There are plenty of ways to improve your headphone setup. The most common way is by getting a dedicated headphone amplifier and DAC stack. However, you can also opt for a more straightforward option that combines both of these components. This device is called the DAC/Amp combo.
DAC/Amps are usually a good choice for beginners and minimalists because they typically synergize well with a wide variety of headphones. You also don’t need to have two separate units that can take up more space. You can also upgrade these devices with a more powerful dedicated headphone amplifier later on if you need something more powerful.
Let’s get straight to our top picks. If you’re looking for a budget option, your best bet is the FX Audio DAC X6. If you want the latest and greatest and the price is not a major concern, take a look at the premium Chord Hugo 2 Transportable DAC/Amplifier.
However, there are lots of options here on the list depending on your budget and intended use, including a small form factor and Bluetooth DAC/Amps such as the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt.
Best DAC/AMP Combos
DAC/Amps usually come in two types. There are portable and desktop DAC/Amps. Most portable DAC/Amps can also be used as a desktop unit due to their form factor. However, they will be limited in their power delivery.
Read about the differences between portable vs desktop here. Also, while it is a good idea to have a high-quality source such as a DAC/Amp, you should first check if your headphones really need an amplifier.
FX Audio DAC X6 – Best Budget DAC/Amp and Best Value
Starting off this list is the best budget DAC/Amp, the FX Audio DAC X6. While not coming from a reputable company like Fiio, this DAC/Amp manages to pack a lot of features for its price tag.
The FX Audio DAC X6 has a lot of available options for connecting to a source. It can connect via USB, optical, and coaxial. These can be selected via the switch in front of the device. The DAC X6 also has a quarter-inch jack for headphones.
In terms of the design and build quality, the DAC X6 has a very minimalistic design. This can be a bit bland since it looks similar to every other DAC/Amp in this price range. The build, however, is very acceptable and is easy to take apart in case you want to mod this device since there are several community mods available.
In terms of power and sound quality, the manufacturer claims it can power headphones with an impedance of 300 ohms. Most users, however, find the volume to be inadequate for 300-ohm headphones like the Sennheiser HD650, but other headphones that aren’t hard to drive should be fine. In terms of sound quality, the DAC X6 is relatively neutral and does not introduce coloration to the sound.
Overall, the amount of connectivity options and sound quality is unbeatable at this price range. The FX Audio DAC X6 is a good option for anyone looking to upgrade the sound of their system. Its driving power is also pretty decent and should be adequate for headphones that are not hard to drive. All of these make the FX Audio DAC X6 the best value for your money.
Pros: The FX Audio DAC X6 packs a ton of features for its asking price. This unit will last you for a while, and you’d need to get hard-to-drive headphones before justifying an upgrade.
Cons: Like most of the other budget DAC/Amps, this unit struggles with driving high-impedance headphones.
Fiio E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier
The Fiio E10K is an excellent alternative to the FX Audio DAC X6. It does not have as many connectivity options as the DAC X6. Instead, it introduces several other features that may interest users who are looking to alter the sound.
The most notable feature that the Fiio E10K has is its bass boost option. This tightens up the low-end and helps increase the bass response of headphones that do not have a good low-end reproduction. This feature will, of course, be hit or miss and will largely depend on the headphones.
In terms of the build quality, the Fiio E10K has a simple design. The front panel is straightforward. It only has the bass boost button, volume dial, and headphone input. The bass boost option is something that you will see in a lot of Fiio products. While not the cleanest implementation, it certainly helps in adding a bit of low end on bright-sounding headphones.
Given the E10K’s price point, it isn’t the most powerful DAC/Amp on this list. The E10K will start to struggle with headphones that have an impedance above 300 ohms. Headphones like the Sennheiser HD6XX series will still have an acceptable volume, but it will lack in terms of the dynamic range.
It also has a fair amount of connection options, such as a line-output and coaxial output. This is very good to see since a lot of smaller devices tend to skip on these. It also connects to your source via USB, making it compatible with a wide range of digital devices.
