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2016 Editor’s Choice: DACs under $1000

  • Best. Such a slippery word. Best for whom? What specific qualities or quantities require optimisation to qualify for B-word assignation? Does the listener require headphone connectivity or are a pair of RCAs sufficient? Is listening pleasure derived from ultimate detail or is preference given to a little euphony?

    Here, at 2016’s halfway point, the notion of the ‘Best’ provides the context for a longer look into the rear-view mirror at five top-drawer sub-$1000 DACs, all but one of which have done time at DAR HQ.

    AudioQuest DragonFly Black (US$99) / DragonFly Red (US$199)


    In 2016, the DAC conversation starts with the US$99 Gordon Rankin-designed dongle DAC from AudioQuest. Not simply because it leap frogs the sound quality of your average laptop or smartphone’s 3.5mm audio output by quite some margin but because its low power draw allows the Black to extract digital audio from any computer or smartphone, no wall wart required. The DragonFly Black delivers high fidelity sound with nary a hint of price-point compromise.

    Got a bit more cash to splash? The DragonFly Red at US$199 shares the same form factor and low-noise power supplies as the more affordable Black but the spec-sheet superiority of its DAC and headphone driver deliver a more open soundstage, better separation, a little more detail and greater authority when driving more challenging loads.

    Not that the DragonFly Black and Red are headphone-only devices; a 3.5mm-to-RCA splitter cable will see either model happily drive the line-level input of almost any integrated amplifier.

    Best for flexibility and portability.

    Further information: AudioQuest

    Chord Electronics Mojo (US$599)


    No ‘best DAC’ list worth its salt would be complete without a shout out to the UK’s Chord Electronics for their most popular model to date. The Mojo puts battery power and Rob Watts’ FPGA code in a solid, palm-sized shell for portable or main system D/A conversion. Think of the Mojo as a self-powered DragonFly but on steroids – and yes, it’s well worth those extra dollars.

    According to company founder John Franks, the Mojo delivers Hugo-grade performance, with an ever-so-slightly warmer voicing, but for a quarter of the forerunner’s price. I do not disagree. The Mojo doesn’t just erode the Hugo’s bang for buck, it blows it clean out of the water. Often overlooked is the Hugo’s reliance on a wall-wart for battery recharging whilst the Mojo will happily suck 5V from your computer’s USB port or a mobile phone charger.

    For loudspeaker systems, consideration should be given to keeping Mojo charged between listening sessions. On the go with a Lightning or an OTG cable passing ones and zeroes from a smartphone to the Mojo, you’ll need to think about pocketability. It’s where the forthcoming Mojo ‘extender’ comes into play.

    Smartphone-strapping quibbles aside, the Mojo’s talents in unearthing the finest of details and delivering them with one eye on dynamic thrust and one on nuance are unsurpassed at its price point (and beyond) – possibly why many see the Chord Mojo as the number one goto decoder for under a grand right now. I concur, especially when tonal mass is taken care of by downstream electronics and loudspeakers/headphones.

    Best for ultimate resolution.

    Further information: Chord Electronics

    Schiit Bifrost Multibit (US$599)


    For those in the know, the pun-tastic Californian manufacturer is king of hill when it comes to value without a gotcha. Trickledown of company Number 2 Mike Moffat’s “Burrito” filter and (typically non-audio) Analog Devices chips reached the Bifrost in the second half of 2015; that gave buyers an alternative to the orig delta-sigma version.

    The multibit Bifrost it’s a winner! This is a straight-up DAC. There’s no onboard headphone amplifier and the power supply comes direct from the wall. It might not be quite as resolving as the Chord Mojo but it brings greater fleshiness and tonal mass to systems than lean towards the lean. It’s no better than the Mojo, but it’s no worse either. The Mulitbit Bifrost is a different kind of be(a)st altogether. As Jason Stoddard once referred to it, “It’s a happy DAC”.

    Best for a wide/r range of source material quality.

    Further information: Schiit Audio

    Resonessence Labs Concero HD (US$850)


    Like the form factor of the AudioQuest DragonFly but need support for PCM 24bit/192kHz and DSD? The more rambunctious sounding Herus could be the ticket. Instead of iOS support you get a more powerful headphone driver stage that can also feed an integrated amplifier input from its 6.4mm socket. The latter is doubly useful for those with stay-at-home cans terminated with a full-size plug.

    However, the Concero HD, whilst still USB bus-powered, trades in a headphone socket for a pair of single-ended RCA ouputs. Resonessence Labs’ house sound, one that I’d call “dynamically transparent”, is even more evident here. Perhaps a result of the company being a spin-off from chip manufacturer ESS Labs. Who better to implement Sabre-fuelled D/A silicon than a derivative of the company that makes ‘em? And if that doesn’t convince you, know that the Concero HD will operate as a USB-S/PDIF converter once you upgrade to a better DAC.

    Best for file format support.

    Further information: Resonessence Labs

    Meridian Explorer2 (US$299)


    This is the only DAC in this list so far unheard by yours truly. Why include it? Simple: MQA – Bob Stuart co-founded Meridian so it’s no surprise that the UK company’s range of D/A converters would be some of the first to add support for Stuart’s new file format. I heard good things when I auditioned MQA (the format) at DAR HQ but remain cognisant of ongoing industry push back and a dearth of meaningful content. Hearing big promises on the back of a small catalogue has all the hallmarks of DSD so my jury remains out. The Explorer2 means you can decide for yourself without re-mortgaging the farm.

