At Last…The Ultimate DAC Buyers Guide (2023 Edition)

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I have often felt intimidated by rankings of DACs in popular Hifi magazines. I’ll be upfront with you – sonic differences between various DACs nowadays are miniscule. Older chipsets which includes digital gear made in the 80s or 90s were susceptible to power supply noise and signal jitter. However, with the latest generation of DAC chips from Analog Devices, Texas Instruments (Burr Brown) or Cirrus, manufacturers can build decent digital audio products for a lot less money.

What’s the secret of “better than average” DACs?

Having experimented with digital-to-analog converter circuit development, I know that in order to get good performance it’s not about a single “magic chip” as the killer ingredient. Instead, the real secret lies in designing a circuit that can approximate the chips advertised Signal-to-Noise specifications as closely as possible. Unfortunately, many designs fall short at that critical step. A competent engineer knows how to build a fantastic DAC even with a basic chip. It’s just the sum of experience, clever design decisions, PCB layout and grounding, power supply conception, EMI shielding and components selection. That’s why two DACs based on the same converter chip potentially sound and/or measure different.

See also my article on what the differences between cheap vs expensive DACs are.

If digital technology has reached maturity, what should you be looking for?

Look for features and reliability in the first place. Choose a DAC from a manufacturer that puts science before snake oil. A DACs job is to get the signal out unchanged, not add any “flavors”. I’m tired of bloomy BS descriptions of “sound signatures” in a DAC. Anything deviating from the original signal is a flawed design – period. Good engineering pays off.

I’d personally not put all my money into a digital-to-analog converter. Technology is evolving at a dramatic pace, in just 4-5 years, better DACs will blow your 3k megabuck converter out of the water (have witnessed this personally).

I personally prefer to buy all my gear from Amazon whenever possible because I know I won’t have any headaches with warranty. Plus I can return my purchase within 30 days if I’m not happy.

Do you need a DAC at all?

Surprise. You don’t need a DAC. If you already own an iPhone / iPad, you could simply plug that into your stereo system using a simple lightning to headphone adapter for less than 10 Euros. Similar adapters exist for Android. Mobile devices are capable of high-resolution playback. So if you’re happy with 75-80% of the quality of a high-end DAC, I would try this route before spending money.

Which DACs do you want me to review next? Please drop me an email. Keep in mind that I don’t get free review samples and I have to buy the products myself so I’d be glad if you limit your wishlist to the more affordable products :)

Computer audio. You need asynchronous USB ports or Firewire connectivity. Many DACs also allow connecting your Android smartphone or iOS device directly. Thats’s great if you want to keep it simple and stream high quality audio from Spotify or even better – directly from Qobuz (lossless FLAC) or Tidal. Apple has also entered the lossless game. I just love it when I can keep my Mac turned off while listening to music so I use a simply Lightning to USB cable from my iPad to my RME ADI 2 Pro DAC.

DAC as a preamp. A remote control and multiple digital inputs for all your devices including TV certainly come in handy. We own more devices with Toslink or coax outputs than we believe.

Headphone enthusiast. If you’re planning to use a DAC primarily for headphone listening like me, a decent built-in headphone amplifier should be on your wishlist. For example, the RME ADI2 includes a superb headphone amp.

Analog Sources? If you own a turntable or an anlog tuner, some higher-end DACs also offer the reverse: conversion from analog to digital. I use that on my newest RME ADI2 Pro DAC all the time making it the center of my audio system.

Here comes the list…

All new updates for 2021 and 2022 I have completely revamped this page to share my experiences with digital-to-analog converters in the past 5 years. Most of my predictions turned into reality as Chinese manufacturers have now mostly taken over this market. It’s simply astounding what type of quality you can get for a fraction of the cost of European or American manufacturers. My preferred manufacturers are now Topping, Gustard and Matrix Audio. My favorite non-Chinese manfacturers are RME and Benchmark. (advertisement links). All of these companies produce suberp products. Of course, there will be others, too but this is just my recent experience. Want to see the old list of recoemmended DACs? Click here to access the archives from 2015 – 2020

My very own Gustard X20u is still gowing strong and provides trouble-free breathtaking performance. I never regretted buying it. I use it alongside my RME ADI2 PRO DAC which has an AD converter built in that I needed for my phono stage. I just didn’t see any compelling reason to buy an expensive analog preamp and more cables when I can have the best in a single box.

I have divided all my recommended tried and true DACs into separate categories “Reference Class” and “Top Class” which seems more prudent than bloomy descriptions of sound quality. Excluded are those DACs that I haven’t had a chance to try yet or simply because they don’t measure up to my standards. I’ll keep constantly adding to the list as I review more gear so please be patient.

