To keep the table a reasonable size, I’ve included the basic features that I feel are most important. The cost itself tells you a good deal about the manufacturer, whether they are offering a value–priced product at the lower end of the scale, or are more interested in performance at the higher end. About half of these DACs include balanced outputs, on an XLR connector, which allows you to include long cable runs in your setup without noise intrusion. Most all have USB inputs and, of those, the majority are now USB Class 2–compliant. This means that Mac OS folks can plug and play 192 kHz files without messing with their Macs. For the Windows kids, a driver is available to convince the operating system to support the 4x sample rates.
A handful of these critters even have ADCs or Analog–to–Digital Converters built in, a block of electronics that will convert your analog turntable or tape deck signal into a digital stream for recording onto your computer. One even has a previous generation iPod dock, the Peachtree offering. In fact, many table top all–in–ones designed for iPods, with amplified speakers et cetera, are DACs as well but they aren’t high quality. They also don’t include external inputs, like USB or Toslink, so they’re out of the running for this survey. Of course, there are many music servers with DACs, but they’re a whole ’nother thing entirely and are mostly out of this price bracket.
Speaking of speakers with built in amplifiers, there are powered speakers with DACs, like Vanatoo’s versatile Transparent One and several from Audioengine. They sound good, cost little and are great to kick out the jams in a dorm or the kitchen. CEntrance’s DACmini PX is a modern, small form factor, low cost integrated amp, with analog inputs as well as digital, and a reasonably sized power amp to drive your choice of passive speaker.
Vanatoo’s Transparent One powered loudspeaker w/digital input
A new trend is the wireless DAC, like the kewel Audioengine D2, which allows you to place your amp and speakers almost anywhere in the house and beam music to that location…like AirPlay except higher fi.