11 Best Budget DAC – Updated 2020 – Best DAC For The Money

If you have been producing digital music from your computer for quite some time now, you have probably come across the term digital to analog converter (DAC) once or twice.

Your computer soundcard output will have decent a decent DAC that you would typically use to monitor and listen through your tracks through studio monitors.

However, professional sound engineers prefer high quality digital to analog conversion to monitor high-quality audio for post-production.

Converting digital to analog signals plays a significant role in achieving optimum sound.

Most novice music producers wouldn’t mind or don’t care for investing in a high-quality DAC at first.

However, after understanding the importance of using a digital to analog converter, they will undoubtedly want to get their hands on one.

In this article, I will show you the budget DAC, and the best DAC for the money. I will also show you a list of alternative DACs you could choose from.

Why Do You Need a DAC in Music Production?

Why Do You Need a DAC in Music Production - cheap dac for music

In the studio, for example, a vocalist lays down some tracks. At the same time, a microphone records the voices and instruments as analog signals.

The recording equipment uses an analog to digital converter (audio interface) to translate the analog signal into a digital language your computer and DAW will understand.

During playback, a DAC decodes the stored digital signals by converting it back into analog audio.

Lastly, the DAC sends audio signals out through a preamplifier then to an amplifier to your speakers.

By opting for a great external DAC, you can enjoy the sound quality that is far superior to what your phone or computer soundcard can produce.

The noticeably improved sound quality heightens our overall listening experience, making it an excellent investment.

However, the best DACs do not come with a cheap price tag, so I recommend DACs for the more serious producers and sound engineers.

In a rush? Here is a quick rundown for you:

Affordable
Cyrus Audio soundKey Portable Inline Amp & Dac - Each (Graphite)
USB DAC
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
Top Pick
Chord Mojo Black DAC/Headphone Amplifier
Compact
Audiolab M-DAC Nano Portable Wireless DAC and Headphone Amplifier
Powerhouse
Audiolab M-DAC+ High-Performance Multi-Purpose Audio DAC - Silver
Cyrus Audio soundKey Portable Inline Amp & Dac - Each (Graphite)
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
Chord Mojo Black DAC/Headphone Amplifier
Audiolab M-DAC Nano Portable Wireless DAC and Headphone Amplifier
Audiolab M-DAC+ High-Performance Multi-Purpose Audio DAC - Silver
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Affordable
Cyrus Audio soundKey Portable Inline Amp & Dac - Each (Graphite)
Cyrus Audio soundKey Portable Inline Amp & Dac - Each (Graphite)
-
USB DAC
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
Top Pick
Chord Mojo Black DAC/Headphone Amplifier
Chord Mojo Black DAC/Headphone Amplifier
Compact
Audiolab M-DAC Nano Portable Wireless DAC and Headphone Amplifier
Audiolab M-DAC Nano Portable Wireless DAC and Headphone Amplifier
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Powerhouse
Audiolab M-DAC+ High-Performance Multi-Purpose Audio DAC - Silver
Audiolab M-DAC+ High-Performance Multi-Purpose Audio DAC - Silver
-

Okay, now let’s get to the reviews!

Audiolab M-DAC +
(Best DAC for the Money)

Audiolab M-DAC + - best DAC for the money

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • Two coaxial inputs
  • Two optical digital inputs
  • One XLR input
  • One Stereo RCA input
  • AES/ EBU input
  • USB Type-A input
  • USB Type B input
  • 3mm output
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • 32-bit/ 384kHz sample rate

Pros:

  • Extensive specs
  • Excellent build quality
  • Intuitive and organized

Cons:

  • The sound could use some attack and improvement

The M-DAC + is an improvement to the M-DAC, which is one of my favorite DACs. The M-DAC has been around for years, and it has been one of the best DACs out there. However, the developers felt that it was time for some improvement, which is why they came up with the M-DAC +.

The M-DAC + does not only come with a bigger package, and the specs got enhanced too. It now supports 32-bit/384kHz and DSD256 high-resolution audio. In addition to that, it now has tons of input connections. It also offers an extensive sound presence, incredible attention to detail, and great timing.

Nagra HD DAC/ MPS
(Amazing Sound)

Nagra HD DAC-MPS - best analog DAC budget

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • Coaxial input
  • Optical digital input
  • USB type B input
  • 5mm output
  • RCA phono output
  • XLR output
  • 24-bit/384kHz PCM

Pros:

  • Natural and fluid sound
  • Impressive build quality
  • Rhythmic delivery
  • Detailed and expressive

Cons:

  • Poor display

The Nagra HD DAC is probably one of the best DACs I have ever come across. It has a matching power supply that keeps the electronics quiet and hum-free. It features the best construction quality made from the most durable and desired pieces of materials.

The design pays attention to details, and you are not only buying the Nagra DAC for good aesthetics. The sound quality is superb as well. Like most DACs, you will need to add premium partners to make the best out of the device. Still, the Nagra produces a beautiful organic and natural tone to all your digital tracks.

It still could use a little improvement with the hardness, but the punchiness and dynamics are still there. If you are looking for a high-end DAC that is capable of presenting musical details, the Nagra is worth checking out.

