If the audio output from your mobile device isn’t loud enough or clean enough, maybe you need an outboard DAC and headphone amplifier.
But don’t worry, if you don’t want to spend a lot of money?
In our review of the best USB DACs under $100, we’ve included several different styles to better match your preference. And every one is sure to improve 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 ahead to the next section. The reviews use several standard abbreviations and acronyms for common technical terms. These are all explained below.
Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead to the product review section.
Best USB DACs under $100 Guidelines: What to Look For When You Buy a USB DAC?
Audio digital to analog converters (DACs) come in all shapes and sizes. They can be generally classified into a few categories.
An in-line DAC
This is basically an enhanced cable. At one end is a USB connector to connect to a phone or similar device. At the other end is a jack for connecting earbuds or headphones. Inside the molded USB plug are one or more integrated circuit (IC) “chips” that perform the conversion and amplify the output.
These types of DACs are very small and lightweight, and ideal for use with a phone.
These often resemble a typical memory stick, also with a USB connector (usually a full-size USB A type) and headphone jack on opposite ends. Because there’s 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 get moved around too much and has a USB port.
A variation of the memory stick design has a USB jack (female) instead of a plug (male). This lets you connect your own USB cable of any length. Larger models can include a volume control, control switches, and additional outputs.
Finally, we have desktop DACs that usually come in a traditional rectangular case, with controls on the front panel, including a large volume knob. On the back are all of the connections, which can include USB, optical and coaxial inputs, and stereo line outputs. It’s usually powered by AC “wall wart” adapters, so they are not practical for portable devices.
First, to get the terminology correct: a “plug,” or male connector, sticks out; a “jack,” (female connector) is recessed.
USB connectors come in several flavors. The wide, flat plug on the end of a memory stick is a USB A connector. A smaller and more square connector is a Type B. Commonly, mobile devices use a micro-A connector, which is both smaller and more durable.
What about audio connectors?
All of the DACs reviewed are equipped with 3.5mm stereo audio jacks. Most wired earbuds and portable headphones have plugs that are compatible. Studio headphones often have larger 1/4-inch plugs. To use these, you’ll need an adapter.
Power Output and Impedance
All of the DACs reviewed include a small amplifier powerful enough to drive a set of headphones. Some also include a line level output for powered speakers.
The amount of power varies, with the simplest models providing about 130 milliwatts (mW). This is enough for a typical set of earbuds, though probably not enough for high-impedance headphones.
Impedance is resistance to an AC electric current, measured in ohms. Headphone impedance can vary, from as low as 8 ohms to over 600 ohms. Higher impedance headphones generally sound better but require more power for the same sound level. Earbuds are typically around 16 – 32 ohms.
In other words, plugging your high-impedance headphones into a 130mW amp won’t give you very much sound.
Sample Rates and Bit Depth
There are two variables in digital audio that are most important in determining audio quality. 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 every second. Bit depth indicates how accurate a sample is.
“CD quality” and more…
Compact disks (CDs) contain digital audio sampled at 44.1 kHz and 16 bits. That seemed amazing 40 years ago, but today it’s considered the bare minimum for high-quality music reproduction. 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 sample can have any of 65,536 (216) possible amplitude values, while 24-bits provides nearly 16.8 million values, making it much more finely detailed. The virtually infinitesimal resolution of 32-bit audio (4.3 billion values) is useful mainly in audio mastering applications.
Digital Audio Formats
Digital audio can be stored and transmitted in several formats. But not every DAC can decode every format.
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 Stream Digital (DSD)
This is a system originally used by Sony and Philips for their Super Audio CDs (SACD). It’s capable of sound reproduction significantly superior to CDs. There are several DSD variations, 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 improve the audio of a traditional CD or audio file. Special MQA CDs can also be made that take advantage of this innovation.
What is MQA?
The technology behind MQA is complex, and a full description is somewhat time-consuming. Suffice to say that it “deblurs” the audio by cleaning up the timing of samples. When paired 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…
Top 8 Best USB DACs under $100 On The Market Reviews
1 JSAUX USB Type C to Aux Audio Dongle Cable – Best Budget USB DAC under $100
The JSAUX adapter is about as basic and inexpensive a USB DAC as you’ll find. It consists of a short cable, about 11 inches (280 mm), with a USB Type C plug at one end and a female 3.5mm stereo audio connector at the other. Molded into the USB connector is a DAC chip and an ultra-low-power headphone amplifier. It’s available in black, blue, grey and red.
Yet despite its simple design, this adapter is well-made and performs adequately. The cable is wrapped with a tough, woven nylon outer shell that protects it from damage. And the manufacturer claims that the large strain reliefs at each end can withstand bending more than 15,000 times.
