So, you have your favorite pair of studio headphones. You’re putting down tracks left and right, but you feel like you’re not getting the full potential out of those cans.
This might be because they have high impedance. Or, your onboard digital to analog converter (DAC) can’t push the range of loudness that you want. A solid solution to this is a DAC amp combo.
These little guys pack a punch, but it’s all about finding the best DAC amp combo for your specific needs.
How to choose the right DAC Amp
Let’s start off by understanding this handy tool by breaking it up into its two components. As the name suggests, a DAC converts a digital audio signal into an analog signal so that a device can create sound.
The Difference Between a DAC and a Headphone Amplifier
A headphone amplifier is a low-powered amp that raises the low-voltage of a signal to a more adequate level.
Now, these two systems can be found separate from each other. This is a very acceptable route to go if you’re looking for more out of your headphones and their frequency response. But these clever DAC amps might just be a more practical route to go based on your needs.
The DAC comes into play when it comes to your computer. Internal DACs that already exist in smartphones and computers can sometimes create a static hissing noise. Nobody wants that right? A good way to get rid of this is with a dedicated DAC.
All in all, why not have the best of both worlds with a DAC amp combo? Well, that’s the argument that many audiophiles make.
Benefits of a DAC Amp
With a high quality DAC amp combo, you’re getting the best of two worlds. You’re powering those high-impedance headphones with a flat frequency response, and clearing up the soundstage with a dedicated DAC.
Related: What is a DAC and do you need one?
The combination of both is cost effective and really just makes the whole process easier. It’s definitely a worthy upgrade from most integrated DAC sound cards.
Speaking From Experience
I can speak from experience here. A while ago, I bought a pair of 80Ω headphones with that ideal flat frequency response. I plugged them into my computer and they sounded muted. After some reading, I found out that I needed an amp. This was due to the fact that either the internal DAC chip or sound card in my computer wasn’t powerful enough. Hurray! I didn’t need to return my headphones.
Admittedly, I had no idea about the importance of this stuff, and it was a simple fix.
Things to keep in mind
Now let’s get into the more technical aspects to consider before making your final decision on the best DAC amp.
What Does Output Power Mean?
One thing to keep in mind on your quest is the sensitivity (or efficiency) of your headphones. This is measured in decibels (dB) and can be found just as easily as the impedance amount.
Sensitivity dictates how many decibels the headphones will output per milliwatt or millivolt. Knowing this will help you find out how many milliwatts you need for your headphones. All of this can have an effect on your how your headphones transmit their frequency response through the DAC Amplifier.
Luckily, there are free online power calculators out there to help with this output power process. Make sure the output power of the DAC you like is at least as high as the milliwatt level you need.
The output power levels of any unit can easily be found within the tech specs from the manufacturer.
Headphone Impedance vs. DAC/Amp Impedance
Choosing the best DAC amp depends almost entirely on the headphones you have. Moreover, it depends on the impedance levels of those headphones.
Impedance is the resistance of an electrical signal, measured in ohms (Ω). Higher impedance means you’ll likely need an amp to power them.
A pair of earbuds or cheap headphones sit at around 35Ω. Those puppies don’t typically need a headphone amplifier. Usually, headphones at 50Ω or above will tell you they need an amp. Anything in the 100Ω or above range will definitely need one.
One other thing to check up on. The DAC amp combo will have its own output impedance as well. This is separate from your headphones impedance. The guideline here is to make sure the output impedance is about 8x lower than the impedance of your pair of headphones.
Related: DJ Headphones Guide
This baseline will ensure that the device you decide upon will adequately power any headphones you might have. Generally speaking, most headphones won’t require too much power from a DAC Amplifier. If you have a pair with crazy high impedance you won’t have to worry as long as you follow that baseline.
The Benefits Of Multiple Inputs
Usually the best DAC amp options include such inputs as a 3.5mm jack, RCA stereo, USB input, coaxial S/PDIF and optical. Now, the manners in which you plan on using one of these devices should require you to have multiple inputs. It’s just a good rule of thumb to live by in a home studio.
The nice thing is, with these modern devices you have a ton of power at your fingertips. Most of the amp DAC units on this list will give you numerous inputs right out of the box so you can find the right input you need for a particular project.
Portability & Size
Honestly, you probably aren’t going to need a DAC amp combo that’s ultra-portable. Chances are your device will have a comfortable home on your studio desk and will rarely be moved around.
That being said, it never hurts to save space on your desk. Most amp DAC devices of this kind have a naturally small footprint, and they can be taken to a live performance if you need it to. Form factor isn’t as crucial here as it is with other pieces of equipment.