My current advice is to stay away from DIY DACs from eBay. Yes, I previously recommended that route but many of my readers complained about horrible performance, reliability issues, fake chips etc. It’s just not worth the hassle anymore when you can buy a great DAC performing DAC for less than 100 Euros.

Most audiophiles would be best served with any Top Class DAC candidate. You need to spend significantly more for real audible improvements. This is where you get maximum bang for your buck.

Note: I’m not selling anything on this blog – these are solely recommendations based ony my personal opinion. I also focus on what products that likely offer the most bang for the buck. You need to visit the appropriate retailers to purchase any of these DACs

Reference Class is for those who already own an end-game setup with speakers and headphones perfectly tweaked or need the extra features that usually come with these DACs.

Tip! You can potentially save huge amounts of money by purchasing used high-end audio gear.It’s not uncommon to see savings of 45% or more if you know where to look. Check out eBay or Audiogon classifieds. Great DACs that were over 1000 Euros just a couple of months ago, often trade for 500-600 Euros on places like

Reference Class – Cost no object

Candidate 1:

Gustard X0
I’m still in love with this. Unfortunately it’s not made anymore but you may as well get the successor. First time I heard it, I had to recover from my shockingly good experience with the Gustard X20u. Even though it’s dated now, it still kills many recent DAC products I’ve come across. Gustard has since released many successors – reportedly getting better, haven’t heard those yet but look just as great.

  • Chipset: Dual ESS Sabre32 9018
  • Remote Controllable
  • Works as a preamplifier
  • Inputs: 1x USB, 1x coaxial, 1x BNC, 1x optical, 1x I2S
  • USB XMOS discrete daughter board supporting virtally any operating system

Candidate 2:

RME ADI 2 FS PRO with headphone amplifier- about 1800 Euros on Amazon(Amazon DE Link)(Amazon UK Link)
(advertisement links)

Read my detailed review here.

Fully balanced professional unit featuring the beloved AKM DAC chips with premium components, full DSD support and headphone amplifier. I bought the latest revision of the ADI Pro 2 last year and it’s MUCH better than any previous iteration. Pure sonic bliss. It’s totally on par with the Gustard! Price seems high but when you factor in the brilliant volume control, eqalizer and AD converter, it’s priced more than right. This is a better buy for European audiophiles as the RME tends to be a bit less expensive than Mytek or Benchmark.

  • Chipset: Dual AKM4493 with DSD256 support
  • Balanced Headphone amplifier
  • Remote controllable
  • Works as a preamplifier
  • Inputs: 1x USB, 1x optical, 1x coaxial
  • Outputs: 1x RCA L/R, 1x XLR L/R
  • USB driver support: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (no drivers)

Candidate 3:

Benchmark DAC 2 HGC with headphone amplifier- about 2000 Euros on Amazon(advertisement link)
Benchmark DAC 2 L without headphone amplifier- about 1800 Euros on Amazon(advertisement link)
Fully balanced, sophisticated hybrid analog/digital volume control. Headphone amp featuring 0 Ohm output impedance (excellent match for Sennheiser HD650).Premium quality electronic components. NOTE: There’s a new version out with the latest ESS DAC chips – waiting to get my hands on one unit.

  • Chipset: ESS Sabre32 9018 (Quad DA)
  • Headphone amplifier
  • Remote controllable
  • Works as a preamplifier
  • Inputs: 1x USB, 2x optical, 2x coaxial, 2x analog
  • Outputs: 1x RCA L/R, 1x XLR L/R
  • USB driver support: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (no drivers)

Other contenders:

I briefly had positive experience with the Topping D90 DAC as well as the Matrix X-Sabre DAC. Both of which were breathtaking, had great build quality and were a joy to listen to. But before I cannot to an in-depth comparison with my RME ADI2 and Gustard X20, I won’t be able to tell how good they really are (maybe the D90 is even better than all the above ones?).

Top Class – Top of the line DACs, clearly above average

You will now the the vast majority of DACs. Don’t expect drastic sonic differences between 100 Euro and 500 Euro units so I rather focus on the ones I’ve tried and heard in audiophile systems of my friends.

SMSL M8 DAC – about 239 Euros from DE Link)
(Amazon UK Link)(advertisement links)
World-class DAC on a shoestring budget. Top Class rating is only with a separate 9V DC power supply.Read my review here. Note that the latest iteration is the SMSL SU-8 (advertisement link) which is far superior to the one I reviewed. I had a chance to try it out at my friends house and was amazed at the quality level. I think it probably is very very near Reference Class by now.

