Complete Guide to USB DACs


Complete Guide to USB DACs


With the increasing population of audiophiles, manufacturers of audiophile-grade DACs are also expanding. They are releasing more types of DACs, such as the USB DACs and Dongles. They are becoming popular now with the smartphone’s ditching the headphone jacks.

USB DACs are devices that give better audio quality from our sources. These are portable devices that you can also use for your computer setup. This type of DAC is slowly starting to get popular nowadays due to the quality and convenience that it brings to consumers.

People used to purchase bigger DACs like desktops and portable DAC/Amp for their setup. However, using a portable DAC for your portable setup can be too bulky and heavy when paired together with your mobile devices. In this case, USB DACs and dongles can be useful.

In this article, we will talk more about USB DACs. We will be comparing them to other types of DACs and discuss how to connect them to our sources. By the end of the article, you will learn and decide whether USB DACs will fit your use case.

What is a USB DAC

EarMen Sparrow High-Performance Portable USB DAC and Headphone Amp with Balanced Output - PCM, DOP, DSD64, DSD128, and MQA
EarMen Sparrow USB DAC (Image: Amazon)

Like any other type of DAC, a USB DAC is a device responsible for converting digital signals into analog waves. However, since it is also an external DAC, it will sound better compared to using only your smartphone, laptop, or computer.

External DACs are known to give life to the sound from our sources. They bring out the details by converting the digital signals better than our computers and other sources. Additionally, some DACs, emphasize the mids, highs, and lows of the music that is playing. The emphasis will, of course, depend on the unit that you own.

The quality of the sound will also depend on the USB DAC that you use. Every DAC has different DAC chips and other components installed in them. Therefore, sound quality also will differ. This is why some DACs are cheaper and belong to the entry-level category, and some are more expensive and belong to the higher-end category.

This type of DAC has the same use as dongles. Both DACs are tiny and lightweight. They are mostly used on portable devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops. One thing that is different between dongles and USB DACs is that USB DACs can be plugged directly into laptops since it is USB Type-A.

Most USB DACs also include a Type-C adapter as an accessory. This is to connect them to devices with a Type-C port.

USB DAC vs. Desktop DAC/Amps

FX Audio DAC Front View

Desktop DACs/Amps are known to have the best quality among all the types of DACs. They can power headphones with high impedance and give the best overall performance. This type of DAC is mainly seen on audiophiles and professional setups. This serves as a tool to help hear the details from the audio on devices.

USB DAC, on the other hand, can also be used on a desktop setup. However, unlike the Desktop DAC/Amps, they will not be able to give the best possible sound from your source, especially if you own high-end headphones.

Additionally, USB DACs may need a separate tube amp to power a headphone. However, if you own an IEM and prefer using them on your setup, then USB DACs can be very useful for your setup.

Of course, if we compare the overall performance of these two devices, the desktop DAC certainly wins. However, they cannot be used outside your desktop setup. USB DACs, on the other hand, are made for this use case.

USB DACs vs. Portable DAC/Amps

Both the USB DACs and Portable DACs can be carried everywhere. However, portable DACs are bulkier and heavier as well. Holding two bulky devices can be uncomfortable and may cause fatigue on your hands.

When it comes to sound quality, portable DACs are still better. Portable DACs are starting to catch up to the performance of desktop DACs. However, this does not mean that USB DACs are bad. Higher-end USB DACs are also close to competing with portable DACs.

Given the difference in size, it is understandable that the overall performance of portable DACs is superior to USB DACs. More components can be added to portable DACs, such as batteries.

Both DACs can be used on computers, laptops, and other mobile devices. Although they are both designed for portable use, they can still give the best sound possible on your computer. They can also be paired with separate headphone amplifiers to power headphones with high impedance.

Another difference between portable DACs and USB DACs is the output. There are portable DACs which has the availability of unbalanced 3.5mm and balanced 4.4mm output. The USB DACs, on the other hand, can only give a single output due to their small size.

USB DAC vs. Dongles

These two types of DACs are the most similar among the types of DACs. They have the same usage and are almost the same size. At least, this is the case if we are generally comparing them. 

However, there are dongles such as the DDHiFi TC35B, which are very tiny in size that you can leave plugged into your smartphone devices or your IEMs. This does not apply to any type of USB DACs as they are larger. 

Unlike USB DACs, dongles are not recommended for use on a fixed setup like computers. Dongles are meant only for mobile devices such as mobile phones and DAPs

How to Use USB DAC with Android

Connecting a USB DAC to an Android device is very simple. As mentioned earlier, some DACs include a USB Type-C adapter. USB Type-C adapters are one of the most common accessories included on USB DACs.With these adapters included, you can now easily plug the USB DACs on your mobile devices and use them.

