Sam-SoundGear | Last Updated On August 31st, 2021 | This post may contain affiliate links.
To improve the quality of audio playback, a DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) is a must. A DAC takes a digital audio signal and converts it into analog audio, which you can hear. Usually, the better the DAC, the better the sound. However, cheap DACs are also great in decoding digital audio. In this article, we review the best DACs under 100. You can also check out our buying advice below for a detailed view of DACs.
What We Like: Supports MQA, Neutral and detailed sound, portable, easy to use What We Don’t: No USB extension cable included
The Audioquest DragonFly Black is the most affordable model from the DragonFly series. The USB DAC/amp supports PCM from a 44.1-bit rate to 96 kHz at 24-bit depth. The “dongle DAC” also supports MQA but with a suitable player (Read on MQA below). However, it does not supports DSD materials. The DAC/amp is a plug-and-play device and comes driverless on all major operating systems. With that said, let’s delve into our impressions of this amp/DAC.
The AudioQuest DragonFly Black is a small USB thumb-drive sized DAC/amp. The device has a good built quality and is very soft to the touch. The front is a USB 1.0, while a 3.5mm headphone connector is on the rear side. The USB 1.0 is gold-plated, which also adds to the overall aesthetics of the device. Both the USB connector and 3.5mm headphone connector are firmly held in place with no room for wiggling or movement.
The AQ Black is designed to be plugged straight into the standard USB ports found on laptops and desktop computers. As mentioned earlier, the device is plug-and-play. It does not require additional drivers to run. To use the AQ Black with your phone, you will need an adapter cable. For iPhones, a lighting-to-USB cable while Android users will require USB OTG cable. Though the AQ black is plug-and-play, it is good to check if your device is compatible as there have been issues with volume control on some devices. When plugged into your device, the dragonfly lights up on top. This indicates the status of the device or sample rate of the music you are playing.
Firmware updates can be done by downloading and running the updater on Windows or Mac. Since the product launch, both the black and red have had updates and grown to support MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). When combined with the right player, you can reap the benefits of MQA sound, which is popular with music streaming service Tidal.
The AudioQuest DragonFly is both a headphone amplifier and a DAC. Using it with the DT770 with an impedance rating of 80 ohms, the difference in quality is noticeable. First, the amp in this little device gives out a very reasonable volume level. With the HD 650, however, the AQ Black seems to run out of steam, especially when pushing it at high volumes. At low to moderate volume levels, it looks like a decent pairing.
Overall, the AudioQuest DragonFly Black is a neutral DAC/amp with no clear emphasis on the bass, midrange, or treble. The bass is solid, although it will depend on the headphone or IEM. As a DAC, you’ve got to love the details this device brings out in most songs. The sound is clear and makes a noticeable improvement in the quality of sound.
What We Like: Great build and design, features and accessories, good battery life What We Don’t: Hissing in DAC mode with very sensitive IEMs
FiiO has a wide range of audio products that we can barely keep up with their offerings. Though their products are saturated in the market, the company has always had a consistent performance. The FiiO Q1 was a great portable amp/DAC for headphones, and the Q1 Mark II comes as an upgrade. Apart from the name, these two devices do not have any much in common.
The FiiO Q1 Mark II comes in a rectangular shape with nice round edges. The body has a flat surface, unlike the Q1, which was slightly curved and made it harder to stack. The Q1MKII features an anodized metal casing that, according to FiiO, helps shield internal components from electromagnetic interference or EMF. Plastic front and rear covers hold the inputs and output ports of the Q1MK II. A metallic volume potentiometer on the front, which is unprotected like in the Q1, improves the overall design but also means you have to take care not to drop or nudge the Q1MK II.
Apart from the volume potentiometer, the front panel also features a 3.5mm output, a 2.5mm balanced output, and a line-in 3.5mm input near the middle. The Q1MK II also has an LED status light that power, charging, and battery status. There is also another LED status light that lights up to indicate DSD is being utilized. On the back panel, you have the Bass and Gain switches at both ends and a micro-USB port at the center.
The FiiO Q1 MK II is a portable DAC/AMP. As such, a battery is required to power the device. The battery of the Q1MK stands at 1800mAh. This is a slight upgrade compared to the Q1, which was at 1400mAh. Once fully charged, the device can push slightly over 20 hours as a headphone amplifier and 15 hours as DAC.
The Q1MK II can be used as a headphone amplifier and also as a DAC. The recommended headphone impedance by FiiO is 16-100 ohms with unbalanced and 16-150 ohms with a balanced output. If you sensitive IEMs or easy to drive headphones. We are yet to test the Q1MK II with higher impedance headphones like the HD600. Using Q1MK II as a DAC, we plugged it into a PC. The computer not only recognized the Q1MK II but also loaded a generic driver that would play anything from 32/44.1 to 32/384. To get all the available sample rates, you just need to download them from FiiO’s website.
