Table of Contents
- What Is an Amp?
- What is a DAC?
- What is a DAC/AMP Combo?
- Best DAC/AMP Combos – Comparison Table
- Things to Look for When Buying a DAC/AMP Combo
- 8 Best DAC/AMP Combos in 2021
- Best Portable DAC/Amp Combos
- 1. Best Battery-Operated DAC/AMP Combo Under $500 – CHORD Electronics Mojo
- 2. Best Portable DAC/AMP Combo Under $200 – iFi Nano iDSD Black Label
- 3. Best Battery-Operated DAC/AMP Combo Under $100 – FiiO Q1 Mark II
- 4. Best Portable DAC/AMP with Bluetooth Connectivity Under $400 – iFi xDSD
- 5. Best Portable DAC/AMP on The Market – Chord Hugo 2
- Best Desktop DAC/AMP Combos
- 6. Best Budget DAC/AMP Combo for Your Laptop – FiiO E10K
- 7. The Most Versatile DAC/AMP Under $700 – PS Audio Sprout100
- 8. Best Desktop DAC/AMP for Your PC/Laptop Under $150 – iFi Zen DAC
Whether you are looking for something to drive your power-hungry portable headphones or you need a nice DAC/AMP combo for your home audio setup, this is the right place to be. Our article about 8 best DAC/AMP combos in 2021 is here to answer the most common questions about DACs, amps, and DAC/AMP combos, and to offer you some nice suggestions. Regardless of your budget, you will find something that suits your needs and taste.
What Is an Amp?
To put it simply, amp is a device that receives a line-level signal coming from a DAC or an audio source, amplifies it (provides the required amount of power, current, and voltage), and sends the amplified signal to the connected headphones or speakers.
Different amps ‘’color’’ the sound of the same headphones/speakers in different ways and that’s one of the reasons why different people prefer different kinds of amps (tube or solid-state).
The biggest difference between the headphone and speaker amps is in their output. Headphone amps can push up to 1 or 2W, while the speaker amps can output a few hundred Watts. Speaker amps sometimes have dedicated headphone outputs and can serve as both speaker amps and headphone amps.
What is a DAC?
DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter. The name pretty much explains the purpose. DAC receives the signal coming from a digital source (your PC, laptop, phone, DAP), converts it to analog, and sends it to the amplifier. Unless you are using an analog source (turntable, for example), you are going to need a DAC.
It may sound surprising, but we are all using DACs every day. Every digital audio source (like your phone or laptop) with analog outputs (AUX/headphone or RCA outputs) actually has some kind of a built-in DAC.
So, why do we need a separate DAC? Well, it’s simple. Not all digital audio sources have high-quality DACs and, if they are poorly implemented, they can pick up some noise (hissing, buzzing, humming, crackling, etc.). Using a dedicated DAC improves the signal clarity because you are separating the power supplies, which is the most common source of the noise.
What is a DAC/AMP Combo?
The name is pretty much self-explanatory. It combines a DAC and an amp (usually headphone amp), in one device. Why would someone do that? First, to make the setup more compact. Dedicated amp and DAC tend to take a bit more space. Second, to make it cheaper. Buying separate components usually costs more than buying a DAC/AMP combo. Third, if you are looking for portable equipment, DAC/AMP combo is a much more convenient option than using a separate portable amp and portable DAC.
Audiophiles are usually against using combo devices, but DAC/amp combo doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even if you consider yourself an audiophile. Using high-quality components and separating circuitries and power supplies can lead to pretty amazing results.
Best DAC/AMP Combos – Comparison Table
|Best Portable DAC/Amp Combos|
|CHORD Electronics Mojo||4.3||Check Amazon|
|iFi Nano iDSD||4.1||Check Amazon|
|FiiO Q1 Mark II||4.1||Check Amazon|
|iFi xDSD||4.0||Check Amazon|
|Chord Hugo 2||4.7||Check Amazon|
|Best Desktop DAC/AMP Combos|
|FiiO E10K||4.2||Check Amazon|
|PS Audio Sprout100||4.5||Check Amazon||Read Review|
|iFi Zen DAC||4.4||Check Amazon|
Things to Look for When Buying a DAC/AMP Combo
Searching for the right DAC/amp combo starts with your headphones (or with the headphones you want to buy) and with the digital audio equipment you want to connect to it.
Digital audio sources you want to connect determine the characteristics of the DAC section, while the power demands (impedance, sensitivity) of the headphones determine the characteristics of the amp section.
When it comes to the DAC section, you should be looking for something versatile with multiple digital inputs (optical, coaxial, USB) and analog outputs (balanced and/or unbalanced). So, more inputs/outputs are always better than less.
