As the need for computers increases, manufacturers put in more and more effort into catering to the specific needs of users. Similarly, as music becomes more and more popular, we’re witnessing a rise in the demand for good headphones. In these, a DAC (Digital Analogue Converter) is employed which transforms a digital signal into an analog. It not only does that but also amplifies the low voltage signal which is very important. The quality of the converted signal differs depending on the chip. This is where the need for an external DAC and Amp arises.
A good DAC and amplifier is a necessity for any audiophile as the audio signal begins to degrade at multiple steps. The specifications of the DACs and amplifiers can be very tricky to understand if you’re not in the audio business. Therefore, we will break them down in simple terms and help you make your choice.
With another Norse mythology referenced name, the Fulla comes out at the very top. Stellar audio output, the newer AKM AK4490 chip and absolutely no need for drivers. This DAC Amp combo is one of the best ones out there and all of it comes in a very sleek metallic design.
The designing of the Fulla 2 will be recognizable to anyone remotely familiar with previous Schiit products. With metallic textured body, there’s a big volume control knob along with grates on the sides for ventilation. There are headphone and line out port for output. Power for driving this DAC/Amp can be supplied via the PC using the USB port or via an external switch or power supply. Theoretically, a phone charger can do that too. Next, there’s a fixed DAC output for connecting the headphones and whatnot. The Fulla 2 can function well for not just desktops but phones as well. As mentioned above, there’s another port for supplying power which can do so with a 5V power bank or a 220V power adapter.
The Fulla 2 is a complete audio solution, being able to work as a DAC and amplifier. Connect a desktop to one end and headphones to the other and you’re good to go. With this one, Schiit has upgraded its DAC to AK4490 meaning much better audio quality. This premium grade DAC chip in this entry level DAC/Amp for its price is refreshing to witness. It has an SNR of more than 105dB, meaning much less distortion and noise at higher volumes. Moreover, with its low output impedance, it’s viable for not just top quality headphones but basic earphones too. The only thing that wasn’t pleasant about this was the fact that it does not support Hi-Res audio. Despite being a high end and rather expensive DAC, Schiit did not employ support for the more demanding and better quality sounds with this combo.
The Fulla 2 houses some top-shelf features in its miniature design despite being an entry-level solution. Not just audiophiles but relative newbies in the audio industry will be able to notice the sound difference right out the bat. The newer AK4490 chip in this low priced DAC/Amp solution is a great package. Mobility, low cost, high SNR and much more are action packed in the Fulla 2, making its purchase worthy of attention.
2. AudioQuest Dragonfly Red
Our Rating: 9.1/10
- Can play all music files including Hi-Res
- Suitable for low impedance headphones too
- Colored lightings for different bitrates
- Heats up quite a bit over long use
- Glossy metal paint gets chipped easily
DAC: ESS 9016 Sabre | Bitrate: 44.1kHz - 96kHz | SNR: >102dB
Up next, we have the Dragonfly by AudioQuest DAC/Amp. This one is a small thumb drive-sized DAC with a USB connector. Audio files ranging from MP3 format to Hi-Res, this one can do it all.
The Dragonfly has a metallic built with red color all around. The dragonfly logo lits up and changes color depending on the sampling rate of the audio being played. Green for 44.1kHz, blue for 46kHz, amber for 80.2 kHz and magenta for 96kHz. This is a really cool feature and it makes the Dragonfly stand out. Keep in mind this comes only with a USB type DAC/Amp. In order for this to be used with a phone, a separate USB adapter will need to be purchased. Finally, at the back end, there is a 3.5mm audio jack for connections.
Dragonfly has an output rating of 2.1 Volts, which is pretty high. It can drive even the power hungry and demanding models as well. It bypasses the internal soundcard of phone or PC and directly drives headphones through its own DAC. The amplifier isn’t able to really turn up the volume by a huge extent, but it’s still decent enough. The tested sound was crisp, clear and the bass boost was enough for the expensive headphones to show off their worth. During the testings, the Dragonfly heated up quite a bit which raised some concerns. This was more frequent in higher bitrate testings. Additionally, we found the glossy paint on the metal to not really be reliable. Dragonfly is a mobile DAC combo however, the paint chipped off rather easily which was disappointing.
Dragonfly doesn’t come cheap. However, we found that its worth was arbitrary and subjective to the need of the users. The small size and compatibility with many audio file formats make it a perfect traveling buddy. It can play audio from the mp3 format to demanding Hi-Res formats as well. Audiophiles will find the use for it next to a necessity as it delivers the crisp sound they’re always looking for.
