We spent 40 hours on research, videography, and editing, to review the top options for this wiki. Most devices have underpowered sound cards that fail to reveal the full potential of your music files. If you’re looking to get the best possible sound quality from your computer, tablet, smartphone, or even your TV, then a high-end digital to analog converter is what you need. USB DACs have come a long way in the past few years, and some of these models are compact enough to fit in your pocket. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work.

10. Syba Sonic

The Syba Sonic is a great budget model that doesn’t sacrifice sound quality for savings. It features an integrated function to help suppress the popping sounds that come from your computer or other device as it starts up or shuts down.

  • Quick plug and play operation
  • Digital and analog output options
  • Headphone output is a bit weak

Brand Syba
Model SD-DAC63057
Weight 13.6 ounces
Rating 3.8 / 5.0

9. Meridian Director USB

The Meridian Director USB does an impressive job of upgrading the audio quality of your digital device for crystal clear playback. Its slim design features an RCA output and an S/PDIF input to suit a wide range of systems. It lacks a headphone port, however.

  • Durable and attractive housing
  • Handmade in the uk
  • Expensive for the quality

Brand Meridian
Model Director
Weight 1.9 pounds
Rating 3.8 / 5.0

8. NuForce uDAC3 Optoma

The NuForce uDAC3 Optoma features RCA and headphone outputs, so you can easily switch between playback over speakers and through your favorite set of earbuds depending on your needs. It also has a convenient rotary dial for quick volume adjustments.

  • Capacitor-free signal path
  • Available in three colors
  • Unbalanced left and right channels

Brand NuForce
Model uDAC3 Black
Weight 7.5 ounces
Rating 4.2 / 5.0

7. Cambridge Audio DacMagic

Ideal for home theater systems, the hefty Cambridge Audio DacMagic is a real powerhouse thanks to its four options for digital audio input. Switch easily between TOSLink optical, two coaxial ports, and a standard USB input with its front-facing source button.

  • Wolfson 24-bit converter
  • Impressive output from any device
  • Input selector resets when shut off

Brand Cambridge Audio
Model DacMagic100Black
Weight 2.1 pounds
Rating 4.4 / 5.0

6. Topping NX4

The Topping NX4 is designed to stay put as it’s larger and heavier than most other models. That weight lets it offer things others don’t, like a dedicated headphone amplifier and an optical input that can help isolate you from your computer’s electrical sounds.

  • Cnc-machined shell feels impressive
  • Bass is well controlled
  • Usb connection is somewhat wonky

Brand Topping
Model D3
Weight 1.7 pounds
Rating 4.3 / 5.0

5. Micca OriGen G2

The Micca OriGen G2 is a high resolution preamplifier that offers studio-quality sound from most listening devices. It runs on a dedicated power supply for stability, and has a wide range of input and output options to ensure compatibility with almost any setup.

  • Can bypass a computer’s sound card
  • Selectable gain design
  • Difficult to use with windows 10

Brand Micca
Model OriGen G2
Weight 14.4 ounces
Rating 4.1 / 5.0

4. FiiO E10K USB

The FiiO E10K USB has a simple and attractive volume control dial integrated on the front for quick and easy adjustments without the need to mess with computer or software commands. Its durable all-aluminum shell is designed to limit interference.

  • Analog and coaxial digital outputs
  • Built-in bass boosting circuit
  • Strong and clean headphone output

Brand Fiio
Model E10K
Weight 5.6 ounces
Rating 4.8 / 5.0

3. Apogee Groove Portable

Take hi-fi audio with you everywhere you go with the Apogee Groove Portable. It has a constant current drive that helps to provide a smooth frequency response with any pair of headphones, and simple three-level volume controls built right in.

  • Four converters per channel
  • Ultra-low distortion
  • Eliminates jitter and noise

Brand Apogee
Weight 0.3 ounces
Rating 4.5 / 5.0

2. Audioquest Dragonfly

Improve audio detail, transparency, richness, and tone with the Audioquest Dragonfly. This pocket-sized model can connect directly to headphones, powered speakers, or an amplifier with impressive results, and is capable of an output of up to 2.1 volts.

  • 32-bit sabre driver
  • Award-winning design
  • Extremely simple but effective

Brand AudioQuest
Model Dragonfly Red
Weight 6.4 ounces
Rating 4.6 / 5.0

1. Marantz HD-DAC1

The classy retro look of the wood panels on Marantz HD-DAC1 might trick you into thinking it’s not up to date. But the plethora of options, from USB to aux to space for a coaxial cable, makes it not just a high quality choice, but one that can be used nearly anywhere.

