For millions of music listeners, the smartphone has become their primary source component; digital music streaming services now represent close to 80% of the market with more than 50 million subscribers in the United States alone. Consumers put greater value on convenience vs sound quality and that shift has been a rude wake-up call for the high-end audio industry that has marketed expensive separates, loudspeakers, cables, and accessories for decades.
The reality is that consumers no longer see a need for so many expensive boxes; wireless active loudspeakers and one-box integrated amplifiers which include both wired and wireless digital streaming connectivity have made them unnecessary. The good news for consumers is that while prices at the top end have escalated beyond the cost of a luxury automobile for some audio components, there have never been as many affordable high-end components than what is available right now and that makes it a great time to assemble a system.
Schiit Audio Modi 3 Multibit ($249.00)
No brand has pushed the value proposition harder in recent years than Schiit who have carved out a niche for themselves in the personal audio, home audio, and desktop audio categories. Every product is assembled in America and offers outstanding performance for the money. Schiit sells directly to the public and that allows them to offer products like the Modi 3 for under $250. The Multibit version offers a rather steep upgrade over the base unit that retails for $99; improved resolution, deeper bass, increased soundstage depth and width. If you’re looking for a DAC to connect and forget – this is the one to get. BUY NOW
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt ($299.95)
AudioQuest practically invented the portable DAC/headphone amplifier category with the original DragonFly; the Cobalt USB DAC/headphone amplifier takes the technology to the next level with a significant jump in price as well. If you use a laptop, tablet, or smartphone as your primary streaming device, there is no better option. The Cobalt supports MQA-playback, 24-bit/96kHz high-res audio playback and can drive a wide range of headphones. The Cobalt is smoother sounding than the DragonFly Red and a better long-term option if concerned about listening fatigue. BUY NOW
Chord Qutest ($1,695.00)
Chord is one of the leading manufacturers of high-end DACs in the world; with both affordable portable and desktop options, and reference-level products designed for the world’s most expensive digital playback systems. The Qutest fits somewhere in the middle of their line-up, and while not inexpensive, it features a galvanically isolated USB-B, optical and coaxial digital input, giving an instant performance upgrade to any digital source that you may connect to it. With support for up to 32-bit/768kHz PCM playback, and native DSD, the Qutest is way ahead of the competition. If you’re looking for affordable state-of-the-art digital playback, this is where you finish. BUY NOW
HoloAudio Spring 2 Kitsuné Tuned Edition ($2,698.00)
A boutique online manufacturer, HoloAudio, is distributed by KitsuneHiFi, and even with the long wait time for delivery, this is one DAC worth waiting for. The recently introduced Spring 2 still falls below $2,700 and gives music listeners a real taste of what reference quality digital audio can sound like. With support for native DSD, and high-resolution PCM digital audio, the Spring 2 KTE USB DAC sounds more like a high-end analog source with layers of detail, a warm tonal balance, low noise floor, and superb top-to-bottom coherency. Connected to a CD transport or streamer, this DAC makes music come alive. BUY NOW