The Fiio E17 is a DAC we loved enough to mention in our guide to selecting the right DAC, and our friends at Head-Fi hold it in high regard as well. It’s an incredible sounding DAC for the price ($139 at Amazon), and it’s a tiny, portable model, small enough to slide into a pocket. It’s on the higher end of Fiio’s DAC models, but it comes with interchangeable adapters so you can plug in different audio inputs, and almost all of the unit’s features can be accessed and managed using the LCD display, so you don’t have a ton of dials and knobs: just a thin, sleek piece of metal that can travel with you anywhere you go. It’s not a perfect model (some people say the controls and menus are finicky, and even at its price point you could probably find better for a few bucks more), but it’s a great and affordable USB DAC (with Amp) nonetheless.
The ODAC (or ObjectiveDAC) is actually a board that you can buy on its own and install into a case to build your own DIY DAC with the inputs and outputs you want. It’s $99 in this form (and doesn’t come with an amplifier), but if you want complete, stand-alone model, $149 will buy you the pre-built model in a case, ready to be powered by USB and push audio to a pair of headphones via its 3.5mm audio jack (but it still needs an amplifier in this form). If you want an amp, the O2+ODAC combo package (shown above) comes with the ODAC installed in a case with an O2 amplifier pre-installed. The whole thing will set you back $285, but it’s a slim, trim package that’ll look good on your desktop without taking too much space, and it’ll sound much better. Both the original ODAC and the O2+ODAC combo are well regarded at Head-Fi, offering impressive sound in a small package, whether you get the amplified model or not.
The ASUS Xonar Essence One is just one component in the Xonar line, and as some of you mentioned in the call for contenders, don’t let ASUS’ name scare you off—the Xonar line of soundcards and USB DACs offers great sound in small, affordable packages. The Xonar Essence One for example sports a built-in amplifier, signal to noise above and beyond other DACs in its class, and a dedicated internal power supply, so you don’t have to plug it into a brick or try to power it over USB. It’s a little bigger than other models, but the extra space is well used: it can accept a number of audio inputs, including optical and S/PDIF in addition to USB. You’ll pay for all of those features though, it’ll set you back $600 at Amazon.
Schiit doesn’t mess around. Just read through their FAQ page, and specifically their FAQs on the Bifrost—they’re serious about audio, and they don’t pull punches. Just as well—The Bifrost is a powerhouse. It’s actually an upgradable DAC that you can pair with other Schiit audio gear, like their amplifiers. The Bifrost accepts optical, USB, and S/PDIF inputs and outputs via RCA for speakers (so it’s not like the other DACs here, designed to drive headphones). The unit is modular and customizable, so you can get one with or without a USB input card, or upgrade the onboard USB to their Gen2 card. You can even select the volatge, plug types, and analog stage when you order. The Bifrost starts at $349 direct (or at Amazon), and if you want some user reviews before you consider dropping the cash, check out what the folks at Head-Fi have to say about it.
Probably the most high-end of the DACs in the roundup, the WooAudio WA7 “Fireflies” are fully featured DACs with world-class vacuum tube amplifiers. They’re actually remarkably small, and look a bit like art when sitting on your desk. They accept USB or RCA input, and can output to your headphones using the 3.5mm jack on the front. Behind its simple, minimalist design (and glowing vacuum tubes, thus the name “fireflies,”) is an audiophile friendly system. With that design, and its high-end nature, comes a high-end price point: The WooAudio WA7 will set you back $999, with optional upgrade tubes adding another $100 to the price tag. It’s available direct from WooAudio, and there are more than a few happy owners over at Head-Fi.