Given the price, the shortcomings in the sound quality of the E10K can be easily forgiven. The number of features that you get more than makes up for it.
Pros: The form-factor and asking price of the Fiio E10K make it a perfect unit for those who are just starting out. This is one of the best upgrades you can make from onboard audio.
Cons: The Fiio E10K isn’t as feature-packed as the FX Audio DAC X6. It also has trouble with powering high-impedance headphones.
Fiio BTR3 – Best Budget Bluetooth DAC/Amp
Aside from the traditional desktop and portable DAC/Amps, we also have alternate designs on this list. Our next contender is the Fiio BTR3. It is a Bluetooth receiver that is smaller than most DAC/Amps on this list. Its portability makes it hard to beat in this price range.
The BTR3K has a small form factor that is smaller than traditional portable DAC/Amps. The main appeal of these kinds of devices is that they connect to your smartphone, DAP, or any other device that supports Bluetooth and will essentially make any pair of IEMs or headphones wireless.
It can also connect to any device that supports USB and can be used as a desktop DAC/Amp.
The Bluetooth on the BTR3K is very well implemented. The latest Bluetooth 5.0 technology is used. It also supports a good amount of codecs, specifically LDAC and APTX HD. Both of these codecs allow minimal latency when watching movies or playing video games.
In terms of sound quality, the BTR3 is very impressive. The DAC chip used is the AK4376. The BTR3K has a respectable amount of power for a portable device. It is similar in the strengths and weaknesses of the other two budget DAC/Amps on this list. It is meant for portable devices, so it isn’t surprising if it can’t handle hard-to-drive headphones.
The sound signature is fairly neutral and competitive with the likes of the Radsone ES100. The ES100 includes a 2.55mm balanced output while the BTR3 does not. Fiio is rolling out the update to the BTR3, the BTR3K. It includes a 2.5mm balanced output and sports dual DACs. We will be updating this list once it is released.
Overall, for a device that is primarily built for convenience, the BTR3K packs a punch. If you are looking for a small and lightweight DAC/Amp that seamlessly connects to your smartphone, then the BTR3 is for you.
Pros: The Fiio BTR3 is one of the smallest DAC/Amps, which makes it a perfect portable unit. The Bluetooth implementation is also well-executed here and won’t cause any problems.
Cons: The Fiio BTR3 lacks some features that its competitors are starting to implement, such as the balanced connection. It is also not as popular as the others in this category.
iFi Nano iDSD Black Label – Best Midrange DAC/Amp
Read our full iFi Nano iDSD Black Label Review
First up on the midrange offering is the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label. It is not the most feature-packed, but the combination of its simplistic design, excellent build quality, excellent sound quality, and power output makes this the top contender on this list.
The iFi Nano BL is the successor to the original iFi Nano iDSD. It features a new color, more power for driving high-impedance headphones, and the integration of iFi’s IEMATCH technology. We will be discussing more on the IEMATCH feature later.
In terms of the build quality, the iFI Nano BL feels a lot better than most of the offerings in the budget and mid-range category. The metal build feels more premium than the generic feel of models like the FX Audio DAC X6. The volume wheel, which also serves as the on and off switch, also feels premium and satisfying to use. Due to its form-factor, it can be easily used both as a portable and desktop DAC/Amp.
One downside of this design is the size of the unit. While it is small and portable, its smaller size (compared to other DAC/Amps) means that stacking it with larger devices such as a modern smartphone may be a bit awkward. This is not a unique issue with the iFi Nano BL. You can read more about it in our dedicated article.
Now, let us talk about the main attraction, the sound quality. The sound signature of the iFi Nano BL is generally neutral, with a slight hint of warmth. This unit works well with a lot of headphones. It is detailed enough without being too analytical.
The power that the iFi Nano BL packs is also impressive. It can drive most headphones such as the 150-ohm Sennheiser HD660s and 300-ohm Sennheiser HD600. Like most portable DAC/Amps, it starts to struggle with headphones that have an impedance above 300 ohms. This one, however, was still able to push enough details on the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD600 during our test.
