How can you not absolutely love an asynchronous USB DAC packed with audiophilegrade design elements in the form factor of a USB stick that costs $249? The variable output level allows you to drive headphones or a power amplifier directly from its 3.5mm stereo mini-jack output. Amazingly, the DragonFly features an ESS Sabre DAC, analog-domain volume adjustment, and separate clocks for different sampling frequencies for better sound. With a remarkably sophisticated and relaxed presentation, it excels at conveying dynamics and drive. A brilliant product.
Micromega’s MyDAC is entrylevel in price only. The unit looks very much like an Apple AirPort Extreme, but with a front-panel wheel to select between TosLink, coaxial, and asynchronous USB inputs. The Micromega gives you some sonic attributes usually found in much more expensive DACs—qualities like air around instruments, a sense of three-dimensional space, and a laid-back ease. Timbres are remarkably smooth and free from grain. The bass is solid and tight, although the very lowest bass lacks ultimate authority.
JoLida Glass FX Tube DAC II
Whether matched with its companion Glass FX-10 amp or used with other electronics, the compact JoLida Glass FX Tube DAC is an incredible bargain. The attractively displayed tube output section adds great presence and pure sweetness to acoustic music like combo jazz and folk and chamber ensembles. The unit is also high in resolution and can handle complexity and refinement at once, producing punchy, satisfying, and detailed reproduction of electronic rock and orchestral music.
Simaudio Moon 100D
For those accustomed to the run-of-the-mill iTunes experience, computer-based performance through the Simaudio 100D USB will be a revelation. Its USB input accepts a digital audio signal of up to 16-bit/48kHz, but is also armed with both optical and S/PDIF inputs to make the most of its asynchronous sample-rate convertor and its BurrBrown 24-bit/192kHz high-resolution DAC. Its sonics are excellent for this class with just a hint of a narrower soundstage and reduced dimensionality.
Channel Islands Audio Transient II
Like the other audio components from CIA, the Transient Mark II’s exterior is simple and lacks the cosmetic frills that increase a component’s cost without adding to its sonic performance. If you are contemplating spending $700 or more for a USB to S/PDIF convertor or USB DAC, you should definitely consider the Channel Islands Audio Transient II. For a reasonable price it lets you keep up with the current state of USB 2.0-compliant audio, and does it beautifully.
Musical Fidelity M1 DAC
The M1 DAC looks to be an exercise in simplicity but its performance will strike fear into the hearts of pricey USB DACs everywhere. It supports every sample rate from 32kHz to 192kHz and has a complete set of inputs including USB (now capable of doing 24/96 asynchronously) and S/PDIF and more. The result is a superior soundstage, palpable images, and fast transient attacks.
Wada 151 PowerDac
For only slightly more than a 21.5" iMac you can own a device that will form the backbone of a revealing and musical desktop or bedroom system. Coupled with a pair of top-echelon monitor speakers such as the Paradigm S1s, Aerial Acoustics 5Bs, or ATC SCM 7s, the 25Wpc Wadia 151 delivers sonics that should enthrall anyone.
Compared with top-flight USB rigs, this DAC lacks a bit of transparency and microdynamic liveliness, but overall the Rega is musically at home in leagues well outside its price point—even paired with loudspeakers as ruthlessly revealing as the vaunted mbl 120s. Paired with the Brio-R integrated, it makes for a seamless tag team in which each device plays to the other’s strengths.