At the end of the day, you’re probably going to need room for a bunch of equipment. An audio interface, a MIDI keyboard, your computer monitor, etc. That’s not to say you shouldn’t make some room for a headphone DAC amp combo though.
Related: 9 Step Home Recording Studio Guide
Thankfully, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice too much to fit one in.
A Quick Word About Bit Rate
Back in the day we all used to spend hours trying to find that 320kbps bit rate song to download and burn onto a CD-R. Not you? Well, maybe I’m just old. Anyway, modern digital audio music has come a long way, and a modern DAC chip that can handle samples with a bit rate of 16-24 bits is a must. Moreover, the 24 bit and 32 bit craze has gained traction in recent years.
All of these factors will insure that the DAC amp combo device you decide to invest in will be able to handle the bit rate of the samples that are fed through it. The last thing you want is clipping of any sort. Rest assured that the devices I’ve included on this list should be adequate at this job.
You aren’t necessarily going to want a device that adds a ton of color to the sound of your headphones. I mean, all you’re looking for out of a DAC amp combo is clarity and added neutral emphasis.
It’s somewhat inevitable that any component you add to the signal path will add some degree of color to the mix. The key is to find a unit that’s subtle about it. On my list, I’ve done my best to find DAC amp combos that don’t overdue it while still being beneficial to the ultimate goal.
Speaking of which, I think it’s time to dive right in to the best DAC amp combo list…
Best DAC Amp Combo List
Audioengine D1 24 Bit
“The soundstage is wide, and the accuracy it has is nice and tight. Individual frequencies will really shine in conjunction with a great pair of headphones.”
- DAC type: USB and Optical
- Inputs: USB input audio SPDIF Optical
- D/A converter: AKM4396
- USB transfer mode: Asynchronous dual clock
- Input bit depth: 16 bit, 24 bit
- Input sample rate: (USB) 32kHz-96kHz native playback 188.2kHz & 192kHz re-sampled to 96kHz
- Input sample rate: (optical) 32kHz-192kHz native playback
- Outputs: Analog RCA L/R stereo Analog 3.5mm mini-jack stereo
The D1 DAC/headphone amplifier from Audioengine is a solid value unit. It is a 24 bit/96kHZ device with USB and optical S/PDIF inputs as well as an RCA output. The front includes a 3.5mm headphone port and a large volume control knob.
The sound quality is superb. The soundstage is wide range, and the accuracy it has is nice and tight with a very balanced output.
Individual frequencies will really shine in conjunction with a great pair of headphones. The high signal to noise ratio and low distortion gives this unit a competitive edge to it’s more expensive counterparts. All in all, the sound signature is just great. This is all to say that the D1 DAC amp combo can handle any bit rate that’s thrown at it without any unwanted distortion.
The build quality on this DAC amp is noteworthy as well, made with high quality materials that feel rugged in your hands. It feels solid and sturdy. It’s worth it to point out that there aren’t any rubber feet on the bottom of the device, so it has a tendency to slide around easily. That’s a small gripe though.
The volume knob weirdly enough doesn’t have a notch that indicates the exact level of output. I would recommend just using a sharpie if you find it really necessary. Yes, a ¼ headphone jack would have been nice, but there is only a 3.5 mm jack. Luckily, most top notch studio headphones are interchangeable so you can connect to a given DAC amplifier.
You might have to refer to that online power calculator to accurately decipher the output power of this device if you’re concerned about it. That being said, I’m sure the D1 digital to analog converter/Amplifier has more than enough power for your headphones.
Why it’s my favorite
All in all, the D1 is my favorite device on this list of DAC amp combos simply because it packs so much value in such a small package. It has the sonic quality of a much more expensive device, and it’s minor shortcomings are easy to get past.
“Its compact size won’t take up too much desk space, and the fact that it uses USB power means less hassle in your set up.”
- Power Supply: Standard Micro USB port
- Output Power: 200 mW @ 32 Ω
- Sample Rate: Maximum of 24-bit/96 kHz supported
- Signal to Noise Ratio of ≥108 dB
- Digital Output 1x Coaxial digital output, stereo PCM format
- Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz
- Impedance Recommended Headphone Impedance: 16 to 150 Ω
- Dimensions: (H x W x D) 3.1 x 1.9 x 0.8″ (79.0 x 49.1 x 21.0 mm)
- Weight: 2.8 oz (78 g)
You’ve probably seen the FiiO E10K USB desktop DAC amp combo here and there. It’s gained its popularity mainly due to its affordable price range. Don’t be fooled though, this little guy still does its job well.
