The 2019 Best DACS Under $500
If you are in the market for a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC), you probably understand there is a lot of room for improvement over the DAC’s that come in our smartphones and computers. We briefly cover what a DAC does below, but if you're not sure what a DAC is or does, you'll find our What is a DAC? article very helpful.
These days, unless you are using a turntable, all music is stored in a digital file. The DAC is the magic part on the inside of almost all consumer electronic gear that translates the digital audio signal of 1’s and 0’s back into music for our ears to enjoy.
As we all consume more music through streaming music services, DAC’s are being used in our lives more than ever before
How well a DAC does this translation can have a substantial impact on how close the sound that comes out matches the original recording. Many factors are at play that can make the music sound harsh or even slightly out of sync. If you love great music, you want it to have that palpable quality you get at a live performance where you want to tap your toes and sing to the music.
When you use an outboard DAC in your system, the inexpensive DAC inside your computer or smartphone is totally bypassed, letting your music come through a lot closer to the original source.
You’ll hear improvements in DAC’s as you move up in quality due to several factors. First there is the quality of the DAC chip set itself. Next comes the design of the supporting electronics for the DAC. Finally, there is how well the DAC deals with timing. Reassembling all the 1’s and 0’s is a tough task, but putting them all back together with the same timing they were recorded with is even tougher.
We’ve picked the best DACs we think do a remarkable job for under $500. Most of these have a simple way to connect them to your smart phone for improving sound on the go, and all of them can be used in your home audio system.
AudioQuest DragonFly Black or Red ($99.95 and $199.95)
AudioQuest has filled these little units with a ton of high tech. They are only slightly larger than a USB stick and connect directly to the USB port on your computer or with adapter cables can connect to your smartphone or tablet. The DragonFly Black is one heck of a value for under $100 and can drive most headphones or with a mini to RCA cable, connect your computer to your home audio system. When you move up to the DragonFly Red you get even better DAC’s on the inside and more power to drive headphones that need some extra juice. The DragonFly Cobalt is a step up from the red with an improved chip set and a faster processor. We have a whole review just on the Cobalt and you can find the link to it in the description of this video. These three units from AudioQuest are best sellers at Audio Advice and can be used at home or on the go.
Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus ($349.99)
The DacMagic Plus is designed for home use and has a load of features. You can use it in a home audio system as a standalone DAC, or a preamp with a DAC built in. It can drive a power amp or connect it up to a pair of powered speakers.
You’ll get two digital inputs plus a USB input for computer connections. You can connect a CD player with digital out, your TV, and a computer to this great little DAC. It even has a very good headphone amp built in.
The audio performance of the DACMagic Plus is very impressive due to the Dual Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs and support circuitry from Cambridge Audio. This DAC has a very warm, smooth sound that will make your digital audio files and streaming music sound so much better.
Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 ($399)
This recent addition to the Pro-Ject Audio lineup has really impressed us. Pro-Ject used very high end ESS Sabre DAC’s in a dual mono configuration in the Pre Box S2. It is capable of high resolution audio up to 32bit/768kHz PCM and DSD512! It will even unfold MQA files. Pro-Ject also uses their new clock design to greatly reduce jitter, giving the sound of this DAC a real sense of “you are there” to the music. You’ll get inputs for USB to serve up computer audio, and a coax and optical digital connection.
The Pre Box S2 is designed for home use and could be a stand alone DAC you add to your audio system, or it can be used as a preamp to drive a power amp or powered speakers.
Chord Electronics Mojo ($479)
Chord Electronics out of England makes some of the very best DAC’s anywhere in the world. Their products are the choice of BBC sound engineers all over the UK. Chord Electronics developed a custom clocking system for their DAC’s that we feel gets you as close as possible to the original digital file. The Chord Electronics Mojo may be small, but it packs in this custom circuitry, USB, coax, and toslink inputs. It can be set up as a standalone DAC, a headphone amp, or preamp for your home system. You can drive any set of headphones with it we have ever tested and it has plenty of gain for home use.
Since the Mojo is tiny and battery powered, it makes a great on the go option for your smartphone. When you get home, plug it into your home audio system and smile!