Of course, there is much more to driving headphones than sensitivity. You can find our guides to headphone amplifiers and impedance here.
The final notable aspect of the iFi Nano BL is the IEMATCH option. This is technically the low gain option and is suitable for low-impedance headphones and IEMs. This incorporates iFi’s IEMATCH technology, which matches the impedance of headphones and IEMs, which effectively reduces or eliminates hiss on sensitive IEMs.
One final downside that consumers must take note of the iFi Nano BL is that it only has digital input via USB. We would have preferred more options, but this is primarily designed to connect with smartphones, DAPs, and personal computers.
Overall, for those looking for a great-sounding DAC/Amp that can be easily used as a portable and desktop unit, the iFi Nano BL is an excellent option that sits as the best in this price range.
Pros: The iFi Nano BL is one of the best-built and best-sounding DAC/Amp in this price range. Its IEMATCH function is also useful for sensitive IEMs.
Cons: The iFi Nano BL does not have the best input and output options, which can limit its use case for more advanced setups.
Fiio Q1 Mk2 DSD DAC & Amplifier
A good alternative to the iFi Nano BL is Fiio’s midrange portable DAC/Amp, the Fiio Q1 Mk2. Unlike the iFi Nano BL, the Q1 Mk2 is almost a complete redesign from the original Fiio Q1. It provides a better build, better design, and more features. It has several features that the iFi Nano BL does not offer but ultimately loses to the iFi Nano BL in terms of sound quality.
In terms of the build quality, the Fiio Q1 Mk2 is one of the better-built ones in this price range. Fiio has been continuously stepping its game up and has consistently been providing a better build on most of its products throughout every price range. The Q1 Mk2 is no exception and will hold up with day-to-day use.
There are two notable features that the Fiio Q1 Mk2 has, which is absent from the Nano BL. These are the bass boost option and the 2.5mm balanced output. The 2.5mm balanced output is significantly better and more powerful than the 3.5mm output. It, however, comes at a cost.
The added power on the balanced output means that sensitive IEMs such as the Campfire Audio Andromeda will produce noticeable hiss. This is a tradeoff that you get, so you must decide if you want to use the Q1 Mk2 for IEMs or headphones.
The other notable addition is the bass boost option. Like the E10K, this effectively tightens up the low-end reproduction of most headphones. The effect is not too exaggerated and won’t make the sound muddy. This is again, however, hit or miss, and not all headphones/IEMs will benefit from this.
In terms of the sound signature and sound quality, the Q1 Mk2 is more on the “fun and natural” side rather than the analytical side. As a result, it is less refined and detailed compared to the iFi Nano BL. It isn’t a bad sound as most people will still be able to enjoy it.
Overall, at a lower price, the Fiio Q1 Mk2 delivers features that are not available to most of its competition in this price range. While it isn’t technically on par with the iFi Nano BL in terms of sound quality, it still holds its own and is an excellent alternative for a lower price.
Pros: Fiio has managed to pack features such as the balanced 2.5mm output and bass boost for a device that has a lower price compared to its competitors.
Cons: Some users who are looking for a more refined sounding device may be a little let down with the Fiio Q1 Mk2’s performance.
Fiio BTR5 Headphone Amp with LDAC
The Fiio BTR5 is an upgrade to the Fiio BTR3 and is the definitive version of Fiio’s portable Bluetooth DAC/Amps. If you loved the Fiio BTR3 but wish it had more features and had better sound quality, then you will love the Fiio BTR5.
The Fiio BTR5 follows the same concept in terms of the design and form factor of the BTR3. It is, however, better-built, larger, and overall more premium feeling than the BTR3. It also now supports a 2.5mm balanced output, which makes it more comparable to the Radsone ES100.
The BTR5 also supports dual ES9218P DAC chips (one for each output) compared to the single AK4376A DAC chip of the BTR3. This higher-end chip gives the BTR5 a better sound quality compared to the BTR3. It generally sounds more dynamic compared to the BTR3. The BTR5 also has more power compared to the BTR3.
