If your mobile device’s audio output isn’t loud enough or clean enough, you may need an external dac and headphone amp.
But don’t worry, if you don’t want to spend a lot of money?
Reading: Best headphone dac under 100
In our review of the best usb dacs under $100, we’ve included several different styles to better suit your preferences. and all are sure to enhance your listening experience without costing you a fortune.
If you don’t know much about the nuts and bolts of digital audio and want to make an informed decision, read the next section. reviews use various standard abbreviations and acronyms for common technical terms. all this is explained below.
Otherwise, feel free to skip straight to the product review section.
best usb dacs under the $100 guidelines: what to look for when shopping for a usb dac?
Digital-to-analog audio converters (DACs) come in all shapes and sizes. they can generally be classified into a few categories.
an online dac
this is basically an upgraded cable. At one end is a USB connector for connecting to a phone or similar device. at the other end is a jack for plugging in headphones or earphones. Inside the molded usb plug are one or more integrated circuit (ic) “chips” that do the conversion and amplify the output.
These types of dacs are very small and lightweight, and ideal for use with a phone.
They often resemble a typical memory card, also with a usb connector (usually a full size usb type) and a headphone jack on opposite ends. because there is more space inside the case, they typically have more complex circuitry to provide better audio conversion and filtering, and more power.
they work well with a desktop pc or any device that doesn’t move around too much and has a usb port.
a variation of the memory card design has a usb connector (female) instead of a plug (male). This allows you to connect your own USB cable of any length. larger models may include a volume control, control switches, and additional outputs.
Finally, we have desktop dacs that usually come in a traditional rectangular case, with front panel controls, including a large volume knob. On the back are all the connections, which can include USB, optical and coaxial inputs, and stereo line outputs. are typically powered by AC “wall wart” adapters, making them impractical for portable devices.
first, to get the terminology correct: protrudes a “plug” or male connector; a “jack” (female connector) is recessed.
usb connectors come in several flavors. The wide, flat plug on the end of a memory card is a USB A connector. a smaller, squarer connector is a type b. Mobile devices typically use a micro-A connector, which is smaller and more durable.
what about the audio connectors?
all dacs reviewed are equipped with 3.5mm stereo audio jacks. most wired headsets and portable headsets have plugs that are compatible. studio headphones often have larger 1/4-inch plugs. to use them, you will need an adapter.
power output and impedance
all dacs reviewed include a small amp powerful enough to drive a pair of headphones. some also include a line level output for powered speakers.
The amount of power varies, with the simplest models providing around 130 milliwatts (mw). this is enough for a typical set of headphones, though probably not enough for high-impedance headphones.
what is impedance?
Impedance is the resistance to an AC electrical current, measured in ohms. headphone impedance can vary, from 8 ohms to more than 600 ohms. higher impedance headphones generally sound better but require more power for the same sound level. headphones are typically between 16 and 32 ohms.
In other words, connecting your high-impedance headphones to a 130mw amp won’t give you much sound.
sample rates and bit depth
There are two variables in digital audio that are most important in determining the quality of the audio. The sample rate indicates how many times per second the original signal is measured and stored as a number. a sample rate of 44.1 kHz means that 44,100 samples are taken per second. bit depth indicates the precision of a sample.
“cd quality” and more…
Compact discs (CDs) contain digital audio sampled at 44.1 kHz and 16 bits. that seemed unbelievable 40 years ago, but today it’s considered the bare minimum for high-quality music playback. other popular sample rates are 48, 96, or 192 kHz. the higher the sample rate, the more accurately high frequencies are reproduced.
A 16-bit sampler can have any of 65,536 (216) possible amplitude values, while the 24-bit sampler provides nearly 16.8 million values, making it much more detailed. the nearly infinitesimal resolution of 32-bit audio (4.3 billion values) is useful primarily in audio mastering applications.
digital audio formats
Digital audio can be stored and transmitted in various formats. but not all dac can decode all formats.
pulse code modulation (pcm)
This is the standard form of digital audio for computers, CDs, and other digital audio applications. With pcm, the amplitude of an analog signal is sampled at a regular interval (the sample rate), and each sample is rounded (quantized) to the nearest available value.
direct broadcast digital (dsd)
this is a system originally used by sony and philips for their super audio cd’s (sacd). It is capable of reproducing sound significantly superior to CDs. there are several variations of dsd, based on the sample rate. dsd128, also known as double-rate dsd, and dsd256 (quad-rate dsd), are popular formats.
dsd512, or octuple rate dsd, is also used primarily by digital audio workstation (daw) software.
master quality authenticated (mqa)
this is a new technology that can enhance the audio of a traditional cd or audio file. you can also make special mqa cds that take advantage of this innovation.
what is mqa?
The technology behind mqa is complex, and a full description requires some time. suffice it to say that it “erases” the audio by clearing the timing of the samples. when combined with an mqa decoder, an mqa file can sound identical to the original master recording.
