On this page you’ll find the DAC/AMP Combo recommendations of this moment. This is an ever evolving list and the units are ranked from cheap to expensive.
Nuprime Audio Hi-mDac [Added 02/04/2020]
Sometimes, I don’t want to bother carrying my DAP, no matter how good it is. But, as soon as I leave, I’m hit by the low level of performance shown by my iPhone. Okay, it’s not “Fisher price-quality” as Neil Young would say, but it’s enough for me to regret. And, this is where the Nuprime Hi-mDAC really comes to shine. It’s better than most of my entry-level DAP, small enough to fit my phone and most of all: it makes a REAL upgrade, sound-wise. I’m sure that 90% of our readers have already tried a USB-DAC, but for those of you who didn’t, this may be the time.
Lotoo PAW S1 [Added: 09/07/2020]
Overall the PAW S1 comes with Lotoo’s neutral but natural house-sound. It adds some body to instruments and musicians, but also comes equipped with high skills in technical abilities. As a simple DAC/Amp dongle solution I think it absolutely wins. People who don’t see the benefit of a Digital Audio Player but still want a higher quality experience should certainly take the Lotoo PAW S1 on their shortlist. On top of the great sound you also get superb EQ/ATE pre-settings that fit your current situation and two gain settings should you need it to go to eleven. Just remember, that the quality of your music files really matter with the PAW S1. Say no to resampling.
For me personally, the PAW S1 is an excellent alternative to my DAPs. Although it still won’t replace my PAW 6000 when I’m out and about. But as a fall-back solution, I keep the S1 with me on all my trips.
For less than 200 USD this is a fantastic device and it gets a very strong recommendation from me.
EarMen Sparrow [Added 19/07/2020]
EarMen with the Sparrow promised a lot but they also delivered in all possible ways. For only $199 you get a US/EU product with a single ended as well as a balanced output, and especially the latter one is magical. The Sparrow is an affordable and tiny device which you can carry around with you at all times. Just hook it up to your phone or laptop and be amazed how good it sounds.
The Sparrow is a very easy product to recommend at this price point, and it joins the best of the best on our Recommended DAC/AMP buy list. If you want a small, portable DAC/AMP with a balanced output, there’s no doubt at all about which one to get.
NextDrive Spectra X
Nathan is back with a review of the NextDrive Taiwan Spectra X, the original Spectra’s highly awaited successor. Spectra X blows his mind with great benchmarks, low noise floor and basically all the performance of a mid or high-end DAP but for a fraction of the price, size, and complication. Fully recommended in all possible ways!
iFi Nano iDSD Black
iFi has delivered marvelous work with the the BL version of the Nano iDSD. Although I’ve never had a chance to test the original version, I can easily say this is an amazing DAC/AMP for the price. I’m not sure you can ever find better technicalities from a device that costs this little. I’m sure the Micro iDSD BL is also very very good in its own price range. People say this one sounds close to the Micro version and if I ever listen to that one I will edit this review at that time. A superb little device, for those who are looking for a nice DAC/AMP that can give a good amount of power for not extremely hard to drive headphones, and with a competitive price. If you also like to listen to your in ear monitors with these types of devices, I just can’t recommend it enough. It’s flexible, built to last, useful and compact. Most importantly, it sounds flawless for the money. Just go for it.
EarMen TR-Amp [Added 31/03/2020]
It was quite fun to review a DAC/Amp unit again after all this time and the TR-Amp pleasantly surprised me with its transparency and dynamics. You get a detailed and energetic sound, combined with a musical delivery. What’s not to like? For the $249 USD / €279 Euro price it is selling for, you get a lot in return. Actually way more than I was initially expecting and as such I have to put this on our list of recommended DAC/Amps to buy.
xDuoo XD-05 Plus [Added 30/06/2020]
The xDuoo XD-05 Plus follows the path carved by its predecessor. A great-sounding, versatile, DAC/AMP, that supports almost every source thanks to its wide range of inputs.
The brand took all the good points found in the “regular” version and polished them. Better sound stage, finer highs, empowered lows, and the same delightfully natural sound signature. As before, this is a device that you won’t grow tired of listening to, even after weeks or months. Plus, now that xDuoo gave the XD-05 a USB-C port, it’s virtually future-proof. Bulky case? Yes. Great design? Also. Would I recommend it? For sure!
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
Now does all this mean you need to upgrade to the Cobalt? No, not really as the RED still is really good as well and sells for a very fair price. Yes, as the DragonFly Cobalt is better, more natural. And if you like technicalities, you’ll for sure prefer the latest version. Some on the other hand will prefer the typical tuning of the RED over that of the new Cobalt.
If you don’t have a DragonFly yet, I would recommend to go for the Cobalt for sure as it’s the best of the trio. The RED still is a really nice alternative if you’re on a lower budget or if you prefer RED’s tuning, of course.
