A high-end portable DAC (digital-to-analog converter) has the potential to improve the comparatively poor audio quality of consumer-grade digital audio playback devices on the go or in more stationary systems.
If you happen to want and need a portable DAC, there are abundant options on the market.
Though the DAC's brand is certainly not the most significant factor, it's still appropriate to know the top manufacturers of portable digital-analog converters. In this article, I've assembled what I believe to be the top 9.
Though obviously subjective and prone to biases, I've done my best to list out these brands based on the following metrics (in no particular order):
- Company reputation
- Performance of the portable DACs
- Longevity of the portable DACs
- Availability of the portable DACs
- The company must currently be in operation
With all that being said, let's list out the brands.
The Top 9 Best Portable DAC Brands Are:
Let's get into each of these brands in greater detail and explain why they belong in the top 9 best portable DAC brands. I'll share their country of origin, a bit of history, an example of a notable DAC, and a link to their official website.
Related article: Top 11 Best Desktop DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) Brands
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AMR is one of the leading high-end audio companies in the UK, with products that can satisfy any audiophile in the world and price tags that can reach 100K.
In 2012, they spotted a need in the market for portable, reliable accessories for audiophiles on the move. They founded iFi to fill that gap with all the expertise and leverage of being among the best in the industry for decades. The result is just what you would expect: outstanding audio.
Portable DACs with the iFi logo are among the best of the best on the market today.
Notable portable DAC: iFi Audio iDSD Diablo
iFi set out to make a DAC that is as good-looking and portable as it is powerful. Indeed, this Ferrari red little electronic device can feed even the most demanding, audiophile-grade, high-impedance headphones while in turbo mode and can be the softest way to feed some in-ear monitors as well in eco mode.
Also, the commitment to a clean, clear sound is impeccable to the last bit. In that sense, this unit utilizes dual Burr-Brown DAC chips plus the new 16-core XMOS chip to process all data and deliver nothing but the cleanest sound anywhere you are.
Finally, it features USB and S/PDIF inputs as well as balanced outputs. Yes, it fits in your pocket, too.
John Franks took everything he learned in the aviation industry and applied it to audio and electronics to create the perfect clash of technology, craftsmanship, and sound.
From that clash emerged a new way of looking at sound in technology from a man who was conditioned to work in an industry with the highest standards.
Because of his leverage and the team of notables, he put together to chase his dreams, every product coming out of Chord Electronics is ready to make sonic history; DACs are no different.
Notable portable DAC: Chord Mojo
This small yet utterly powerful device is not only a DAC, but it also works as a headphone amplifier. This is because high impedance, audiophile-grade headphones need more power to run your favourite music with the level of detail they can reproduce.
Thus, this small apparatus (not bigger than a pack of playing cards) can perform these two duties simultaneously.
With USB, Coax, and Optical inputs, you can plug anything from a phone to a computer to the Chord Mojo and get pristine, loud sounds in your headphones anywhere.
Furthermore, the company ensures up to eight hours of autonomy; you'll never fall short in audio quality or endurance with this amazing unit by Chord Electronics.
Perhaps, AudioQuest's biggest asset is the pair of ears that accompany William E. Low through life.
He has developed his hearing so much that he began a company to sell audiophiles digital and analog cables that could make a difference in the sound of expensive, large, high-fidelity systems.
The company's Dragonfly DAC/headphone amplifier revolutionized the market and made it possible for audiophiles on the go to listen to music of the same quality they do at home.
Nowadays, AudioQuest is the go-to company for all things Hi-Fi for many audiophiles around the world, including, of course, portable DACs.
Notable portable DAC: AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
Don't let the size fool you; this DAC and headphone amplifier is just as powerful as it is small. Indeed, the size is no bigger than a regular pen drive or lighter, but it is capable of going from MP3 to MQA in a breeze.
Moreover, it can reproduce sounds in 24 bits/196 kHz and provide audiophile-grade, high-impedance headphones with the power they need.
Finally, the ESS ES9038Q2M DAC chip sounds clear, effortless and natural. Every commute can turn into an epic trip with one of these between your phone and your headphones.
EarMen is one of the few companies in the world that fully embraced the contradiction between portability and audio quality, offering state-of-the-art solutions so audiophiles no longer have to choose between one and the other.
Moreover, since they had their goal so clear from day one, the evolution of their portable products is completely uncanny.
If you want the best DAC to take with you everywhere, you should definitely check what these experts have to offer before choosing any brand.
Notable portable DAC: EarMen TR-Amp
This groundbreaking, state-of-the-art DAC and headphone amp is capable of reproducing PCM in 32bits/384kHz, Native DSD128, and MQA while running on batteries in your back pocket.
Besides the industry-standard chip ES9038Q2M SABRE Reference DAC, which is fully capable of taking any music to the next dimension, the 400mW of extra power available can give enough muscle to any pair of headphones, regardless of its impedance.
Finally, it comes in a bulletproof red metal casing with a huge volume knob for easy and safe carrying.
Virtually everybody who owned a PC during the late eighties and early nineties has heard of Sound Blaster audio cards.
In case you haven't, Creative Technology (formerly Creative Labs) made the first DACs for most computers in the world during the Internet revolution. The accumulated knowledge, nonstop innovation, and reliability make Creative a brand you must check before buying.
They've been pioneers since the early 1980s and are still pushing the industry benchmark today; be sure to give them a try before buying.