Other features of the BTR5 include a small OLED screen that can be used to apply EQ through the device itself. The BTR3 required a smartphone app to do this. The USB DAC functionality of the BTR5 is also better compared to the BTR3. It has a separate XMOS xUF208 decoder chip that supports 384K 32 bit/DSD 256. This is more comparable to other portable and desktop DAC/Amps.
Overall, the Fiio BTR5 is an upgrade to the BTR3. If you want a small form-factor DAC/Amp that has a seamless and near-perfect Bluetooth connection, then the BTR5 is the perfect device for you in the midrange price range.
Pros: The Fiio BTR5 takes everything good from the BTR3 and upgrades it to meet the standards of other portable DAC/Amps. The Bluetooth implementation is also excellent and provides a seamless experience.
Cons: This unit is still mostly a portable device. While it can be used as a desktop unit, it won’t be competing with the others on this list in terms of power.
iFi Micro iDSD Black Label – Best High-End DAC/Amp
First up on the high-end category is the iFi Micro Black Label.
Just like the iFI Nano BL, the iFi Micro is primarily designed to be a portable unit. However, despite being a portable DAC/Amp, it boasts a lot of features that can compete with its desktop counterparts.
In terms of power, it drives high-impedance headphones like the 300-ohm Sennheiser HD800s and 600-ohm Beyerdynamic T1 very well. iFi claims that it can support headphones with 800 ohms, so technically, the iFi Micro BL can power almost anything under the sun.
Aside from its amazing power output, it also has a myriad of options that can help shape the sound. These features are the bass boost function and the 3D+ Holographic mode. The bass boost is very well implemented and can tighten up the low end of most headphones.
The 3D+ Holographic mode, on the other hand, is designed to simulate a “3D feel” by widening the soundstage. However, take note that some high-end open-back headphones like the Sennheiser HD800s already have a wide soundstage. So it becomes a hit or miss feature depending on the headphones you are using.
In terms of the sound quality and sound signature, the iFi Micro BL has a neutral and accurate sound. It is also extremely detailed, making it a good pair with headphones that have good image retrieval, such as the Beyerdynamic T1.
A possible downside with the Micro BL is, of course, its size and form factor. It is too big for portable use, but it won’t be a problem for users who plan to use this with their desktop setup. It is closer to a transportable DAC/Amp rather than a traditional portable DAC/Amp.
Overall, if you are looking for a high-end DAC/Amp that has lots of features and has an amazing sound quality, then we highly recommend the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label.
Pros: The iFi Micro BL has the best amount of features in this price range. Its sound quality is also one of the best and synergizes well with a lot of high-end headphones.
Cons: The size of the iFi Micro BL may detract some consumers who want a more portable unit.
Chord Mojo – DAC/Headphone Amplifier
The Chord Mojo is another popular pick in this price range. Just like the iFi Micro BL, one of the major features of the Mojo is its driving power. Chord claims it can power headphones with an impedance of 800 ohms. This is, again, more than enough for most headphones.
The Mojo features a good amount of options for connecting with other sources such as a smartphone and a DAP. It even supports optical, a feature that more DAPs and DAC/Amps aren’t supporting anymore.
One of the downsides of the Mojo is the fact that the controls aren’t intuitive. The volume control utilizes buttons instead of a volume wheel, which makes volume adjustment on a desktop setup a bit of a hassle.
As for the sound quality, the Mojo has a different presentation from the iFI Micro BL, and it will purely depend on your personal preference. The Mojo has a warm sound signature, which can help tame the high-end of peaky headphones. This, however, means that details in the higher frequencies may be lost.
The Mojo is also noticeably less airy compared to the Micro BL. The soundstage also does not feel as wide as the Micro BL. Again, this does not mean that the Mojo sounds bad. Some users may prefer its sound signature over the Micro BL.
What cannot be denied, however, is the difference in the number of features in the Chord Mojo and iFi Micro BL. The sound shaping features of the Micro BL are absent on the Mojo,
Overall, the Mojo is a solid portable device that can also double as a desktop DAC/Amp. Despite losing, in some areas to the iFi Micro BL, the Chord Mojo is still a strong contender. If you prefer more fun and less detailed sound, and if you don’t mind the unique control scheme, the Chord Mojo is a good fit.
