This article is the Audiophile On the list of the best headphone DAC units on the market in 2022. We cover all budgets as well as provide options for both desktop and portable DACs
What is a DAC?
Most people will not know what a DAC is, but it is something that almost everyone will have come into contact with at some point or another. As a result, the DAC chip is a massively important piece of equipment in the chain of sound for audiophiles.
DAC stands for Digital to Analogue Converter. It is essentially (in audio terms)the device that translates a digital signal produced by your source (phone, tablet, computer, or DAP) and turns it into an analog signal that you can hear.
For audiophiles and audio aficionados, this is a crucial element inaccurately portraying music and achieving the best sound possible. Of course, you can have the best headphones in the world, but if you have a poor quality DAC, this is one potential area that can bottleneck and prevent you from an optimum listening experience.
For more information, check out our simplified article on what a headphone DAC is and how it works.
Best DAC's of 2022 List
We have decided only to include those we have had direct experience with and vouch for this list of the best DAC's. I have also tried to include a wide range of price options and include external headphone DACs that can be used in a home and portable setup.
Dethonray Honey H1
Extremely high level of sound quality
Excellent build quality
While it is an outstanding value compared to $1000+ amp and DAC units, it will still be out of reach for many hobbyists.
The Honey H1 came out in 2022 and made a significant splash on the enthusiast audio market.Definitely, it is one of the most striking sounding DAC’s of recent years; with so much power, it can even replace your desktop amplifier.
It is an extremely well-designed piece of hardware built to the highest standards, both internally and externally.
It supports almost every file type, including 16Bit/44.1K – 32Bit/384K DSD64 / DSD128. The output power is immense, and the Mojo has no problem driving even the most demanding headphones. (Output Power @ 1kHz -600 ohms 35mW -8 ohms 720mW -Output Impedance: 0.075 ohms). Battery life is around 10 hours regular and 8 hours balanced; it takes just 4 hours to charge fully.
The Honey is pound-for-pound the best DAC and Amp unit on the market, in my opinion. I love its ability to make a sound that only far more expensive bulkier units can offer. I personally use one as my desktop DAC hooked up to my office computer and can't foresee myself getting rid of it any time soon.
Immense sound in a highly portable package
Flashable digital sound filters
The price is incredible
The concept is confusing to some
The E1DA is an exciting product in that it doesn’t follow the same implementation of the design that many other portable `DAC units turn to. However, E1DA seems to be onto something because this is a very heavy hitter in the performance department with its massively powerful and transparent sound capable of driving demanding headphones on the go.
There are now multiple design configurations, allowing users with balanced headphones or standard connectors to get in on the action.
Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt
Ultra-portable and pocketable
I don’t think anyone thinks it was a good idea to make this a non-USB-C product. So they include what they call a tail to make up for this oversight…. I call it a dongle.
It’s hard to think of another product that made such high-end audio affordable and as easy as the original Dragonfly from Audioquest.
The company is well known to audiophiles for making some of the world’s best music reproduction equipment. The Dragonfly was one of the genuinely ultraportable solutions to carrying around a high-quality external DAC and amplifier that seriously upgraded the sound from your phone and laptop.
The cobalt is now the company’s flagship and builds on the Dragonfly Black and Dragonfly Red DAC units' success that came before it.
Audioquest is still sticking with the well-regarded Sabre DAC for the internals (in the cobalt, ESS ES9038Q2M DAC).
The sound is amazing, with a natural and ultra-low noise presentation. However, the real star here is its efficiency because, despite its small size, it can power all of my headphones without exception. It’s powerful, it’s portable, and it’s cheap.
iFi Pro iDSD
Extremely transparent sound with lots of power
Burr-Brown Quad DAC chipset
Fantastic build quality(Video) ✅ Best Digital to Analog Converter of 2023 [ DAC Buyer's Guide ]
My current desktop DAC unit at home is the iFi Pro iDSD. iFi is one of those legendary names in audio, and the iDSD is my pick of all their offerings.
Iconic porthole display with a high-quality finish all around and super smooth dials. It’s a really nice bit of kit to have on your desk. Build quality is outstanding, and it’s straightforward to operate.
The feature set is also pretty extensive with Coax, Optical, and USB inputs, as you would expect. Still, it supports high-quality music streaming over Wi-Fi from your Spotify and Tidal accounts. It can also be connected to ethernet and used to play music from a local NAS drive. and
The format choices are endless, with high-level DSD support (DSD 512, DXD, PCM 768 plus an MQA decoder) and high-resolution Bluetooth and Wifi input options.
The DAC itself is a highly regarded Burr Brown Quad Dual Core chipset.