Matching the amp with your headphones is a little bit trickier for understanding but we will try to make it as simple as possible.
Not all the headphones on the market will benefit from a separate amp (or DAC/amp combo). If the headphone impedance is low (up to 32Ω), especially if they are fairly sensitive (100dB+), you won’t notice much difference in their performance when using a separate amp (or DAC/amp).
If the headphone impedance is higher than 50Ω or 100Ω, using a headphone amp (or DAC/amp) can be quite beneficial (improved sound quality and louder sound).
So, if you have some high-impedance (and/or low-sensitivity) headphones, you need an amp with a matching (preferably slightly higher) power output for the given load (impedance). If the recommended power supply is not listed in the headphone specs, you can use a headphone power calculator (many of them are available online) and get the recommended power output, voltage, and current for the given headphone impedance and sensitivity.
After calculating the required power output, you can check the amp’s (DAC/amp’s) specs and see if the advertised power outputs match your needs.
Here’s a simple example. Let’s assume that you want a portable DAC/amp that can drive your Sennheiser HD800 or HD 800S headphones. These headphones have a 300Ω impedance and 102dB sensitivity (1Vrms).
Sennheiser HD 800/800 S specs (source – Sennheiser)
After you check the HD 800 specs and find the impedance and sensitivity, you can use any headphone power calculator to get the required power output, voltage, and current for different sound levels. We used the one on digizoid and got 2.51Vrms (required voltage), 8.37mA (required current), and 21mW (required power) for the 110dB loudness (described as fairly loud).
Required power output, voltage, and current (source – digizoid)
When you know the required power output, you have to check the power output of the DAC/amp and see if it’s high enough to drive the headphones. In our example, we’ve used the iFi xDSD DAC/amp. As you can see in the picture below, iFi xDSD can output 48mW into 300Ω load. Since our headphones require 21mW, this DAC/amp is good enough and can be used with Sennheiser HD 800 or HD 800 S.
iFi Audio xDSD specs (source – iFi Audio)
Now that you know some basic stuff about DAC/amp combos and you know what to look for when buying one, we can move onto our selection of 8 best DAC/amp combos.
The list is divided into two sections – the best portable DAC/amp combos and the best desktop DAC/amp combos. These are our top picks.
8 Best DAC/AMP Combos in 2021
Best Portable DAC/Amp Combos
1. Best Battery-Operated DAC/AMP Combo Under $500 – CHORD Electronics Mojo
Chord Electronics Mojo is a little bit older model (released in 2015) but it’s proven to be one of the most capable and versatile portable DAC/amp combos under $500. This little thing is designed and manufactured in Great Britain, which is one of the reasons for such a high price. The other, more important reason, is the overall performance of this portable DAC/amp.
What’s in the box?
Inside the box, you’ll find your Chord Electronics Mojo, a very short micro USB charging cable, user manual, and a warranty card. Other accessories (protective case, audio cables, adapters) are sold separately.
Things we like
Don’t let the compact toy-like appearance fool you. Mojo maybe looks like a toy, with those large colorful buttons, but it’s a very capable toy. It has a solid aluminum chassis, and it is supper-compact.
The input/output scheme is fairly simple. On the left side, you have two 3.5mm headphone outputs (it can drive two pairs of headphones simultaneously). On the right side, you have 3 inputs – TOSLINK input, 3.5mm/coaxial combo input, and a micro USB audio port. There’s also a separate micro USB power supply (charging port).
On the front, right at the top, there are three buttons – power button and volume + and -. The buttons are illuminated and, depending on the volume level and on the type of audio file, you will see a different color.
The volume buttons change the color from brown to white depending on the volume (white being the max volume). The power button has a very complicated color scheme – it will illuminate when a digital signal is fed and, depending on the color, you will know the sample rate.
Power button LED sample rate indicators (source – Mojo operating instructions)
One of the big qualities of the Mojo DAC/amp is its versatility. It basically has 4 different inputs (only three physical ports) and can be used with all kinds of sources including phones (iOS or Android), DAPs, computers, etc. The optical port supports PCM files up to 192kHz/24bit and DSD64. Micro USB audio port can handle PCM files up to 768kHz/32bit and it can also play DSD files up to DSD256. Coaxial/3.5mm combo port can play PCM files up to 384kHz and it also supports DSD64 and DSD128. Connecting the DAC/amp to your PC or some other piece of equipment is completely painless and doesn’t require driver installation (unless you’re crazy enough to use Windows Vista).
The device can also be connected to a preamplifier but, in order to do that, you have to press both volume buttons simultaneously while turning it on. This will change the output to the line-level (3V). When connected to a preamp, the volume buttons will be blue.
