If you wish to get severe about sound, then it’s time to speak about digital-to-analog converters, or DACs, as they’re extra simply referred to. These elements play an important function in digital sound, and including or upgrading a DAC may result in a major enchancment to your audio … particularly in case you are utilizing hi-res or lossless audio formats. Right here’s what you could know.

What’s a DAC?

An ESS DAC chip on a motherboard.

As we talked about above, DAC stands for “digital-to-analog converter.” These gadgets grew to become an important a part of our music expertise across the time we began making the change from analog codecs reminiscent of vinyl records and cassette tapes to the digital sound recordsdata and codecs that we generally use immediately.

Data retailer recorded sound waves as tiny grooves etched into the vinyl. If you happen to run a tiny needle (stylus) by these grooves, it vibrates, bringing these sound waves again to life with a bit assist from an amplifier and your audio system. Cassettes do one thing related.

Digital audio, nevertheless, is extra difficult. It shops sound waves as a sequence of zeros and ones, the identical digital constructing blocks used for every thing from spreadsheets to video video games. To show these “bits” again into one thing you may really hear, you want a devoted piece of {hardware} — the DAC.

At its core, a DAC is just a microchip that has been designed to learn the zeros and ones of digital music and switch them into analog electrical impulses that may then be amplified and despatched to your headphones or audio system so you may hear them. If it’s simpler, you may consider it just like the digital music equal of a turntable’s stylus.

What’s an exterior DAC?

Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 200M.
Cambridge Audio

As a result of so many sorts of gadgets are actually able to enjoying digital music, DACs will be present in every thing from smartphones to gaming consoles. If a tool can play sound you may hear by a built-in speaker, or through a headphone jack, it has a DAC.

However similar to vinyl aficionados would be the first to level out that not all turntable styluses are created equal, neither are all DACs.

A DAC isn’t the one element that ensures your digital music sounds its finest, however it might play a giant function. Some DACs are restricted — they will’t precisely decode all digital music recordsdata at their full high quality. Others gained’t be capable of play some file sorts in any respect. Then there are the actually nuanced features of DACs, issues like distortion, noise, and sensitivity, every of which may influence what you hear.

That’s an issue for listeners who wish to get probably the most out of their music. You might have a hi-res music file downloaded onto your machine, or a subscription to stream hi-res audio from a streaming music platform reminiscent of Tidal, Amazon Music HD, Qobuz, and Apple Music. However a low-quality DAC gained’t be capable of course of these recordsdata correctly, or gained’t be taking as many samples to make sure audio accuracy based on the music file, so the outcomes might be considerably lower than you may be listening to.

That’s why though your cellphone or pc nearly actually has its personal DAC, you would possibly nonetheless wish to purchase an exterior DAC.

A collection of five portable headphone amp/DACs.
Simon Cohen / Digital Developments

Exterior DACs are available in varied sizes and shapes relying in your use. Chances are you’ll wish to join them to your TV, recreation console, or pc to enhance your sound at residence, or choose a compact DAC to hook up with your smartphone or digital music participant when on the go together with headphones (extra on this under). Their superior capabilities, customization choices, and skill to transform a variety of digital audio codecs will draw the most effective out of your audio recordsdata and streams.

A typical utilization instance might be connecting your laptop computer to an exterior DAC through a USB cable to play some hi-res recordsdata you’ve gotten saved in your laborious drive or high-quality audio from Apple Music. The DAC in some MacBooks, for instance, is restricted to 24-bit/48kHz, which means that, whereas it might nonetheless course of high-quality sound, it falls in need of supporting very high-resolution audio that may attain a bit depth of 32-bits and a sampling frequency of as much as 192kHz or greater. That’s particularly irritating for Apple Music subscribers who’ve entry to the very best lossless tier of 24-bit/192kHz tracks.

An exterior DAC can learn these lossless recordsdata or streams straight, bypassing the MacBook’s inner DAC, thus unlocking the music’s full potential. Relying on the DAC you select, it might include a variety of digital inputs and analog outputs (e.g. RCA, balanced XLR, optical, HDMI, and so on.). Simply select a DAC that’s suitable together with your setup. to accommodate not solely your pc and amplifier/receiver however all your different audio gear too.

Are there moveable DACs to make use of on the go?

Chord Mojo 2 with headphones and iPhone 13 Pro
Andy Boxall/Digital Developments

Sure, most undoubtedly. Getting probably the most out of your smartphone’s sound would possibly require a conveyable DAC, too. When you may join wired headphones on to your iPhone, for instance, just like the MacBook above, the iPhone’s built-in DAC can solely output as much as a most of 24-bit/48kHz, so you’ll, once more, want a more capable external portable DAC to unlock the upper decision lossless tier. Some Android gadgets have inner DACs able to higher high quality, so it’s finest to take a look at your machine’s specs first earlier than you spend the cash on a conveyable DAC.

A few stable moveable DACs available on the market embrace the $200 pocket-sized iFi Go blu, or you may spend a bit more cash and pair it with a high-end set of headphones for music that actually shines — we were really impressed with the Chord Mojo 2.

What makes a great exterior DAC?

Quite a few corporations create glorious DACs, reminiscent of the great DacMagic 200M from Cambridge Audio. DACs can have many various designs and options, however necessary issues to search for might embrace:

How a lot do DACs often value?

For a good-quality DAC, you may count on to pay $75 to $100 at minimal for a small, moveable model. Bigger DACs or these with extra options can simply value as much as $300 or extra. On the excessive finish, skilled, or very high-quality DACs can attain into the hundreds of {dollars}.


Do I want sure forms of music recordsdata to make use of with a DAC?

Simply be certain your DAC helps the audio codecs that you just use. Exterior DACs are sometimes designed with all kinds of codecs and resolutions in thoughts, so compatibility is never a problem, nevertheless it’s at all times a good suggestion to double-check. instance of a format that isn’t at all times supported is MQA. If you happen to want full MQA decoding, be certain the DAC you purchase clearly states within the specs that it’s going to do that.

My headphones aren’t nice — will a brand new DAC nonetheless make a distinction?

It may … however you’ll in all probability get higher outcomes from upgrading your headphones now, and investing in a DAC to enrich them afterward. Some headphones, notably gaming headphones, can include their very own DACs, too, in the event you don’t thoughts buying a bundle. If you happen to aren’t certain in the event you want a headphone improve or a DAC, seek the advice of an skilled to speak in regards to the headphones you’ve gotten, and if a DAC could be a great accent. And in the event you’re on the lookout for the most effective headphones to make the most of hi-res audio, take a look at our list!

I exploit wi-fi (Bluetooth) headphones. Do I want a DAC?

In case your headphones or earbuds are wi-fi, they have already got a built-in DAC. Music stays digital because it passes over the wi-fi Bluetooth hyperlink and solely will get transformed to analog as soon as it reaches your earbuds or headphones. Nevertheless, in case your wi-fi headphones even have a wired analog enter jack (which many fashions supply) you need to use them with an exterior DAC to get even greater music high quality out of your supply machine, albeit with out the comfort of a wi-fi connection.

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