Now that’s all covered, let’s take a look at a selection of the best usb dacs under $100 currently available…
reviews of the 8 best usb dacs under $100 on the market
1 jsaux usb type c to aux audio dongle cable – best budget usb dac under $100
the jsaux adapter is the most basic and cheapest usb dac you will find. It consists of a short cable, about 11 inches (280 mm), with a USB Type-C connector on one end and a 3.5 mm female stereo audio connector on the other. Molded into the USB connector is a DAC chip and an ultra-low power headphone amplifier. It is available in black, blue, gray and red.
Despite its simple design, this adapter is well made and works well. The cable is wrapped with a tough woven nylon outer jacket that protects it from damage. and the manufacturer claims that the large strain reliefs at each end can withstand bending over 15,000 times.
excellent for headphones…
the conexant dac is an older model (the company closed in 2017) that can decode pcm up to 96khz at 24-bit resolution. this is still excellent, but not as loud as some of the other models reviewed. the amp offers 135 milliwatts, enough to power stereo headphones.
Weighing just 0.141 ounces (4g), this device is directly compatible with MacBook and MacBook Air, most Android phones, and the iPod Pro. jsaux offers an 18-month warranty.
2 clips type c to aux audio jack 32bit/384khz hi res portable dac usb c dongle – best dac online under $100
the clipthat adapter is similar to the jsaux model, but with a couple of significant improvements. For one thing, the 3.5mm audio jack is gold-plated, so it won’t corrode over time. and the cable uses oxygen-free copper wire for lower resistance.
More importantly, the newest Realtek ALC4042 DAC supports up to 384Khz/32-bit PCM decoding, as well as 64 and 128 Direct Stream Digital (DSD) lossless formats. And the built-in Class G amplifier. it can drive headphones with an impedance of 16 to 600 ohms, with an output of 35 milliwatts.
It has an impressive frequency response of 20hz – 40khz, a signal-to-noise ratio (snr) of 120 db, and harmonic distortion of a negligible 0.0003 percent.
another improvement is its noise cancellation technology. additionally, support for 4-button in-line headset control is provided.
clip which is compatible with android, windows and macos systems. And it comes with a lifetime guarantee!
3 xtrempro x1-1 high performance usb dac headphone amplifier otg amplifier
The XtremPro X1-1 DAC is designed like a memory stick, with a full-size USB Type-A connector. this makes it convenient to use with a desktop or laptop computer. you can connect it to your phone with the correct usb c or lightning adapter, though it consumes more power than a smaller dac cable.
At its heart is a premier ess saber 9023 stereo dac. It can play music files from mp3 format up to 96khz/24-bit uncompressed. isolated dual master clocks ensure that all samples are processed without rounding or conversion errors.
only for low impedance headphones…
With 125mw of power from a texas instruments tpa6130a2 class ab headphone amplifier, the 3.5-inch audio jack can drive low-impedance headphones directly. output volume is controlled by a 64 position analog control running on the host device.
xtremepro includes a 12-month replacement warranty.
4 audioquest dragonfly black v1.5 plug-in usb dac + preamp + headphone amp – best audiophile usb dac under $100
Audioquest’s Dragonfly is another dac/headphone amp that resembles a large memory card, 2.4 x 0.75 x 0.47 inches (62 x 19 x 12 mm). The black plastic case has a USB to male connector on one end and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the other. This black model is the most affordable member of the dragonfly family.
It features ess 9010k2m saber dac technology, which can handle everything from mp3 files to 96khz/24-bit uncompressed digital audio. With digital noise reduction (dnr) up to 116 db and harmonic distortion down to -106 db, the audio quality should satisfy the most demanding audiophiles.
Full of features…
the headphone amp is a texas instruments tpa6130a2. it is capable of delivering 300 mw of power to 16 ohm headphones, with a snr of 98 db.
the black dragonfly includes a 64-step analog volume control. When connected to a PC or mobile device, the host system volume control controls Dragonfly Black’s built-in volume. other attractive features include support for mqa rendering and firmware upgradeable via usb.
It is compatible with Apple iOS (5 and later) and Android (Version 5 Lollipop and later) phones, as well as Windows and MacOS desktop computers. draws extremely low current, which helps conserve your phone’s battery life.
5 asseso ap1 portable bluetooth 5.0 usb dac/headphone receiver – best usb dac under $100 for calls and siri
asseso ap1 can be connected to your digital device through its usb port, or you can make it completely wireless. Incorporates Qualcomm’s APTX HD technology to deliver 24-bit, low-latency digital audio over Bluetooth 5.0. outdoors, it has a range of up to 164 ft (50 m) and 32 ft (10 m) indoors. connect wired headphones to this device; bluetooth headsets are not supported.
the internal cirrus logic dac provides a signal to noise ratio of 114 db. audio quality is excellent, although it is designed to work only with cd quality data (44.1khz/16bit).
phone call and siri support included!
for phone calls or siri, the ap1 includes an internal microphone with clear voice capture (cvc) from qualcomm. you can sync it with ios or android devices, and it works with all streaming services: spotify, youtube, soundcloud, etc.
Buttons on the case let you turn it on/off, play/pause (long press to choose siri or google assistant), volume up/down, and select next/previous track. a sturdy metal clip lets you clip it to a pocket or lapel. Estimated life of the included lithium-ion battery is more than seven hours on a single charge.