Mojo has no input selection button. The inputs are selected automatically and there’s a certain hierarchy – micro USB port has the highest priority, while 3.5mm coax input has the priority over optical input. So, if you have any two sources connected and you want to play files from the one connected via TOSLINK cable, you will have to disconnect all the other cables.
DAC amp has a pretty large Li-Po battery. The battery can deliver up to 10h of playtime at moderate volumes. The playtime will depend on the file type (sample rate) and on the volume. It charges via a dedicated micro USB port (no adapter included). It takes 4h to fully recharge.
Mojo DAC/Amp is compatible with a wide variety of full-size headphones and IEMs. The amp can push 720mW into 8Ω or 35mW into 600Ω. It can easily drive high-impedance headphones (like Sennheiser HD 800/800 S or Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro) and high-sensitivity IEMs (like Shure SE846).
The biggest highlight is, without any doubt, the performance. Mojo delivers impressively detailed and accurate sound reproduction across the whole audible range. The response is fast, transient, and powerful. There’s a slight emphasis on the low end which gives a little bit of warmth to the sound but the overall performance surpasses any other portable DAC/amp combo in its price range.
Things we don’t like
The user interface is somewhat odd. The device is simple to use and you can connect your equipment in a few seconds but, if you want to know what kind of file is being played, you will have to go through the manual and find the explanation for all those different button colors.
Mojo doesn’t have balanced headphone outputs. If you need something with balanced outs, look elsewhere.
2. Best Portable DAC/AMP Combo Under $200 – iFi Nano iDSD Black Label
Black Label is the upgraded version of the previous iFi Nano iDSD DAC/AMP. Except for the color difference, the most important improvements are higher output, cleaner power supply, IEMatch input (designed for high-sensitivity IEMs), MQA support, and a modified volume dial. iFi Nano iDSD Black Label is one of the most capable DAC/AMP combos under $200. The only downside is the lack of TOSLINK and coaxial inputs.
What’s in the box?
Inside the box, you will find your Nano iDSD Black Label DAC/AMP, carrying pouch, elastic bands for stacking, USB type-A to USB type-B cable, USB 3.0 (M to F) cable, USB-A to USB-B adapter. USB-C OTG cable is sold separately.
Things we like
Nano iDSD Black Label is a compact DAC/AMP with a nice and solid aluminum body, and a simple input/output scheme.
On the front side, you have two 3.5mm headphone outputs (direct and IEMatch), one LED sample rate and battery status indicator, and a volume dial that doubles as the on/off switch.
On the back, you have a USB Type-A digital input, 3.5mm line output, and a digital filter switch with two options – measure and listen.
Thanks to its Burr-Brown chip, Black Label supports all kinds of audio formats including PCM (up to 384kHz), DSD (up to DSD256), DXD (up to 352.8kHz), and MQA. Depending on the sample rate and file type, the LED indicator on the front side will be illuminated differently.
The meaning of different LED indicators (source – Black Label manual)
The DAC/AMP can push enough power to drive some highly-demanding 300 or 600Ω headphones. According to the manual, it can output 20mW into 600Ω load or up to 285mW into 32Ω.
Aside from the regular (direct) 3.5mm input, there’s another 3.5mm IEMatch input that’s designed for high-sensitivity IEMs. This input is supposed to reduce the background noise and it truly does a great job – unless you crank up the volume to the max, you won’t notice any noise.
On the back, there’s a filter switch that allows you to choose between two different sound signatures marked as ”measure” (frequency response optimized) and ‘’listen’’ (transient optimized min phase). The manufacturer recommends the second one for a more enjoyable listening experience, but the difference between the two is very subtle.
The DAC/AMP also has a built-in battery that allows you to use it on-the-go. Depending on the volume and file type, you will get 6-8h of playtime.
iFi audio equipment never disappointed us and Black Label is not different. It’s fairly affordable and it delivers awesome performance for the price. iFi Nano iDSD Black Lable has a very refined, detailed, and dynamic sound reproduction. The bass is extended, nicely layered, and powerful. The midrange is clear, detailed, with a nice tonality. The highs are almost sparkling, without any brightness or harshness. Overall, the DAC/AMP is tuned to be neutral and it does a great job of revealing every little detail in your audio recordings. The stereo separation is excellent and the balance between the channels is impeccable.
Things we don’t like
iFi Nano iDSD Black Label has only one USB Type-A input – there are no optical or coaxial inputs.
