Digital to analog converters, aka DACs, are kind of the redheaded stepchild of the digital audio realm. On one hand they can be extremely beneficial, improving the performance of older or less capable digital sources while adding additional connectivity for some of today's modern, USB based audio sources such as an iPod or computer. On the other hand many of today's modern digital players feature terrific DACs internally negating the need for a separate outboard component.
Personally, I've always been a fan of outboard DACs and have used one, in some form or another, in my reference system for nearly 10 years. I've always been a firm believer in the notion that components designed to specialize in one aspect of music reproduction often perform better than self contained solutions that have been designed to be all things to all people. That being said, while I use an outboard DAC I don't believe you have to spend a great deal of money to get the best from your CD or digital music collection.
So with that I give you my top five affordable DAC solutions for today's modern audiophile.
Cambridge Audio DacMagic - $429
This award winning 24-bit/192kHz upsampling DAC features two digital inputs along with a USB input allowing you to connect portable digital devices and/or a computer to extract the best sound from downloaded music files. The DacMagic has both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs making it the ideal DAC for a wide variety of systems. For more information on Cambridge Audio's DacMagic check out their website (http://cambridgeaudio.com/summary.php?PID=320 ) or read the review at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Benchmark DAC1 - $995
Stereophile's 'Product of the Year 2004' the Benchmark DAC1 is a 24-bit/192kHz digital analog converter featuring dual headphone jacks, complete with internal headphone amplifier, as well as three digital inputs. The DAC1 has both balanced and unbalanced outputs that can be switched between fixed and variable, meaning the DAC1 can also serve as a simple pre-amp in a two channel system. For more information on the Benchmark DAC1 visit Benchmark's website.
Musical Fidelity M1DAC - $699
From Musical Fidelity, one of the first companies ever to build a DAC, comes the M1DAC the latest in a long lineage of fine DACs from the European manufacturer. With four digital inputs; coaxial, optical, balanced and USB the M1DAC offers up true upsampling up to 24-bit at 192kHz. The M1DAC claims ultra low distortion, lower than .005 percent across the entire frequency spectrum and features Musical Fidelity's trademark choke filtration power supply. For more information visit the M1DAC page on Musical Fidelity's website.
Music Hall DAC25.3 - $595
A true 24-bit/192k upsampling DAC, the Music Hall DAC25.3 adds a bit of warmth and audiophile flare by offering up a tube output stage. The DAC25.3 features four digital inputs; optical, coaxial, balanced and USB and offers both balanced and unbalanced analog audio outputs. Like the before mentioned Benchmark DAC1, the DAC25.3 offers a headphone jack with adjustable volume control-though it will not serve as a preamp the way the DAC1 will. For more information on the DAC25.3 visit Music Hall's website.
Decware ZDAC-1 - $875
From a little known company based out of Illinois comes the Decware ZDAC-1 24-bit/192kHz upsampling DAC. Featuring three digital inputs; coaxial, optical and USB the ZDAC-1 is entirely hand built in the USA and features Cirrus Logic's top of the line 192kHz CS4398 DAC Chip. The ZDAC-1 features only unbalanced analog outputs. For more on this boutique style audiophile gem check out the ZDAC-1 page on Decware's website.