Chord Electronics Mojo
It’s impossible not to put the Chord Mojo on this list. Mojo is small & Mojo is very good and a s a result Mojo is a big all over the world. It has two 3.5mm headphone outputs and sports a Micro USB, Optical and Coaxial input. It works with phones, DAPs and computers and it without doubt will upgrade your listening experience. Mojo isn’t cheap but gives a lot in return. Some say it sounds smooth, others say it sounds digital but it does sound good. Its big brother HUGO is better equipped to drive some full sized headphones though. Never the less, this is THE DAC/AMP combo ever since it was released in London.
Woo Audio WA11 Topaz
The WA11 is one of the rare portable products that really knows how to handle the more complex to drive cans. It brings a performance to the table that’s in the class of desktop gear. Headphones like the Diana Phi or Empyrean I enjoy most when driven by the WA11. It just makes them sound stunning. It is impressive what kind of quality Woo Audio has achieved with the WA11.
The topaz is an impressive DAC/Amp that has been a pleasure to explore. If you’re in the market for an excellent transportable solution that drives any headphone under the sun, you have to give the WA11 a serious consideration. If you can, go to your closest dealer and try it for yourself and let it convince you.
Chord HUGO 2
The Original Hugo is still available from some seller so for now both units will be listed here.
The original Hugo was regarded a landmark in portable audio, and I think it’s offspring will follow the footsteps. You get real desktop class sound quality in a transportable package. It sounds really good with all ears and headphones I have used it with, and I am very much looking forward to trying out many more in the future.
If you are in the game for a high end DAC that appears to also be used on the go with your smartphone or DAP, the Hugo 2 is definitely worth serious consideration. The Hugo quickly won me over and has become my main DAC/amp at the office and my desktop DAC at home – it simply is that good. A recommended buy? How the hell could it not?!
Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse
The Woo WA8 is tube powered and it was chosen as best DAC/AMP of 2016 here on Headfonia.com. The WA8 can handle sensitive monitors, high impedance dynamic headphones and current hungry orthodynamics. The WA8 delivers a whole lot of detail and the sound is clear, clean and fast. While it often is the case that the amplifier section in AMP/DAC combos is better than the DAC section, the WA8 actually sounds its best as a combo. Oh and it’s so pretty.
Creative Sound Blaster X3 [Added 15/04/2020]
The Creative Sound Blaster X3 offers real audiophile performances and gaming/home-theater versatility, at a really low cost. We are talking sub-$150 gear here, price-range where you usually go chi-fi, or go home. And this is the strength of the X3 : you get chi-fi sound quality – and build quality to be fair – from an established brand. The name doesn’t sound awkward, customer-service is available in bazillions languages and most of all: you can get this DAC from your local shop, almost anywhere in the world.
Are they better DAC/Amp out there? Of course. At this price point? Not so sure… With as much features? Even less… So yeah, if like me you want to reintroduce some Sound Blaster in your life, lend your ears to Creative. In the process, you may even end up with a very good DAC, able to feed both your headphones and your speakers. A win-win situation if I may say so.
Burson Audio Play
There’s no way to exaggerate the utility, performance, and overall OCD funness of Play. Burson nailed it. If you need or want power, 299$ will get you power out the wazoo. If you want compatibility with DSD and other hi-res formats, bingo. If you want to eat your cake, too, Play is as reliable and stable an amp/DAC as I’ve ever tested. I’ve started mentioning prices; it’s something I didn’t want to do. It’s easy to get ugly. But gosh, I’ll be damned if Play hasn’t nailed the competition’s coffin shut. Buy it and forget about it. Add some new op-amps if you want. And be secure in your purchase, because it’s a hell of a deal.
JDS Labs The Element V1.53b
The Element combines a smooth digital stage with a balanced amplifier, which makes this combo unit very intriguing and capable of sounding great with a lot of ear and headphones. The fact that it has a dead-silent background is very well received. It’s hard to find a desktop amplifier in this price range that offers the possibility to be used with efficient in ear monitors and hard to drive over ear headphones. The build quality is outstanding and if you can live with the limited file format support, I suggest you start taking a closer look at this one. Overall, the Element delivers more than enough power to drive any headphone I have at home. For the price it’s going for, I think you will have a tough time finding something similarly great performing.
Pro-Ject Audio Pre Box S2 Digital
The S2 Digital’s filter system should satisfy everyone but the hardcore valve listener. The S2’s got a solid, and largely load agnostic output system. Everything from its remote control to its input array work brilliantly with 99% of upstream sources. It syphons powers via USB and outputs decent power to most headphones. Its rich tones and encompassing stereo output are nearly in a league of their own in the camp of devices that ride on ESS DACs. It does all this at 349 Euro. In my books, it is a coup. Well done.
Topping D90 [added 14/05/2020]
The D90 is a supremely linear DAC that provides a reference guided signature, that is only flawed by its cold vocals, and missing emotions and blood to me. It however reproduces a very high amount of information and displays them with excellent precision. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the D90’s performance speaks books. For 699 USD this is very hard to not recommend to anyone who wants something detailed and precise. Topping shows that a very good DAC doesn’t have to break the bank and can come in a neatly compact package.
