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The Best DAC Chip In Headphone Audio

by Stuart Charles Black
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Greetings mate and Welcome aboard! Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions leading to a beautiful audio experience that will make you fall in love with music (NOT gear), all over again, so…

Do keep in mind this is going to be my personal opinion but is based on experience with over 60 different DACS as of this writing.

Also, remember that DACS in and of themselves have a lot less to do with how the track is going to sound.

Yes, you want a quality DAC, but as far as the song itself, it mostly comes down to the way it was recorded, mixed, and mastered, with the headphones themselves making up the other significant sound discrepancies.

Sabaj DA2 Amp/DAC Review

DACS can alter the flavor of sound a bit via Output impedance, but at the end of the day, they represent a very small portion of influence on audio.

With that said, I’ve always surmised that the ESS Sabre variety to me accounts for 95% of the perceivable sound differences you may encounter when going back and forth between DACS.

I’ve owned a DragonFly Red since 2018 and demoed it for quite a while before eventually calling it my own.

Many, many Amps & DACS have come through here since then, and I still believe the Sabre is the best sound from a technical standpoint.

Some would argue that it renders music too bright and/or analytical, and I can certainly see where those people are coming from to an extent but still don’t entirely agree.

I believe music tends to sound its best when it has room to breathe, sounds open and clear, and excels at separating instruments.

Out of all the DACS I’ve heard to this point, I think the Sabre chip does that better than the majority of products out there.

It’s crisp and snappy, with plenty of air around the instruments. It tends to sound more detailed and spacious.

Again, the differences can be quite subtle, but in the case of the DF Red, they’re more noticeable than they would be with other chips.

What I’m saying isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction.

I’ve noticed this time and again over the last couple of years since owning a DragonFly Red and comparing it to countless other products.

Most Burr Brown and AKM chips are kind of a cross between neutral and warm, which is probably my second most preferred type of sound.

If you were interested in what a DAC actually is, check this out: Beginners Guide: What is a USB DAC?

I should also note that the differences between DragonFly Red’s 9018 Chip and Cobalt’s 9038 to me were basically non-existent; i.e. don’t waste your money and spend an extra $100 on what is likely a placebo.

If you’d like a deeper dive into that: [Definitive Guide] AudioQuest DragonFly Red vs. Cobalt vs. Chord Mojo

Remember that if a song sounds harsh through a DF Red, it likely isn’t the chip or the DAC. \

Again, it comes down to how the track was recorded. T

his is one of the most basic sound principles that gets glossed over time and again in favor of buying new gear and trying to chase a unicorn that doesn’t exist.

Also, keep in mind that there are other factors that affect how a DAC sounds other than the chip itself:

  • Filtering
  • Power Supply
  • Analog Output Stage

Let’s ask Paul McGowan of PS Audio (A guy who has been building and engineering these types of systems for over 40 years) what’s important and what’s not.

So we can infer from this video that the DAC chip is super important, but the analog output stage could be even more important.

Why Does the Analog Output Stage Matter?

Well, that’s a great question and can be had for the low low price of JUST KIDDING.

Let’s consult the Springer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science for that one:

The main purpose of the output stage of an operational amplifier is to deliver a certain amount of signal power into a load with acceptably low levels of signal distortion. In a low-voltage low-power environment, this has to be achieved by efficiently using the supply voltage as well as the supply current. To implement this, the output voltage range must be as large as possible, preferably from rail to rail. To achieve this, the output transistors have to be connected in a common-source configuration. An efficient use of the supply current requires a high ratio between the maximum signal current that can be delivered to a load, and the quiescent current of the output stage. To accomplish this, the output transistors have to be class-AB biased.Springer


The main duty of an analog output stage is to provide clean gain (or amplify the signal) and remove noise/distortion.

In the case of the DAC chip, it is important, but perhaps not quite as important as some would have you believe.

You can see that Paul also values the ESS variety of DAC chips quite a bit – the point where he uses them quite frequently in his own various builds.

Again, there’s a reason for it. The Sabre chip is a high-performing, solid, and reliable product that does tend to stand out above many other varieties.

I recommend the DragonFly Red a lot because of this. It’s a great product and deserves mention whenever possible!

Speaking of, check out the review and comparison to the Cobalt:


Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion on the best DAC chip in audio and came away with some valuable insight.

If you love what I do here and want to support the blog and channel in a more personal way, check me out on Patreon and discover all the value I have to offer you.

Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!

What are your thoughts on all of this? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…

All the best and God bless,





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