It has a sample rate of 24bit/96kHZ. It also includes a micro USB port, a coax output, and a high or low gain switch on the back. The front has a 3.5mm jack, a bass boost/low pass switch, and volume knob.
One of my favorite attributes of this DAC with a built in headphone amplifier is the select-able bass boost option and low pass filter circuit. This unique addition is much needed considering the E10K isn’t what I would call “rich with features.” On top of that, the small footprint/output power ratio of this device makes it a great portable digital to analog converter/amp.
The bass boost and low pass filter characteristics creates a lower noise floor when engaged. This gives you the freedom to really customize sounds to your taste. It’s an all around cool feature, though it might not be for everyone.
The sound quality of this little guy might actually surprise you. The E10K won’t necessarily win any awards amongst audiophiles, but it gets the job done well at this price point.
Its compact size won’t take up too much desk space, and the fact that it uses power via USB means less hassle in your set up. If all you need is an amp DAC combo to power your headphones while keeping the soundstage clear, then it won’t let you down.
While the overall sound quality of the E10K DAC amp is good, it might give you issues at higher frequencies. Some people experience a static clipping after an extended period of time owning the device. This might have something to do with the sensitivity of the USB DAC port that has the ability to degrade over time.
These are both somewhat rare occurrences, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
There’s a reason why the FiiO E10K is such a coveted device. It’s affordability, its simplicity, low noise floor, and its form factor are all attractive qualities. It would be remiss of me to not include it on my list of the best DAC amp options.
Sound BlasterX G6
“Though it’s not a dedicated DAC, the G6 has an incredible 32bit/384kHz digital output. Also, the signal to noise ratio is 130 dB.”
- Frequency Response: (Unlisted)
- Max resolution: 384 kHz
- Max Bit Rate: 32 bit
- Total Harmonic Distortion: 0.0006%
- Signal-to-noise ratio: >110 dBV
- Max Output: (Unlisted)
- Output Impedance: 1 ohm
- Inputs: MicroUSB, 3.5 mm headphone
- Outputs: MicroUSB, (2x) 3.5 mm
The Sound BlasterX G6 Gaming DAC/amp by Creative is popular in gaming circles, but there is a lot to this device for all audiophiles. Though it’s not a dedicated DAC, the G6 has an incredible 32 bit/384kHz digital output and high resolution. Also, the signal to noise ratio is 130 dB.
All of this power comes at a cost though. Out of the box, the default audio settings add an unnecessary boost to higher frequencies.
Luckily, the included software gives you the ability to correct this externally from the DAC. The Sound Blaster Connect 2 software comes with some other useful features as well that include extra effects, an EQ, voice improvements, dynamic range control, among others.
This powerhouse DAC amp combo also simulates virtual 7.1 surround sound. The Connect 2 software is one of the things that makes the G6 stick out above the rest.
The G6 has a 3.5mm headphone jack, a 3.5mm optical in (no optical out unfortunately), and a 3.5mm mic-in. The rear 3.5mm line in bypasses the discrete headphone amp and only uses the digital to analog converter, and the front 3.5mm jack uses the DAC. Keep that in mind to avoid any confusion. You will also find a high and low gain switch.
It is fair to point out that the installation process can be a bit of a pain. Usually, updating the firmware out of the box is all you’ll need to do.
Sometimes, that won’t be enough. It can have issues recognizing your drivers and this can lead to a lot of frustration. Also, this is not a great option for a portable DAC amp, it’s definitely a little bulkier than others on this list.
This is not a common enough issue to be worried about, but I needed to bring attention to it nonetheless.
The volume control knob also can become flimsy depending on the unit. Overall, the materials used on the G6 DAC/Amplifier don’t feel as high quality as some others on this list. That being said, the device is cool looking, and the logo lights up when there’s music playing.
If you’re looking for a device purely for musical needs, then some of the features I’ve listed might just go to waste. But for anyone who enjoys gaming, cinema, and other entertainments on top of just music, this DAC is a jack of all trades and it’s one of the best on this list.
FX Audio DAC-X6
“The build quality of the DAC X6 is what’s most surprising. This device will most likely last you a long time in terms of its durability.”
