We all agree on this: A good DAC (digital-to-analog converter) can kick your music listening experience up a notch.
The best part is that some of the best DACs don’t cost a fortune, as you’ll see in the list of the best DACs under $100 we have in this article.
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- 1 Best 100-Dollar DAC Reviews
- 2 How Does a DAC Work?
- 3 FAQ
- 4 DAC Buying Guide
- 5 Final Words
Best 100-Dollar DAC Reviews
Whether you’re a casual listener or a sworn fanatic, here are the Digital-Analog-Converters under $100 to take your music habits to the next level.
EarStudio ES100 MK2-24bit High-Resolution Portable Bluetooth Receiver/USB DAC
We suggest you pick this if you’re hunting for the best USB DAC to elevate the sound that you hear through your headphones on a limited budget.
It sounds like a beast, looks good, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
The ES100 DAC doesn’t boast as many features as some of the pricey DACs out there but it does have the most dynamic range and an app-based remote control for controlling volume, the ten bands of EQ, sound signature, noise canceling, and more.
If you just want the best sound quality for the lowest price, then this portable Bluetooth DAC/AMP is it thanks to the perfect 2.5mm balanced output and unmatched fidelity.
The ES100 DAC offers a lot for under $100 including all the right codecs, but it’s the superior DualDrive Technology which makes the system really sing.
Meanwhile, the ES100 DAC offers 24 bit rate, 4 DAC filters, and more oversampling options than most Bluetooth DACs we have seen at this price.
The final highlights are the superb battery life and a solid build.
- Crisper, fuller, and louder than its competitors.
- Good size.
- Pairs with all Bluetooth-enabled devices.
- Others have better buttons.
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FiiO D3 (D03K) 192kHz/24bit DAC -Optical and Coaxial
Plenty of dirt-cheap options exist in the market to convert digital audio to analog stereo but none beats this at upgrading the sound of devices like TVs via vintage stereo systems.
Get ready for a stunning boost in volume and a nearly flawless audio experience!
The DAC offers a decent selection of features including an ultra-low jitter design digital receiver chip and support for all common sample rates including 32kHz, 96kHz, 44.1kHz, 192kHz, and 48kHz at up to 24 bit resolution.
It offers exceptional flexibility to boot- easily switch to either optical or coaxial input with the handy coaxial/optical switch.
The family of devices it’s compatible with is nothing short of astonishing: Digital TVs, HDTVs (CD/ DVD/ Blu-Ray/HD-DVD players), Google TV Revue, Apple TV, XBOX 360 Slim, PS3 All, DVRs, Tivo receivers, Integrated Amplifiers, Media Streaming Devices such as Roku Ultra…the list is endless.
In short, it works wonderfully with nearly every playback source with an optical Toslink/coaxial digital output.
And to get you started, the accessory comes with a Micca brand 6 feet optical Toslink digital audio cable.
Note: the digital audio signal from your device must either default to (or all you to set it to) PCM/LPCM output for this to make a difference.
- Dramatically improves clarity and soundstage.
- Excellent reproduction of sound.
- Super compact.
- Supports PCM audio signals only.
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AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 USB DAC Plug-in + Preamp + Headphone Amp
The AudioQuest DragonFly delivers the most stellar performance among all ultra-budget USB stick-sized DACs.
It outshines the previous award-winning DragonFly model by offering monumentally enhanced sound and greater dynamic range.
The AudioQuest DragonFly’s mix of features and tremendous innovation makes it the USB stick DAC under 100 yet, in our opinion.
There is a feast of notable landmarks including the ability to natively decode a world of audio resolutions (up to 24-bit/96kHz).
That said, we appreciate that it plays any file type –the resolution notwithstanding- from MP3 all the way to MQA and even Hi-Res!
Importantly, everything sounds phenomenal.
In fact, there is nothing associated with how you enjoy your music this immensely versatile USB DAC won’t improve- the detail (you’ll hear things you’ve never), immediacy, richness, transparency, and tone.
Everything is a noticeable step up from the old DragonFly and it now works seamlessly with iPhones, PCs, Macs, Laptops, Android smartphones, Tablets, and more.
And yes, its medium output (1.20 volts) drives a sea of headphones brilliantly!
In addition, they have taken the build quality up a level- the housing is metallic and there is an attractive exterior coating to go with it.