    Best for getting a taste of MQA.

    Further information: Meridian Audio

    Further thoughts. The majority of these DACs don’t push the self-imposed thousand dollar budget to its limit to leave room for the addition of a USB or S/PDIF re-clocker like those offered by UpTone Audio, Schiit, Wyred 4 Sound and iFi Micro.

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Have to thank you for your DF-Red review. It’s the one that finally pushed me to take the plunge. My collection tops out at 24/96 (and with only a handful of albums in that bitrate) and I doubt I’ll be going for any of the Chesky In The Krallshop type of stuff that’s usually released in higher rates anyway, nor do I think my ears can ever hear the difference, frankly. The Gordon Rankin related article you featured where he claimed UAC1 was less schizo than UAC2 basically sealed the deal for me.

      Was a bit skeptical when you claimed the DF-Red equaled or outperformed the output of high performance DAPs, and while I haven’t sampled any of the “aircraft grade” duralumin DAPs, it is definitely in the same ballpark as the lesser AKs and Sony ZX1/2 models I’ve sampled in the past. Also picked up an ATH-E70 (IEM) and had a custom silicone sleeve for it made by Spiral Ear, and it pairs very well with the DF-Red. No additional power cable cluttering up my desktop, no need for Class A amp stage that doubles as a sauna (great for Finland, but not ideal for me in the sweaty tropics), and no need for any Plutocrat Inc branded USB cable. My wallet’s the happiest it’s ever been, and I reckon the sound quality isn’t that far off the best I’ve ever owned.

      Again, thank you John (and Gordon), sincerely.

    2. John, I’ve been greatly enjoying my DF Red for the last several months. Of the Mojo and the Bifrost, which would you say has the more relaxed presentation?

    3. great list, can’t really disagree with any of the entries, although some DAPs could double as DACs that could possible be included, like Pioneer, A&K or Fiio, none of which could better the mojo but some might better the dragonfly and the pioneer dap/dac offers MQA support and portability.

      I have the mojo and currently using it with the lcd X, should I side grade to the ether or ether Cs would inserting ALO’s portable amps improve on the density? or do I have to consider the desktop variants?


    4. You really need to hear some of iFi Audio’s products John. The iDSD definitely deserves to be on this list. It will do any sample rate you can throw at it, and the headphone amp packs a wallop – 4,000mW.

    5. Thanks for the list & the evaluations, John.

      I recently got the Auralic Aries Mini, and I thought the built-in DAC wasn’t too bad, better than I though it would be. How does it compare to the Schiit Bifrost Multibit?

      I’m pretty sure you have heard both of these components, so I would appreciate your input on this.

      Thank you.

    6. Thank you for a great summary :).

      QQ: between Bimby and Mojo, which one would you consider a better matching for Beyerdynamics (DT880, soon to be replaced with a T1 though). I’m inclined to say Bimby because you weren’t particularly happy with Mojo + T1.

        • You’re right – Schiit Vali (currently) or Schiit Lyr 2 (future). Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated 🙂

    7. I have the DF Red and an older version of the black. The red sounds great, but it is power hungry, you can’t make a day sitting at your desk with out being plugged in. It draws my iPhone 6+ pretty quickly.

      • True; it sucks the life out of an iPod Touch, driving Shure 1840’s, in a little over 6 hours.

        Now looking for an iOS compliant, powered table-top DAC/Amp; Marantz HD-DAC1 currently top of the crop.

        Any alternative suggestions, folks…?

    8. just wonderin’.what happens when ,come october,all macs go usb c?
      hi end ain’t about adapters.
      michele from rome

    9. Obviously very nice DACs included here, but one that’s conspicuously absent is iFI’s iDAC2. Fronted by one of the iUSB3.0s, it’s surprisingly close to much weighter DACs like the big Schiit Audio Yaggy and surpasses more expensive classics like the Wyred 4 Sound DAC2.

    10. Hi there, I, like many, am trying to decide between the Mojo and the Bifrost Multibit for my Rega Brio r and Dynaudio x12. My Arcam rdac is old and not working properly. Need a new dac.
      Which would be best here, in your view? Does the Mojo battery issue makes it hard to keep it in a main system?

      • With the Brio R sounding a few degrees warmer than your average solid state amp, I’d probably lean toward the Mojo. Use one microUSB cable to keep it on charge, a second for audio.

      • If you want to avoid using a battery powered DAC in your main system, I’ve found that the iFi micro iDAC2 plus nano iUSB3.0 are a pretty impressive sounding combo.

    11. what do you mean by giving consideration to leaving the mojo charging in between listenin sessions – yes or no (for battery longevity)?

      • I have three battery powered DACs and do worry a little about longevity since I don’t believe the batteries are replaceable. Once the batteries stop charging, I’ll have about $1k in paper-weights.

    High-end future-fi: Devialet’s Expert Pro 1000

    Music / response: soundtracking Hong Kong