The Budget Dac Shootout

It is 2015 and it seems that after years of bad sound being acceptable by the masses, people are rediscovering good sound. The Beats by Dre headphones might not have been an audiophile headphone or a good value for the money but what they did do was make good sound quality important again. Sure they may have been tonally inaccurate but their level of clarity was a lot better than most were used to. The Beats got people curios. Now after almost 10 years since the Beats culture emerged, the kids that bought Beats are grown up and so things evolve. A system consisting of say the Audioengine A5+ powered speakers, computer source/portable device, and one of the DACS below would be a huge step up in sound quality compared to say something from Logitech or a Bose system.

6Th place  HRT Music streamer 2

 

Coming in 6th place is the HRT Music Streamer II. The HRT uses the PCM1792 DAC inside, a model that has been used by quite a few brands. Comparing the HRT with the IPhone 6’s analog out shows a pretty big difference in sound quality. The HRT is smoother when turned up and the highs and lows are clearer with the HRT. If I didn’t have the competition to choose from and was building a modest system the HRT wouldn’t be a bad choice; however, in comparison to the others in this shootout, I simply cannot recommend it. For one, the flexibility just isn’t there. All but the AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2 and HRT feature headphone out and analog volume control. For two, the sound quality while better than what comes on most computers and phones, does not match the level of the rest.

 


5th place  Fiio e10k

 

The Fiio E10K has been around for a little while now and has received some good reviews. The Fiio features the Wolfson WM8740 DAC inside and is well regarded by the great Dr. Lampizator. That alone gives this DAC some credit but it isn’t just the DAC alone that guarantees good sound. Starting with the features the Fiios is impressive for its price. With its built in analog volume control, decent headphone amp, bass boost, and solid build quality the Fiio already offers a lot for just $75.99.  But what about the sound?…
The Fiios offers good overall fidelity especially for its asking price. Bass performance is a touch fat and not as tonally accurate as some of the others. When listening to my Dynaudio contour SE the Fiio had a safe overall sound with non fatiguing treble. These speakers are ruthless when it comes t o source components and become harsh in the treble with say a phone analog out, not so with the Fiio. The smoother sound signature and slightly heavy bass made electronic music sound excellent but with fast paced rock the bass drum lost definition during complex passages.  Stand up bass and acoustic instruments did not always have that speed and detail that makes them sound real. On a positive note with some of the harsh less than stellar produced recordings the Fiio did a good job at making them sound musical and enjoyable. Using the bass boost switch on the front brought more bass out of recordings but more is not always better, the overall sound became less detailed and bass became slow and muddy.  Running the Fiio with my favorite budget headphones the Grado SR80E was a pretty good experience. The sound is definitely improved compared to a phone out. The headphone amp while better sounding and more powerful than my phone out was not powerful enough to push some of my harder to drive headphones to satisfaction but for this price I cannot expect the world. Overall I would recommend the Fiio at its asking price. If you haven’t tried a DAC and are used to your phone or laptop outputs, the Fiio will surprise you and hopefully allow you to enjoy your music more than before. It is easy to use, sounds good, is compact, and is relatively cheap.
The Fiio E10K can be found
 HERE 


4th place  NuForce uDAC3

 

Coming in at $129.99, the NuForce uDAC 3 is not the most expensive DAC here or the cheapest. It looks a lot like the Fiio E10K and has most of the same features. The uDAC 3 uses the PCM 2706 DAC which I couldn’t find many other units using it. Build quality is about equal to the Fiio, if not slightly better. Where the Fiio lacks is where the uDac picks up, the bass. Bass clarity is superior with the uDAC. When playing fast paced metal the double bass drum stays discernable where the Fiio becomes confused. Midrange performance of the uDAC is decent and about the same as the Fiio. Treble is a little more detailed with the uDAC compared to the Fiio. I don’t know if the difference between the two is worth the extra money for the uDAC but it does sound marginally better than the Fiio. One cavity I noticed with the uDAC is that the volume control on the front gets very loud without much movement. at 12 o clock the gain just seems too high. The Fiio has a smoother gradient which makes using it as a pre amp easier. Both units can be used as a pre amp directly into your amplifier or powered speakers. But, In the end the uDAC does sound good for the money and has good features as well. I would recommend the uDAC to someone that is new to high quality audio but if you already have the Fiio, save your money. The NuForce uDAC 3 can be found HERE

 


​3rd place

  Audioquest Dragonfly v1.2

 