3. Best Battery-Operated DAC/AMP Combo Under $100 – FiiO Q1 Mark II
Q1 Mark II is designed for iPhone and other iOS devices but it’s compatible with Android phones, Sony Walkman, and PCs/laptops. It’s another super cheap FiiO’s DAC/amp under $100, and it offers impressive performance for the price. It even has a balanced 2.5mm headphone output and can play DSD256.
What’s in the box?
Q1 Mark II comes in a fairly rich packaging. Along with the DAC/AMP, you’ll get a USB to micro USB cable (for connecting to PC), micro USB to lightning cable (for connecting to iPhones), 3.5mm audio cable, silicone bands (for stacking), soft pouch, manual, and 1-year warranty.
The manufacturer doesn’t include micro USB to micro USB cable for connecting Android devices and doesn’t include the cable for connecting the Q1 Mark II to your Sony Walkman. Those cables are sold separately.
Things we like
FiiO Q1 Mark II can easily be one of the most stylish portable (battery-operated) DAC/AMPs. It has a nice brushed aluminum housing. It’s super-slim, with rounded edges, and a simple input/output scheme. On the front panel, you have two headphone outputs – one 3.5mm unbalanced and one 2.5mm balanced output. There’s also a line input/output (for connecting a player or an external amp) and a large volume dial (doubles as a power switch). On the front, there’re also a DSD LED indicator and a power indicator.
On the back, there’s a micro USB audio/charging/power input, bass boost switch, and high/low gain switch.
Under the hood, Q1 Mark II houses AKM’s AK4452 DAC chip, OPA926 amp module, and OPA1662 low-pass filter.
The device is MFi certified and works perfectly with iOS devices. One of the benefits is that, when connected to an iPhone, it automatically recognizes it and disables the charging over micro USB to save iPhone’s battery.
Q1 Mark II has 1,800mAh battery and delivers up to 20h of playtime when connected to a player via 3.5mm line input/output. When using micro USB audio port and DAC capabilities, you will get up to 10 hours. When connected to a PC/laptop, Mark II will charge while playing. The recharge takes less than 4h.
The max supported resolution when playing PCM files is 384kHz/32bit. It also supports DSD (up to DSD256).
Depending on the headphone output (balanced/unbalanced), power outputs are different. In balanced mode, the max supported impedance is 150Ω (unbalanced – 100Ω). In balanced mode, Q1 Mark II can even drive some 300Ω headphones but it will be a struggle. When using a balanced output, the DAC/AMP can push 220mW into 32Ω or 45mW into 300Ω. When using unbalanced output, it can push 11mW into 300Ω load or 75mW into 32Ω.
Having certain limitations in mind (max supported impedance), Q1 Mark II is a very good performer. It’s actually one of the best in its price range. It delivers a flat sound signature.
The bass response is not going to blow you away, but it’s fairly accurate, tight, and linear. This thing may be a good option for bass-heavy headphones, especially if you want to soften their bass response. Engaging the bass boost switch is not the best idea since it doesn’t add to the quality of the bass, only quantity. It’s kind of boomy.
The midrange is well-mixed with the bass and creates a cohesive sound signature. It’s not extremely detailed but manages to sound natural. It has a good definition and offers a hint of forwardness, but it’s not exactly in your face.
Treble is decent but not as good as the bass and mids. It’s extended but not as much as you would get with pricier toys. I guess that, for the price, Q1 Mark II delivers more than expected.
Things we don’t like
The manufacturer includes USB cables for connecting to PCs and a lightning cable for connecting to Apple devices. However, micro USB cable for connecting Android devices (which are also compatible with Q1 Mark II) is not included.
4. Best Portable DAC/AMP with Bluetooth Connectivity Under $400 – iFi xDSD
iFi xDSD is a battery-operated DAC/AMP combo, made mostly for mobile use. Just like every iFi device, it’s packed with all kinds of features including wired and wireless (Bluetooth) connectivity. It supports all kinds of audio formats including DSD and MQA. The price is not exactly affordable but it’s appropriate for this kind of all-in-one device.
What’s in the box?
iFi xDSD comes with a small carrying pouch, USB audio cable, USB Type-B to USB Type-A adapter, elastic bands for stacking, user manual, and a warranty card.
Things we like
iFi xDSD is somewhat different from other iFi portable DAC/AMPs. It has a wavy housing with a shiny aluminum finish. It feels solid, durable, and very well made.
The input/output scheme is fairly familiar, especially if you have already owned some iFi DAC. On the front, you have an S-Balanced 3.5mm TRRS headphone output (doubles as a line out). Then, you have two LED indicators (input and sample rate), volume dial with the iFi logo in the middle (doubles as the power button). On the right end, there are 3D+ and XBass+ LED indicators, and the settings/Bluetooth button (used to turn off the unit, engage XBass+ and 3D+ or initiate pairing).