6 fiio q1 mark ii native dsd dac & amplifier for iphone, ipod, ipad and computers – the best full-featured dac under $100
fiio q1 mark ii offers several extras not found on other models reviewed here. For one thing, it features balanced and single-ended (unbalanced) headphone jacks. Plus, it includes gain and bass boost switches, plus a volume knob to better match your headphones and listening preferences.
It features a 32-bit akm 4452 stereo dac, with 8 channels of akm’s velvety sound architecture. It will decode PCM audio data up to 384khz/32bit, as well as 11.2mhz DSD256, with a signal-to-noise ratio of up to 115dB. The headphone amp uses a low-noise Texas Instruments opa926 chip, while low-pass filtering is handled by a Ti opa1662.
a great option for apple products…
works perfectly with all iphones. Simply connect the included Lightning-Micro USB adapter cable from your iPhone to the Q1 Mark II, and use the 3.5mm headphone jack. no driver needed to use with a macOS computer; windows requires a driver readily available on the fiio website.
the q1 is slightly larger than many dacs designed for use with phones, about the size of a slim pack of cigarettes. It comes with a generous accessory pack, including a Lightning to Micro USB cable, a long Micro USB cable, and a 3.5mm audio cable. Also included are long and short silicone bands and a silicone pad to keep it in place with your phone, plus a carry bag.
7 fx-audio dac-x6 mini hifi 2.0 dac digital audio decoder
Fx-Audio’s DAC-X6, available with a black or silver faceplate and volume knob, is a desktop DAC and headphone amplifier. It accepts USB, optical, and coaxial inputs, and includes a 1/4-inch stereo headphone jack on the front panel and discrete left and right RCA outputs on the rear for connecting powered speakers. the volume control affects only the headphone output.
The circuit uses Cirrus Logic CS4398, a low-power stereo DAC that features digital de-emphasis, a half db step volume control, 120 db signal to noise, atapi channel mix, and selectable fast and slow roll off. digital interpolation filters. the dac-x6 supports 24-bit input, 44.1 – 96 kHz.
A texas instruments chipset provides pristine audio, including the opa2134pa low-noise, low-distortion (less than 0.001%) audio op amp and tpa6120a2 headphone amplifier. a relay circuit protects the headphone and speaker outputs from overload.
The headphone output is optimized for phones from 32 to 600 ohms. For 16 ohm phones, the output power is 520 mw. line level outputs provide 1.8 volts rms. the overall signal-to-noise ratio is 94 db.
what’s in the box?
The DAC-X6 is powered by an included external 12-volt “wall wart” adapter that works on any input voltage from 100 to 240 volts AC. Also included is a USB cable and a 1/4-inch to 3.5mm audio adapter.
the drive is relatively small for a desktop case, 5.7 x 3.9 x 1.4 inches (145 x 100 x 36 mm) and weighs 1.1 pounds (0.5 kg).
10 cyrus audio soundkey & dac
The Cyrus Audio SoundKey DAC has an overall design similar to in-line cable models, with a Micro USB connector on one end and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the other. But inside the box, not much larger than a normal memory card and weighing less than 0.6 ounces (16 g), is more complex circuitry that provides superior performance.
longer battery life…
At its heart is a texas instruments pcm5102 stereo dac, with a signal-to-noise ratio and dynamic range of 112 db. power output is 138 milliwatts per channel into 16 ohms. this is a very low current device, typically around 500 milliamps, about half that of most other dacs. so your phone’s battery lasts longer!
Capable of handling audio files up to 96khz/24-bit, soundkey is compatible with most digital audio files, including mp3, aac, and flac. however, an apple camera kit is required to work with ios devices.
Would you like to update your headphones or earphones as well?
if so, check out our reviews of the best in-ear headphones under $100, the most durable in-ear headphones, the best in-ear headphones under $50, or the best headphones and earbuds for sleeping, and the best noise-cancelling in-ear headphones you can buy.
You may also be interested in our reviews of the best studio headphones for home recording, the best wireless bluetooth headphones, the best headphones under $100, the best waterproof headphones, and the most comfortable headphones on the market in 2022.
so what are the best usb dacs under $100?
To a large extent, our choice (and yours) of the best dac depends on the application. So, here are two of our favorites…
best dac online under $100
this has to be the…
clipthat type c to aux audio jack 32bit/384khz hi res portable usb c dac dongle
has a gold plated audio jack, can handle both pcm (up to 384khz) and dsd64 and 128, and includes noise cancellation technology, all at a very low price. these features make this a winner, especially if you want a device that is small and inexpensive.
best full featured dac under $100
fiio q1 mark ii native dsd dac & amplifier for iphone, ipod, ipad and computers
…wins this category hands down. high pcm sample rates, dsd256 support, dual headphone outputs, and an excellent accessory kit make this product stand out from the crowd.
all the dacs reviewed here will improve the audio quality of your phone, mobile device or laptop. In the end, your choice comes down to your budget and which features are necessary and which are not.