- Simple to hook up- pair devices with a straightforward adapter.
- Peerless sound quality.
- Remarkable portability.
- No major deal breaker.
How Does a DAC Work?
A DAC simply takes digital music files and transforms them into analog audio format.
Digital means your music is still in bundles of 1’s and 0’s and won’t be playable by conventional speakers – these need analog signals- until converted.
To be honest, most digital devices (think of computers, smartphones, tablets etc.), have a very simplistic DAC and that’s why they’ll play digital music files.
However, the sound quality is simply too lousy for true audiophiles.
As such, if you’re really serious about expanding your appreciation for music, an external DAC will be a must-have!
Here is some fantastic news: As their popularity soars, more budget brands have shown up in the market.
But on a more concerting note, the crowding of the low-priced market segment makes nailing the best budget DAC increasingly tough.
Fortunately, we have been looking at most of them and shortlisted the top 3 DACs under 100.
Keep reading- you’ll meet them in our reviews section.
Before then, we answer that momentous question: what should you look for when buying one?
What is a DAC?
In simple terms, a DAC (or a digital-to-analog converter) is a system that converts digital signals into analog signals so that your headphones can then create sound.
Does a DAC improve sound quality?
Digital to analogue converters came about as a response to poor quality of audio. DACs improve your overall listening quality by offering sound quality that is way better than you device can provide.
How do I know if I need a DAC?
If you can hear a hiss when listening to music, or if your music is disrupted by noise then you need a digital-to-analog converter.
How do I know if I need a DAC?
This depends on factors like budget and intended use among others. In this post, I’ll show you the best DACs you can get for $100. (Read more on how much to spend on a DAC)
DAC Buying Guide
As for features, every of the DACs under 100 is different — and we have features you need to pay more attention to.
We wrote this article to help you pick the right one for your entertainment needs so let’s talk about these high-priority considerations.
- The quality of cables
Yes, there are a lot of options- USB (for PC connectivity), optical digital/coaxial digital cables (for CD/network music players), and more- and you’ll experience low volume and distorted sound with poor cable. To be safe, pick a model with a balanced cable even if it means purchasing separately.
- Its translation capability
People believe that high sampling rates and bit depths translate to sonic powers. Wrong because they merely indicate its theoretical potential. What you should be more concerned about is whether it can translate digital files with minimal loss/degradation.
- What device do you have in mind?
Buy a phone-specific DAC for your Android/iOS device, a specialized desktop DAC for your PC, or a component Hi-Fi DAC if you want more versatility.
PS: You’ll understand how to match better after reading our last point…
- Choose one of the four types: Component DACs, Headphone DACs, Desktop DACs, USB DACs, and Wireless DACs
Yes, you have one more thing to think about before proceeding: decide which of the 5 types is likely to be more useful to you.
Of course, they all serve the same purpose: create a richer sound which is more immersive, more real, all of that.
We’re here to help so this bit-sized explanation will point you in the right direction…
- Desktop DACs- This sits on your desk and draws power from your PCs’ USB port (some have batteries). If you have seen a Walkman, you’ll get an idea about its size. You can hook it up with a CD player, PC, headphones, an amp, etc.
- USB DACs- The first mobile option, this is again powered via a USB port/built-in batteries. Most folks use them with headphones/a headphone amp.
- Phone DACs- The perfect companion for your smartphone, these come with own battery source to enhance portability.
- Component/Hi-Fi DACs- Feature packed and the most capable, these breathe new life into the music coming from home theatres, headphones, various types of speakers….you name it.
- Wireless DACs- Buy this (they mostly use Bluetooth) if you plan to be streaming music to your device from another in a different location as you walk about. You can, for instance, stream to your phone from the PC in the bedroom as you mop the floor.
- Good to ask: What type of audio are you looking at?
I’m afraid you may not get an immense sound difference with a DAC if you get your music resolution wrong.
To get around this, simply set the highest possible resolution when downloading /streaming music from Spotify, YouTube, Google Play Music, and more.
Suffice to say that this is universal to all DACs.
Let me pose a question: was that helpful?
Now go back and take another look at the best DACs under 100 models around right now and make a final decision.
We will be happy to hear about how transformative your choice has been a few months down the line- remember to come back and tell us how the model you’ve selected is treating you in the comments section.
Other shoppers will appreciate it as well.