On the back, you have a 3.5mm optical/coaxial combo input, USB Type-A digital audio input, filter switch (two modes – measure and listen, just like the Black Label), micro USB charging port, and a battery level indicator.
In wired mode, this DAC/AMP supports a wide variety of audio formats and it’s certified for hi-res audio. It supports PCM (up to 768kHz), DSD (up to DSD512), and DXD. It also supports MQA files.
This tiny amp can drive all kinds of headphones, including over-ear headphones with 300 and 600Ω impedance. Also, it does a great job with high-sensitivity IEMs. xDSD can push up to 270mW into 50Ω load, 48mW into 300Ω, or 24mW into 600Ω.
In Bluetooth mode, iFi xDSD will use aptX codec for streaming. Naturally, the performance is not equally good in wireless and in wired mode, but Bluetooth works flawlessly and it’s a nice and convenient addition to the package.
Before we move onto the sound, let’s discuss some additional features. 3D+ is a sound mode that creates a holographic sound field. It basically expands the soundstage and tries to simulate listening to a pair of speakers. XBass+ extends the bass response. Digital filters are the same as those on the previously reviewed Black Label. You can choose between ”listen” and ”measure” modes. The difference between the two filters is subtle.
One more thing we have to mention is the battery. Depending on the volume, headphones, and a sample rate, you can get 5-8 hours of playtime.
As expected, iFi xDSD does a great job when it comes to sound. We tried hard but we couldn’t find any flaws regarding the sonic performance. For the price, iFi xDSD delivers an impressive sound.
The bass response is not incredibly deep or layered but it’s linear, tight, and accurate. It sounds natural and has the right amount punch.
The midrange is a little bit in-your-face. It sounds a bit too close but it’s still enjoyable and natural. The vocals are crystal clear.
The treble is just a little bit brighter, but it’s not aggressive nor fatiguing. It has a nice extension and it’s nicely separated from the mids.
Things we don’t like
Bluetooth chip does not support aptX HD or aptX Adaptive (or LDAC). Only the most basic aptX codec is supported.
5. Best Portable DAC/AMP on The Market – Chord Hugo 2
Chord Electronics Hugo 2 is not for everyone. It’s a serious piece of audiophile gear and it’s really expensive (priced over $2,000). Hugo 2 is the upgraded version of the original Hugo (which is a little bit cheaper). At the moment, it’s one of the most capable and most versatile portable DAC/AMPs on the market and it’s our absolute favorite. The biggest (and probably the only) downside is the price.
What’s in the box?
Chord Hugo 2 comes in a premium box along with USB Type-A to micro USB cable, optical cable, coaxial cable, micro USB to micro USB cable, power adapter, IR remote, user manual, and a 3-year warranty.
Things we like
In terms of design Hugo 2 is similar to the first Hugo version and to the previously mentioned Mojo. However, it’s a little bit larger than Mojo which makes mobile use a little bit trickier. The DAC/AMP has a very rugged aluminum chassis and, like all the other Chord Electronics equipment, it looks very premium.
On the top panel, on the left end, you have four illuminated control buttons. You can use them to turn on/off the unit, enable ‘’crossfeed’’ (sound expansion), select input, and select one of four available filters. Right in the middle, there’s a large LED indicator (shows the sample rate). Instead of using the control buttons to select the input or filter, activate crossfade mode, and control volume, you can use the included remote, which is a huge plus.
On the left panel, you have two micro USB inputs (one for charging, the other for audio). On the right panel, there are two headphone outputs (6.35mm and 3.5mm), RCA line outputs, 3.5mm/coaxial combo input (24bit/384kHz), and digital optical input (24bit/192kHz). Besides those physical digital inputs, you can also use Bluetooth for casual listening. The DAC/AMP supports aptX audio codec and it will use it whenever possible. The Bluetooth range is extended and the connection is stable within 50-100ft.
Hugo 2 is practically a plug-and-play device. It doesn’t require any drivers to work properly and it’s compatible with everything (Windows PCs, Linux, macOS, Android, iOS).
Hugo 2 is at least one of the top-three portable DAC/headphone amps on the market when it comes to power output and supported resolution. This little thing can drive anything. It will push 740mW into 33Ω or up to 94mW into 300Ω. It can drive any 600Ω headphones with ease.
The micro USB connection allows PCM and DSD native playback (up to 768Hz/32bit PCM and up to DSD512). The supported sample rates are lower for other digital inputs. In Bluetooth mode, it supports 48kHz/16bit sample rate.
