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Buying a DAC (or “digital-to-analog converter”) for under 100 Euros as your total budget can be challenging. If you also need a decent headphone amplifier, it’ll get even harder. You don’t have to buy second-hand as there are some true gems in the marketplace that I’m about to introduce you to.
I’m writing this in March 2022, I’ll update my recommendations from time to time.
What features do you want?
For the given budget, you need to focus on the essentials. Don’t expect balanced circuit topologies, fancy enclosures, volume control or displays. Since you most likely want to hook up the DAC to your laptop, a decent USB input is an absolute must. Next, good engineering quality, decent components and reliability should be at the top of your list.
I personally wouldn’t buy used as technology progresses rapidly. Newer DACs will likely outperform twice as expensive converters built 2 years ago.
My personal top 3 favorite DACs below 100 Euros
1. HELM Audio Bolt DAC/AMP – 99 US$ – best tradeoff quality vs portability
If all you need is a great d/a converter, this tiny dongle may be all you need. It’s powered by the USB bus so you won’t need extra power supplies. It’s tiny, too – almost invisible on your desk. It even does MQA decoding if that’s your thing. It’s priced slightly below 100 Euros. It can decode high-resolution PCM streams up to 384 kHz but also DSD. Perfect if you’re on Qobuz or own high quality digital files to play back. If you plan to use the HELM in your 2-channel speaker rig, you’re going to need a preamp or integrated amplifier as the HELM offers no physical volume control. You can do however adjust volumne on your laptop if you wish. You can build a nice streaming rig if you hook the HELM up to your iOS devices but you may need an external power source as iPhones or iPads won’t deliver enough juice to keep the HELM operating. See my other article on how to connect your iPhone to an external DAC (similar methods for Android users). Click to buy your HELM Audio DAC dongle on Amazon (advertisement link).
2. No DAC – FREE (0 US$) – cheapest option
Huh? Are you kidding me? You probably own a smartphone, PC or tablet that outputs analog music. Before considering a purchase, why not just use what you already own? For instance, an iPhone or iPad can easily outperform many low budget external DACs. Both in terms of measurements and subjective sound quality. This has been proven many times by competent engineers. Apple has invested literally millions in research and component design. In addition, they wouldn’t bring their own lossless music streaming service to market if their own hardware was sub-par. I once joined a regional HeadFi meet and brought my STAX SR007 headphones powered by a mighty KGSSHV amplifier. All I had was my iPad as the source – no external DACs. I hooked up a quarter inch headphone to rca cable to it and was ready to play back my favorite demo tracks. Fellow audiophiles at the meet were astounded by the sound quality. My rig even beat a guys NAIM CD playback system connected to his AKG K812 headphones. My iPad DAC certainly wasn’t the bottleneck here…In conclusion, 100 Euros buys you a lot of music (or pay for your music streaming plan) – you may not necessarily need an external DAC.
3. Topping D10s (109 US$) – for desktop use
I know, a bit over our budget…but if you want a decent DAC for desktop use featuring the fantastic ESS9018K2M chipset from ESS Technologies, look no further than this Topping. Although it’s the entry-level model of the Chinese manufacturer, you get quite a bit for your money. One USB input and surprisingly a coaxial and optical output. You could essentially use the D10s as a USB converter if you wish. It’s completely USB powered meaning you won’t need any mains connection, it even has a nice display showing the current sample rate. However, you don’t have remote control functionality. Use an app on your smartphone or on your lapptop. I’ve heard the D10 many times and I must say it fits nicely into a stereo rig. Click to buy your Topping D10s on Amazon (advertisement link).
As you saw, even with a tight budget you get extremely great DACs that will enhance your musical enjoyment. One word of personal advice: sound quality differences between digital to analog converters are small. If you ever want to upgrade from any of the DACs I listed, you won’t get significant audible improvements unless you spend 1000 Euros or more.
Of course, sound quality is just one aspect. You may of course want remote controllability at some point, better build quality or more features. In this case, I suggest you explore the options in the 300-500 Euro range as this is the sweet spot for many quality products nowadays.
Is your budget above 100 Euros? Check our my full review listing of possible DAC buying candidates or contact me on Instagram for help.