Other features to admire about the FiiO Q1 Mark II are the gain switch and bass boost features. The high gain switch on our experience does not give a higher volume increase compared to the low gain. However, it is good to mention that low gain has decent power output, and at no time did the high gain affect the sound quality with background noise. The bass boost feature we would recommend if you have any gear that lacks the low-end. On to our sound impressions.
The Q1MK II has a more neutral to a very slightly warm sound signature, and using it as a DAC sounds good. As an amp, it puts out a good amount of bass, especially with the bass boost feature turned on. Comparing the device as a DAC or amp, the DAC section is better. However, Using the Q1MK II as a DAC, the sound is clean, but a very faint hiss can be noticed with very sensitive IEMs. However, for most headphones and IEMs, the FiiO Q1 Mark II performs very well.
Headphone Amplifier: No DAC Chip: AKM AK4490 Max Sampling Rate: 24-Bit/192kHz
What We Like: Great built quality, price-to-performance ratio, excellent sounding What We Don’t: The LED light is a little too bright
Shiit Audio is one of the pioneers of Multibit DACs. While most of the DACs use Sigma-Delta design architecture, multibit DACs are said to be more superior by preserving the integrity of audio when decoding and also reducing jitter. At this price, the Modi 3 is an excellent choice for anyone looking to experience multibit technology (read about multibit technology below) without paying a hefty price tag.
The Schiit Modi 3 build is excellent. Just like other Shiit devices, the Modi 3 deploys the Shiit signature’s minimalistic aluminum body. The company’s design is populated just about all their equipment. The DAC is designed to be stackable with other Shiit offerings like the Shiit Magni 3 and other Shiit equipment.
The front of the Modi 3 features only a toggle switch and an LED status light. The 3-way toggle switch is for selecting the different inputs, which are the Coaxial SPDIF, Optical SPDIF, and micro USB. The choice of the input will determine which you choose. One drawback of the design is the LED light, which is too bright. It would be great if the light went dimmer when the DAC is in use. The back panel features the RCA R/L output, Coaxial SPDIF, Optical SPDIF, and two micro-USB inputs. One micro-USB input works to power the DAC while the other is an input port. Other than the bright LED light, in almost all areas, the Modi 3 crushes it with the design.
Setting up the Modi 3 is easy. First Choose between the three inputs available and change the toggle switch on the front to match your selected input, and that’s it. The only thing left would be to connect the output cable and the power. The device is powered via a USB port, so you can use a USB connection from your PC or by connecting it to a mains power supply. Setting up the DAC on windows 10, or macOS did not require drivers. However, drivers are provided by Shiit in case you need them, especially with older versions of window.
The Shiit Modi 3 overall sound is smooth and refined. The DAC also adds weight and clarity to the overall tonal representation. Paired with Shiit’s own Magni 3, both improve the overall sound quality. For the price to performance ratio, the Modi 3 does not disappoint. How much would you spend on a quality DAC? Combining all of Modi 3 qualities makes it a tough product to beat at this price range.
What We Like: Built-in 10-band graphic equalizer, mic turns any headphone into a Bluetooth headset, Supports multiple BT codecs, 2.5mm Balanced and 3.5mm unbalanced outputs, Undoubtable sound improvement, powerfull amping What We Don’t: Buttons feel similar and easy to confuse
Radsone, founded in 2011, is a computer electronics company based in Seoul, Korea. The EarStudio ES100 has, over the past year, got a lot more attention and praise from audio enthusiasts and overall the audio community. The device offers a combination of different features at a very reasonable price. Does it deserve all the praise? Let’s take a closer look.
The ES100 comes in a rectangular shape with a clip on the back. The device is made out of plastic materials except for the clip on the back, which is metallic. The device has a very small body, which makes for a great portable companion. For the design, it is simple yet intuitive. The sides of the ES100 are where all the buttons and connectors are placed.
The micro-USB (Sadly no Type-C), a 2.5mm balanced output, and a 3.5mm unbalanced output, a volume rocker switch, a play/pause button which also doubles as the power button, a next/previous rocker switch, and the microphone all feature on the side. On the top side, features a status LED circle that flashes green-red when connected as a USB DAC, flashes green as a Bluetooth DAC, and Red on shutdown.
The EarStudio ES100 is a favorite to many people because of the features packed in this little device. It can work as a Bluetooth DAC, headphone amp, or as a USB DAC. The Bluetooth signal distance is like most BT receivers. At a distance of even 12 meters, we had no problem at all with the connection. However, with obstacles along the path of transmission like a wall, the signal is affected. As a USB DAC, the ES100 is plug and play, and there is no struggle to set up things. The sound quality is near identical to Bluetooth but a tad better.
