Are you seeking a DAC that’s worth your money? Well, look no further! In this guide, we’ll explain the 6 best DACs under $500.
We will discuss their strengths and weaknesses to help you make a conscious buying decision.
By the end, it’s up to you to decide which DAC under $500 will fit well with your current sound system. Now let’s begin!
|Best DAC Under $500||Model||Expert Rating||Price|
|Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus|
|iFi Nano iDSD|
|S.M.S.L SU-9 MQA|
|Cambridge Audio AXA 35 35 Watt 2|
|S.M.S.L M500 DAC Headphone Amp|
What to Look for in the Best DAC Under $500
Look for a DAC that has good volume control based on your headphones. If you buy a DAC for headphones with high impedance, you won’t be able to play music at your desired volume.
High impedance translates into lower volume or great detail at the same time.
When buying a DAC, you’ll need to purchase an amplifier to match the volume of low impedance headphones. Buying a pair of headphones and a DAC with no amplifier will reduce your sound quality.
Getting a good DAC/AMP is the first step if you’re trying to maximize sound performance. To fully utilize the improved sound quality, you’ll need a good pair of headphones.
The traditional earbuds or the old earphones you’ve had since the late 2000s won’t cut it. Because of this reason, remember to factor the quality of your headphones into your DAC budget.
Wired vs. Wireless Input
Wireless connectivity can be confusing when it comes to DACs. Many people assume their Bluetooth speakers or headphones will pair with their DACs.
However, the DAC does not play a role in this process. The Bluetooth speakers and headphones can only use digital Bluetooth codecs (i.e., aptX) and their DACs to create sound. This means that the DAC’s analog signal has no value to them.
When discussing wireless usability with DACs, we’re talking about. If this is what you’re looking for, you have two options. Buy a DAC that comes with a Bluetooth receiver, or buy one that has a separate Bluetooth receiver. This would result in the digital stream that has to be sent to the DAC via a digital cable.
We suggest sticking to a wired input connection. Bluetooth is unable to handle the lossless audio transmission, making it difficult to play CD-quality audio. Plus, you will be unable to listen to hi-resolution audio formats (i.e., MQA, FLAC, etc.).
Basically, a high-end DAC would have to process low-resolution, lossy Bluetooth codecs. This is a huge reason why the majority of DACs aren’t Bluetooth enabled to begin with.
Behind every DAC is an even smaller DAC chip. The DAC chip processes the input differently, resulting in different output and unique sound qualities. Some of them can’t process a higher sample rate of audio.
Check the DAC chip to ensure your DAC device has the processing needed to sound properly.
The 6 Best DAC Under $500:
- USB-A Connector
- Streaming Status Indicator
- 1v Output Drive
- ESS 9016 DAC Chip
- Decodes 24-bit/96kHz data
The AudioQuest DragonFly Red is a natural-sounding and dynamic miniature headphone amp. Inside the amp is an ESS ES9016 chip. The chip has a quick roll-off filter and uses a minimum-phase filtering process. That way, the music has natural dynamics, and the stereo image has clearer details.
Connectivity is one of its highlight features, as its USB-A port can connect to iOs and Android devices with ease. You can connect with almost any headphones thanks to its 2.1v output drives. There is a 3.5-inch mini-plug that allows you to connect the device to speakers, an audio system, or a pair of headphones.
When glancing at the LED light, the AudioQuest DragonFly Red gives you an indicator of its sampling rate. The colors are as follows: Red: “standby” – Magenta: 96 Khz – Amber: 88.2 Khz – Blue 48 Khz – Green 44.1 Khz. This makes it easier to gauge the quality of your music, making it a great choice for audiophiles.
The AudioQuest DragonFly Red is the same size as a USB stick, so it can easily slide into a purse, pocket, or backpack. With its dimension size of 2.44 x 0.75 x 0.47 inches, it’s extremely lightweight considering the technology inside it.
Overall, get the AudioQuest DragonFly Red if you want the Best Dac under 500. It gives a three-dimensional element to your sound imaging and has clear music details. The DAC is compatible with streaming devices such as Apple Music, Qobuz, Spotify, and Tidal, allowing users to maximize their sound opportunities.
- Playback: 32-bit / 384 kHz
- RGB LED Strip
- 122 dB Signal to Noise Ratio
- ESS SABRE32 Ultra Chip
- Dolby Digital Live Enabled
The Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus combines improved audio performance and aesthetic value. The RGB lighting feature (which can be turned off) fits any gaming system, making it a good option for the gamer in your family.