However, if adapters are not included, you can always buy adapters, which can be found in many places nowadays. More people are buying adapters or already own one. This is due to the reason that most modern phones no longer feature a 3.5mm headphone jack.

This is a good reason to buy your Android devices a USB DAC. You can also get yourself dongles if you prefer smaller accessories and are on a budget. 

How to Use USB DAC with iPhone

Just like Androids, iPhones also removed the headphone jack. This means that both Android and Apple users have the problem of using their In-Ear Monitors on their devices. Although they also Produce Type-C and lightning earbuds, audiophiles do not use them.

So, to solve this problem, manufacturers started producing dongles and USB DACs that audiophiles can use on their mobile phones. Similar to how you connect a USB DAC to an Android device, you will also only need an adapter to connect them.

The other option that people consider is getting True Wireless Earbuds or headphones. However, some audiophiles prefer using wired IEMs or headphones. In this case, USB DACs, as well as dongles, will be very useful.

How to Use Dragonfly DAC

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB Digital-to-Analog Converter
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt USB DAC (Image: Amazon)

The Dragonfly DACs are USB DACs that you can simply plug in and use. You can directly insert them into the USB port on laptops and computers. And to use them on mobile devices, you will again simply need an extra accessory to connect them.

The only problem with using them is the weight. They may get in the way of your palms and may often bump on your arm while using them and holding your phone. This problem does not only go with the Dragonfly DACs but to all USB DACs. This is also a common problem for dongle users.

The design of the Dragonfly Series DACs guarantees stability and compatibility with your devices. This is a common problem with most USB DACs that were already released. Another thing that adds points to the Dragonfly Series DAC is its support of MQA files and other high-resolution formats.

Despite the discomfort of bumping DACs on arms, they can surely give the best sound from your sources. Additionally, unlike when using portable DACs, you will not need to carry a bulky and heavy setup with you just to listen to HiFi audio.

Is a USB DAC worth it?

With the convenience of carrying them everywhere you go and with a sound that can catch up to the sound performance of a portable DAC, the answer is Yes. USB DACs are worth it. However, you will still need to consider things before purchasing one. 

Are you the type of person who likes going out, or someone who is always at home with their computers? Even though USB DACs can be used on computers and laptops, we will still recommend getting a desktop DAC over a USB DAC if you are only staying at your home.

Most desktop DACs found on the market are combined with headphone amplifiers. They are called the DAC/Amp combo. Unlike USB DACs, they will no longer need a separate amplifier for them to power high-impedance headphones.

In our experience in connecting a USB DAC, the Earmen Eagle, to a headphone amplifier, it gave a decent sound on the Sennheiser HD660S. However, if compared to other types of DACs like portable and desktop DACs, they are inferior to them. 

But with their flexibility in terms of usage, they are good to go with. You will be able to use them even outside your home. When carrying your tablets, phones, and laptops on a trip, this type of DAC will be very useful. They are easier to hide, but unlike dongles, they are not as easy to lose. 

Are USB DACs Good for Gaming?

Creative 70SB181000000 Sound Blaster X3 Digital Audio Converter - Black
Sound Blaster X3 (Image: Amazon)

One of the reasons why people purchase DACs, other than the reason of getting the best audio quality from their streaming apps and high-resolution files, is for gaming purposes.  USB DACs, in this case, will not be recommended. 

Even with higher-end desktop DACs, gaming is also not recommended. Instead, you can purchase a DAC specifically made for gaming. They have compatibility with consoles and feature a lot that is needed on games.

Unfortunately, most DACs will not be compatible with gaming consoles. This is the same case with USB DACs. There are features needed for games, such as the 7.1 surround sound and microphone input. 

However, if you will only use the USB DAC on mobile games, it would help. It will give more details on the audio of the game you are playing and, thus, give you more enjoyment and a chance to win.

But overall, USB DACs would not be suitable for gaming. The only DAC recommended for gaming is a gaming DAC. Other desktop DACs can be bypassed to other consoles but may be too hassle to pair with. A lot of accessories are needed to connect them.  

Additionally, without the features needed for gaming, they will not be enjoyable and helpful. These are mostly why gamers purchase DACs, for the features that can help them win their games. 


When deciding which type of DAC you should get, you should always consider your use case, as well as the devices you already own, such as headphones and In-Ear Monitors. If you are unsure whether the USB DAC will make a difference in the sound from your source, well, all external DACs will give better sound quality to your source, whether it is an entry-level or high-end unit.

In our situation nowadays, with the lack of headphone jack. USB DACs will come in handy. There are several choices that you can find on the market which are highly recommended by audiophiles. Some of these are the Dragonfly Series DACs and Earmen Eagle.

Given the flexibility in the use case of this device, they are worth the purchase. You can not go wrong as you can use them both on your computer and mobile devices. Additionally, they are very easy to take with you. They will fit right into your pocket or pouch. 

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