When using the ES100 via Bluetooth, the battery life, which is rated at 14 hours, is very excellent. On average, we got over 10 hours, which is decent. However, depending on the volume and the type of output you choose, the battery life will vary. The 2.5mm output is consumed less power than the 3.5mm output.
The ES100 also comes with a companion Android/iOS application. If you want to customize your sound, the Earstudio application is a MUST. Though you can use the device without it, using it takes the ES100 to the next level. With the app, you can control the dual DAC chips, customize the EQ, choose current output between normal and high for 3.5mm, change sampling rate, crossfeed, jitter cleaner, buffer length, and so much more. The features the EarStudio ES100 offers are too much to explain, so it’s up to you to discover them yourself, and Earstudio does an excellent job of explaining them.
The audio performance of the Earstudio ES100 is good enough for almost all listeners. The balanced output gives better sound performance by improving the clarity and resolution. However, most of the time, we opted for the unbalanced output because of versatility and simplicity. The overall sound quality of the ES100 leans on the warm side with a smooth and resolving signature. A higher power output of the balanced mode also allows the ES100 to drive high impedance headphones.
Headphone Amplifier: No DAC Chip: Cirrus Logic 4344 Max Sampling Rate: 24-bit/192kHz
What We Like: Cheap, excellent build quality, What We Don’t: Supports only PCM, cannot be used to drive headphones directly
The affordable Hi-Fi market is seeing some great newcomers. For a budget audio enthusiast or an audiophile, it is a golden moment to experience the increased number of cheap well-sounding products on the market. Though most of these products lack great physical appearance, their performance is one of a kind. The DAC, FiiO D3, is such a product and adds to the vast array of cheap products with great performance.
The FiiO D3 is a simple DAC that will work with your digital TV, computer, Blueray Player, Receiver, and other audio electronics which feature SPDIF/ optical digital or digital coaxial output. The DAC simply takes in the coax and optical inputs and gives out RCA or 3.5mm outputs for a very cheap price.
The D3 features a metallic construction with glossy plastic ends. The plastic ends are screwed to the metallic housing to make a very sturdy device. The DAC is small and can even fit easily in the palm of your hand. For a cheap DAC, FiiO did well with the build quality.
The output and input ports feature on the DAC’s front and rear end. On the front, you will find the left and right analog ports and also a 3.5mm output ports. On the backside, the DAC has digital optical, digital coaxial, and USB inputs. The DAC requires to be plugged into a power source to work. Use the charger supplied to power the device. On the bottom side, the D3 features an optical/coaxial switch, which you use to switch between the two input methods. The top side features two LED lights that show the status of the DAC.
Setting up the DAC was a breeze. Once plugged into a power source, the DAC will light up red. The light, though visible, is not super bright or distracting. If the DAC is correctly set up and you have selected the right source, the blue light will come on. The FiiO D3 DAC only supports PCM audio, no Dolby or DTS multi-channel audio signals. For a relatively cheap DAC, a resolution of 24bit/192kHz is more than reasonable.
The audio improvement from the FiiO D3 DAC is quite evident, mainly when used with a computer. The DAC brings out more details in the music with clarity. If you are into audio and have decent speakers, you owe it to yourself to purchase the D3. Compared to what most PCs offer, the FiiO D3 DAC is far more superior. Apart from computers, the D3 also works with TVs and stereos receivers that support PCM. For the price, the D3 is a very worthy investment to improve the sound of your system.
While most users do not notice, the audio quality out of most electronics is, to say the least disappointing. Several factors contribute to sound degradation in electronics. One of them is the digital-to-analog converter, popularly referred to as a DAC. Purchasing an external DAC can significantly improve the audio quality of your electronics by taking over from the in-built DAC.
So, what is a DAC?
A DAC is a device that converts digital bits (comprised of a series 0s and 1s) to analog audio waves.
Most of the in-built DACs are just fine for most consumers. However, the quality of a built-in DAC will largely depend on the specs and price of the gadget or electronic. The difference between a built-in DAC and an outboard DAC is apparent. By using an external DAC, the in-built DAC is bypassed, thereby substituting mediocre audio quality from your laptop, phone, or PC with better audio quality.
AudioQuest DragonFly Black USB DAC
In analog and digital forms, the sound is stored and transmitted differently.
Most sounds and audio we hear first started in the analog category. People clapping, birds singing are captured via microphones and other recording techniques then digitized. Digitization of sound or analog-to-digital conversion turns the air vibrations of sound to an electrical signal. The electrical signal then stores the digitized value for each point and time. There are various methods of storing digitized sounds. WAV, FLACC, and the most popular MP3 are some of the ways digital audio can be stored and read by the computer.