Its main feature is the SABRE32 Ultra DAC. In comparison to standard motherboard audio chips, this DAC produces sound with 32x more clarity. It has a 32-bit / 384 kHz maximum lossless playback rate and a 122 dB signal-to-noise ratio, resulting in hi-fidelity sound from a direct audio source.
The Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus uses Xamp (a built-in amplifier) for headphone usage. It works for headphones with up to 600 Ohm resistance and uses two stereo channels. All important components are shielded, and there is a stylish backplate that provides more protection than traditional PCBs.
Users who want to use this device without a stereo speaker system or headphones will get their money’s worth. In games like Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Call of Duty, you can precisely hear the sound sources with no problem. The presets that were already available or set for each game were very helpful.
The Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus is a great DAC for gamers trying to maximize their gaming performance. The SABRE32 Ultra DAC chip provides excellent sound quality and supports 7.1 Surround Sound. Thus, giving you an affordable DAC that’s proven to enhance your gaming sessions.
- MQA Compatible
- Burr-Brown Chipset
- Aircraft Grade Aluminum Case
- 240 Ohm Output Impedance
- Battery Power: 6-8 Hours
The iFi Nano iDSD has a built-in Burr-Brown True NativeDAC that handles file sizes within a 32bit/384kHz format. This is more than enough to suit most listening needs. Also, it supports MQA, giving you extended playback to Tidal Files and physical MQA files. This gives you the diversity needed to play music from any sound source.
Regarding its build quality, the iFi Nano iDSD is built like a tank with a metal exterior. The volume knob and switches are high quality and feel seamless when turning the knob. This DAC will last a lifetime as long as you don’t throw it around the house.
The S-Balanced topology is used to deliver maximum performance from balanced and single-ended headphones alike. Additionally, a thick USB-A cable can be connected to a PC, giving you more sound possibilities at your fingertips.
Plus, there are two digital filter options if you want to tweak your sound: The “Measure” (Linear Phase Transient Aligned Filter) and the “Listen” (Minimum Phase Bezier Filter) settings. While some users won’t notice the subtle differences between them, this feature is present in more high-end DACs, so audio enthusiasts will love to have it at an affordable price.
Basically, the iFi Nano iDSD offers great value, is compact enough to use while traveling yet durable enough to work with a desktop. If you’re looking for one of the Best Dac under 500, this device has the versatility, building construction, and sound performance to leave you satisfied.
- Ultra Audio Transmission
- Sampling Rate: 44.1 ~ 768kHz
- RCA/XLR Output
- ES9038 and ES9311 power chips
- DSD Decoding
The SMSL SU-9 features a TOTAL ES9038PRO DAC with eight internal DAC channels. It can encode multiple audio formats such as PCM, MQA streams up to 32-bit/768Khz. The DoP64 is supported through coaxial and optical, giving you more sound files to listen to.
Based on its inputs, the SMSL SU-9 is not lacking in versatility. For instance, it consists of an RCA output and an XLR output; They can be either set at line level (full output) or be remote controlled where the SU-9 doubles as a preamp.
We like the SMSL SU-9’s intuitive menu selection. Pressing the rotary dial sends you to the main menu, rotating it cycles you through the options, and clicking it again selects the menu option. Thus, giving you better sound control than competing DACs.
To reduce noise coming from the power supply, the SMSL SU-9 uses an ES9311 regulator. This is a low-dropout, +3.3V low-noise regulator designed to eliminate the use of output decoupling capacitors. As a result, the DAC provides clean power while keeping the noise levels under 1μV.
Get the SMSL SU-9 if you want a DAC that works properly and fits well next to your desktop. It has an ultra audio transmission (UAT) feature that has a 192kHz sampling rate. So you’re getting a DAC that works quietly and effectively.
- Power: 35 Watts
- Frequency Response: 5Hz – 50kHz
- Max Power Consumption: 260 W
- ¼ Inch Headphone Socket
- 4 Analog Inputs
The Cambridge Audio AXA 35 35 Watt 2 delivers a full, confident sound. Whether positioning vocals inside a sound image, carving out basslines, or creating a deep bass, the AXA35 delivers all of this in a clear and precise manner.
A row of four buttons is located underneath the DAC’s display. A menu button and a volume dial are on the right, while the 3.5mm auxiliary input and 6.355 headphone output is located on the left of the amp’s infrared receiver.
You’ll notice the tone and balance controls under the amp’s menu system. Strangely enough, the treble and bass can only be adjusted in two steps. But we doubt you’ll have much reason to use this unless you’re a severe audio aficionado.
