Review: Battle of the DACs

When Audioquest released its DragonFly USB Digital-Audio Converter back in 2012, the tiny USB-stick DAC quickly found a niche with audiophiles seeking to improve the sound quality of music played on their laptop computers and listened to via headphones or desktop speakers. With support for asynchronous USB transfer and 24-bit files with sampling rates up to 96 kHz, the $249 DragonFly was an easy, affordable upgrade for those who found themselves relying increasingly on their computer as an audio source. And the DragonFly's utility wasn't limited to desktop listening; you could easily connect it to a full-size stereo system to experience high-rez music downloads in their full glory, along with tracks played in iTunes or streamed from Rdio, Spotify, or wherever.

Following the path paved by Audioquest, a number of new DACs have recently arrived to widen the laptop-listening horizon, most notably the microStreamer from SoCal's High Resolution Technologies and the Explorer from England's Meridian. While all three differ in form, they basically carry out the same functions: connect to a computer's USB port, transfer audio data via asynchronous USB protocol, decode it, and convey signals via a variable-level headphone or line-level output. 

With a bunch of similar-featured portable DACs now on the market, it seemed like a good idea to round up a few for a head-to-head. I conducted my test using a Mac PowerBook running Channel D's Pure Music software to enable seamless high-rez FLAC playback within iTunes. For headphone listening, I switched between Sennheiser HD 598 over-ear cans and Phiaton PS 210 BTNC in-ear monitors. For non-headphone tests, I listened primarily on a system consisting of GoldenEar Technology Triton 2 tower speakers, an Anthem AVM50 pre-pro, and a Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier.

Read on to see how well - or not! - each DAC fared.

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