
"If you want your music to sound real, the way it’s meant to be heard, and can be carried anywhere; Audioquest DragonFly v1.5 is your best bet."
#6: JDSLab ODAC
Once along a time; there comes a product in every industry that appears magically and takes the market by storm.
JDSLab ODAC is one of them.
Though not as popular as other DAC's featured on our list; however when it comes to hard blooded audiophiles, they swear by it.
Well JDSLabs aren’t the original creator of ODAC (stands for Objective Digital Analog Converter). It uses an open-source design developed by a person called as NwAvGuy; who claimed that you don’t need a $1000 DAC to get great sound.
However NwAvGuy disappeared suddenly in 2012; you can read the whole story here.
Anyways, coming back to the JDSLabs ODAC...
...it’s small and portable.
Though not as portable as the Audioquest Dragonfly v1.2; however it can comfortably sit in your pocket without a bulge.
Weighing only at 2 ounces; it connects using micro-USB port and has only a single headphone-out port.
It outputs 24bit/96KHz audio and is supported by Windows, Mac OS and LINUX.
Your computer recognizes JDSLabs ODAC as a USB Audio Device and once detected it’s ready to go. Do not miss out to check it's user opinions.
The company also provides external rubber feets with the ODAC; so that the DAC doesn't slips nor its surface gets scratched and does not put scratches on the device you put over it.
"If you want excellent audio quality at the price and don't care about the design, looks and durability: go for the JDSLabs ODAC."
#5: Micca Origen+
Micca isn’t a household name when it comes to audio equipments and accessories. However we know about the brand due to its immensely popular budget bookshelf speaker the Micca MB42.
- The Micca OriGen USB audio DAC and preamplifier is a studio master grade digital audio playback and control center that supports high-resolution PCM audio up to 24-bit/192kHz. Its powerful preamp and headphone amplifier, along with flexible input and output configurations, make the OriGen especially well suited for a desktop computer audio system. Use the OriGen together with headphones and powered speakers to unlock the full sonic potential of your music library.
- TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR MUSIC - The OriGen lets you quickly and easily configure where your music comes from, and where it goes, at the flip of a switch. Input choices include USB or optical SPIDF, and output can be set to headphones or pre-out to powered speakers/monitors. An optical SPIDF output is also available when using the USB input. Selectable 3.5mm and ¼-inch headphone jacks with dual gain levels let you tailor the headphone amplifier to work with your headphones. You are in control!
- DIGITAL FINESSE - The digital circuitry of the OriGen consists of a USB 2.0 High-Speed 480Mbps audio controller and a Cirrus Logic CS4398 MasterHIFI stereo D/A converter. This capable combination provides asynchronous decoding and conversion of PCM audio up to 24-bit/192kHz with exceptionally low noise and distortion. Advanced audio stream interface support includes both ASIO and WASAPI Push/Event output modes.
- ANALOG BRAWN - The analog section of the OriGen provides switchable line-level or headphone output, using JRC NJM4556 op amps with two gain levels of 5.3Vrms and 1.6Vrms. The selectable gain design provides excellent drive capability into any downstream amplifiers with enhanced signal strength, low noise, and low interference. The headphone outputs are similarly powerful, with only 0.5 Ohm output impedance and able to drive 16-600 Ohm headphones.
- SOLID CONSTRUCTION - Starting with a steel tub chassis, the OriGen is capped with an anodized aluminum top plate and finished with a solid machined aluminum volume knob. The TOCOS sealed potentiometer used for volume control offers long operating life and a smooth weighted feel. The all-metal construction makes the OriGen exceptionally durable and helps shield it against unwanted interference.
The brand; just like Monoprice is known for putting out excellent audio products at a very budget friendly price. and its DAC that we’re talking about is no exception either.
The Micca Origen+ DAC is priced very close to $100, funnily looks similar to me as a bomb detonator that we’re used to seeing in movies. This is because of the big bulky volume knob that sites on top.
It is one of the very few DAC that has both 3.5mm audio jack and 6.3mm audio jack as well.
The design on Micca Origen+ is very simple consisting of a steel chassis and aluminum plate on top that definitely signifies a superior build quality.
At the front you have two headphone jacks: 3.5mm and 6.3mm respectively, while it also has couple of oldie toggle switches to switch from Headphone to SPDIF and another one for gain; from 0db gain to -10db gain.
