When you play any song on your smartphone, it’s in the form of the digital signal (i.e. 0s and 1s). In order for headphones to listen to that signal, it needs to convert that digital signal into an analog signal. This is where DAC (short for Digital-to-Analog Converter) comes in. Pretty much every sound card, be it on your – computer, smartphone or mp3 player, has a DAC inbuilt, but it’s often built with cheaper parts which in return offers subpar audio quality.
Thankfully, you can buy a cheap external DAC from Amazon, that will let you experience the audio closer to the actual reproduction of the music. But like everything else, it’s not easy to find the right DAC. The price starts from few dollars and goes all the way to even thousands of dollars. Fret not, in this article, I’ll cover some budget DAC under $200. They are versatile enough to work on any OS and don’t need a separate AMP until you decide to use headphones with higher impedance. Let’s begin.
Best DAC Under 200 Dollars
1. FiiO K1
FiiO K1 is for someone looking for one of the cheapest options available. Under 50 dollars it just seems too good to be true. It derives power from the laptop like any other USB DAC and can play files up to 24bit/96kHz, which makes it impressive for the price. Plug it into your laptop and you’d certainly hear louder and punchier sound. But it somewhat fails to provide a clean and more balanced tone.
It might save you a few bucks, provide you with cleaner sound but it still lacks the quality to qualify as a good DAC.
Buy FiiO K1 ($39.99)
2. Hidizs Sonata HD DAC Audio Cable
It’s is a portable DAC disguising us being a Type-C connector. It’s dedicated purely to phones, though you can also use it with PCs. So if you don’t want a dedicated music player but would rather convert your phone into a better sounding device with just a cable, you might want to try this. The cable has a Hi-resolution certification and can achieve 24bit/192kHz output. It comes with a small case, in addition to that, there is also a Type-C to USB connector which can be really handy while using it with PCs. A wire that’s 4 way twisted and gold plated TRS 3.5mm headphones input.
It is certainly a thoroughly made product as it gives above and beyond features like 3 mode selection option, which not only lets you enhance the music quality but the calling quality as well.
Buy Hidizs Sonata HD DAC Audio Cable ($45.99)
3. Audio Quest DragonFly Black
Another affordable device with high customer satisfaction. It’s extremely portable and powerful. Dragonfly Black comes with a USB plug-in setup and it doesn’t need any external drivers. In addition to that, it is capable of decoding 24-bit/96kHz data. It’s not power-hungry, so it can be used with Windows, MAC but with Android and Apple phones as well. It’s built with ESS ES9010 with a minimum-phase fast roll-off filter.
It also has a decent output that can drive any receiver input easily. It also supports volume control from the host, so if you control the volume from the host ( Mobile/PC ) it will use a proxy and make a change from the onboard controller. Therefore if it’s playing mp3 or High-res this easy plug and play DAC could be an option.
What’s cool about it? It changed color depending on the audio quality you’re streaming. So you’d be able to tell on a real-time basis if you’re listening to High-res or not.
Buy DragonFly ($98.00)
4. iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label
Another DAC/Amp which has garnered great performance reviews. With an anodized black coating, it surpasses everything that sounds fancy, be it playing Hi-Res audio up to DSD256 or MQA with TIDAL Master. It features Burr-Brown Multibit DAC chip so you won’t have any hiccups connecting to any device.
The major upside is its power generation. Often the DACs fail to provide enough power to the headphones, with the Black Label you have an option to choose. It has three power levels, Eco (2.0V/250mW@16Ohm), Normal (4.0V/1,000mW@16Ohm) and Turbo (2.0V/250mW@16Ohm).
The 3D+ is another feature perfect for someone looking to indulge in a live-like performance experience. It works best with closed-head headphones if you’ve one, imagine being able to listen to a concert as you were a part of it.
Buy iDSD Black Label ($199.00)
It really doesn’t matter which DAC you choose unless you have a very low budget where functions may vary. The ones discussed are portable and don’t need any external drivers. Be it the DragonFly or BlackLabel, they both provide impeccable sound quality. I’d say if there is a local store around, feel free to try it yourself. I’d also advise buying a good pair of Headphones/IEM with a streaming platform such as TIDAL that has High-res audio to offer. Hardware like these take time to grow upon you, but I’m sure whatever fire I was able to rekindle will make you better at deciding.