A good digital-to-analogue converter (or DAC) can make all the difference when listening to music, especially through headphones. We've talked before in more detail about why they're so great and how to choose a good one</a; this week we're looking at five of the best on the market, based on your nominations.
Title photo by Marco Antonio Torres
The Fiio E17 is a DAC we loved enough to mention in our guide to selecting the right DAC, and our friends at Head-Fi hold it in high regard as well. It's an incredible sounding DAC for the price, and it's a tiny, portable model, small enough to slide into a pocket. It's at the higher end of Fiio's DAC models, but it comes with interchangeable adapters so you can plug in different audio inputs. Almost all of the unit's features can be accessed and managed using the LCD display, so you don't have a lot of dials and knobs: just a thin, sleek piece of metal that can travel with you anywhere you go. It's not a perfect design (some people say the controls and menus are finicky), but it's a great and affordable USB DAC (with amp) nonetheless.
The ODAC (or ObjectiveDAC) is actually a board that you can buy on its own and install into a case to build your own DIY DAC with the inputs and outputs you want. You can also acquire a the pre-built model in a case, ready to be powered by USB and push audio to a pair of headphones via its 3.5mm audio jack it still needs an amplifier in this form). If you want an amp, the O2+ODAC combo package (shown above) comes with the ODAC installed in a case with an O2 amplifier pre-installed. The full combo is a slim, trim package that will look good on your desktop without taking too much space. Both the original ODAC and the O2+ODAC combo are well regarded at Head-Fi, offering impressive sound in a small package, whether you get the amplified model or not.
The ASUS Xonar Essence One is just one component in the Xonar line, which offers great sound in small, affordable packages. The Xonar Essence One sports a built-in amplifier and a dedicated internal power supply, so you don't have to plug it into a brick or try to power it over USB. It's a little bigger than other models, but the extra space is well used: it can accept a number of audio inputs, including optical and S/PDIF in addition to USB. It's far from the cheapest model in this roundup, but good value nonetheless.
Schiit doesn't mess around. Just read through its FAQ page, and specifically the FAQs on the Bifrost -- the Bifrost is a powerhouse. It's actually an upgradable DAC that you can pair with other Schiit audio gear, such as the company's amplifiers. The Bifrost accepts optical, USB and S/PDIF inputs and outputs via RCA for speakers (so it's not like the other DACs here, which are primarily designed to drive headphones). The unit is modular and customisable, so you can get one with or without a USB input card, or upgrade the onboard USB to their Gen2 card. You can even select the voltage, plug types and analogue stage when you order.
Probably the most high-end of the DACs in this roundup, the WooAudio WA7 "Fireflies" are fully featured DACs with world-class vacuum tube amplifiers. They're actually remarkably small, and look a bit like art when sitting on your desk. They accept USB or RCA inputs, and can output to your headphones using the 3.5mm jack on the front. Behind its simple, minimalist design (and glowing vacuum tubes, thus the name "fireflies,") is an audiophile-friendly design.
Have something to say about one of the contenders? Want to make the case for your personal favourite, even if it wasn't included in the list? Tell us in the comments.