Superb for earbuds…
The Conexant DAC is an older model (the company folded in 2017) that can decode PCM at up to 96 kHz with 24-bit resolution. This is still excellent, but not as high as some of the other models reviewed. The amplifier delivers 135 milliwatts, enough to drive stereo earbuds.
Weighing just .141 ounces (4gr), this device is directly compatible with MacBook and MacBook Air, most Android phones, and iPod Pro. JSAUX provides an 18-month warranty.
- Very inexpensive.
- Sturdy cable.
- Older DAC chip.
- Minimal power output.
2 CLIPTHAT Type C to Aux Audio Jack 32Bit/384Khz Hi-Res Portable USB C DAC dongle – Best In-Line DAC under $100
The CLIPTHAT adapter is similar to the JSAUX model, but with a couple of significant improvements. For one, the 3.5mm audio connector is gold-plated, so it won’t corrode over time. And the cable uses oxygen-free copper wire for lower resistance.
More significantly, the newer RealTek ALC4042 DAC supports PCM decoding up to 384 kHz/32 bits, as well as Direct Stream Digital (DSD) 64 and 128 lossless formats. And the built-in Class-G amp can handle headphones with an impedance of 16 to 600 ohms, with an output of 35 milliwatts.
It has an impressive frequency response of 20 Hz – 40 kHz, signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of 120 dB, and harmonic distortion, a vanishingly small 0.0003 percent.
Another enhancement is its noise-cancelling technology. Also, support is provided for 4-button in-line headset control.
CLIPTHAT is compatible with Android, Windows, and MacOS systems. And it comes with a lifetime warranty!
- Very inexpensive.
- Up to 384 kHz / 32-bit decoding.
- Noise cancellation technology.
- Lifetime warranty.
- Not compatible with iPhone.
- Only available in black.
3 XtremPro X1-1 High Performance USB DAC Headphone Amp 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 for use with a desktop or laptop computer. You can connect it to your phone with the correct USB C or Lightning adapter, though it draws more power than a smaller cable DAC.
At its heart is a premier ESS Sabre 9023 stereo DAC. It can play music files from MP3 format to 96 kHz/24-bit uncompressed. Isolated dual master clocks ensure that all samples are processed without conversion or rounding errors.
Only for low impedance headphones…
With 125mW of power from a Texas Instruments TPA6130A2 Class AB headphone amp, the 3.5-inch audio jack can drive low-impedance headphones directly. Output volume is controlled by a 64-position analog control that runs on the host device.
The XtremePro includes a 12-month replacement warranty.
- High-quality DAC and amp chips.
- Volume control on host device.
- Maximum data rate 96 kHz/24-bit.
- Low output power not good for high-impedance headphones.
- Not optimized for mobile devices.
4 AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 Plug-in USB DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp – Best Audiophile USB DAC under $100
The AudioQuest DragonFly is another DAC/headphone amp that resembles a large memory stick, 2.4 x .75 x .47 inches (62 x 19 x 12mm). The black plastic case has a male USB A connector at one end and a 3.5mm headphone jack at the other. This Black model is the most affordable member of the Dragonfly family.
It features the ESS Technology 9010K2M Sabre DAC, which can handle everything from MP3 files to 96 kHz/24-bit uncompressed digital audio. With digital noise reduction (DNR) as high as 116dB and harmonic distortion of –106dB, audio quality should satisfy the most demanding audiophile.
The headphone amp is a Texas Instruments TPA6130A2. It’s capable of delivering 300 mW of power to 16-ohm headphones, with an SNR of 98 dB.
DragonFly Black includes a 64-step analog volume control. When connected to a PC or mobile device, the host’s system volume control controls the DragonFly Black’s onboard volume. Other attractive features include support for MQA rendering and upgradeable firmware via USB.
It’s compatible with Apple iOS (5 and later) and Android (version 5 Lollipop and later) phones, as well as Windows and MacOS desktop computers. It draws extremely low current, helping to conserve your phone’s battery life.
- High-quality electronic components.
- Low current draw.
- MQA rendering.
- 96 kHz maximum audio rate.
- No hardware volume control.
5 Asseso AP1 Portable Bluetooth 5.0 USB DAC/Headphone Receiver – Best USB DAC under $100 for Calling and Siri
The Asseso AP1 can connect to your digital device via its USB port, or you can go completely wireless. It incorporates Qualcomm aptX HD technology to deliver 24-bit, low-latency digital audio over Bluetooth 5.0. Outdoors, it has a range of up to 164 feet (50 m), and 32 feet (10 m) indoors. You connect wired headphones to this device; Bluetooth headphones aren’t supported.
The internal Cirrus Logic DAC provides a 114 dB signal-to-noise ratio. The audio quality is excellent, although it’s designed to work only with CD-quality (44.1 kHz/16-bit) data.
Phone call and Siri support included!
