There has been a global transition from analog to digital platforms in the music industry. The sound input-output devices have changed over the years and there has been quite a revolution in this industry.
To handle this change, Digital to Analog Converters (DACs) were invented and they provide good conversion between two signals.
The conversion is possible because old storage devices can be interfaced with the recent sound output devices. DAC does the job of converting the digital signals to analog format. This enables users to stream music from digital storage devices to analog output devices.
If you look at the market today, you will see hundreds of DACs with different specifications and features. Most DACs can cost a fortune and they are targeted towards audio aficionados. There are some specific DACs though that can be bought for less than 500 dollars though.
You might be wondering if these cheap DACs are not good and they will somehow not work properly. We can assure you that it is not the case. If we have to be honest, 500 dollars is still a steep price for a DAC. Still, we can definitely make it work.
Today we have decided to bring you a list of some top DACs that can be bought for under 500 dollars. So, without wasting any time, let us get into it.
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Best DACs under $500 in 2021
1. Meridian Director USB DAC
The first DAC in our list is the new and improved Meridian Director USB DAC that is designed to make the best out of your music. This is a very high-quality DAC that provides you impeccable audio quality. You can hook it up to a digital source and convert the signal into high-quality output.
The design of this DAC is pretty great too. There are ergonomic handles and a sleek look to the device. The DAC is small, portable, and has a minimalistic design on the outside. Inside though, the Meridian Director USB DAC is a whole another beast.
It consists of many capabilities such as resolution and amplification. There are also other features such as tuning and balancing. All of these features make the Meridian Director USB DAC the perfect DAC for your system. The specification of the DAC is given below.
- Weight of the DAC – 0.25 KG (250 grams)
- Compatible devices –USB, audio cables, and optical devices
- The dimension of the product -3.1 by 5.5 by 1.3 inches
2. FiiO E10K USB DAC
The FiiO E10K DAC has a design that is meant to improve the user’s laptop or PC’s audio output quality with the help of a DAC chip. This DAC can handle high bit rate PCM files up to 24-bit or 96 kHz. It improves audio quality by reducing all the delays and has internal silence as well. The USB DAC has a linear filter too.
There are a low pass filter effect and a bass boost circuit for handling the noise. The DAC can connect to your Audio input with the front panel, headphone jack, line output, and even the rear panel. This allows users to send digital audio to other destinations.
The DAC can also connect to a laptop with the help of a micro USB connection. The USB connection can power up the DAC. The product also gives you a compact design with sleek shells.
- Colors Available –black
- Weight -0.75 KG (750 grams)
- Dimensions -3.1 by 0.8 by 1.9 inches
3. FX Audio DAC-X6 DAC
This DAC is a decoder designed for high audio conversion. But it also works fine with low scale audio. The main feature of this DAC is the affordable price that it comes with. It is a device that you should invest in purely because of the fact that it provides you with an impressive 192 kHz of bit rate.
This makes the conversion very smooth and the increased bandwidth is something that is pretty flexible as well. In addition, there are multiple input connection options here. You can convert from optical, USB, and even coaxial signals.
Supported devices include Smartphones, Computers, Televisions, and more. The DAC provides high performance and functions but it also comes with a Power Saving feature.
The DAC uses a little power and provides high fidelity conversion. This is why the FX Audio DAC is our pick on the list.
- Colors Available –black
- Weight -0.6 KG (600 grams)
- The ratio of Signal to Noise – Around 105dB and more
- Dimensions -5.8 by 3.8 by 1.3 inches
4. Cambridge Audio
The Cambridge Audio Azur DAC is designed to instantly improve the audio signal from any device that you have. It can get digital resources from things such as Televisions, Computers, Blu-ray players, and many other systems that you have in your home.
This is a very affordable device that gives you a solid design and builds quality. The steel material here has an impressive feature set which makes this product remarkable. You also get excellent wireless Bluetooth that ensures connectivity. The DAC makes use of a 24-bit audio output signal that delivers quality.