The Cambridge Audio AXA 35 35 Watt 2 has superior build quality. It has a solid aluminum chassis material and well soldered rear ports. When in use, the DAC doesn’t feel loose or wiggle around.
Select the Cambridge Audio AXA 35 35 Watt 2 if you want a DAC that has neutral tonal balance and good build construction. With this system, it plays well with speakers and ones that provide stage depth backward and forward. This gives you enough power needed to hear your favorite movies and games in HD sound.
- 32-bit Audio Processing
- ES9038PRO D/A Chip
- 120 dB Signal-to-Noise Ratio
- 7 Digital Filter Modes
- MQA Decoder
Last on our list is the S.M.S.L M500 DAC Headphone Amp. It features a ¼” (6.35mm) headphone jack and a volume wheel that acts as a standby button. Press the wheel for a few seconds to activate standby mode.
Based on its ES9038 PRO DAC chip, it’s the top-of-the-line in audio equipment. It has a high-performance ES9311 regulator that works with the ES9038 PRO to get the most out of this device. The chip is a low-dropout, low-noise regulator that’s designed for high-performing audio systems.
The S.M.S.L. M500 delivers up to 570mW in 32 Ohms and 65mW in 300 Ohm loads in terms of power. Additionally, there is a low-noise power supply located inside the metal shell. This keeps the headphone amp shielded from analog circuits, which leads to better results.
The S.M.S.L. M500 has a bright LED screen with over nine brightness levels to choose from. It has over four digital inputs (Coaxial, Optical 1 and 2, and USB), which work well with TVs and gaming consoles. This DAC is known for its straightforward menu system, making it easy for beginners to use.
Mainly, the S.M.S.L. M500 is one of the Best Dac under 500. It has simple controls, durability, and excellent sound reproduction. By using this DAC, you’ll be able to take your music experience to the next level.
FAQs About the Best DAC Under $500
Why Do I Need a DAC?
Fifty years ago, DACs were not required to produce an analog signal. The microphones within a recording studio captured voices and sound as analog signals (usually in a reel-to-reel tape form).
The turntable needle “felt” the grooves and converted them into analog signals whenever you listened to music. It worked by transmitting the analog signal from the preamp to the speakers.
In modern music, analog sound is gathered by bitstreams (a series of 0s and 1s) and converted into digital sound. The series of numbers needs a digital-analog-converter if you want to listen to the analog signal. You need a DAC because it allows you to enjoy the convenience and portability of digital audio.
What Connection Works Best For Me?
This depends on your audio configuration, but if you’re connecting your DAC to a PC/MAC, make sure that it has a USB or wireless connection.
If anything, you don’t have to worry about the connection because the final sound signal will be analog. So, you won’t have any sound quality loss using a USB connection.
If you’re using an advanced DAC system, chances are it has multiple connectors. For instance, some systems have a headphone jack and two XLRs for speakers. Logically, smaller-sized DACs won’t have that many connectors.
Can DACs Increase Headphone Loudness?
When buying DACs with the intention of hearing at a higher volume, you have to look carefully. While most will have a headphone amplifier that will increase the volume, you have to check out the impedance of the headphones.
While standard headphones have 32 ohms, higher-end models have a 300-ohm impedance. Also, look for the dynamic range, which is measured in dB. The higher the dB, the louder the sounds produced by the headphones. Check out the best DAC AMP Combo Buying Guide.
Does a High Sampling Rate
Audio enthusiasts buy their first DAC and assume that a higher sampling rate and max bit depth means the DAC will perform better. On the other hand, these metrics describe the sample rate and max bit depth the DAC can process.
In reality, it is rare for someone to have music files at high sample rates. The average CD has a 16-bit/44.1kHz sampling rate. Recording studios tend to record at a 24-bit/96kHz rate. Even then, the files will reach a consumer with a low bit-depth and sample rate.
It doesn’t matter if the DAC can ‘handle’ uncompressed files. Instead, you should focus on how well the DAC translates a digital file (loss or lossless version) to an analog sound signal that is rich in precision, clarity, and auditory depth.
Conclusively, the 6 Best Dac under 500 are all designed to add power to your current headphones and sound equipment.
Purchase the AudioQuest – DragonFly Red USB DAC/Headphone Amplifier if you want an all-around DAC that’s suitable for all listening environments. Try the Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus if you want to hear sensitive sounds during your gaming sessions.
And get the iFi Nano iDSD if you want to hear lossless audio at maximum resolution. Either way, you’re going to have an affordable DAC that brings layers of sound engineering and professionalism to any song you listen to!