On the back you have micro-USB port to connect it to your PC and an SPDIF IN port, there’s a toggle switch too; to change from USB to SPDIF connection, and lastly a power input port.
At the top you have a fairly large and bulky volume knob cum power switch; as well as indicator lights to indicate the type of audio signal that passes through the DAC.
The manufacturer suggests that Micca Origen+ has support for headphones upto 600 Ohms, however headphones like Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium sound tinny and very closed when plugged via this DAC.
“For a budget audio setup Micca Origen+ is an excellent set of audio hardware that adds a little sparkle to your music; however you might not want to include it in a high end setup, as it might become a bottleneck of sorts.”
#4: Meridian Explorer
If you want an ultra portable USB DAC under $200 that easily fits right in your pocket and supports high resolution audio, then there’s nothing better than Meridian Explorer.
Meridian is a premium British audio brand known for its excellent digital to analogue converters.
- Inputs USB mini type B.
- Outputs 3.5mm combination analogue/digital jack with mini Toslink digital optical <96 kHz output and 2-ch analogue line out, fixed 2v RMS. 3.5mm jack with variable-level headphone output, 130mW into 16Ω.
- Construction Extruded Aluminium shell with moulded plastic endcaps and rubber foot.
- Implementation USB audio class compliant 2.0 HS 480Mb/s bandwidth. Asynchronous: device is the clock source for high quality. Firmware upgrade via USB. Windows drivers provided, no drivers required for Macintosh OS X or Linux. Analogue volume control for headphone output, controlled from PC, control law modified to match connected OS. S/PDIF output downsamples 4x (192/176.4kHz) to 2x (96/88.2kHz).
- OS requirements Macintosh OS X 10.6.4 (Snow Leopard) or later Windows XP SP3, Windows 7 SP1 or Windows 8 Linux kernel 2.6.37 or later and ALSA version 1.0.23 or greater
The design is very simple and hassle free. It has complete oval design on the sides that surely gives it a compact look.
At the front you have a headphone output and optical output port, whereas the back hosts a micro-USB input.
On the top you have the Meridian Explorer branding and three indicator lights signalling different types of audio input.
First indicator light indicates audio signal of 44kHz to 48kHz, when two lights are on it indicates audio signal of 88kHz to 96kHz and when all lights are on, it indicates audio signal of either 176kHz or 192kHz.
The setup is very simple, you just connect your Meridian Explorer USB DAC to your laptop via the provided USB cable and you’re good to go.
It weighs around 1.8 ounces and is very easy to carry around without any hassle.
Though there’s no official mention about the headphone impedance, however innerfidelity claims that it can easily run 300 Ohms headphones without any trouble.
Considering its competition, Meridian Explorer definitely isn’t as feature rich as other USB DACs mentioned in this list, however for the job its claims, it does it excellently.
“If you’re a frequent traveller and require your high quality music setup to travel along with you then Meridian Explorer is a perfect fit, its aluminum build definitely gives it a rugged build quality and can certainly take a fall or two.”
#3: Creative Sound Blaster E5
Ever wanted an all in one audio solution?
Creative Sound Blaster E5 is here to satisfy your needs.
- A DAC with 120dB signal to noise ratio (SNR) that supports up to 24-bit/192kHz can deliver bit-perfect, true-to-original audio reproduction, just as it was mastered in the studios
- Audiophile Grade, Best-in-class headphone amplifier enables you to power all the headphones in the market with clarity and details
- Portable Digital Connectivity with Mobile Devices allows you to stream high quality, lossless audio digitally from your mobile devices while on-the-go
- The fully customizable SBX Pro Studio suite of technologies gives you unprecedented audio realism when playing back compressed audio; turn off when listening to lossless audio so that you can enjoy bit-perfect audio
- Features built-in NFC technology for one-touch, fuss-free Bluetooth pairing. Simply tap and connect your Bluetooth device and enjoy high quality wireless digital audio streaming.
Being portable; the Creative Sound Blaster E5 is a 24-bit/192kHz USB DAC and a headphone amplifier too.
For audiophiles; it offers 120dB Signal to Noise ratio.
