The source is the first part of your system chain. Usually, the source consists of two parts: a Transport and a DAC. Let me explain this further to avoid any confusion.
1. What is a Transport?
A transport is the CD reading mechanism on a CD player. On a computer based system, the transport is the computer used to read the digital file from the hard disk. The purpose of the transport is to get the file from the storage media and pass it along to the Digital to Analog converter.
2. What is a DAC?
Remember that the data is stored in the digital format. In another word, in Zeros and Ones. After the digital data is read by the transport, it needs to be converted to an analog format before it can be reproduced into audio waves. This process is commonly known as the D/A conversion (or Digital to Analog conversion), and the component that does this job is the DAC (or Digital to Analog converter).
After the signal is converted to an analog format, then it is passed to a headphone amplifier so that the signal is amplified to a volume loud enough for you to hear and enjoy.
The quality of the DAC is very important to the quality of the analog signal which you will listen to with your headphones. This is where this page comes in. There are a lot of DACs out there and although I’ve done a review on many different units, there are a few that consistently have been proven to be favorites among the crowd.
- USB: Digital connection is achieved from the USB port. If you’re playing music from a computer, this is the type of DACs to get.
- S/PDIF: Digital connection is achieved using a Coaxial or Toslink S/PDIF port. The common interface used with CD Players, also available on certain Macintosh computers.
- 24/96: Support for high resolution 24 bit, 96kHz sample rate. Superior to CD quality which is limited at 16/44.1.
- Headphone Out: There is an onboard headphone amplifier, so you don’t need to add an additional headphone amplifier.
- Balanced Out: Support for balanced out which are the common connection for Pro-grade equipment and studio monitor speakers.
Audinst HUD-MX1 – USB 24/96 with Headphone Out
The Audinst is the most popular entry level DAC/Amp box in Headfonia. It comes with a USB connection and doesn’t require a separate power supply, so you can just hook it to the Laptop/PC USB port, plug in a headphone in the front panel, and enjoy great sound right away. The WM8740-based DAC delivers a musical sound with good technicalities, and would make for a very good product to hear what the hype with external DACs are all about. The box will deliver an instant improvement in sound, and the built in headphone amp is powerful enough to drive the 300 Ohm full size headphones. Even after owning other higher end sources, I still enjoy using the Audinst for a simple one box set up next to my Mac.
$179.00 from Audinst | Audinst HUD-MX1
HRT Music Streamer II – USB 24/96
If you love a warm and analog sound, the HRT Music Steamers are the USB DACs to go for. The Music Streamer II model is the entry level product from High Resolution Tecnologies, based on the PCM1793 chip. Priced much lower than the Music Streamer II+, the Music Streamer II delivers a performance perhaps 80%-90% of the bigger brother’s. This product runs strictly off the USB bus, and it is simply awesome.
$149.00 from Amazon.com | HRT Music Streamer II
HRT Music Streamer II Plus – USB 24/96
The Music Streamer II+ (with the plus sign) is the higher up variant of the Music Streamer II. It gives that extra bit of sound quality that makes it a good pairing even with $2K amplifiers and $1K headphones. This DAC, together with the DACport LX, are my favorite $300 level DAC. I love the HRTs for their warm analog sound, while the CEntrance shines with their clean black background sound.
$349.00 from Amazon.com | HRT Music Streamer II+
Fiio E10 – USB 24/96 with Headphone Out
At $80, the E10 is the number one budget level USB DAC/Amp on my recommendation list. You get a lot of sound for the money, good spacious soundstage, good midrange and bottom end, top notch musicality. It may not have the DAC resolution of the higher-priced boxes like the Audinst and the HRT, but for $80, it’s the best thing out there. As a bonus it also takes 24/96 files through USB, and works as a relatively good quality USB to S/PDIF converter (I’ve compared it to a pretty serious USB to S/PDIF and I like the E10 better).
$80.99 from Amazon.com | The Latest Must Have: Fiio E10
CEntrance DACport – USB 24/96 with Headphone Out
The original DACport gives you a high quality 24/96 USB DAC combined with a very powerful Class-A headphone amplifier in a package the size of a cigar. It’s pretty pricey at $399, but there is no denying its convenience. You plug in the DACport to your computer’s USB port, plug in your headphone at the other end, and voila you get a pretty good sounding set up just like that. The DACport is really popular, and everybody I know who owns one seems to love every bit of it. $399.00 at Amazon.com | CEntrance DACmini and DACport
CEntrance DACport LX – USB 24/96
The DACport LX is the DAC only variant of the DACport, meaning there is no amplifier and you have to add in a separate amplifier. Less convenient, but at $299, it’s a full $100 cheaper than the original, while offering a superior 24/96 USB DAC performance. Yes, superior DAC performance for $100 less, but no amp. The thing that makes me love the DACport LX is that simply the sound of DAC section. For $299, I can take this DAC to a high end set up and never feel that the DAC is being a bottleneck to the system. For real. Unless you have a $2,000 DAC standing around next to the DACport LX, it’s really hard to find a fault with the DACport LX. Once again, a superb USB DAC, for merely $299. This DAC, together with the HRT Music Streamer II+, are my favorite $300 level DAC. I love the HRTs for their warm analog sound, while the CEntrance shines with their clean black background sound.
$295.00 from Amazon.com | Cheaper, Better: The CEntrance DACPort LX
Cambridge Audio Dacmagic – Multi S/PDIF and USB with Balanced Out
Though mostly underrated, the Dacmagic is one of the best deal around when it comes to desktop DACs. The Dacmagic employs dual Wolfson WM8740 chips for a highly smooth and refined sound. It is in fact one of the best implementation of the WM8740 and one that I would highly recommend to anyone. What makes the Dacmagic even better is that it comes with an abundance of conventional S/PDIF inputs in addition to the USB input, where most other DACs at this price range tend to support only USB input. What’s more, the Dacmagic also offers both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs. At the price that the Dacmagic is selling for, it truly is the best deals around. Cambridge has released a new version called the Dacmagic Plus that includes a build in headphone amplifier, but I have yet to had the chance to test it.
$429.99 from Amazon.com | Cambridge Dacmagic Review
Only list the most popular products are listed here. If you feel it to be too limited, feel free to browse the reviews on the Source Category: