Best Amp/DACs for your Headphones for Beginner Audiophiles

by Shanth Swaroop May 09, 2020

Best Amp/DACs for your Headphones for Beginner Audiophiles

In all probability, you probably have a pair of headphones that you swear by. It could be a headphone that helps you lock out the world, a chic pair of in-ears that is a blessing for your commutes or even a pair of true wireless earphones that is the perfect gym partner.

Music means something to you and you don’t spare a chance to lose yourself with some favourite tunes. We get that.

But what if we told you that there’s a way to better that experience?

First - The basics
Music is analogue in nature. Meaning that essentially, music or any noise is created when an object vibrates in such a way that the air molecules around it start vibrating at the same frequency.

These vibrating air molecules reach our ears and are thus perceived as sound. This is true even when you listen to music on your earphones. Stored in it’s digital format (1s and 0s), the sound leaves your smartphone or DAP, gets converted to its analogue form (electric current) and reaches the headphones. The headphones have a small driver that vibrates air molecules near it which then reaches your ear. 

DACs the way!
Now, this converting of digital to analogue needs a specific electronic unit known as a DAC aka Digital to Analogue Converter. Every smartphone and any device that plays audio from a source has one. But the DACs used in smartphones and laptops are usually pretty generic.

If you truly wish to redefine and elevate how you listen to music, investing in separate DAC would go a long way. For starters, a standalone DAC is built specifically to make sure that when music is converted, all the richness and thump is not lost. Once you hear what a DAC can do, you’ll wonder why you didn’t buy a DAC in the first place. Once you go DAC, you can’t go back.

To get the best out of your music, make sure your songs are of the best quality i.e. hi-res. A DAC only helps in churning out a good output if the input is good.

There are many kinds of DACs available at different price points. You don’t have to break the bank or rob it either to get yourself one. Take a look at a few of the options we have in store for you and decide for yourself.

Wanna read about a specific product? Simply click below, it'll take you where you need to go:

 


iBasso - DC02

Entry-level champion

Basic amp/DACs - iBasso - DC02

Basic amp/DACs - iBasso - DC02
Image by Rajkumar Manoharan
Basic amp/DACs - iBasso - DC02
Image via Darko Audio

Selecting a DAC for the first time sure can be confusing. We have crunched the numbers to give you what is possibly one of the best options to consider - the iBasso DC02. Audiophile or beginner, this is bound to impress all.

The DC02 connects with your smartphone with the popular USB-C port with a UAC2.0 USB receiver as standard. But that’s just the periphery bits. What’s truly impressive is the AK4490EQ chipset that’s part of AKM’s Velvet Sound™ Technology. This chipset is found even on the latest generation of DACs and even in some high-end DAPs.

The DC02 also features an inbuilt, balanced amplifier that provides a little extra juice that’ll make your headphones perform naturally better. With dual ultra-low distortion LDOs, the amplifier will bright out the best of detail and clarity in your music. iBasso’s even researched enough to provide you with a 4-wire braided audiophile cable.

This cable aids great signal transmission and is durable for daily use. What’s more, the DC02 also features a compatible proprietary app that helps you customize your volume and other settings to your liking. Certified hi-res by the Japan Audio society, it can even connect with a PC or laptop and be used as a sound card. Truly impressive!

What we like

  • Small and light-weight form factor
  • AKM’s Velvet sound technology (DAC chipset)
  • Appreciable output power at ultra-low distortion
  • Native DSD Up To 256x
  • 4-wire braided audiophile cable
  • USB-C connector

Why you should buy it

The best option for first-timers into the world of DACs. Small form factor with a serious performance at an unbeatable cost - this DAC is built to impress

 


iFi Audio hip-DAC

Your perfect music partner for music on-the-go

Basic amp/DACs - iFi Audio hip-DAC

Basic amp/DACs - iFi Audio hip-DAC Basic amp/DACs - iFi Audio hip-DAC

The iFi Audio is a perfect combination of high res audio playback and stylish design. This DAC is elegantly coloured in petrol blue with a touch of copper. Its compact design makes it easily portable allowing you to carry them around easily. You can conveniently connect the DAC with your smart devices, PC and MAC using the USB port. This DAC is designed to deliver dynamic sound with precision and thanks to the Burr-Brown Chip the sound is bit-perfect. It supports hi-res PCM of up to 384kHz along with DSD256 and MQA. This DAC sports a 4.4 balanced output for headphones and 3.5mm S-Balanced for IEMs.

It also comes with PowerMatch switchable gain which will allow you to adjust the input sensitivity based on the headphones you use. You can turn it off while using it with IEMs and turn it on while using it with low impedance headphones. If you are a fan of bass in your music, the hip-DAC also gives you an option of xBass that boosts the bass frequencies. You get to enjoy up to 8 hours of day-long battery life with amazing sound. The integrated True Native Chipset lets the DAC deliver music the way the artist intended it to sound. It supports hi-res music files including MP3 to DSD256, PCM384 and DXD384. You can also listen to Master Quality Authenticated audio with Tidal Masters.

What we like

  • Stylish and compact design
  • Delivers bit-perfect high-res True Native playback
  • Featuring balanced audio circuits
  • With PowerMatch for input sensitivity
  • Optional xBass for bass lovers
  • Up to 8 hours of battery life

Why you should buy it

The iFi Audio Hip DAC is a must-have high-grade DAC if you have been looking for one. Its high-res audio playing capacity, strong battery life, durable and stylish build makes it among the best portable DACs available out there.

   

 


Shanling - UP2

Multi-featured wireless specialist

Basic amp/DACs - Shanling - UP2

Basic amp/DACs - Shanling - UP2 Basic amp/DACs - Shanling - UP2

The brand Shanling is one that has been steadily rising as one with worthy audiophile offerings. Keeping abreast of times with innovation and aplomb, the Shanling UP2 is the brand’s answer to the latest breed of wireless DAC/Amps.

Enjoying huge popularity among users, including first-time buyers and experienced audiophiles, the UP2 is surely ticking all the right boxes. Bursting with features that are housed in a slick form, the UP2 is the best wireless DAC/ Amp at its price point. Don’t believe us? We’ve pitted it against rivals and it has come out shining. No contest. See that for yourself, right here.

The UP2 features the Qualcomm CSR8675 Bluetooth chipset that’s compatible with a host of Bluetooth codecs. Housing the powerful ESS ES9218P Sabre DAC/AMP, also featured on the brand’s popular M0 DAP, a hi-res go-ahead from the Japan Audio Society is a given. You can connect it to your laptop or PC to use it as a sound card too.

With an LED display, 11 hours of battery, multi-functional wheel that lets you control everything from volume, song selection to even calls, the UP2 is truly a performance-delivering multi-tasker. Yes, the UP2 houses the right amount to tech to make sure you enjoy crystal clear conversations when plugged in.

What we like

  • Small and light-weight form factor
  • ESS Sabre ES9218P chipset
  • Wireless compatibility with hi-res Bluetooth codecs
  • Appreciable output power
  • Native DSD Up To 256x
  • Best in segment
  • 11 hours of battery life

Why you should buy it

Adding wireless connectivity to its catalogue of features, this wireless DAC/ amp is built for the audiophile that prefer wireless prowess

 


Schiit - Fulla 3

DAC prowess for gaming awesomeness

Basic amp/DACs - Schiit Fulla 3

Basic amp/DACs - Schiit Fulla 3 Basic amp/DACs - Schiit Fulla 3

If you’re a PC gamer (yes, master-race of gamers, we get it!) and if you ever wondered if you could enhance the quality of gaming audio, you’re in luck. The Schiit Fulla 3 is designed specifically for those gamers and audiophiles that refuse to compromise on their music.

Sure, the brand name might sound funny but it means serious business when it comes to performance. Full of Schiit ingenuity and trusty components, the Fulla 3 can take on your earphones, headphone mic (yes, there’s lovely a mic input!), powered monitors analogue sources and much more. Featuring a high-quality electric mic input, the Fulla 3 can virtually plug into any USB port. Connect your headset and deliver those sick burns in admirable quality.

With high-quality chipset and components usually found in much costlier products, the Fulla 3 does not mince when it comes to delivering audio performance. A high output power makes sure that even demanding headphones can be matched.

What’s more is that the Fulla 3 can also be used as a DAC amp to connect with active speakers or power amps with variable connections available on the back. With a slick volume knob, the Schiit Fulla 3 is truly a boon for gamers and audiophiles.

What we like

  • Compact and sturdy form factor
  • AKM AK4490 chipset
  • compact form factor
  • Serious output power
  • 24-bit microphone input
  • Gaming compatibility

Why you should buy it

A must-consider, quite-seriously too, for the audiophile who is also a gamer. Brilliant sound - from music and games in one cool-looking avatar

 


AudioQuest DragonFly Red

Hero Line

Basic amp/DACs - AudioQuest DragonFly Red

Basic amp/DACs - AudioQuest DragonFly Red Basic amp/DACs - AudioQuest DragonFly Red

AudioQuest is a brand that’s well known in the audiophile circles. The DragonFly Red is a part of its award-winning DragonFly series. From What Hi-Fi? Magazine to Stereophile magazine, this diminutive DAC has impressed some impressive listeners and that is a mighty feat in itself.

The fruit of a partnership between AudioQuest and legendary USB designer Gordon Rankin and Microchip Technologies, the DragonFly Red features a Microchip PIC32MX. This chipset offers a remarkably better signal to noise ratio and much lower power consumption. The chip also aids true compatibility with Android and Apple products.

The 9016 ESS Sabre DAC helps achieve a naturally detailed and authentic output. The amp on-board is also perfect for powering power-hungry headphones with a mighty 2.1V output. With a bit-perfect digital volume control residing on the DAC chip itself low signal-to-noise ratios with price-bracket defying performances are easily achieved.

Even the USB connection has impressive features built-in. Low jitter, low resource load, minimal packet errors, world-class audio playback, and reliable connectivity between this DAC and any computing device - are all thanks to AudioQuest’s trademark Streamlength™ asynchronous USB code.

With software upgrades that are easily downloaded across a PC or MAC, the AudioQuest DragonFly is a worthy mid-segment DAC to reckon. It’s not easy to be this awesome and be portable. Take a bow AudioQuest! Take a bow!

What we like

  • Small and light-weight form factor
  • 9016 ESS Sabre DAC chip
  • Serious output power
  • Microchip PIC32MX microcontroller for greater compatibility
  • 64-bit, bit-perfect digital volume control

Why you should buy it

A reputed product from a reputed brand, the DragonFly Red sits comfortably as the entry-segment DAC-to-be-considered.

 


iFi Audio - ZEN DAC

Audio nirvana with Zen-like deliverance

Basic amp/DACs - iFi Audio - ZEN DAC
Image By Amirm via Audio Sciencer

Basic amp/DACs - iFi Audio - ZEN DAC Basic amp/DACs - iFi Audio - ZEN DAC

With looks reminiscent of a spaceship, the iFi Audio Zen DAC features enough tech to impress. More suited to the desktop audiophile, the ZEN DAC looks simplistic in design that belies its audio prowess.

At ease at your home or at your workspace, the Zen DAC is an amazing companion for your audiophile journey. This superb hi-res DAC/Amp balances performance with price with aplomb. Supporting PCM and DXD to 32-bit/384kHz, DSD256 and MQA, the ‘bit-perfect’ True Native Burr-Brown chipset is a powerhouse of resolution. Sporting Pentaconn 4.4mm balanced outputs at both the front and back, including a 6.33mm headphone jack for more demanding headphones, the ZEN offers a balanced design for the analogue stage.

This is a rare feature that’s hardly found at the price point. The USB DAC also features two modes - Variable and Fixed - to make it compatible with a stereo speaker set-up. The ‘Variable’ feature enables you to set the ZEN as a Pre-amp to feed into a power amplifier or active speaker. The ‘Fixed’ option lets you bypass the volume controls to directly go into an external pre-amp or integrated amplifier.

The unique Powermatch™ feature makes sure that the power output to your headphone is properly matched. This is very important for IEMs as they have high-sensitivity. The Powermatch™ makes sure for a hiss-free music session in this scenario. Also, a proprietary TrueBass feature will make sure that the low-end demands of an audiophile are well met, without dominating the other frequencies. The ZEN DAC/ amp from iFi is truly multi-talented and definitely a worthy option to consider.

What we like

  • compact form factor
  • Bit-Perfect DSD & DXD DAC By Burr-Brown chip
  • Serious output power
  • Powermatch, an impedance matching feature
  • Bass Boost

Why you should buy it

Looking for a headphone DAC/ amp that powers most headphones, can also act as a pre-am for powered speakers and boost bass naturally? Look no further

 

 

So there you have it - a veritable list of impressive, price-justifying, feature-rich and multi-talented DACs for your to consider. Make sure your source of music is of the right variety, i.e. hi-res and you’re good to go. Do keep in mind how and where you’ll be using the DAC as some offer portability as an option, as compared to others.

But know this, taking a step to incorporating a DAC as part of your set-up makes you a winner right away. All you need is the perfect fit and you’re on your way to your audio bliss.

Happy Listening!

 

 

Featured in this Blog

Please note that prices on these products below reflect the prices as on the published date of this article. 

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Shanth Swaroop
Shanth Swaroop



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