Recommendations Less than 150 Euros:
At the lowest end of the price-spectrum, we’ve got the Topping D10s and Topping E30 (advertisement links). If you just need a no-frills USB DAC, no balanced outputs, no headphone jack and no volume control, get the D10s. It has great ESS Sabre chipsets inside, can play back any high-res material, even DSD. I listened to it on a friends horn system and was mightily impressed. I thought a much pricier DAC was playing. Since he also has a dedicated preamp, this little DAC was all he needed. In terms of sound quality, it feels a bit rougher than my RME ADI DAC but heck, we’re talking about a hair above 100 Euros(!) The D10s (advertisement link) is also super-leightweight, it weighs just a hair over 300 grams. So if you need to travel and want great sound quality on the road, may want this. But since it doesn’t have a headphone jack, you still need an amp.

Click here to access my current recommendations of best DACS under 100 Euros.

Recommendations Less than 200 Euros:
In this price bracket I’d personally look at the Topping E30 (advertisement link) which currently retails for 150 Euros. It has the same great AK4493 chips like in my RME DAC, beautiful display, remote control for input selection, volume adjustments. It’s unbelievable how much you’re getting for that price. It even comes with coaxial and optical inputs. My advice: spend more money on your speakers and room acoustics and get THIS DAC – you won’t see better value.

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53 thoughts on “At Last…The Ultimate DAC Buyers Guide (2023 Edition)”

  1. OMG! You are god sent. None of the audiophile grade equipment companies are present in India at this time except Fiio. And my last amp E11 was not upto my taste. Just bought a Meier Audio Stepdance from another guy and was looking for a decent DAC. First choice being dragonfly and second ans cheaper Fiio E07k. But, now thinking of ordereding the HiFiMeDIY. I am short on money and only care about SQ. Besides importing from US attracts huge customs.

    Saw both your cheap alternatives a.k.a
    1. WM8740 based Chinese chipset and
    2. HiFiMeDIY

    While both are based on very good chips. Which sounds better? HiFiMeDIY costs twice as much but I can pay for that.

    1. The WM8740 is damned good, with better opamps than stock, a brutal killer machine IMHO. But you need a case for it. The Hifimediy stuff on the other hand is plug and play. Keep in mind the WM8740 board cannot do high-res USB, only 16/48. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, you cannot go wrong with Hifimediy – nice products, good chips and great customer service.

    2. I own oppo Ha-2 with ESS Sabre ES9018K2M. I am thinking to buy a desktop configuration composed of SMSL M8 + VA2 + P1 + W6. Still, would it be a difference between these DACs ?

  2. Wow, amazing articles and the right dose of info for an aspiring audiophile.
    I would like to get your advice on pairing a Swans D1080-IV speakers with a class C DAC
    1.HiFime DIY
    2.Fiio D3
    Which of these combo wud be the best. The primary source of music is a a laptop.
    HifimeDIY wud be tough to source in India though.
    Hopefully Fiio is available here.

  3. On your recommendation I bought The HIfiDIY DAC. After about 30 days it reached me. Unfortunately it lasted for only 2 days. Though kudos for their Consumer service, I got my refund. I am more eager now to try out SMSL M8, though the cost is little on higher side for me and again sending back to China for service is a down-side but I really liked that Sabre sound.

    1. Get the WM8740 . it’s a killer machine for the money. Now you can find it already mounted inside a box on Ebay. Also you need to replace the op amp that comes with it. Also, another is the Toping D30. This is also a very good dac for about $90.00 -$120.00 on Ebay or AliExpress. It compares favorably with the SMSL M8 for less money. It’s a no brainer.

  4. Pingback: At Last…The Ultimate DAC Buyers Guide (2016 Edition) – Music Server Tips | Jim's thoughts

  5. Charles Ellertson

    As to using Amazon: since returns are so easy, I wonder if products returned as “defective” are not sent out a second time, to another customer, with no further checking on the original (purported) problem. This would be hard to prove, but does fit a pattern we’ve seen for electronics purchased from Amazon. Such a practice takes consumers one step further down a road that has become quite common, namely, let the customer do the Quality Control work.

  6. If you can stretch to the SMSL M8 bundle, you will NOT regret it! I’ve been using mine almost daily for the past six months, and it is still rewarding and surprising me. I’m finding that some albums I have in my collection, that have sat unloved and unplayed now sound incredible and very engaging and appealing, and I now love those albums! I mainly play vinyl rips and Super Audio CD / DVD-Audio, and some HDtracks releases (they vary from good to awful). It does make standard audio CDs sound much better, but it also reveals their flaws if present; in my opinion the vinyl rips make returning to CD very unpleasant, which is why I will now be buying back the Technics turntable I gave away in 2013! I will then make my own high quality rips to play back on the M8 system. I also find the SMSL VA2 headphone amp in the bundle powers my AKG K712 PRO headphones very well, and it was a much needed purchase.