The ‘’crossfeed’’ function allows you to expand the soundstage through digital signal processing. There are three levels of ‘’crossfeed’’ – minimum, medium, and maximum. Max gives you the largest soundstage.
The filter button allows you to play with different sound signatures. There are four filters – neutral, neutral with high-frequency roll-off, warm, and warm with high-frequency roll-off.
Of all the portable, battery-operated DAC/AMPs, Hugo 2 delivers the most detailed sound reproduction. With such an amount of detail, many amps tend to sound unnatural or too analytical. But not Hugo 2. The sound is so natural, so pleasant. Hugo 2 puts you in the middle of the show. It’s very transparent with a spacious soundstage and very accurate reproduction across the whole audible spectrum.
When used with factory settings (no filters, no crossfeed), Hugo sounds perfectly neutral. The bass is tight, accurate, and punchy. It’s not too big. The midrange is in perfect balance with the low end. The mids are very dynamic, with a beautiful timbre. The high end is exceptionally accurate and consistent across the whole treble range. It’s never too bright. It’s practically impossible to find any flaw in this sound signature. If you prefer meatier bass or less treble, you can play with the filters and get the kind of sound you prefer.
Things we don’t like
Price is, obviously, the biggest issue. Hugo 2 is not a cheap device. On the contrary, it’s very expensive ($2,000+) and it’s definitely not for everyone.
Hugo 2 supports only aptX. It doesn’t support aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, or LDAC.
Best Desktop DAC/AMP Combos
6. Best Budget DAC/AMP Combo for Your Laptop – FiiO E10K
FiiO is well-known for its relatively affordable and highly capable and versatile equipment (DACs, amps, DAC/amps, DAPs, etc.). FiiO E10K is one of the cheapest DAC/amp combos on the market. It’s is designed for laptop use and it’s supposed to improve your laptop’s audio output.
What’s in the box?
The box contains your FiiO E10K DAC/amp, USB to micro USB cable, user manual, and a warranty card.
Things we like
E10K is really tiny. Its dimensions are 3.1in x 1.9in x 0.8in and it weighs less than 3oz. It has a very sturdy brushed aluminum chassis with a matte black finish.
The input/output scheme is pretty simple. On the front, you have a 3.5mm headphone output, the on/off/bass boost switch, and a volume dial. On the back, there are micro USB audio input (doubles as a charging port), coaxial output, 3.5mm line output, and high/low gain switch. Under the hood, E10K houses PCM5102 DAC chip and LMH6643 amp, both made by Texas Instruments.
The DAC/amp connects to the laptop via a micro USB audio port and uses the same connection for power supply. Micro USB is the only input so it’s not extremely versatile. In order to use it, you don’t have to install any drivers – it’s plug-and-play.
The output stage is much more versatile. E10K can output audio to your headphones, to some other device with a coaxial input, or it can send an analog signal to a speaker amp via 3.5mm line output.
Due to the onboard low-pass filter and bass boost circuit, E10K has a relatively low noise floor.
The max supported sample rate is 24bit/96kHz. The recommended impedance is 16Ω-150Ω and it can push up to 200mW into 32Ω load. So, it’s not the most powerful DAC/AMP combo and it can’t drive the most demanding headphones.
E10K delivers a very detailed sound with a nice bass definition, clear and dynamic mids, and surprisingly consistent highs. One of the most interesting features, present on all the FiiO DAC/amps, is the bass boost. Bass boost elevates the bass response by up to 5-6dB but doesn’t make it too aggressive. All in all, E10K sounds fun and performs much better than the price implies.
Things we don’t like
E10K has no separate power supply – the same port and cable are used for power supply and for audio, which can cause some noise.
E10K is not battery-operated. Technically, it’s portable (because it’s small) but it can’t be used on the go.
The balance between the channels is not absolutely perfect and you can notice that when using IEMs at low volumes, but it’s not a huge imbalance and it’s not too distracting.
7. The Most Versatile DAC/AMP Under $700 – PS Audio Sprout100
PS Audio is known for its audiophile equipment. In the past, we have reviewed their Stellar Gain Cell DAC/preamp combined with two M700 monoblocks, and we were amazed by this combo.
PS Audio Sprout100 is maybe not the kind of equipment an audiophile would want since it’s an all-in-one box but, if you’re looking for a way into the audiophile world, Sprout100 is an excellent entry-level option. Sprout100 is a DAC, speaker amp, and a headphone amp, all in one device. It’s compact, easy to use, and very versatile.
What’s in the box?
Inside the box, you will find your Sprout100, IR remote, 4 gold-plated banana plugs, 3.5mm to 6.35mm TRS adapter, power cable, user manual, and warranty card.