Notable portable DAC: Creative Sound Blaster E5
One of the features that set this DAC apart from the rest is that it is Bluetooth-compatible.
Most audiophiles in the world think of it as a bad word, but this little unit pulls it off with style, offering 24bits/192kHz quality for Bluetooth connections as well as 600-ohm audiophile headphones plugged directly in.
The E5 is built around the Cirrus Logic CS4398 Digital-Analogue Converter, the company's flagship. It boasts a full 120dB signal-to-noise ratio, making your music crystal-clear, powerful, and fully detailed.
Finally, it comes with a gain switch to accommodate audiophile gear and casual earbuds, depending on the occasion.
Yes, the pioneers did it again.
FiiO is a company dedicated to people on the go and bringing new solutions to new problems technology generates. Indeed, their first product was a dock for an MP3 player that, to most users, was better than Apple's 2005 attempt.
Since day one, the company's commitment to cutting-edge technology and relentless innovation traced a path to success. It granted them a spot among the best-selling companies in terms of DACs, portable speakers, and cellphone audio solutions.
Today, after a long and winding road, they make some of the best DACs for audiophiles on the go available in the market.
Notable portable DAC: FiiO Q3 THX
This is one of the most portable and best-sounding DACs on the list. It's no surprise that it was designed and produced by FiiO, a company with such a commitment to technology and quality.
To begin with, the THX AAA amplifier provides powerful sound with no noise or distortion. Also, the new AK4462 DAC chip is among the best-performing in the industry. Coupled with XMOS XUF208 decoding, this unit can play music in 32 bits effortlessly.
This outstanding combo that can fit in your front pocket is finished with three headphone inputs, an analog volume knob, an RGB sampling rate indicator, and a 1800mAH battery capable of delivering 10 hours of processing nonstop.
It doesn't get much better, more powerful, and more portable than this in the world of DACs.
Iriver founded Astell&Kern in 2013, and the entire conglomerate now belongs to Dreamus. Iriver created A&K to propel some of their most adventurous products through a different brand.
The new brand received so much critical acclaim that A&K took a personality of its own and amassed a legion of fans worldwide. The DACs made by A&K (along with the in-ear monitors, speakers, and other audio products) are among the most sought-after because of their impeccable design and flawless performance.
When it comes to portable digital-to-analog converters, we can surely depend on Astell&Kern.
Notable portable DAC: Astell&Kern PEE51 USB Type-C Dual DAC Cable
This might seem like the simplest DAC on the list, but it really packs some amazing features under the full metal casing. First, it is a dual DAC design powered by a pair of CS43198 chips capable of reproducing your favourite files in 32bits/384kHz. Plus, it works with DSD audio.
In the hardware department, the shielded silver-plated copper cable ensures reliability and endurance for years to come. Moreover, the metal housing also extends to the USB Type-C plug on the end of the cable.
Finally, this plug-and-play device is ready to take your audio to the next level while comfortably fitting in your pocket.
Woo Audio is another brand dedicated to audiophiles on the move.
They created an entire line of products to address the challenges of feeding enough power to audiophile-grade headphones while commuting or just moving around. Yet, that is not something other brands on this list haven't done.
Rather, what separates Woo Audio from the rest is that their products are put through a stress test for a minimum of eight hours to ensure reliability and endurance are optimum before any of them leave the factory.
Moreover, the parts and engineering applied to each Woo Audio item are audiophile-grade.
If you want quality, reliability, and amazing sound in your portable DAC, be sure to test Woo Audio's products out.
Notable portable DAC: Woo Audio WA11 Topaz
After 9 prototypes that never made it to the production line and three years of hard work, Woo Audio came up with a portable DAC that can take any audio listening experience to the next level.
First of all, it weighs only 413 grams, and with only 24mm of thickness, it packs inside a fully-balanced headphone amp and a DAC running in Class-A topology. The converter inside the device is an ESS Sabre, the industry standard, and is capable of decoding PCM in 24bits/384kHz as well as DSD128.
With dual USB Type-C ports (one for charging, one as a music source), you can use the 7-hour internal battery and charge it on the go utilizing an inexpensive power bank.
Those three years paid off since this is one of the most complete DACs on this list.
Clarus is a company that works on a very delicate topic in the audiophile world: high-end audio and power cables that can feed Hi-Fi systems with absolutely no noise. This is not an easy endeavour since these cables will be used to plug gear, often costing thousands of dollars.
With such expertise in one of high-end audio's most difficult niches, they made nothing but the best in the market by the time they branched out to the DAC industry.
If you are a discerning audiophile looking for a solution on the road, you have to check Clarus out.
Notable portable DAC: Clarus Coda
Shaped very much like a pen drive, this DAC represents the pinnacle of Clarus' engineers' discerning ears and impeccable craftsmanship.
The company decided to go with the benchmark in the industry when choosing a DAC; thus, a state-of-the-art ESS Sabre chip is the heart of this unit. This allows the Coda to process music in 32bits/384kHz while the high-precision audio grade internal clock reduces jitter to the minimum possible.
Finally, its powerful headphone amplifier can power any set of headphones on the market.
f your ears are truly discerning, this is definitely a DAC you need to try before buying.
Choosing the perfect DAC for your listening pleasure can be somewhat complicated. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive DAC Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help picking your next favourite digital-analog converter.