- Weight -2.65 pounds
- Dimensions -7.5 by 8.5 by 2 inches
- Sampling –AFT2 technology
5. SMSL M100 DAC
If you have pretty powerful external speakers and you want to blast them, you are better off getting the SMSL M100 USB DAC. This DAC features XMOS 2nd generation USB Audio and it can support PCM signal of 32 bit which is amazing.
The audio quality is crisp and clear. The DAC also has support for DSD and DSD512. The analog decoder is present here that converts the essential signals from optical, coaxial, and USB devices.
This means that all the devices such as smartphones and computers are supported here. This is also called Asynchronous Transmission. There is a high-efficiency power module here that can deliver a myriad of low noise LDOs. The device draws sufficient power from the analog circuits and the DAC delivers pretty great power output too.
- Colors Available –black
- Weight – 0.25 KG (250 grams)
- Power Required -1.2 Watts
- The ratio of Signal to Noise -106dB (approximate)
- Inputs Supported –USB/Coaxial/Optical
- Output Supported –RCA
6. Schii Modi 3 Delta-Sigma DAC
The best thing about the Schii Modi 3 Delta-Sigma DAC is that it doesn’t stop your conversion no matter what device you are using it with. You can enjoy this DAC with things such as CD Players, Computers, or any other sources. The DAC features many new things such as a crisp sound output and DC output. The price is affordable too.
You can plug this device with any computer that has a USB or a micro USB cable and you are ready to go. You can also use the included power supply if you want to connect the device to a coaxial or an optical source.
You can easily toggle the switch between the wall power supply if you want to connect to a coaxial source. A toggle switch is there placed conveniently so you can choose the different inputs.
- Warranty – Two-year limited
- Weight -1.1 pounds
- Dimensions -5 by 3.5 by 1.5 inches
7. SMSL Sanskrit
The SMSL Sanskrit Audio decoder has a design that is specifically made to handle the high bit rate audio conversion. The thing that separates this audio decoder from some other decoders in this list is its capability to get the high bandwidth conversion and a sampling rate that can go up to 192 kHz.
The DAC can produce a very high-quality sound while the support for devices is quite a lot too. Another great feature of the SMSL is its remarkable power consumption. The DAC consumes very little power which is just about 3.1 Watts.
The product can also convert optical, USB, and coaxial signals from things such as smartphones, televisions, and even computers. The latest version of this DAC also has built-in support for Apple and Android smartphones.
- Colors Available –Black
- Supported Connections –USB
- The material used – Aluminum
- Weight -1.76 pounds
- Dimensions -5.8 by 3.9 by 1.4 inches
Why do you need a DAC?
The reason why you need to get a DAC is when your source audio is introducing noise and is unable to output the bitrate of your file. Consider you have a studio and you have recorded high bitrate audio. Now if your speaker is not able to play that file properly, you need a DAC. Also, most home theatre systems also need a DAC for this same reason.
Even if you are just trying to play a high-quality Blu-ray movie in your home, you might need a DAC to hear all the details of the sound. Both casual and professional audio applications will need a DAC.
And you can buy a decent DAC for a rather cheap price these days. For under 500 dollars, you can get a DAC and enjoy theatre level sound right inside your living room.
How does DAC work?
To understand the working mechanism of DAC, it is important to understand audio technology as a whole. Audio is stored in two formats: Digital and Mechanical (or Analog). Analog audio includes Vinyl and old school cassette tapes while Digital audio includes MP3 and WAVs.
When a microphone records an analog signal, it is represented in a waveform and the waveform has a frequency. Therefore, waveforms are stored in hertz (Hz) i.e. period per cycle. More hertz means crisper and clearer audio. A DAC does the job of taking the digitally stored recording and turning it into an analog signal. It basically decompresses the data.
Our voice and all recorded sound are compressed when we record digitally. This is why our voice sounds different after we play our own recording. A DAC decompresses the recording and tries to get the actual voice as the output. A DAC can output the voice to an Output device such as a speaker. DACs can translate the data from digital files to electric signals. But DACs aren’t that capable.
Sometimes they can make mistakes and this leads to a problem known as jitter or narrow dynamic range. This will also limit the bitrate. Bitrate is basically the quality of the recording.
More bit rate means a better sound. So, A DAC works by taking the samples of recording and converting it into a higher bitrate so, that the Audio output devices (such as a speaker) can make the digital recording sound like analog. This is done to improve the quality of the audio.
Quality is also called ‘Fidelity.’ When fidelity increases, the audio signal’s clarity increases. Low Fidelity means more noise. Noise is basically the distraction or the “hiss and pops” sound that audio can have.
Types of DACs
There are basically three types of DACs that you can get depending on your use case. These three types of DACs are briefly explained below:
Portable USB DACs
Portable USB DACs are pretty great for small devices such as smartphones and tablets. If you like listening to music and you want to use your smartphone or a tablet then, you can listen to your music with pretty ease. Portable USB DACs are perfect for all your music listening work. You can simply connect to the device’s digital audio and then browse the web.
The DACs can also connect to your phone with a Bluetooth controller. Your device and headphone will form an audio listening environment and the overall sound can also be a booster.
Most USB DACs come with amplifiers these days. The best part about these DACs is that it is portable. So, you don’t have to worry about it being large and heavy. Another equally good thing is that most Portable USB DACs are pretty cheap to buy but they perform like a desktop DAC.
If you are a standard office worker who stays on your desk for the most part of the day, you can enjoy your work with a Desktop DAC. Desktop DACs are either powered with AC current or they are powered by USB. You can get both kinds of power supply.
They can also give you wireless streaming. These DACs have more inputs and they are designed in a specific manner to provide you a better output. Some of these DACs have amplifiers to boost the signal and then you can drive the speakers connected to the DACs.
You can buy some DACs that are specifically designed for headphones and they are also like portable DACs. These DACs will definitely boost the output signal and drive the headphones. They have greater power, high quality and they can process high bitrate audio files to make it even better for you.
If you are a musician who listens to music in a serious manner, these headphone DACs are definitely for you. They are also available for a relatively cheap price.
Buying Guide for DAC
There are a few things that you need to consider while buying a DAC. If you balance out these things, you should be good to go. These are the things that you should take a look at:
Weight and Portability
Depending on your use case, portability can differ. You may need a portable DAC for your small devices. So, if you plan on getting the DAC that you can use with your smartphone, make sure it’s portable. Weight will determine portability. A DAC with less weight is always a good investment.
The quality of build and the material used for the build are two things that are applicable in almost any product that you buy. The thing that you must keep in mind is that the balance between build quality and weight. Steel is generally more durable than plastic but it weighs more too. This makes an Aluminum build for a DAC the perfect option. It is as sturdy as steel and is lighter as well. Go for an Aluminum build if you can.
Sampling Rate and Bitrate support
This is more of a technical feature. Some DACs support files with higher bitrate while some don’t. Get the one with the support for the higher bitrate. In case of sampling rate, 192 kHz is the sweet spot that you should target. Both Sampling Rate and Bitrate will determine the actual quality of a sound. You can have great quality sound if your sampling rate and bitrate is high.
Input Output support is necessary. Your DAC should be able to support the inputs such as coaxial cable, USB cables and more. In case of output, standard output devices such as home theatres and speakers should also be supported. Always make sure that you buy a DAC with these features.
The price of a DAC is also a factor that comes into play. The DACs we reviewed in this article costs less than 500 dollars and you can definitely buy these DACs. They are cheap and they can provide good quality audio output.
DACs can be a very good investment if you are someone who loves audio and music. You can get high fidelity audio with the help of a DAC. You can also get the DACs present on our list for less than 500 dollars. These DACs are well researched and they are the best ones that you can buy for under the above mentioned price segment. The DACs in our list have great audio quality, impressive build and everything that you’d need to get the best out of your audio experience.