Things we like
Sprout100 is quite compact. It has a solid aluminum chassis with a subtle PS Audio logo on the front. It looks simple and elegant.
On the front side, you’ll see the headphone output, two knobs (input selector and volume/power dial), and two LED indicators (power and mode). Instead of using the knobs, you can use the included 4-button remote to turn it on and control the volume. However, if you want to select the input, you have to use the input knob on the unit itself.
On the back of the unit, you’ll find all the physical inputs and outputs. Sprout100 features 2 speaker terminals (banana plugs compatible), sub out port (for connecting an additional powered subwoofer), phono preamp RCA inputs (for connecting your vinyl record player), RCA line-level inputs and outputs, USB Type-B input, optical input, and coaxial input. As you can see, Sprout100 is extremely versatile and allows you to connect all kinds of equipment to it.
When connected to passive speakers, Sprout100 will output 50W RMS per channel (into 8Ω) or 100W RMS per channel (into 4Ω). When using headphones, Sprout100 will deliver up to 125mW of power into 300Ω loads. It can easily drive 600Ω headphones, too.
The DAC section consists of four inputs USB Type-B, optical, coax, and Bluetooth. When connected to a digital source (like PC) via USB Type-B, it can handle PCM files (up to 384kHz/24bit) and DSD files (up to DSD128).
Whether you have it connected to your speakers or to your headphones, Sprout100 delivers very smooth and enjoyable sound reproduction. It’s not the most detailed reproduction, but it has a great bass foundation with a thick, layered, and punchy low end (the bass boost is turned on by default), articulate and dynamic mids, and a slightly laid-back treble. It sounds just a little bit darker but it’s still very fun to listen.
Sprout is, arguably, one of the most versatile DAC/AMP combos in its class. If you are looking for a way to eliminate some devices and make a clean premium audio setup, PS Audio Sprout100 deserves your attention.
Things we don’t like
Sprout100 doesn’t lack any essential features. Shure, it can be improved by adding a display or by adding MQA support or even support for higher resolution files (DSD512, for example) but, at this price point, Sprout offers much more that you could possibly expect.
8. Best Desktop DAC/AMP for Your PC/Laptop Under $150 – iFi Zen DAC
We’ve reviewed iFi Zen DAC/AMP a few months ago and, if you want to know all the details, you can read our in-depth review. We will try to keep this one short.
iFi Zen is a great choice if you are looking for a compact, affordable DAC/AMP combo for your PC/laptop. It supports DSD, DXD, and MQA. It has both balanced and single-ended headphone outputs. The biggest downside is the lack of digital inputs – it has only one USB Type-B input.
What’s in the box?
Inside the box, you’ll find your DAC/AMP, USB-A to USB-B audio/power cable, one RCA audio cable, and all the standard paperwork.
Zen DAC has a 5V DC input but the adapter is, for some reason, sold separately. Technically, you don’t need it since your PC can supply enough power but there’s a noticeable improvement in performance when using DC adapter (cleaner sound, less noise).
Things we like
Zen DAC has a very compact form factor. It’s slim and looks quite stylish.
On the front, you have two headphone outs (4.4mm balanced and ¼in unbalanced). On the back, you have a balanced 4.4mm line-out and RCA unbalanced outputs, as well as USB Type-B input.
The DAC/AMP can handle PCM files (up to 384kHz), DSD (up to DSD256), and DXD files. It also features MQA support.
Zen DAC has a surprisingly powerful headphone output section. It is advertised that the unbalanced headphone outputs can drive any headphones up to 300Ω impedance (36mW into 300Ω), while the balanced output can be used with the most demanding headphones (70mW into 600Ω loads).
Like many other iFi DAC/AMPs, Zen DAC features the bass boost button. One additional feature is the gain switch which allows you to match the output to your headphones.
The sound signature of the Zen DAC is on a warmer side. It delivers a nice and tight punch with subtle mid-bass emphasis. The midrange is nicely balanced with the low end. It’s slightly elevated and pushed forward. The mids are fairly detailed and natural. The high end is a little bit laid back. It’s not dull but it lacks a little bit of detail and sparkle.
Things we don’t like
Zen DAC is not very versatile – it has only USB Type-B digital input. There are no optical or coaxial inputs.
DC adapter is not included in the package, which is a very odd decision. The adapter is not absolutely necessary but, in our opinion, you should invest 50 bucks more and get it. It definitely improves performance.
This is the end of our list of 8 best DAC/amp combos in 2021. We did our best to cover all the price ranges and to include DAC/amp combos with different kinds of inputs/outputs. Hopefully, you have found something that fits your budget and matches the existing audio equipment. If you want to keep searching, you can find some quick answers to the most common questions about DAC/amp combos below.
