A quick ride on public transport shows you that people are taking sound quality much more seriously these days. Expensive over-ear cans are fast becoming the norm. However, many people still seem unaware that even if you upgrade your headphones you are probably still not getting truly premium sound quality. This is because often the audio circuitry in your phone or laptop is being built on a budget. Luckily, there is a solution in the form of headphone amps and DACs.
In simple terms, all the products below take the signal from your phone or laptop and convert it from digital to analog through their inbuilt DAC converters and then amplify the signal for your headphones. This process already goes on inside your computer or phone, but the external solutions we recommend do a noticeably better job and will leave you amazed at the boost in sound quality.
Best for under $100 – Dragonfly Black
AudioQuest is an incredibly innovative company that has carved out a niche for itself in the ultra portable DAC market with the Dragonfly. At first sight it looks to be little more than a USB stick, but it will give you top notch sound at a budget price. The sound it offers is well-balanced and it has enough power to keep up with even the most demanding headphones.
It’s compatible with both laptops and phones, though you might need a USB adaptor for the latter (as in the picture above). The Dragonfly Black comes in at under $100 which makes it an absolute bargain and the perfect Christmas present for the audiophile in your life.
Best for under $250 – Meridian Audio Explorer²
This DAC might be a bit bigger, but it is still portable and delivers the sort of sound you would expect from a prestigious British brand. We found it to have exceptional clarity that is complemented by a wide soundstage and a kick in the bass department. If you have a high-quality audio source (and for the technically minded we are talking about 24bit/192kHz), then you are in for a sublime experience – but even if you are using Spotify you will still hear a marked improvement.
Best for under $350 – Oppo HA-2SE
Oppo has made important iterations with this SE version of their HA-2 model. It now sports a better chipset that gives an improved performance both at the top end and in the bass department. However, it not only offers excellent sound quality but also comes packed with features like bass boost and an option for high/low gain.
Unfortunately, if you are plugging it into a computer you have to download some drivers. Once you are over that little hurdle (the drivers are pretty simple to install), you are in for some truly exceptional sound.
Best for under $500 – Chord Mojo
The Mojo is portable, has eye-catching looks – the LEDs on the side light up depending on the sampling rate you are listening to – and will take your music to the next level. While you will notice the difference in music, the vocals are where it particularly stands out from competitors, with a clarity that will make you think the performer is in the room.
The Mojo is the cousin of Chord’s ultra premium Hugo DAC. While it comes in a third of the price, it still packs a serious punch and is the best on the market if you are willing to spend $500.
Best For Under $1000 – Schiit Gungnir
It’s not portable, it’s not cheap and it might have a bit of a questionable name but it sure does deliver one hell of a sound. It gives an incredibly natural sonic presentation that you would normally only get for double the price. The Gungnir has to be heard to be believed.