Types of DACs Explained
There are several types of DACs available in the market. Some work with headphones and others with your home stereo. However, most DACs should work well with both. Here are the types of DACs.
Standalone DACs can USB-enabled to connect to your computer or component Hi-FI DACs that connect to your home audio system. Unlike portable DACs, standalone DACs will need AC power to function. Some DACs will only have a USB connection, which enables data to stream and also provide the power need to run the DAC. However, other standalone DACs will require to be plugged into the mains power to function correctly.
FiiO D3 Taishan DAC
Portable USB DACs
Portable DACs connect to phones, tablets, and others will even double up as desktop DACs. Portable DACs normally connect to devices through USB ports. Most portable USB DACs include a headphone preamp that serves mainly the headphones, but it can also be used to connect a computer to a stereo system. Portable DACs can draw power from a computer’s USB port, while some have built-in batteries and make a good companion for DAPs (Digital Audio Players) and phones. For an excellent portable DAC, try the AudioQuest DragonFly Black USB DAC.
Headphone amp DAC combos are, without a doubt, one of the most popular DAC types out there. This type of DAC comes with built-in amplifiers that are designed to drive your headphones. Some also come with powerful preamps that can double up as a DAC for your home stereo and headphone as well. Some might even add analog outputs for your speakers and headphones separately. Most DACs in this list will feature headphone amps.
FiiO Q1 MK II & AudioQuest DragonFly Black
Wireless DACs enable music streaming from any music system in another location. Currently, wireless DACs use Bluetooth for transmission from a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Wireless DACs can also be connected to your computer and send audio signals to a transmitter connected to your amplifier or receiver via RCA cables. The advantage of wireless DACs is that you can move around freely while still listening to your favorite songs.
Sample Rate vs. Bit Depth
The quality of the digitized sound recording will depend on two factors: the sample rate and the bit depth or sample format. The higher the sample rate, the denser the details of a digital waveform, and the closer it is to the original analog waveform. Low sample rates result in recordings that poorly represent the original sound. The bit depth, on the other hand, determines the dynamic range. The higher the depth, the lower the noise floor and higher audio fidelity. Increasing both the sample rate and bits in a given sample increases the quality of the sound recorded. However, this will also increase the amount of space used by the audio files on your storage device.
After audio is digitized and stored in your PC, phone, or laptop, it needs to be converted back to analog audio signals. This is termed as DIgital-to-analog conversion. The quality of digital-to-analog conversion depends on several factors, and These are sampling frequency, bit rate, digital filters, and other electronic processes. A converter’s sampling rate is one of the essential features of a digital audio system. Always choose a DAC with a high sample rate. You can always downshift to a lower sample rate, but you can never increase it to a higher sample rate. Most cheap DACs operate at 96kHz. However, 192kHz is becoming the norm.
Radsone Earstudio ES100 Bluetooth DAC
MQA is the acronym for Master Quality Authenticated. MQA audio technology enables users to stream studio-quality sound in digital files. This is because MQA manages to fold larger high-quality audio files into small manageable sizes but still retains the quality when unfolded on the other end. MQA is used by major music labels like Warner Bros, Universal, and even Sony Music. At the CES 2017, Tidal became the first to deliver high-quality audio streaming using MQA technology.
If you stream your music online, getting a DAC or DAP that will decode MQA is one of the ways you can experience hi-res audio quality. Getting a DAC or DAP that cannot decode an MQA file will only result in getting a regular resolution file. However, not many cheap DACs have the advantage of handling MQA files. The AudioQuest DragonFly Black is one of the affordable DACs we found that could handle MQA. If anything less expensive than this pops up, we’ll let you know.
Digital Jitter Explained
Jitter is a term used to describe digital audio errors that manifest themselves as noise. Jitter may present itself as tiny amounts of distortion buried in the noise floor of a digital medium. Jitter is measurable, and low jitter levels will result in the quality being like the original. DACs often utilize separate filter chipset that keeps the jitter count low. However, digital jitter, in many cases, is almost irrelevant.
Schiit Modi 3 Multibit DAC
Multibit DACs Explained
Most of our music is encoded using pulse-code modulation (PCM). However, most DACs decode audio using a pulse-density modulation signal (PDM), utilizing the delta-sigma modulation technique. These types of DACs using PDM are referred to as delta-sigma. The problem faced by delta-sigma DACs is that when converting PCM to PDM, they discard original PCM samples. That is where multibit DACs come in.
Multibit DACs are supposed to solve this by decoding an audio signal with a true 16+ bit, thus preserving the original PCM samples. Delta-sigma DACs are usually 1-5 bits, which makes up for lost dynamic range and high oversampling. Schiit Audio is one of the audio companies currently offering Multibit DACs. Their Schiit Modi 3, which currently retails at $99, is a good example.