Q: What are amps and DACs?
A: DAC is a device that receives a digital audio signal from a digital audio source (like phone or PC), converts it to analog (preferably, without introducing any distortion or noise), and sends it to the amp. Amp is a device that receives the audio signal from a DAC and amplifies it (amplifies voltage, current, and power output). That way, the amplifier provides enough power, current, and voltage to drive the headphones (and get much better performance than you would get without the amp).
Q: Why do we need to convert digital audio to analog?
A: Because we can’t hear digital. We are analog beings and any digital data has to be converted to analog in order for us to hear it or see it. Audio and video content are stored in digital forms because that gives us the option to manipulate with it, store it, and transfer it in many different ways but, in the end, before it reaches our ears, digital audio signal has to be converted to analog.
Q: Do I need a DAC with an amp?
A: Whether you need a DAC or not depends on the audio source you’re using. Some PCs, laptops, and even phones, have pretty high-quality DACs onboard and they practically don’t introduce any noticeable noise and don’t distort the signal. If that’s your case, you don’t need a DAC. If you, on the other hand, can hear that the signal coming from your source isn’t perfectly clean, whether because there’s noise or because you feel there should be more detail in the audio file, buying a DAC may be a good idea.
Q: Should You get a dedicated DAC and amp or a DAC/AMP combo?
A: Audiophiles will argue that using a dedicated DAC and a dedicated amp (two separate units) is almost always a better option than using a DAC/amp combo. However, there are certain situations when buying a DAC/amp combo is a better or at least a more convenient solution.
First of all, DAC/amp combos are usually cheaper than dedicated DACs and amps. Second, dedicated components require more space and have separate power supplies, which means more cables. Third, the DAC/amp combo doesn’t have to sound worse than a dedicated DAC and amp, especially when it comes to high-end equipment.
The best thing when it comes to using separate DAC and amp is the fact that you can tailor the sound signature by using different amps with one DAC. With DAC/amp combos, you’re getting only one sound signature and you can’t change it.
Q: Does a DAC/Amp combo improves sound quality?
A: Yes. Definitely. Especially when using power-hungry headphones or an audio source with a poor-quality DAC. In those cases, introducing a DAC/amp combo, as a medium between the source and the headphones, can be very beneficial.
If you, however, are using some cheap low-impedance earbuds or headphones and your phone as a source, adding a portable DAC/amp combo won’t make a huge difference.
Q: Is getting a DAC/AMP worth it?
A: Yes, it’s definitely worth it, especially if you want to use some high-impedance/low-sensitivity headphones or when using an audio source with a poorly implemented DAC. If the headphones are extremely demanding, you will get a noticeable improvement even when using some inexpensive DAC/amp combo.
Q: Who makes the best DAC/amp combos?
A: There’s no definite answer to this question but there are many great options and you can find some of them on our list of 8 best DAC/amp combos in 2021. If you are looking for something affordable and portable, FiiO is probably the best choice. If you want a high-end portable DAC/amp combo, iFi Audio and Chord Electronics are our go-to brands. If you are looking for a desktop DAC/amp combo, and you need the best possible quality, some of the brands you should check out are PS Audio, Audioengine, Astell&Kern, Pro-Ject Audio, Auris Audio, etc.
Q: Should I get a portable or a desktop DAC/Amp?
A: That entirely depends on your needs and the way you’re going to use it. Desktop DAC/amp combos are, in general, more capable, sometimes even more versatile, than portable DAC/amp combos. However, that doesn’t have any significance if you want something that can be used on the go. So, it’s all up to you.
Hello, my name is James Longman.
I’m a writer and editor at AudioReputation. I disassembled my first portable AM/FM radio when I was only 8. At the age of 11, I burned the circuit board on my old boombox cassette player. I’m not going to explain how but it was reckless and stupid.
Since then, I have become much more careful around radios, boomboxes, and other audio devices (at least, I like to think so) but I have never lost the passion for audio equipment. Throughout 20 years of my professional career, I’ve been working for various audio equipment manufacturers and even started building speakers on my own in my little workshop.
I love the work we do here at AudioReputation. Testing, comparing, and evaluating all kinds of audio devices (speakers, soundbars, headphones, home theater systems, etc.) is something I truly enjoy. I try to be unbiased and give you my honest opinion on every piece of equipment I test. Still, you should take my reviews with a pinch of salt and always be just a little bit skeptical. The fact that I liked some speaker or soundbar doesn’t mean that you are going to love it. If you have the opportunity, you should test it/hear it before buying it.