For phone calls or Siri, the AP1 includes an internal microphone with Qualcomm Clear Voice Capture (CvC). You can pair 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 and off, play or pause (hold it longer to choose Siri or Google Assistant), adjust volume up and down, and select the next or previous track. A sturdy metal clip lets you attach it to a pocket or lapel. Estimated life of the included lithium-ion battery is over seven hours on a single charge.
- Bluetooth 5.0 option.
- Clear Voice Capture.
- Lightweight and portable.
- Doesn’t work with audio rates above CD quality.
- Bluetooth headphones not supported.
6 FiiO Q1 Mark II Native DSD DAC & Amplifier for iPhone, iPod, iPad and Computers – Best Full-Featured DAC under $100
The FiiO Q1 Mark II offers several extras not found in other models reviewed here. For one, it features both balanced and single-end (unbalanced) headphone jacks. Also, it includes gain and bass boost switches in addition to a volume knob to better match your headphones and listening preferences.
It features an AKM 4452 32-bit stereo DAC, with 8 channels of AKM’s VELVET SOUND architecture. It will decode PCM audio data up to 384 kHz/32 bits, as well as 11.2 MHz DSD256, with a signal-to-noise ratio up to 115 dB. The headphone amplifier uses a low-noise Texas Instruments OPA926 chip, while low-pass filtering is handled by a TI OPA1662.
A great choice for apple products…
It works flawlessly with all iPhones. Just 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 is needed for use with a MacOS computer; Windows requires a driver easily available from the FiiO website.
The Q1 is somewhat larger than many DACs designed for use with phones, about the size of a thin cigarette pack. It comes with a generous package of accessories, 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 hold it in place with your phone, plus a carrying pouch.
- Input up to 384 kHz/32.
- DSD256 support.
- Balanced and unbalanced outputs.
- Comprehensive accessory kit.
- Relatively expensive.
7 FX-Audio DAC-X6 Mini HiFi 2.0 Digital Audio Decoder DAC
FX-Audio’s DAC-X6, available with a black or silver faceplate and volume knob, is a desktop DAC and headphone amp. It accepts USB, optical and coaxial inputs, and includes both a stereo 1/4-inch headphone jack on the front panel and discrete left and right RCA outputs on the back for connecting to powered speakers. The volume control affects the headphone output only.
The circuit utilizes the 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 mixing, 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 percent) Audio Operational Amplifier, and TPA6120A2 Headphone Amplifier. A relay circuit protects the headphone and speaker outputs from overload.
The headphone output is optimized for 32 – 600-ohm phones. For 16-ohm phones, the power output is 520 mW. The line level outputs provide 1.8 volts RMS. Overall signal-to-noise is 94 dB.
What’s in the box?
The DAC-X6 is powered from an included external 12-volt “wall wart” adapter that works with any input voltage from 100 to 240 AC volts. Also included is a USB cable and a 1/4-inch to 3.5mm audio adapter.
The unit is relatively small for a desktop box, 5.7 x 3.9 x 1.4 inches (145 x 100 x 36mm), and weighs 1.1 pounds (0.5kg).
- Excellent audio quality.
- Small footprint.
- 24-bit support only.
- No volume control on line outputs.
10 Cyrus Audio soundKey Portable Inline Amp & DAC
The soundKey DAC from Cyrus Audio has an overall design that’s similar to in-line cable models, with a micro USB connector at one end and a 3.5mm headphone jack at the other. But inside the case, not much larger than a typical memory stick and weighing less than 0.6 ounces (16 gr), is a more complex circuit 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 about 500 milliamps, about half of most other DACs. So your phone battery will last longer!
Able to handle up to 96 kHz / 24-bit audio files, the 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.
- Low current consumption.
- Small and lightweight.
- No volume control.
- Relatively expensive.
Looking to also upgrade your earbuds or headphones?
If so, check out our reviews of the Best Earbuds under 100 Dollars, the Most Durable Earbuds, the Best Earbuds under 50 Dollars, or the Best Headphones and Earbuds for Sleeping, and the Best Noise Cancelling Earbuds 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 Dollars, the Best Waterproof Headphones, and the Most Comfortable Headphones on the market in 2021.
So, what are the Best USB DACs under $100?
To a great degree, our choice (and yours) of the best DAC depends on the application. So, here are two of our favorites…
Best In-Line DAC for under $100
This just has to be the…
It has a gold-plated audio connector, can handle both PCM (up to 384 kHz) and DSD64 and 128, and includes noise-cancelling technology, all at a very low price. These features make this one a winner, especially if you want a device that’s small and inexpensive.
Best Full-Featured DAC for under $100
…wins this category hands-down. High PCM sample rates, DSD256 support, dual headphone outputs, and an excellent accessory kit all make this product stand out from the crowd.
All the DACs reviewed here will improve the audio quality from 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.