A digital-to-analog–converter (DAC) transforms digital data (pulse-code modulated) into an analog signal that can be played back by an audio system. So, while DACs are often overlooked components in the audio chain, they play an important role. You always use a DAC when you listen to any digital music. CD players, smartphones, PCs, etc all have internal DACs to convert digital to electrical analog signals for your ears. However, does an external DAC make a difference? Keep reading for more on why you need the right DAC and other essential details.
DACs don’t make a major difference in terms of sound quality unless your system is noisy. The better a DAC is, the more accurately it will perform its digital to analog conversion. However, more expensive DACs typically don’t make a noticeable difference in terms of audio quality but will reduce noise.
A DAC will only provide a difference in audio quality if you purchase one that “colors” or distorts the sound. In other words, any difference created by a DAC can only be perceived through high-end sources and speakers.
Keep in mind that the difference between an expensive DAC and a chap DAC or the difference between an external and internal DAC can be down to 90–100 dbfs. You will certainly not hear this difference. In other words, DACS can make a difference but maybe in ways that you won’t perceive.
If you are creating a HiFi system, turn your attention elsewhere and not focus on the DAC so much. For example, position your speakers and subwoofer properly and acoustically treat your room. If you already have mid-level receivers and other sources, they likely have perfectly adequate DACs so you may not need an external one.
Is it Worth Getting a DAC? What Difference Does a High-Quality DAC Make?
Yes, as we’ve mentioned in brief, a DAC is needed whenever you need to convert digital signals to analog.
A high-quality DAC will help you to get a cleaner sonic background. It improves the overall soundstage of your listening setup and creates a wider, deeper listening landscape.
There are various types of DACs. Of course, not all of them are created equal. This means you need to choose one that guarantees you the listening experience you desire for the best experience.
By the way, if you are working with a recording device like a microphone, you actually need an audio interface. The difference between an audio interface and a DAC is that an audio interface converts analog signals from a recording device to a digital format to be recorded by a digital device like a PC.
Which is the Best DAC for You? What Is a Good DAC?
Several factors determine the type of DACs that suit you. Some of them are designed to drive your headphones. Others are for your home stereo. Moreover, some modern DACs can work well you’re your headphones and your home stereos.
Please note that if you get too much bang with your headphone setup, you should add a good headphone amplifier to fix it.
Some types of DACs that are most common today are:
Chipset: a good DAC must be able to convert modern digital formats and create clean output.
SNR: A good DAC must measure well in terms of SNR and output impedance.
Sampling: The better a DAC, the higher the internal conversion frequency as compared to the nominal digital recording sampling rate. This is referred to as oversampling. It is done to approximate the perfect signal reconstruction.
Portable US DACs: Can work as a compact headphone amp for your comp. You can also use it to connect your comp to your stereo system.
Desktop USB DACs: You can connect these DACs to your computer through USB. Some of them need AC power to function. You can also connect an external networking device or CD player to this signal converter.
Wireless DACs: They broadcast digital content to audio systems in different locations. Others can connect to your comp and use your transmitter system.
Headphone DACs: If you’re using your DAC to connect to a home stereo system and headphones, you can go for headphone amps that also serve as a digital preamp.
Component hi-fi DACs: They offer the highest range of connections and are compatible with your full-fledged home audio system.
Can DACs Affect Sound Quality
There are a few situations in which a DAC can actually make an audible difference in terms of sound quality:
- Clock and jitter: The process of converting digital signals into analog format can cause what is known as clock and jitter. These errors are due to timing issues within the digital data that reduce the resolution. This often results in strange, flat, and grainy sounds, especially at high frequencies.
- Low-quality components: If your system is made up of low-quality components such as cheap capacitors and op-amps, the resulting sound may be jittery.
- Overclocking: some people choose to overclock their system and it can cause an audible difference.
Are Expensive DACs Better?
While some cheap DACs can successfully convert your digital files into sweet, entertaining music, most of them are low-quality. However, just adding more components of higher quality isn’t automatically a guarantee for better quality. Only invest in a high-quality DAC if the rest of your system is also optimized and of good quality.
Also, you can invest in a high-quality DAC if your system is producing a lot of noise and you want to help eliminate it. Some of the noise may even be due to ground loops.
High-quality DACs are better since they’re better shielded against electrical noise. Moreover, the chip of these converters often performs optimally. So, if you regard flexibility and performance as worth the cost, you can for the costly DACs.
High-end studio DACs may cost as much as 100 cheap ones. However, there comes a point of diminishing returns for typical home use which is somewhere around $100/channel.
