Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS
About the size of a small box of wooden matches, the Cambridge DacMagic XS is one of the smallest and lightest portable DACs reviewer Steven Stone has seen. It measures approximately 2 1/8″ by 1 1/8″ by 3/8″ and weighs under 4 oz. On one end you’ll find a micro-USB input and on the other end is a 3.5mm stereo output. Although it doesn’t handle every audio format, and isn’t DSD-capable, the DacMagic XS delivers a lot of functionality and sonic goodness for under $200. For audiophiles looking for a road-warrior-worthy DAC that will be at home hooked up to any computer, portable, or desktop, and successfully drive most headphones, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS DAC is a savvy and very affordable option.
AudioQuest DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red
AudioQuest practically invented the low-cost, high-performance USB DAC in stick form with the original DragonFly. It was a massive success. But these two new models greatly improve on the sound of the original, and the $99 Black version comes at a lower price, to boot. The Black is smoother than the original, with more extended bass. Although both DACs sound superb and are amazing values, the Red at $199 delivers striking sonic quality, with exceptional transparency, resolution, timbral realism, and wide dynamics. Add AudioQuest’s $49 JitterBug USB isolation device to either and take the performance up another notch. The Red with a JitterBug is good enough to use as a front end in a budget high-end home-based system. Recent production adds MQA rendering; older units can easily be updated.
Ideon Audio 3R USB Renaissance
This inexpensive device simply takes in an audio signal from a computer via USB and outputs a cleaner USB signal to your DAC. The “3R” in the model name refers to the device’s three functions: “redrive,” “reclock,” and “re-generate.” The Ideon 3R USB Renaissance will step up the sound quality heard through the USB outputs of most rendering computers, and at a very affordable price.
Resonessence Labs Herus
The Canadian-made Resonessence Labs Herus is one of the most flexible USB-powered DACs in sample- and bit-rate capabilities. This lipstick-sized unit supports PCM up to 352.8/24 as well as DSD64, DSD 128, and DXD files. So, regardless of how you like your high-resolution files, the Herus will play them. Machined out of a solid block of aluminum, the Herus measures 2.5″ x 1.25″ by 0.75″ and weighs less than a pair of CD jewel cases. On native DSD128 sources, it offered a level of sound quality that rivaled that of any DSD DAC Steven Stone has heard, regardless of price.
More than a DAC, the DAC-9 can serve as a system controller, since it has several digital inputs, an analog line-level input, balanced and unbalanced outputs on XLR and RCA jacks, and most importantly, a remote control. It provides 99 volume settings in 0.5dB increments—impressive at any price. DSD decoding up to DSD256 is becoming pretty standard via asynchronous USB inputs. The DAC-9 played back all non-MQA formats at their rated speeds with no problem at all. It sounded very smooth and pleasant, and presented a wide soundstage. In reviewer Vade Forrester’s opinion, this is the best value in the NuPrime 9 series gear.
If you’re in need of a high-quality DAC capable of PCM audio up to 192kHz/24-bit at an affordable price (and who isn’t?), Rotel has designed a DAC capable of producing audiophile-quality sound at big-box-store prices. With six digital inputs, including USB, coax, and optical, plus the ability to stream Bluetooth audio from your favorite portable devices, the Rotel RDD-1580 is a DAC that will blow you away without blowing the budget.
Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2v2
$2299 ($1500 for SE boards)
The Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 combines a rich feature set with remarkable performance at a price that makes it hard to beat. Its overall sound has a solidity and weight that are both arresting and involving. While SS hasn’t heard every available DAC in its price range, he has yet to hear any USB DAC under $2500 that outperforms the Wyred 4 Sound. Factor in the basic DAC-2’s 192kHz high-resolution capabilities, small upcharge for DSD support, and the ability to convert to SE anytime you wish via built-in circuit-board upgradability, and you have a DAC that will remain au courant long enough to make it a savvy and satisfying purchase, regardless of how much more you can afford to spend.