Pros: The Chord Mojo has been a longtime favorite for many enthusiasts due to its sound quality and form factor.
Cons: The Chord Mojo isn’t as feature-packed or as transparent sounding as the iFi Micro BL. This is a matter of personal preference.
Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
The Dragonfly series from Audioquest has always been a unique DAC/Amp in the market. Their small size makes them one of the most portable options as they are only as big as a typical USB flash drive. Their latest entry, the Cobalt, further improves on this concept by featuring a more powerful output that can drive higher-impedance headphones.
The build quality and form factor of the Dragonfly Cobalt is perfect for travelers.
The included DragonTail adapter makes the Cobalt readily usable with smartphones and laptops that only support USB Type-C. The chassis also gives off that premium feel that perfectly reflects its price tag.
The main pitch of the Dragonfly Cobalt is its ability to make devices sound good instantly. In that regard, it definitely and surprisingly does so. Despite its small form factor, it surely packs a punch. It delivers a sound that rivals most desktop and portable DAC/Amps. The sound that it provides is also very clean and prevents any leak from the source device or the power supply. That is impressive, especially for the size of the Dragonfly Cobalt.
However, this falls behind the other two products when it comes to features and sound quality. The feature set of the Dragonfly Cobalt is very limited due to its size. It doesn’t pack as many input and output options as both the iFi Micro BL and Chord Mojo. It also lacks a dedicated volume knob, which means you will most likely rely on the digital volume control found on your source. It may also struggle with headphones that have an impedance above 300 ohms, unlike the other two, which can power almost anything you throw at it.
The Dragonfly Cobalt is designed for different purposes and use case scenarios. If you are looking for a great all-rounder that has all the features and can power any headphone, then the Cobalt is not for you. The other two would better suit those types of scenarios.
However, if you are looking for an extremely compact device that can plug into almost everything and makes them instantly better, then the Dragonfly Cobalt is the perfect device for you.
Pros: The Dragonfly Cobalt is one of the best-sounding DAC/Amps, which is surprising for its size. Its ability to connect and make any device instantly sound better makes this a must-have for portable users.
Cons: The size limits the number of features, inputs, outputs, and power that it can have. If you are looking for more feature-packed and more powerful devices, then the other two in this category will suit you better.
Chord Hugo 2 – Bonus Pick
The Chord Hugo 2 is a popular pick in its price range. Just like the iFi Micro BL, the Hugo is more of a transportable unit as opposed to a portable unit due to its size. The Chord Hugo offers more power than you will ever need as it is rated for up to 800 ohms. The selling factor, and the reason why the Chord Hugo is priced the way it is, is due to its ability to reproduce the digital source accurately.
The amount of detail and realism you get with the Chord Hugo is a perfect match for analytical headphones. However, this also means that poorly mixed and mastered tracks or low bit rate tracks are going to sound bad on the Hugo. One downside is that bright headphones with treble peaks would sound even harsher on the Chord Hugo.
Overall, this is a well-built unit that has good synergy with the Beyerdynamic T1, especially if you are aiming for an accurate and detailed sound. If that is the kind of sound that you are aiming for, the Chord Hugo is right for you (as long as you can keep up with its price).
Pros: The Chord Hugo 2 is hands down one of the best performing units on this list. This is one of the rare cases where the performance justifies the price.
Cons: The Chord Hugo 2 is in a weird spot since it is neither portable nor a desktop unit. For the same price, you can possibly get better deals. Of course, this is up to the user.
Stephen is a musician, cinematographer, and headphone enthusiast who is passionate about reviewing audio equipment. He has been playing guitar for at least a decade, which introduced him to professional recording equipment such as headphones and in-ear monitors. With the help of reviews and online content, he was able to learn the ins and outs of the hobby. His goal is to give back to the community by providing quality content to help others enjoy the beautiful (and expensive) world of audio.
Favorite Headphones: Sennheiser HD660s