The crazy spec sheet continues when it comes to options for outputting your music. The options here are as follows:
Balanced XLR at 4.6V
Single-Ended RCA at 2.3V (HiFi) or 5V (Pro)
Headphones 6.3mm & SE 3.5mm
Headphones balanced 2.5mm, Jack, at 1.13V/4.6V/10V
Headphones out 1,500mW RMS X 2 @ 64 ohm
The sound is entirely transparent, and I find it hard to differentiate between the iDSD and more expensive options with headphones. However, to date, it is the best piece of hardware that I have ever purchased.
PS Audio Sprout
I hope to get a full review of this beastly little DAC/Amp combo soon. However, if you are looking for something that will give you top-level performance without the premium price tag, it’s tough to recommend a desktop DAC greater than the Sprout.
PS Audio went above and beyond when planning Sprout's feature set, not just by throwing in a bunch of connectors and chips that look good on the spec sheet. Of course, they have all those things, but the little touches like an adjustable ALPS potentiometer for refining volume controls, A highly functional input control system, and a switchable mode toggle make the DAC stand out crowd.
Of course, the specs are on point and use the ES9016 DAC chipset. Inputs are DSD via HDMI, USB, Firewire, Optical, Coaxial, and Clock. Outputs are handled via a standard headphone jack plus 1 set of RCA connectors and 1 set of XLR ports.
EarStudio ES100 MK2-24bit
Allows you to use high-end wired earphones with modern smartphones
Lots of customization options via the app
Inline volume and playback controls
Balanced headphone output
Plasticky build quality
A problem has presented itself to audiophiles over the past few years, and Earstudio has the solution.
With smartphone manufacturers moving away from integrated headphone jacks, people’s wired headphones have started to look somewhat obsolete. That’s a problem because, dollar for dollar, the sound quality and availability of wired headphones are superior compared to Bluetooth headphones.
The Earstudio ES100 is the perfect compromise between wired and wireless headphone solutions. The small DAC and Amp unit is clipped somewhere on your clothing and connects to your phone’s Bluetooth. You then plug your traditional wired earphones into the onboard 3.5mm (unbalanced) or 2.5mm (4 pins balanced) output ports. So essentially, your wired headphones become wireless in that you are no longer tethered to your phone.
It’s powerful enough to power most earphones and is clearly designed with audiophiles in mind. There is high-resolution Bluetooth audio via APTX and Bluetooth 5, and a companion app for your smartphone gives you 10-band EQ control.
The internal DAC chip on this unit is the well-regarded yet budget-friendly AK4375A which produces some great clean sound.
Cambridge Audio Azure DacMagic 100
Excellent value for money
The led Indication system is clear and intuitive
Missing some features found on higher-priced DAC and Amps
It’s been on the market for some time, but the Cambridge Audio Dacmagic Plus is still a great option if you are looking for a desktop headphone DAC. It has a very robust set of options for connectivity both in and out, including balanced and unbalanced outputs and coaxial support.
It uses dual Wolfson WM8740 Dacs, supports 24-bit files up to 192khz, and can upsample up to 384khz thanks to its high-level DSP.
The sound is obviously excellent from a company like Cambridge audio, which is very well respected in the audio game. Still, the real standout feature is the ability to input via Bluetooth from your mobile device.
Fiio Q1 Mark II
Inexpensive but doesn’t feel cheap
Excellent build quality and design with useful controls
Color free sound
None at this price
Whenever looking for portable audio components on a budget, you should consider Fiio. They have been branching out in recent years to more premium offerings, but they shine in the lower price points. Building quality and design is their strong point, and they have a good warranty reputation that is not often found in other budget DAC manufacturers.
The Q1 is a stunning little bit of kit that has the purpose of simply upgrading the sound quality when listening via your smartphone. It is easy to use, and they have not tried to overcomplicate the design by adding unnecessary functionality. Instead of the creat a native DSD player with a good build, clean sound, and balanced and unbalanced headphone connections.
On the bottom of the unit, you have two useful switches. One allows you to adjust the gain setting between high and low, and the other provides a bass boost which can be very useful as the DAC has an immaculate and uncolored presentation.
The most impressive thing to me was the inclusion of the beautiful volume pot on the top, which allowed me to have fine control of my volume without touching my phone.
The DAC chip is the AK4452, and they use an OPA926 for the Amplifier. Both these chips are very well regarded and produce a balanced and neutral sound.
Spectra X2 DAC by Nextdrive
All in one design with no need for dongles
Fantastic Sound Quality
Simple plug-and-play design
No inline playback or volume controls
It gets warm during play
This little DAC has just worked itself into my day-to-day setup, and I actually find myself reaching for it more often than the Dragonfly Cobalt. The concepts are similar, but the Spectra has an inbuilt USB-C connector instead of the USB 3.0 on the Cobalt.
Both units sound great, but the real difference is in the design. With the Spectra X having a slimline barrel tube that houses all the components, it just disappears and feels like an extension of the headphone cable instead of a second device that I have to carry around.
The Spectra is available in three different connectors (lightning, micro-USB, and USB-C), so you can pair it up with your smartphone accordingly, and boy, is it nice not to have to carry a dongle? Around.