- Digital input: PC USB/Coaxial/Optical(with toggle switch)
- Output: 6.35mm headphone output/2ch stereo power amp
- Line level output: RMS 1.8V
- Frequency response: ±3dB(20Hz-20khz）
- Headphones Impedance: 32Ω-600Ω
- Headphone power output: [email protected]Ω, [email protected]Ω, [email protected]Ω, [email protected]Ω
- SNR: -94dB
- THD: 0.001%
- Sampling rate: USB: 24bit/96kHz; 16bit/192 kHz
- Optical / Coaxial: 24bit / 192 kHz
- Adapter Voltage: 100-240ACV
- Machine power / adapter output voltage: Dc12V 1A above
- Size: 5.7 x 3.9 x1.4 in
- Weight: 1.1lb
The FX Audio DAC X6 is more of an entry level digital to analog converter/amp combo. That being the case, it performs quite well as long as you’re not expecting an ultra powerful sound. As that saying goes, you’re getting what you pay for here.
There are a few reasons why I have included it on my DAC amp combo list though, it’s not a bad device by any means. The DAC X6 has a sample rate of 24bit/96kHz via USB, and 24bit/192kHZ optical or coax.
The FX Audio DAC X6 has a decent amount of connection options for its price point. These include USB, optical, and coax. The switch on the front panel allows you to select which one of these you’re using. RCA outs for active speakers are available. There is a 1/4″ headphone jack (not 3.5 mm) sitting next to a large output knob on the front as well.
The build quality of the FX Audio DAC X6 is what’s most surprising. This device will most likely last you a long time in terms of its durability. All of the ports are solid and rarely become loose. The only gripe in this regard is the volume control knob has a tendency to become sticky and hard to turn. Overall though, it’s a little brick considering its price tag.
Now, onto the negatives. If you plan on using this device to power a pair of headphones with an impedance of 300Ω or more, you’ll be underwhelmed.
The manufacturer claims that the FX Audio DAC X6 can power headphones up to 600Ω, but many users have shot this down. It adequately powers most headphones, but if yours are more high end, there might be a better option out there.
There is a small chance that the optical output can have issues working properly out of the box. In addition to this, some users report that the DAC X6 introduces a minor amount of distortion to the soundstage.
There’s a chance that those units were just lemons, but it’s worth pointing out. Some folks have stated that the low ends are too meaty for their liking, but this is subjective.
The DAC X6 is a good starting point for most people out there looking for more power to their headphones with a DAC amp. Its low price, and it’s good build quality makes this system stick out. If you’re on a budget, there’s not much of a reason to discourage the FX Audio DAC X6 as a worthy option.
Topping DX3 Pro
“This desktop DAC amp combo truly is a great addition to any audiophiles repertoire. It’s a highly versatile device, and its negative qualities are few and far in between.”
- Measured: 12.0cm xX 16.5cm x 4.0cm
- Weight: 400g(Unit only)
- Power input: DC15V/1A
- Colour: Full black/Full silver
- Input: USB/OPT/COAX1/COAX2/BT
- Line Out output: RCA
- Headphone output: 3.5mm
- USB IN: 44.1kHz-768kHz/16bit-32bit,DSD64-DSD512(Native),DSD64-DSD256(DOP)
- OPT/ COAX IN: 44.1kHz-192 kHz/16bit-24bit
The Topping DX3 Pro USB DAC/Amp by Fanmusic is a powerful device. It has a slightly higher price range, but it has great functionality to justify that. In fact, if it weren’t for the higher dollar amount, the DX3 Pro could’ve easily been at the top of the list of my favorite DAC Amp devices.
The build quality of the DX3 Pro DAC amp combo is robust and heavy. Its metal casing is a very nice touch. The display screen is vibrant. It’s a simple looking unit, but I like a design like that. No muss, no fuss. The DX3 Pro will likely stay sturdy and solid for a long time.
The DX3 Pro has a sample rate of 32bit/768kHz via USB, and 24bit/192kHz optical or coax. The sound quality is quite neutral overall. Low end frequencies are controlled well, and mids to highs are crisp. To be fair, the high end frequencies this amp DAC reproduces might be a little too much for some users. Low mids do come off a little undersaturated.
All in all, the soundstage is impressive, not leaving a whole lot to be desired.
Interestingly enough, the DX3 Pro can work as a standalone digital to analog converter, preamp, or a combo through optical, coax and USB inputs.
It also has Bluetooth 5.0 capabilities for those looking to simply stream music through it. It has high and low gain options and RCA outs. It has a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack up front and a large output knob next to the screen.
Controlling the DX3 Pro amp DAC combo can be a pain. You mainly navigate the device with the included remote control, which can temporarily act up from time to time. Also, using a remote control just feels a little unnecessary.