  7. Bought that WM8740 board and modified with WM8741 and better opamp.
    Driven by Baby Breeze DDC it sounds great for the money.

    Waiting for a case from China and this will be a nice unit!

  8. I see that you included the Emotiva XDA-2. I’m more interested in a portable DAC. Do you have any experience with the Emotiva Audio Big Ego? It’s $219 and seems to have excellent specifications. I do have some other Emotiva equipment and they seem to be very solid.



  9. I’m not quite sure how you left the Oppo HA-1 off this list, unless you simply hadn’t reviwed it or listened to it?

  10. I just ordered two DACs to compare and buy one: the Denon DA-300USB and the Audioengine D1.
    The Denon DAC gives a nice sound. There was a BIG difference with the Audioengine D1, which I sent back. With the Audioengine D1, the sound was not much better than without a DAC.

  11. I would sugest that the words ‘Chord’ and ‘Mojo’ need to be on this page somewhere. Whether we’re talking bang-for-buck, overall sound quality or range of uses, the Mojo is remarkable. Oh and it’s portable and has pretty lights on it. What’s not to love?

  12. Thanks for the update. However I do not understand this list.
    Because when I look at the price value only three DAC’s should be on this list:
    Best product and best value in Reference class: Gustard X20u (Also better value than best product in class A)
    Best value in class A: SMSL M8 (Also better value than best product in class B)
    Best value in class B: Schiit Modi 2 Uber (Also better product and better value than best product in class C)
    Or am I wrong?

    1. Well, this isn’t a HiFi magazine;) Rankings are roughly based on my personal experience with the DACs. Sure, I could trim down the list but I’d like to readers choose. Keep in mind differences between DACs are usually frighteningly small…but they are noticeable.

      1. A refreshing look/take on (sensible) hi-fi ! (nice work).
        Your statement is painfully inaccurate, quote:

        ” Keep in mind differences between DACs are usually frighteningly small…but they are noticeable.”

        That is more-or-less) a ‘rookie’ comment; for if true, there would be no reason to have any categorical listing at all -simply purchase the dirt-cheapest (DAC) you can find and (according to you) be 99% “there”.

        peter jasz

  13. Hi,

    I’m thinking about a setup for my room. Mostly it will be for listening to music from Spotify at high resolution. I’ll have a pair of KRK Rokit RP5 G3, which are very decent active studio monitors for less than £200. I’ll get the music from a Chromecast Audio. The first option would be to get the unbalanced analog signal from the Chromecast, but I guess we all agree that is absolutely discarded.
    Second option is connecting an intermediate DAC with unbalanced RCAs. There are many decent DACs for less than £200 (even £100) for this option.
    The third option is go for a DAC with balanced XLR. The problem is that the market niche is too narrow, most DACs with XLR balanced outputs comes with headphone amps, many other inputs/outputs, etc., or they just got to premium or too PRO approaches. The Teac UD-H01 is the best option I’ve found, at £300.

    My question: taking into account I have some decent active studio monitors, is it worth spending double the price (£300 instead of £150) in a DAC with balanced outputs instead of just unbalanced? I know it’s worth £150 for a proper conversion, but it’s worth £300 for a proper conversion plus balanced outs?

    Thanks for your help. In any case, this article was super useful.

    1. Going balanced does not necessarily improve the sound quality. In fact it depends on the implementation and whether the DAC really comes with a fully balanced output stage. If that’s not the case, I wouldn’t sweat over XLR outputs and just use RCA unbalanced.

  14. George Melendez

    What ever happened to the Audioengine D1 DAC/Headphone Amp “poor man’s audiophile marvel”… ??? I’m surprised that it’s not even mention… So many well respected reviewers have it on their list and why isn’t it here???

    1. Well, I’m just a hobbyist and I can only speak for the products I own or have tried. I recommend those DACs to my friends or family members because I have experience with them. I agree there are many more marvels…but my time is too limited to test them all :)

  15. hello,
    have you ever tried a teac dac ? could you have access to one ?
    what do you think of the akm vs sabre chip ?

    thank you


    1. Have briefly tried Teac UD-503 (or NT-503, don’t remember the exact model name). Looks like a great one but I haven’t got the cash to buy all DACs for testing ;) AKM chips are fantastic, Accuphase also uses them in their top DACs. Cannot go wrong with AK-4497 based DACs if manufacturers did their homework.

