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USB DAC: Six compact components for upgrading your computer's audio

R. Matthew Ward | Feb. 3, 2014
I've got some bad news: Those nice headphones and great speakers that you spent so much money on? They probably don't sound as good as they could. You spent the time searching for the best audio gear for your computer, and no one wants to get less than what they paid for.

I conducted my first comparative tests using my big rig (my home stereo) in order to evaluate each unit's DAC apart from its headphone circuitry. I started with the Audioengine D3 (which, prior to the DragonFly's recent price drop, was the-least expensive model), using it to establish a baseline level of performance. Compared against the D3, the DacMagic XS sounded more timid: It was less well-defined, and it didn't sound as sharp. Bass, in particular, seemed quieter and looser through the XS.

In contrast, the MicroStreamer showed an improvement over the D3. The MicroStreamer fleshed out the sound, adding stronger, tighter bass; more clarity and detail; and an improved sense of rhythm and pace. All three of these units, priced around $190, sound good, but the MicroStreamer offers the best sound quality at this price.

Comparing the MicroStreamer to the DragonFly revealed obvious differences, but choosing a favorite was more difficult. On first listen, the MicroStreamer seemed clearer and more detailed, while the DragonFly had a smoother, more-natural sound that wasn't as instantly impressive, but that I preferred over longer listening periods. Ultimately, the DragonFly's smooth presentation gave instruments an "in the room" aspect, whereas music played through the MicroStreamer sounded more like recordings. I personally tend to prize clarity, detail, and accuracy over a smooth, romantic sound, so I would have expected to prefer the MicroStreamer, but nevertheless I found the DragonFly to sound more satisfying.

Sonically, the DACport resembles the DragonFly more than the MicroStreamer, but its DAC performance doesn't quite match that of either of those units. In my testing, the DACport lacked the clarity and detail of the MicroStreamer, but it also didn't sound quite as natural as the DragonFly. It did manage to best the D3 and the XS, though.

The Explorer also resembles the DragonFly more than the MicroStreamer, but unlike the DACport, the Explorer bettered those DACs. In my listening tests, the Explorer offered a fuller, more-realistic sound than either, and it gave music a more-driven, exciting feel than the DragonFly — it was clearly the best of these DACs. On the other hand, the Explorer couldn't match the performance of my reference, the full-size DacMagic, which made the music sound better-defined and even more in-the-room. I found the difference between the full-size DacMagic and the Explorer to be more dramatic than the difference between the Explorer and the other portable models here. In other words, while the portable, computer-focused DACs tested here can do double duty in a traditional stereo system, traditional stereo components don't struggle to outperform them.

In summary, when it comes to just the DACs of these units, I liked the Explorer the best, followed by the DragonFly, the MicroStreamer, the DACport, the D3, and then the DacMagic XS. I also reconsidered the Arcam rPAC, which I'd slot in between the DragonFly and the MicroStreamer. The rPAC has a more full-bodied, believable presentation than the MicroStreamer, but sacrifices some clarity and speed versus the DragonFly. It doesn't match the portability of either model, however.


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