Priced at about $150 the AudioQuest Dragonfly V1.2 is the second most expensive dac in this shootout behind the AudioEngine D1. The AudioQuest does not have all the features of some of the others here. Sound quality and size put the Dragonfly in  3rd place. The Dragonfly simply sounds a lot better than it should. It all starts with the DAC choice inside, an unspecified ESS Sabre chip. It is hard to imagine something as small as a thumb drive can produce excellent sound, sound much better than most computers come with. The Dragonfly is a step up from the previous three in terms of overall clarity and especially detail in the treble. I do not mean louder treble, what I mean is that drum cymbals come through with a more textured, detailed sound. the different tones of Danny Carey’s cymbals in Tool’s Lateralus are heard with clarity that surprised me. Another area where the Dragonfly beat the previous three was soundstage depth, width, and overall imaging. Most people that are just starting out in their quest for excellent sound cannot understand what someone means when they talk of soundstage depth, and anything in the imaging department. With this DAC and  decent, properly placed speakers the audio noobs will no longer be confused about the term “soundstage”, they will hear it.  I recommend this DAC for someone that is exclusively using their computer as their source and wants something small that packs a punch. The AudioQuest Dragonfly V1.2 can be found HERE

 


2nd place  Audioengine d1

 

Audioengine is best known for their powered monitor speakers. After reviewing the P4 and being disappointed then trying the 5+ powered speakers which I enjoyed for what they were I didn’t really know what to expect from them this time. Starting with build quality the D1 is solid, equal to anything in its price range. It features an output adjustment knob on the front so it can be run as a preamp straight into your powered speakers, power amp, or to control your headphone output. The D1 features optical and usb inputs. The front has a 1/8″ headphone output and the rear has RCA outs. The DAC chip used inside is the AKM 4396, one of their best. Good sign. Now I spent a fair amount of time listening to the D1 and uDAC3 back to back with headphones and in a few different systems. What I found was that the D1 sounded real allowing the speakers to disappear very well for its price and the uDAC while a good sounding DAC just didn’t have the same level of clarity, delicacy, and soundstage. The Audioengine was not quite as good as the dragonfly in some aspects, mainly in treble performance. The dragonfly had a little more clarity in the highest highs and each produced a very good soundstage especially considering this price point. Bass performance of the Audioengine had more snap and impact than the NuForce or Fiio and was similar to the dragonfly v1.2. Listening to the headphone out was pretty impressive. The sound was just more natural than with the NuForce or Fiio. I could run some of my harder to drive headphones easier with the D1 than with the others. Also something to note is how quiet the Audioengine itself was. With the Fiio or NuForce I could turn the volume up past 12 o clock and start to hear a slight hiss, the Audioengine stayed quite. Priced at $169.00 the Audioengine is the most expensive DAC in this comparison. It has the second best sound while attaining enough features and I believe it will make most people very happy. A good investment. The AudioEngine D1 can be found HERE


1st place   Schiit Audio Modi 2

 

Schiit Audio is known for making excellent sounding gear for the money and the Modi 2 is no exception. It is made in the California. Starting with the DAC chip used, the AKM4396. This is the same chip as used in the Audioengine D1 so how different can they sound? Well, the chip isn’t everything because they sound different. The Modi 2 from Schiit wins in clarity and treble performance. The bass performance might go to the Dragonfly and Audioengine but just barely. Vocals on the Modi 2 are produced with great realism and soundstage performance tops the rest of the group. One cavity about this DAC is that it does not feature a headphone out or volume control knob but for $50 Schiit makes a matching passive preamp that can be paired with the Modi 2, it runs about $50. I have used their higher end model the Bifrost and the Modi 2 is a lot more alike than it has any right to be. Paired with the SYS passive pre amp it comes in around $150, still cheaper than the Audioengine. The Schiit Audio Modi 2 can be found HERE and the SYS HERE


Conclusion

In the end all of these DACS offer a clear improvement over stock. If you are into more of a warm, non-fatiguing sound I would say the Fiio E10K is a good choice. If you want the best sounding DAC under $200 any of the top 3 here belong in that category. If you are new to sound quality I suggest starting with one of these DACS and a quality set of headphones like the Grado SR80E, the best sounding headphones under $100 in my opinion.  We will be making some high quality recordings of each DAC playing the same songs. The videos will be posted on YouTube. See if you can tell the difference between them.

 

Associated Equipment:
Speakers: KEF Reference 105/3, Dynaudio Contour SE, AudioEngine A5+.
Headphones: Grado SR80e, Sennheiser HD650, MB Quart QP 250
Amplification: McCormack DNA 1, Sony TA-N80ES, Plinius 9100
Cables: Virtue Audio Nirvana