  16. Hi! I bought the SMSL M8 after reading your post, and I have to say that I´m very happy with it. It sounds great! I even use the optical input with my CD player, cause it sounds better. Thanks a lot!

  17. I was considering your recommended SMSL M8 then I read the reviews on the Topping D30. This DAC is $100 cheaper. Do you have any thoughts on the D30?

  18. Thank you very much ! I struggled to choose a nice DAC for 500-600€ and I was about to purchase an Arcam IRDACII ! Then I came across this guide and ordered myself a SMSL M8 + Linear power supply : it blew me away ! I muste admit it is not a very plug and play device, but once properly configured it is worth every penny !

  19. sebastiao J T bastos

    Please let me know if you have any experience about that.
    Best regards

  20. Hey,
    I enjoyed reading the blog but unfortunately a lot of tech talk went way over head.
    Ive just started to look at DACs and no very little when it comes to sound.
    I do have a question and would like your opinion.
    I have a iPod classic maybe 5th gen. I want to have the best portable sound i can get. I have b&w p5 headphones/ momentum 2 seins earphones.
    What should i do, get a dac like mojo or opportunity and connect to iPod.
    Or should i just buy a new portable player like aztell and Kern. Willing to spend €500. What would give me the best sound?

  21. I know most people use DACs for music, but I’m looking for a DAC (entry or mid level, not expensive) that won’t have a lip-sync delay when used with Blu-ray or other video source. This is the first I’ve needed one, so I haven’t tried any yet. I saw the really low-cost FIIO D3 on Amazon, but 1 reviewer said it caused lip-sync video issues.


  22. I’m new to all this stuff, and I have a question. Would the AudioQuest Dragonfly work with a pair of Sennheiser Game Zero’s? I am trying to find a cheap DAC that would work but I don’t anything about this stuff. Thanks in advance!

  23. I was considering your recommended SMSL M8 then I read the reviews on the Topping D30. This DAC is $ 100 cheaper. Do you have any thoughts SQ on the D30?

  24. What’s with all the junky full of midrange glare DACs on your list. When was the last time you had a proper hearing test? Probably have a 7-8 dB drop at 2500-3000 kHz and maybe another one at 8k in your hearing.

  25. Hello there, again. I bought an SMSL M8 DAC following your advice, and I´m very happy with it. I have now the chance to buy a Gustard X20pro because a friend of mine is travelling and offered to bring it to me. Is there a big audio quality difference worth the money?I mean, will I notice it that much or is it just “a small difference on the high end” (i.e.)? (I have an excellent audio system).. Thank you, I´d really appreciate your thoughts about it.

  26. nathaniel britton

    fantastic write up wondering if you heard of douk audio/nobsound ? I’ve been looking at a dac which sounds like it’s the dogs bollocks with specs but have no previous with the company the one I’m looking at comes with Ti’s dsd1796 asynchronous xmos u8 audio decoding but being I think a Chinese company going under 2 names (I think) I’m a bit worried of build quality and other cheap components hiding in there.
    So any information would be appreciated.
    Kind regards ?

  27. J. Freeland

    Any experience with the questyle 400i I know it is not out yet but it has been showcased at several shows this year.

  28. Hi there! Awesome article! I currently have the Aries Mini and would love to try another DAC that has Airplay capabilities. Do you have any recommendations?

  29. I´ve recently bought the Gustard X20pro following your advices… and it´s incredible. I can´t imagine a better sounding DAC. I had the SMSL M8 before, but this is way superior. Thanks a lot!

  30. Just some food for thought. Some mobile phone manufacturers are taking an audiophile approach. The LG V30 has a very capable ES9218 (32/384kHz PCM) DAC and compares nicely with my DF Red 1.0 in your C category. Coupled with the USB Pro Android app, which takes full advantage of the chipset capabilities, I can even stream my local hi-res network audio. In essence, you get a smartphone + DAC in one good sounding mobile package.

    (The rest of my equipment: GustardX20u (ES9018), Chord Mojo, Grado RS2e, HD600)

  31. what about DAC’s built into newer receivers or amps ?
    my older Denon avr 3801 is missing several modern features and i need a DAC so maybe better for me to find a replacement with a built in DAC?

  32. I was wondering did you ever tried the diy kit or assembled chinese es9028 or 9038 chip dacs from Breeze audio?
    The pcb looks very professional and looks a bit like Gustard.. Maybe it’s a clone?
    They are reasonable priced. But wonder about the quality.
    On eBay it’s the seller minishow.

    Would be great if you test one like that.

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