Creative Sound Blaster E5 excels in features... and they are:
- Twin Headphone-out Jack
- Big Volume Knob
- NFC Pairing Chip
- Bluetooth support
- SBX button
- Gain switch
- Optical Line in
- Optical Line Out
- USB Host
- Micro-USB port
As you can see; it offers highest amount of features compared to other USB DAC in the market.
There’s an SBX button on this USB DAC...
...Creative offers a SBX Pro Studio software for this DAC, allowing you to change various aspects of sound quality from Creative Sound Blaster E5.
The company however recommends to keep this feature off when listening to lossless/FLAC audio.
Gain switch also toggles the gain from 5dB to 15dB supporting headphones with impedance below and above 120Ohms respectively. Do make sure to check out its full review here.
"With matte finish body and completely rubberized base; Creative Sound Blaster E5 is the most sort after, feature rich and all-in-one USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier just under $200."
#2: Nuforce uDAC3
With metal construction; NuForce uDAC3 is the most sturdier USB DAC of the lot.
With a size of a Zippo lighter; it’s very small considering how big it looks in the images.
The entire body looks clean and it comes in three colors; black, silver, red and gold...
...with the red looking most attractive of the lot.
The front features a headphone jack and volume knob as bigger as the height of this USB DAC.
The back of NuForce uDAC3 features, micro-USB port for connecting it to your computer, a left and right Analog input and a coaxial input.
However I do not like, the analog and coaxial cable inputs sticking out of the DAC.
The packaging is very minimal; compared to other USB DAC in our list of best USB DAC under $200.
It includes the DAC and only a basic USB cable. Looking at the box; the product feels like it costs less than $50.
The minimal packaging helps keep the overall price down.
It shows support for 24bits/96kHz audio and being a Headphone Amplifier; it can power up headphones with an impedance of 300 Ohms. [Check User Opinions]
"It’s definitely a required upgrade to your computer if you need excellent audio into your headphone cans."
#1: Audioengine D1 24-bit USB DAC
Design wise, form-factor wise and look wise the Audioengine D1 USB DAC looks similar to the already mentioned NuForce uDAC3.
- LEVEL-UP YOUR LISTENING: You deserve better sound. Play high-resolution music from Apple Music, Amazon Music and Tidal with stunning clarity you'll notice immediately. An external DAC allows you to hear the detail in music the way the artist intended. The D1 is a premium digital-to-analog converter (DAC), headphone amplifier and preamp that’s perfect for your desktop or on the go.
- TRULY USEFUL FEATURES: USB and optical audio inputs for all your sources, computer/phone/tablet support, RCA line-output, precise front panel volume control, and audiophile-quality components inside and out. The D1 can be powered by a phone or tablet yet still drives high-performance headphones.
- HI-RES AUDIO: ESS ES9018 DAC, ES9601C headphone driver, and CT7601 USB audio bridge.
- WHAT’S INCLUDED: D1 DAC, USB cable, setup guide, microfiber product bag.
- WARRANTY: Stellar US based customer support and 3 year product warranty is included. Based in Austin, TX, Audioengine has been changing the way people listen to music since 2005. We believe in the power of music and our passion is to inspire you to listen every day.
Under $200; it can be considered as the best USB DAC; offering the best quality out of all the DAC featured above.
Audioengine being a brand synonym with audiophile products; you can expect a cleaner and audiophile grade audio from Audioengine D1 at an affordable price.
The front of this DAC features a volume knob, power button and Headphone jack.
Back features left and right analog output, optical input, and USB Type B port.
Coming to package; it looks extremely premium and justifies the price.
Including a setup guide and manual; the package comes with a soft velvety feel carry pouch and gold plated high quality USB cable.
At the heart of Audioengine D1 features a AK4396 DAC which outputs a premium 24bit/96kHz audio.
The power button is illuminated and glows premium white light when switched on.
One drawback that’s seen with this DAC is; when analog output and headphones are connected at the same time...
...first priority is given to headphone jack.
Which means, once you plug in headphone jack; your speakers won’t be able to play music simultaneously. Only your headphones will play music.
All in all; it’s a great looking and operating USB DAC under $200 and sits comfortably on your desktop and can be taken wherever you go.
"Wanting great audio? Audioengine D1 will satisfy your every needs."
I hope you appreciate this article and it helped you in choosing the right DAC for your budget. Make sure you unlock the USB DAC on #1 position before moving forward.
Do make sure to keep visiting theroundingsound.com for more such informative articles.
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