How did Audiophile Headphone DAC’s become so popular?
Rollback about 10-15 years ago, and most consumers had no idea that a DAC existed. Most people never put any thought into which one to buy. However, in that short space of time, the high-resolution audio hobby has exploded, and people now care about getting the best sound possible. The way I see it, the 4 most important factors for achieving the best possible sound come from 5 different factors.
Audio track production standards & mastering
Output device (Hi-Res Headphones or Audiophile Grade speakers)
Optimize these five areas, and you will have a terrific time listening to the best quality sounds you can get. Be happy knowing you are probably listening at a higher level than those around you… but beware, they also probably don’t care.
This area of audio is relatively new in people’s heads and something true nerds like us really only know or care about. LG did an excellent job of bringing DAC technology to the forefront with their G and V series phones that contained a quad DAC system.
As a result, they gained a loyal following among people that cared about fidelity. At a time when other manufacturers were removing headphones jacks, LG was doubling down on audio.
While most of the general public would struggle to identify differences in different DAC units to a trained ear, they can be pretty stark. I find the investment in time and money to find the right one for me worth it every time I sit down for an extended listening session with my headphones.
Integrated vs. Stand-Alone DAC units
Once upon a time, your only option for getting a good DAC in a portable form was to perform some witchcraft on an old iPod or another obscure source so you could directly access the digital source and bypass the inbuilt (usually poor quality) DAC chip.
This way, you could plug in your DAC and run it to an external amplifier. I have to admit this was a fun time for geeks like me. Of course, I thought nothing of walking about with a stack of bricks in my pocket, but times have certainly changed. It was a time when audio purists would tinker, solder, and modify their “rigs” to search for audio nirvana.
Nowadays, many companies have entered the DAP market. In doing so, one of the key areas they compete is by offering better and better DAC setups built directly into the device.
You would think this would kill off the market for the external DAP, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many DAP manufacturers have contributed to the rise of the external DAC by kindly including line-outs on even modestly priced hi-res music players.
The market for external DAC units has grown exponentially, and there is much to choose from. For me, there are two distinct advantages of owning external DACs.
Firstly, some DACs listed on this best headphone DAC list are exceptional sounding and stand out from those available internally on DAP. The second reason is that it allows me to change my DAC frequently. So if something new comes out, I am no longer tied to the one inside my DAP; I can swap out one component instead of changing my whole system.
There are many other reasons that people would want to own an external DAC, and many of the units below have unique designs, sounds, and features that may be advantageous to you in one way or another.
What about stand-alone DAPs (Hi-res music players)?
While this article focuses on stand-alone headphone DAC units, we can’t ignore the convenience of a dedicated audiophile-grade DAP (digital audio player). These players are more portable and have fewer moving parts than a stacked system.
The good news is that many can use them as external DAC’s with computers and other components. If that is something you might be interested in, I suggest checking out our list of the 20 best High-resolution music players for 2023.
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