  • Remote included
  • Works with headphones or a system
  • Bottom plate is double-layered

Brand Marantz
Model HDDAC1
Weight 13.7 pounds
Rating 4.6 / 5.0

Peek-a-Boo Audio

Babies love to play peek-a-boo. One moment you’re there, and the next, you’re not. Then, you return, maybe making a silly face. It’s a game that hooks into the binary nature of our world, of our perception, which, believe it or not, is the very root of computational algorithms. In the case of something like audio rendering, the more expansive and specific the logic, the better the sound quality.

Think of it this way, when you record an acoustic guitar through a microphone and onto an analogue tape deck, that microphone translates the sound of the guitar into an array of electrical signals. Those signals, when magnetized, imprint on the tape with an equally expansive array of magnetic forces, creating a nearly perfect simulacra of the sound originally produced.

To distribute that magnetic signal, those audio masters have to be digitized, a process by which each element of magnetic force meets with a corresponding binary representative. Sound cards in your electronic devices read those binary representatives and recreate their original sounds by way of a digital-audio converter, or DAC. The only problem is that along each step in the pathway, you sacrifice sound quality.

If you wanted to own an organized representative binary file for each sound produced in a recording studio, your music files would be enormous. The best you can do is to get your hands on what’s called lossless audio, the file sizes of which average about ten to fifteen times those of the audio you can download from, say, iTunes.

That’s because hard drives, CDs and servers alike operate on finite amounts of space, so the more songs Apple or anybody can fit on their servers, the more money they stand to save. To get to this point, they independently determine which chunks of that representative binary map you don’t really need to hear. It’d be like having an engineer from one of these music distributors come to your house at dinner time and remove the parts of your meal they figure you don’t really need to enjoy. It’s manipulative, and it’s downright insulting.

Now, your computer already has its own DAC, but these are designed with the assumption that you’re not interested in lossless audio, so their quality is severely limited. What a USB DAC can do, by comparison, is take your finest digital audio signals and convert them back into analogue voltage with more nuance and processing power than the majority of sound cards on the market. The result is a truer audio experience than is otherwise possible.

Take A Bite Out Of Your Files

We touched briefly above on the music industry’s compression of audio files for easier storage and distribution. The evidence of this compression is most visible when comparing the bit rates of different files. For example, if your music library consists of files downloaded from iTunes, the majority of them is probably going to come in at about 128 kbps, or kilobytes per second.

By comparison, CD quality is at least 320 kbps and lossless audio files often linger around 1,500 kbps, more than ten times the amount of data stored per file. Studio masters reach even higher, often breaking 2,000 kbps. Now, to be fair, a bit of this compression eliminates things you either can’t hear, or that you don’t want to hear, like frequencies below and above human hearing that studio tape can pick up or like strange room noises left over from the studio space itself.

If you use iTunes, you can see the bit rate of all your files just by right clicking on any one of them and choosing ‘get info,’ then the ‘file’ tab. The great likelihood is that, if you’re reading this, you probably have a decent amount of high quality audio files on your computer already. If, however, you see that most of your files are around 128 or 192 kbps, an outboard DAC isn’t going to make very much difference in your life unless the DAC on your sound card happens to be fried.

Still, I’d recommend picking one up and also going out and investing in higher quality files for your favorite bands. The added dynamism and depth will render some songs almost unrecognizable from your current understanding of them.

Conversion For Encryption

You couldn’t have digital to analogue conversion without first having analogue to digital conversion. This is not a chicken/egg scenario. Like a tremendous amount of technology in the music industry, digital recording began in the once-exciting world of telephony.

For this development we can thank a British engineer named Alec Reeves, who first came up with a system of pulse-code manipulation (PCM) in 1937. The technology could render a human voice into a kind of binary and transmit it via telegraph. The system, like so many great telephonic inventions, saw its first use during wartime, as Allied soldiers used it to convey complex, encrypted messages.

To decrypt these messages, soldiers used the first DAC units known to man, which were simple reversals of the technology used to encrypt the messages in the first place.

PCM recordings found their way onto a litany of media over the ensuing 40 years, becoming an integral part of the music industry by the late 1970s, just before the release of the first compact disc prototype, a joint effort between the companies Sony and Philips.

The 10 Best USB DACs