It’s currently out of stock, but I am listing an excellent alternative below:

Chord Dave
(Pricey DAC)

Chord Dave - expensive DAC for the money

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • Coaxial input
  • Optical digital input
  • USB type-B input
  • 5mm output
  • 5mm output
  • RCA output
  • Phono output
  • XLR output
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • 32-bit/786kHz PCM sample rate

Pros:

  • Cutting-edge sound quality
  • An impressive list of features
  • A Sleek and distinctive appearance

Cons:

  • Expensive

When it comes to natural and insightful sound quality, the DAVE exceeds expectations. It is a very portable DAC that has an outstanding performance. It has a superbly refined sound that never has an excuse for smoothing things out. It removes all the unwanted sparkles from recordings, making your tracks easy to monitor and render.

It makes an excellent digital preamp, and I couldn’t ask for more from the Chord Dave. It may be a little bit expensive, but if the price is not an issue, you would genuinely love this fantastic DAC.

The product is discontinued – see Chord Qutest and Hugo 2 instead. 

Chord Qutest
(Compact DAC / Good Value)

Chord Qutest - budget analog to digital converter and headphone amplifier

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • Coaxial digital input
  • Optical digital input
  • USB Type-B input
  • RCA Phono output
  • 32-bit/768kHz sample rate

Pros:

  • Clear and precise sound
  • Subtle performer
  • Incredible timing
  • Well equipped with features

Cons:

  • No Bluetooth connectivity

With another Chord product on the list, they continue to dominate the market with their high-quality audio DAC products. The Qutest may be an expensive and premium choice, but it also comes with premium sound.

It delivers a clean, crisp, and precise sound that lesser rivals look up to. Chord came up with a familiar neutral tonal balance to achieve the sound quality that every music listener and producer needs.

The Qutest is equipped with Chord’s trademark color-denoting parameters, which glows depending on the input. It glows white for USB type-B, yellow for the first coaxial input, and red for the second. Although the only flaw to an otherwise perfect device is that it has no Bluetooth connection, however, it does what it was meant to do brilliantly.

Audiolab M-DAC Nano
(Best Compact DAC)

Audiolab M-DAC Nano - best budget dac cheap portable

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • 5mm output
  • Bluetooth connectivity

Pros:

  • Produces a sonic punch and refined sound
  • Compact and lightweight
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • Wireless operation

Cons:

  • Battery life needs improvement

The Audiolab M-DAC Nano is one of the best portable DACs I have heard recently. It is an excellent compact device that is aimed to improve the sound of your mobile devices such as laptops and smartphones.

It comes in a tiny package that is barely significant than the size of a Twinkie. It weighs merely 28 grams, making it the ultimate portable DAC. Just because it is small does not mean it can’t make a significant sound improvement.

It gains points for maximum portability with its wireless Bluetooth operation. Overall, it is an exciting and useful portable device that improves the sound quality of your music on the go.

Cyrus SoundKey
(Best Budget DAC)

Cyrus SoundKey - budget cheap DAC and headphone amplifier

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • Micro USB input
  • 5 mm output
  • 24-bit/96kHz sample rate

Pros:

  • Clean and precise sound
  • Detailed sound
  • Compact
  • Unobtrusive

Cons:

  • Does not attach to iOS devices
  • Could use a little more dynamic

Cyrus SoundKey is one of the better cheap alternatives. It has all the essential inputs and outputs for portable use, including a headphone output and a micro USB input. It is compact and tiny, but it still can compete with the DACs in its price range.

I am disappointed as an iOS user because it only features a micro USB input for android devices. However, it still does a go job of producing a clear and concise sound for android devices. Some users say that you can always use it for iOS devices if you purchase a micro USB to lightning adapter.

However, I prefer simplicity without the use of any external adapters. Overall, it gives your listening experience more space, detail, dynamics, and transparency, which makes the SoundKey worth it.

AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
(Sleek and Clever Design)

AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt micro DAC for music production

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • USB type-A input
  • 5 mm output
  • 24-bit/96kHz sample rate

Pros:

  • Clear and detailed sound
  • Excellent dynamics
  • Great timing
  • Extensive file support

Cons:

  • Needs adapters for input on other devices

The first thing you will notice about the AudioQuest DragonFly is its clever design. It has some of the necessary inputs and outputs that you can use for your computer or smart device, such as a USB type-A input and 3.5mm headphone jack. However, it could be a lot better if it had Bluetooth connectivity.

However, for a portable device, it can still produce a clear and detailed sound that gives you a better listening experience. The improved model is equipped with a more advances DAC chip that draws less current and improves the processing speed. It is quite expensive than most portable devices, but it is worth every penny.

AudioQuest DragonFly Red
(Excellent and Portable Option)

AudioQuest DragonFly Red - best USB DAC for the money

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • USB type-B input
  • 5 mm headphone output
  • 24-bit/96kHz PCM sample rate

Pros:

  • Elegant design
  • Robust, subtle, and sophisticated sound output
  • Smartphone compatible

Cons:

  • The red paint finish is easily chipped and scratched

This option may be a little on the expensive side for a laptop and phone DAC, but it does give your phone or laptop a dynamic boost in sound quality. It does genuinely heighten the listening and music production experience that makes it worth the price.