It uses highly regarded components (Sabre DAC and Texas instrument amping sections), and the build quality is a top draw.
Finally, one other edge that the Spectra X has over the Dragonfly is the higher-bitrate support for files up to 32bit. Simple, clean, and sounds incredible when paired with some good IEM’s.
You can read our full review of the Spectra X DAC or visit Nextdrive’s website for more information.
Chord Hugo 2
It would be impossible to talk about Chord Electronics without mentioning the big brother to the Mojo, the legendary Chord Hugo 2. With a beady red eye reminiscent of HAL from Space Odyssey, this packs all the power of a full-size DAC into a transportable body.
It’s a combined headphone DAC and Amp unit that has gained the praise of audio experts worldwide. Innovative design and a spec list that destroys the competition.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the DAC is that it is designed to be used for transport. That means that it’s not portable in the sense you will be walking around with it in your pocket, but it can quickly be taken from location to location with ease due to its small size and simple setup.
However, don’t be thrown off by the size, as the Hugo 2 can compete with any of the full-size desktop amps on this list, and the majority of the time, it comes out as the winner.
Connectivity is another big selling point with four input options (Optical, Coaxial, HD USB, and Bluetooth) and four output options (2x RCA, 1x 3.5mm Headphone jack & 1x 6.35mm headphone jack). Additionally, 4 filter switches allow some customization over the frequency response.
The sound is magnificently revealing and utterly free of distortion. The only thing that was an issue on my test unit was that it took a while to learn how to operate the Hugo due to the somewhat unintuitive control system.
More Information: Official Hugo 2 Website
How did Audiophile Headphone DAC’s become so popular?
Rollback about 10-15 years ago, and most consumers had no idea that a DAC existed. Most people never put any thought into which one to buy. However, in that short space of time, the high-resolution audio hobby has exploded, and people now care about getting the best sound possible. The way I see it, the 4 most important factors for achieving the best possible sound come from 5 different factors.
Audio track production standards & mastering
Output device (Hi-Res Headphones or Audiophile Grade speakers)
Optimize these five areas, and you will have a terrific time listening to some of the best quality sounds you can get. Be happy in the knowledge that you are probably listening at a higher level than those around you... but beware, they also probably don't care.
This is an area of audio that is relatively new in people’s heads and something true nerds like us really only know or care about. LG did an excellent job of bringing DAC technology to the forefront with their G and V series phones that contained a quad DAC system. As a result, they gained a loyal following amongst people that cared about fidelity. At a time when other manufacturers were removing headphones jacks, LG was doubling down on audio.
While most of the general public would struggle to identify differences in different DAC units to a trained ear, they can be pretty stark. I personally find the investment in time and money to find the right one for me worth it every time I sit down for an extended listening session with my headphones.
Integrated vs. Stand-Alone DAC units
Once upon a time, your only option for getting a good DAC in a portable form was to perform some witchcraft on an old iPod or another obscure source so you could directly access the digital source and bypass the inbuilt (usually poor quality) DAC chip.
This way, you could plug in your own external DAC and run it to an external amplifier. I have to admit this was a fun time for geeks like me. Of course, I thought nothing of walking about with a stack of bricks in my pocket, but times have certainly changed. It was a time when audio purists would tinker, solder, and modify their “rigs” to search for audio nirvana.
Nowadays, many companies have entered the DAP market, and in doing so, one of the key areas they compete is by offering better and better DAC setups built directly into the device.
You would think that this would kill off the market for the external DAP, but this couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, many DAP manufacturers themselves have contributed to the rise of the external DAC by kindly including line-outs on even modestly priced hi-res music players.
The market for external DAC units has grown exponentially, and there is a lot to choose from. For me, there are two distinct advantages of owning external DACs.
Firstly, some of the DACs we have listed on this best headphone DAC list are exceptional sounding and stand out from those available internally on DAP. The second reason is that it allows me to change out my DAC frequently. So if something new comes out, I am no longer tied to the one that exists inside my DAP; I can swap out one component instead of changing my whole system.
There are, of course, many other reasons that people would want to own an external DAC, and many of the units below have unique designs, sounds, and features that may be advantageous to you in one way or another.
What about stand-alone DAPs (Hi-res music players)?
Whilst this article focuses on stand-alone headphone DAC units, we also can’t ignore the convenience of a dedicated audiophile-grade DAP (digital audio player). These players tend to be more portable and have fewer moving parts than a stacked system.
The good news is that many of them can use them as external DAC’s with computers and other components. If that is something you might be interested in, I suggest checking out our list of the 20 best High-resolution music players for 2022.
Audiophile On is dedicated to bringing reviews of high-end portable audio products with an easy-to-understand format. If you want better-sounding headphones, earphones, amps, and DACs we are sure to have something to suit your tastes and price points.