As with all things audio, there are a few things that will affect each individual’s use of a USB DAC. From all you have read so far, you already know a number of these factors and should now be able to identify exactly what you need in a converter, based on your own personal requirements. Note the features that are must-haves for you, and as we begin to review our selected products, look for any product that offers those features.
When Dr Dre launched the Beats by Dre headphones, he was asked what motivated him to take on the project. His answer was that he got tired of spending time in the studio producing awesome music, only to have some of it lost in transit due to the quality of headphones most people were using. What he was basically saying was that you were only hearing part of the music.
Well, Dr Dre was marketing his own headphones, so he wouldn’t have mentioned another important factor that affects the quality of the sound we listen to on devices. Even with the best headphones
(including Beats by Dre), without a good digital-to-analog converter, we will still be listening to only some of the music.
Audio production is now done almost entirely in the digital domain, requiring that the finished product be converted to analog sound waves that the human ear and brain can understand. It's now more affordable to do a whole project entirely within a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) than it is to record analog sounds such as live drums, live bass, guitars and the like. Doing that would require a good quality analog-to-digital converter to convert the analog waves into digital binary signals.
When you play music from your mp3 player
, what you hear is only as good as the converter that comes with the device, which may not be of the best quality. This means it won't give you the clearest presentation of the sound. When you get a top-quality USB DAC and listen to the same songs, you'll be listening to the music in its full sonic glory, where every hitherto hidden tone, nuance, and swell, not to forget flat notes, room and equipment noise, and other errors will be brought to your attention. You may then end up loving the song more, or less.
We want you to enjoy any sound you listen to totally and in full, so we have written this guide to help you find the best USB DAC for your devices. We will explain a few things that you need to look for, and how to determine which model or brand is best for you based on the features they offer. If you are ready to enjoy sound at a whole new level, continue with us on this exploration.
Sound and audio products can have a lot of features differentiating them from each other. The same is true of a USB DAC. The features offered by a USB DAC will determine its cost. Some features that will affect the cost of a US DAC include its size, its sample rate, its connectivity, and its power output. You certainly will not expect a USB DAC that delivers 100 watts of audio power to cost the same as one that delivers just 105mW. One thing to note is that it will cost you more to get one with more features. The more the features you want, the more you should expect to pay.
We found that you can get a good USB DAC for between $75 and $400. If your budget falls in this range, you can get something you will be happy with. If you can go higher than this, then by all means go ahead and get one that is higher quality and that offers more features.
Beware of cheap USB DACs. Yes, you are sure to find cheap models, but will they serve you well? It's better to stick with the converter that comes with your device than to get something that won't be an improvement on what you already have. Spend a little more to get something that will offer you good value.
To get a USB DAC that will really offer you the value and audio enhancement you have dreamt of, you will need to look at some important factors. It's important to consider these factors, as that is the only way to be able to determine exactly what features are critical for you. Some of these important qualities include:
- Sample rate
- Power requirements
- Audio power output
- Device compatibility
- Source material
Let’s now look closely at these.
Construction and Design
When we talk about USB DACs, we are referring to a type of digital-to-analog converter that is connected via USB. However, within this group you will still find different types. Which one to get will depend on your preference and requirements.
The thumb drive type of USB DAC is usually as small as a thumb drive and has a 1/8 headphone jack output. It can be plugged straight into your computer’s USB port, or into your handheld device’s mini USB port with the help of the appropriate cable. It offers simple connectivity to your device and is usually very simple to use.
Another type of USB DAC doesn't plug directly into your computer like the thumb drive type. Instead, it's plugged in through a connecting USB cable. This type can be of any size and can offer any number of features. This group is where you'll find the higher-end models. If you are looking for portability and very basic features, stick with the thumb drive type. If you want more features and more quality, focus on this second group.
One of the most important factors to look at is the converter’s sample rate. This describes the level of audio resolution it supports. Professional audio resolution goes from 44.1KHz/16-bit to 192HKz/24-bit. HD quality audio usually has the highest resolution. If your converter can only support up to 96KHz/24-bit and you play a sound with a 192KHz/24-bit resolution, the sound will be slightly degraded. Go for one that supports up to 96KHz/24-bit audio resolution.
Another thing to consider is the power requirement. Some of these devices have external power sources or batteries that power them, allowing the USB connection to just be for the data transfer. Most thumb drive types are solely USB-powered. They will drain your device's battery, and may be underpowered when used with devices that cannot meet its power requirement. Note this power requirement so you know what to expect.
Look at the device’s output power as well. This has to do with the volume the device is able to deliver. A lot of USB DACs are listed as DAC/headphone, and these are perfect for people who just want to listen to music on headphones and earphones. These USB DACs will have power outputs measured in milliwatts (mW). If you want something you can connect to a passive speaker or use as amplification for your sound system, get something with a suitable power rating measured in watts.
Performance and Ease of Use
Be sure to get a USB DAC that's compatible with your device. Most are compatible with Windows and Mac. You'll need to confirm for Android and IOS devices. You should also look at the connectivity options. This is closely related to the use you want to put it to.
Connectivity issues can make your use of a USB DAC easier or more difficult. Connectivity here refers to all connections, including wireless and Input/Output options. Knowing what you can connect and how you can connect to a device before your purchase is very important. If you just want to listen to music or movies on your headphones, a device with a 1/8 output jack will do just fine. To connect your USB DAC to an external amplifying device or to a gaming console, you'll need more connection options.
Taking the time to look at your options is critical. Aside from physical connections, some offer Bluetooth connectivity so you can connect wirelessly to Bluetooth speakers or other devices. Once again, your choice should be determined by your need.
You should also look at the controls a USB DAC offers you. Ability to have control over as much aspects of a device’s operation as possible is surely a plus. Volume control, tonal control, input gain control, frequency cuts and boosts are just a few possible controls to check. Your device, your choice.
A USB DAC will improve the quality of your audio, but it won't increase it to more than what's in the original. The quality of your source audio is the first determinant of the quality of what your USB DAC will deliver. If the original audio is of poor quality, the best digital-to-analog converter will replicate the poor quality in its finest detail, revealing every horrible sound you had previously missed.
We have come to the end of this review and we are glad you are still with us. Having come this far, we believe you have gained some insight that will make it easier for you to identify the USB DAC that is perfect for you. Your next step now is to go ahead and place an order for it, so you can begin to enjoy enhanced audio.