The FiiO K3 is one of the best budget DAC/AMP picks out there. Gain and bass switches, volume control, dual headphones jacks, and USB Type-C port, this solution for audiophiles is built to survive the future.
The K3 DSD256 also has a metallic build about it with fine finishing and neatly labeled buttons and knobs. At the front is a volume control knob, bass and gain switches along with 2 audio jacks (3.5 and 2.5mm). At the back is a USB Type-C, 3.5mm line-out, coaxial and digital output ports and finally, a USB Audio switch.
The K3 is capable of decoding at a bit rate of up to 384kHz, reaching the highest standards. However, common folk will most likely be using a max bit rate of 96kHz. Audio files tend to be of great sizes as the bit rate is increased. This switch between bit rates can easily be made by switching between USB 1.0 and 2.0 at the back. The 6 d boost is very noticeable and helps in isolating each instrument’s sound. Additionally, the gain control switching allows the low impedance and IEM headphones to be properly optimized as well. The quality of the sound is much better handled in the previous two DACs. Not only that, the anti-sliding rubber pads at the bottom looked as if they had been simply pressed against the metal. After only a little rough usage, the pads began to smudge and detach.
For new audiophiles or IEM users, the K3 is an exceptional pick. FiiO has proved that they can compete in the market with their low priced products. ADC volume control, high gain and bass boost switching along with on the fly maximum bit rate changing, the K3 is one of the best budget DACs out there. The amp isn’t anything too out of the box however, everything else about this still works just great.
Unsurprisingly, we have another one of FiiO’s products in our DAC/Amp combo list. They really are incredible manufacturers in this niche, responsible for making one of the best budget DACs in the market.
With an aluminum body, this FiiO DAC/Amp comes off as a toned down version of the previous one. The build, in general, feels very well made and finished. The aluminum chassis feels well built and structured, leaving little doubts about the physicality of it all. At the front, there is volume control, bass switch and headphone jack. Whereas, at the back, there is a coaxial output, line-out, USB port and a high to low gain switch.
Now’s the time for us to address the ultimate question, how does it do in the sound department itself. The PCM5102 DAC chip planted internally, can improve and handle audio files up to 24 bit/96 kHz. FiiO improved on their previous model via this by adding more depth to the highs and lows. Moreover, it has a low pass filter and choosable bass boos designed for low noise floors. The sound quality of this is still crisp and pleasant to hear. However, the K10 gives off more of mobile DAC vibes than a desktop one. When a text message is received while using it with a phone, a very distasteful screeching sound is received. That is very hard to hear and quite annoying. Another thing is that there is no mechanism for locking the cable. This results in the cable easily slipping out of the port and thus, causing disconnectivity.
Despite that, the audio is still clear and the K10 is a great entry level budget solution for the audiophiles. The build quality feels great and sturdy as FiiO has left no stones unturned here. It does what it sets out to do and has a low price tag, making it ideal for people seeking for a mobile solution. The sound quality lacks off at higher bit rates when using normal earphones but it is still an excellent choice.
Cambridge Audio, in the audio market, is known as an aggressive player. They have followed that motto with their DacMagic XS. This one has a very low price but it is capable of rivaling even the advanced DAC/Amps. A small design, only two buttons, and an impressive sound quality, these are our thoughts about the DacMagic XS.
The DacMagic XS to has an aluminum shielded body with a nice smooth touch to it. Everything feels compact and well packed in this bad boy. However, volume up and volume down are the only control buttons. There are no bass or gain switches unlike our previous mentions in this list. Connections are made via a micro USB and a standard headphone jack.
The audio quality jump is clearly noticeable when this DAC is plugged in. The tonal balance is well refined, the details to the highs and lows are pleasant and easily distinguishable. Moreover, DacMagic accepts a bitrate of 24-bit/96kHz at USB1.0 and 24-bit/192kHz for USB 2.0. This high a bit rate is rarely used since it is neither readily available nor entertainable. However, it is a good sight to see it in this low cost DAC. There are buttons for volume controls and that is it. Bass and gain switch is not present here, meaning that there is not much variation or tweaking in the sound that can be made. Another thing is that this DAC is not compatible with tablets, leaving them out of the equation. It really doesn’t make much sense as to why Cambridge decided to leave tablets out of this DAC’s compatibility list.
The DacMagic XS is, no doubt, a DAC worthy of being mentioned. The sound quality is clear, crisp with a subtle balance in tones. However, by pooling in a few bucks more, you can buy the DragonQuest or the K3 DSD256 which sound significantly better. Despite that, the DacMagic is still a remarkable buy as it is compatible with Windows and Mac. It easily overrides the onboard soundcard and offers huge bumps in sound quality.
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Prices taken/valid at the time of review.