It has a clever and unique design for a DAC that is disguised as a flash drive. AudioQuest did a great job of designing this portable DAC. Not only does the aesthetic look brilliant, but it also improves your audio significantly, giving it a brighter and detailed tone. Overall, the DragonFly Red is a convenient device you can virtually bring anywhere for an excellent audio boost.

Chord Hugo 2
(New and Improved DAC)

Chord Hugo 2 - best headphone amp and DAC for the money

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • Coaxial input
  • Optical digital input
  • Micro USB input
  • 5 mm headphone input
  • 3 mm input
  • RCA phono input
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • 32-bit/786kHz PCM sample rate

Pros:

  • Dynamic and open sound with a lot of detail
  • Well-built
  • Bluetooth connection
  • Multi-colored control system

Cons:

  • Confusing colors
  • Not portable

The Hugo 2 is a new and improved version of an already stellar DAC, which is the Hugo. It has all the essential inputs and outputs you would need for optimizing the sound of all your devices. You can use it for every device in your entertainment center and your home music studio.

The Chord Hugo 2 gives you a smooth and neutral listen. It makes your audio more coherent without any underplay. It produces the right EQ balance, where bass and treble are balanced perfectly.

It is a superb device that makes your listening more enjoyable in a crystal-clear and insightful manner. The colors may be a little bit confusing at first, but I am sure you will get used to it quickly.

Chord Hugo TT2
(Best Chord DAC)

Chord Hugo TT2 top best popular DAC in the world

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • Coaxial inputs
  • Optical digital inputs
  • USB type-B input
  • 5 mm headphone output
  • 3 mm output
  • RCA phono
  • XLR output
  • Bluetooth enabled
  • 32-bit/768kHz PCM sample rate

Pros:

  • Insightful and articulate sound
  • Excellent for vocals
  • Great dynamics and expression
  • Exceptional build quality and design

Cons:

  • The operation can be frustrating

The Chord Hugo TT2 is another proof that Chord is dominating the DAC market. It exceeds our expectations in both construction quality and sound performance. It also has tons of features such as all the connections you need to provide all of your music devices with DAC power.

This device may be a little expensive, but if you love listening to music and appreciate the great sound, you wouldn’t mind the price.

The price justifies the TT2’s overall performance and features, making it another one of Chord’s most prominent hits yet. The Hugo TT2 may have slightly disappointing ergonomics, but the pros still outweigh the cons for this one.

Chord Mojo
(High Specs In a Small DAC Package)

Chord Mojo best mobile DAC for the money budget

Let’s take a deeper look at this DAC:

Specs:

  • Coaxial input
  • Optical digital input
  • Micro USB input
  • 2x 3.5 mm outputs
  • 32-bit/768kHZ PCM sample rate

Pros:

  • Excellent rhythmic sound
  • Subtle
  • Dynamic sound
  • Solid construction
  • Compact and portable

Cons:

  • Gets too hot when charging

The Mojo is a compact device that has some of Chord Technologies’ vital tech that makes all their DACs remarkable. Mojo stands for Mobile Joy, which literally lives up to the name. This DAC can give you the power and scale your music requires to make the most out of it. When linked to your audio output, the Mojo gives your digital audio organization, clarity, and better articulation.

The battery life is pretty decent. It can run up to eight hours of continuous use, making it great for your on-the-go setups. It also includes several coaxial and optical inputs and two 3.5mm outputs. The only thing missing from the impressive feature set is Bluetooth connectivity. However, considering its sound quality, I will let that pass.

Related Questions:

  • Can you tell the difference in sound when listening with or without a DAC? If you are a casual listener, you probably wouldn’t hear the difference that much. If you love music just as much as I do, you will listen to a significant change in quality. DACs truly does enhance the listening experience.
  • Can you still produce high-quality music without a DAC? Yes, you can still record and create high-quality music without one. However, using a DAC when listening and mastering your tracks could have a great impact on your tracks. You can hear all the subtle nuances and details you cannot understand by using the built-in soundcard of your computer.
  • What kind of inputs and outputs do I need for music production purposes? For music production purposes, a USB type-A input and a 3.5 mm headphone output should be sufficient. In this case, I recommend something like the AudioQuest DragonFly. It does not take a whole lot of space, and it does have the inputs you need for monitoring your tracks. it is a small USB flash drive type device that you can bring with you on the go.

Conclusion

Purchasing a DAC may not be the priority for most producers; it is still one of the essential pieces of equipment that are not mentioned quite often.

You hardly ever hear or read about DACs on lists of crucial studio gear.

Still, it is worth the investment if you want to experience better listening not only in music but when watching home movies as well.

I enjoy playing a lot of video games. When I tried using a DAC for playing video games, it indeed heightened the experience.

If you are on doubt about investing in a DAC, you should go to your local electronics shop and check out the difference in having one.

Last update on 2020-12-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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