You also need custom drivers provided by the manufacturer that can be buggy, leading to your OS not recognizing the device. Maybe there will be an update to fix this, though it’s not a very common issue.
This high quality desktop DAC amp truly is a great addition to any audiophiles repertoire. It’s a highly versatile device, and its negative qualities are few and far in between. Once I get passed the remote control, I really like the DX3 Pro as an entry level, or even intermediate option.
Topping DX7 Pro (32 Bit/768 kHz)
- Sample Rate: 32 Bit
- Max Resolution: 768 kHz
- Power input: AC110V/AC220V 50HZ/60HZ＊
- Signal input: USB/BT/OPT/IIS/AES/COAX
- Line Out output: XLR/RCA
- Headphone amp output: 6.35mm/XLR Balanced output/4.4mm Balanced output
This is the ultra-powerful DAC/amp alternative to the Topping DX3 Pro. I included the DX3 on the main list due to it’s more universally affordable nature, but the DX7 Pro DAC amplifier combo is a true powerhouse.
This DAC has specs that are pretty much topped out. With a 32 bit sample rate and a high resolution of 768 kHz, its a device meant for die hard audiophiles. Most DAC amps with this much under the hood can cost you a pretty penny, and the DX7 Pro is no exception.
You can achieve real clarity in virtually any set of headphones at 32bit/768 kHz, and the Topping DX7 Pro is a great DAC to do the job. So, if you’re looking to take your mixes to the next level, I’d highly recommend taking a look at the Topping DX7 Pro amp DAC combo.
Here are a couple more options worth looking into as well…
- Decoding up to 384kHz/32 bit PCM and native DSD256
- DAC: AKM AK4452
- Low-pass filter: TI OPA1612
- USB chip: XMOS XUF208
- USB Audio Class 1.0 and 2.0
- 3.5mm SE and 2.5mm balanced headphone output
- 3.5mm line out
- Coaxial out
- Optical out
- ADC volume knob control
- Gain and bass switches
- Output 3.5mm: 220mW (16Ω, high gain)/120mW (32Ω, low gain)
- Output 2.5mm: 320mW (16Ω, high gain)/200mW (32Ω, low gain)
Yes, another mention for FiiO. There’s a reason why they’re such a reputable brand, they make reliable devices. The K3 is no exception. It’s cheaper younger brother, the E10K, is a great option too. But, if you’re looking for a slightly different unit from the same manufacturer, take a gander at the K3 USB input DAC and headphone amp.
It functions very similarly to the E10K, but is a little more sturdy and offers a more intuitive design. It is slightly more expensive (which is why I didn’t include it in my list of DAC amp combos), but the trade off is a better sound signature, an improved 32 bit sample rate, and an increased wide range.
- Frequency Response: 20Hz-20Khz, +/-0.04dB
- Maximum Power, 32 ohms: 2.4W RMS per channel
- High Gain: Less than 0.0013% (-98dB) at 1V RMS into 32 ohms
- Low Gain: Less than 0.0005% (-106dB) at 1V RMS into 32 ohms
- Input Impedance: 25k ohms
- Gain: 1 (0db) or 5.5 (15db), selectable via rear switch
- Power Supply: “Wall wart” style 24VA 14VAC transformer, regulated +/- 16V rails with over 6,000uF filter capacitance
- Power Consumption: 6W
- Size: 5 x 3.5 x 1.25”
Schiit is a well known manufacturer in this particular field. They specialize in DAC amps and preamps. Their desktop DAC Amp combo has gained popularity amongst gamers predominantly. The Schiit Magni 3 is comparable to the Sound BlasterX G6 in the fact that a gaming DAC/Amp can still find a home in an audiophiles inventory.
It sports a modest price point, and includes a microphone input. The reason I didn’t include it in the main list is due to its underwhelming build quality. That being said, this wouldn’t be a complete article without at least mentioning a system from Schiit.
So there you have it! The clear winner on the list of DAC Amp combos in my eyes is the Audioengine D1, simply due to the value it has for the price. But, all of these devices are great. The main thing when it comes to combo units is that it sounds good to you and suits your needs.
On the long road to finding that perfect sound signature that you like, a DAC Amp is an important stop. Before dropping loads of money on an ultra high end computer with an upgraded sound card or DAC chip, consider investing in an external device like one of these instead.
I can’t stress enough the importance of hearing all the nuances in your mixes clearly. One of these DAC amplifiers will certainly help you with that.
Anyway, I hope this guide has helped on your quest to find the best DAC amp combo for your studio. As always, feel free to reach to me with any questions you might have. Happy hunting!