To me, the D90 is in the sub 1000$ region, what the Qutest is in the sub 2000$ range – a benchmark. It is the current product to beat.
xDuoo TA-30 [Added 14/07/2020]
The xDuoo TA-30 is the best DAC-AMP of the brand, to no-one’s surprise. It’s insanely powerful, supports almost every source, and will be a great all-rounder device for anyone in need of a tube-headphone-amplifier + USB DAC. The brand simply took all the good points of the TA-20 and TA-10, then pushed it to the limit. Amazing sound stage, powerful lows, sweet highs, and blissful vocals. If you want to discover the tube world, for a “relatively” low price, this is one of the best offer at the moment. My only drawback is the lack of an IEM mode, but there is the XD-05 plus for that.
Astell&Kern Acro L1000
I’ve never been the biggest fan of DAC/AMP combo’s but the Acro L1000 has won me over. AK gave it a high end, audiophile tuning and the result is very impressive. Not only does the L1000 sound great it also looks gorgeous, unlike anything you’ve ever seen. On top of that it’s also a very versatile unit that has a large number of single end and balanced outputs, as well as a 15W/channel speaker output. The Astell&Kern Acro L1000 is a do-it-all unit and if you like a top level neutral tuning and have headphones, earphones and small/high impedance speakers than the L1000 really is the only unit you need. The only bad things I can say about it is the lack of inputs and the limited effect of the sound filters, but AK – also in their DAPs – swears to minimalist changes.
Burson Audio Conductor 3x [Added 25/02/2020] and 3XP [Added 09/06/2020]
With the Conductor 3X Burson has created a solid piece of equipment. It shows exemplary engineering on all fronts. The case is crafted at a high level, the internal layout is a beauty to look at and the sound completely convinces. I do have some negative remarks about it though. Like the missing channel information on the back, the not so good looking 4-pin XLR connector and the missing gain information on the screen. And maybe the remote control that doesn’t allow you to turn the unit off or switch outputs. The biggest issue for me though, is the background noise you get with more sensitive headphones.
The sound the Conductor 3X produces is wonderfully neutral, balanced and natural. It brings excellent body, resolution and enjoyment to both my speakers and headphones. Its high powered output gives enough juice to make any headphone blast. But on top, it also makes them really sing. When it comes to amplifiers, it’s not all about the power, the implementation is far more important. And Burson definitely made a high quality product that wins.
If you want a slimmed own, cheaper version of the 3X, the 3X Performance is the unit to look at.
I honestly do feel it outperforms its price level. It’s the kind of amp that drives all different types of headphones with ease and from the test results we can obviously say it matches well with all kind of headphones. The 3XP will make your headphone sound best, it being the $6000 USD Hifiman or the $130 USD Beyerdynamic DT770/32. The 3XP might be the Conductor 3X Reference’s little brother, but here’s not little in the performance of this unit. This for many will easily be an end game unit.
Chord Electronics Hugo TT2 [Added 10/08/2020]
Chord’s Hugo TT2 is a wonderful piece of equipment. It’s beautifully finished with superb craftsmanship and its sound is nothing short of spectacular. The only thing I would have liked different is in the use of headphone outputs. I know Chord says a balanced output is not needed for their products, but just for the ease of use it would be great to replace the 3.5 and one of the 6.35mm outputs with one 4-pin XLR output. Although for headphones I still stick to my dedicated amplifiers, as they take the TT2’s sound just a bit further. This has been a long journey, but such a great one. Over the last months I have gotten to know the Hugo TT2 inside and out. From the start it has made its place at the very top of my DAC list clear. I can absolutely see why people would call it quits after getting the Hugo TT2. Personally, I could be so very happy with just the Hugo TT2 and my Kef LS50 system.
It hurts me a little to say this, but since the Hugo TT2 has been installed as my main two-channel DAC I have somewhat questioned my headphone inventory. Don’t get me wrong, I still like to listen to my full-sized headphones at home, but I deeply enjoy listening to my LS50’s a whole lot more now. The Hugo TT2 has given me a perspective on the speaker set-up that I didn’t think I could get in our small living-room in the apartment. Chord’s TT2 has transformed my listening experience at home drastically. The Hugo TT2 is by no means a cheap product, but I don’t regret having spent a single Cent. In fact, it made me very curious to hear what the Hugo M Scaler would do to the sound. The chase of the white audio rabbit continues…
Flux Lab Acoustics Atlas
I spend a lot of time listening to gear every single day and my wife accepts that (Best ever! She might be reading this) but I tend to stop listening/working at 9PM in the evening so we can spend some quality time together. The last few weeks my wife hasn’t always been happy with me though, “You’ve been spending way to much time in your office” is what she says. Well what can I say… blame Atlas. It’s one of those amps you enjoy so much and listening to your favorite tunes is just pure bliss. I just want to listen to more tracks and turn up the volume because it sounding so good. Atlas might be a bit expensive (and huge) but boy does it sound incredible. You get a high end, very well balanced, detailed but musical sound and you’ll fall in love with it right away. It’s no wonder the first batch sold out directly. You better start saving up and don’t forget new, extra large, furniture. Listed!
If you haven’t found what you’re looking for, do take a look at the category overview:
Portable Sources: https://headfonia.com/category/source/portable-source/
Desktop Sources: https://headfonia.com/category/source/desktop-source/