How Does a DAC Work?
As the name suggests, a DAC is designed to take digital data and transform it into analog. That’s why we didn’t require DACs fifty years ago. Microphones used in recording studios captured and store music files as analog signals.
Due to the need to improve efficiency, recording engineers currently store sound as digital signals.
So, for you to enjoy digital audio’s convenience and portability, you’ll need a DAC with the ability to convert digital signals to analog. Here’s how your DAC works to help you to enjoy digital audio’s convenience and portability:
- Records analog signals: Artists lay down tracks during the recording stage. Their microphones pick up all sounds and record them as analog signals
- Stores analog files as digital data: Recording engineers use advanced analog-to-digital converters (ADC) to transform the recorded sound of instruments and human voices into digital signals.
- Playback: During playback, you decode the stored digital signals. To achieve this, you need a suitable DAC to convert the signals back to analog signals.
- Sends the signals to your amp: A DAC sends the files to an amp after decoding the stored digital signals. The amplifier then sends the music through your stereo speakers or headphones.
Will Your DAC Improve Spotify?
A standalone DAC will make a massive difference in sound quality if you are streaming music through Spotify. You can survive without buying an external DAC. Remember that most audio devices already have efficient internal DACs. However, you should upgrade your internal DAC if it’s picking up unwanted noise.
Why is Spotify’s sound quality so bad? If you are using the best DAC and are still asking this question, the issue is likely due to poor-quality headphones. Choose the right quality and take advantage of the equalizer settings in Spotify. Remember that even if you have a high-quality pair of headphones, you can still use these settings to fine-tune the sound to suit your listening preferences.
How Much Should I Spend on the Best DAC?
We now agree that you can get quality sound with a high-quality DAC. The exact amount of money you should spend on your DAC should depend on your needs and purchasing power. It should also depend on the efficiency of your internal DAC.
If you are in a position, you can consider the DACs that cost approximately 1,000 USD. Nonetheless, as we mentioned earlier, some cheaper ones can also give you clear and fantastic sound. So, the best solution is to test a few DACs and see which one best suits your needs.
How Long Do DACs Last?
DAC’s can serve you perfectly well for at least three years. So, if you’ve used yours for more than three years, consider replacing it. Otherwise, it might not continue to make a difference in the sound quality you receive.
Are External DACs a Waste of Money?
Possibly ‘yes.’ If you’re already listening to digital sources and have an outstanding experience, there’s no doubt that buying external DACs is a waste of your money. As we’ve seen, DACs transform digital files into music. This means, if you have a great experience, you already have the right inbuilt DAC. For that matter, it isn’t beneficial to go for another one.
Why Do DACs Sound Different?
DACs are complex devices that have many different types of digital to analog converters.
Each converter has its own sound, which results in the final output depending on how they play together.
The more expensive DACs tend to be made by large companies with better engineering teams and more money for equipment testing.
Makers of cheaper DACs will often make a lot of claims about their products, but those promises are often not true.
Are All DACs Equal?
All DACs normally sound the same. Due to the surrounding peripheral circuitry, there may be minor variations in comparison to the DAC digital section.
Other than that, the differences should be minor.
As a result, you believe there will be few distinctions. Many people spend thousands of dollars for tiny variations that don’t seem to make much of a difference.
Do I Need a DAC if I Have an Audio Interface?
If you’re recording with an audio interface, then the answer is yes.
The DAC will take your analog signal from your interface’s preamp and convert it to digital.
It acts as another piece of equipment in between your sound source (i.e., microphone) and computer that can potentially further alter or enhance the way music sounds.
Particularly once it has been recorded into a DAW like Pro Tools or Logic.
Does A DAC Amp Make A Big Difference?
A DAC is introduced when you are not satisfied with the Amp. Thus we say yes, it creates a remarkable difference. This explains why you would want the best quality source before embarking on amplification.
You’ve seen that you need a good DAC to get quality sound. It would help if you considered choosing those that are shielded well against electrical noises. However, if you are already listening to digital sources and have a great experience, adding an external DAC may not be necessary. The internal one is efficient.
So, your DAC makes a huge difference if you’re using digital sources. Choose one that’s tailored to meet your needs to avoid regrets.
Norvan Martin is the founder of BoomSpeaker.com. He is a professional Electronics Engineer and is passionate about home theater systems and AV electronics. BoomSpeaker was created as an online hub to share his knowledge and experiences as it relates to home theaters and home audio electronics.