If you’ve never heard of a “DAC”, don’t worry, most people haven’t. The fact is, it’s one of the best ways to improve the quality of the digital music we consume every day, whether it’s through a phone, laptop or proper audio system. (Listen only to music exclusively through vinyl? Perhaps this article is not for you.)
We have a whole explainer what is a DAC and what does it do here, but it’s essentially a device – available in all shapes and sizes and at all prices – that converts a digital audio signal (say, a Spotify stream or a local music file playing on your phone) into an analog audio signal so that it can output (i.e. listen) through the speakers or (if it has a headphone output, which most do) through a pair of headphones. This explains its full name – Digital-to-analog converter.
It’s likely that you’ll have at least one device with a DAC inside – for starters, any digital set with a 3.5mm headphone port, such as a laptop or tablet – but the converters built into these everyday devices, and even digital hi- fi components tend not to be of high quality, and so the music doesn’t sound as good after it’s passed (and converted) through them. Buying a decent dedicated external DAC can fix this and help you enjoy your music more. It can change your enjoyment of music more than any other purchase. That’s why now is a particularly good time to invest in one…
They work on multiple devices
Now that USB-C is becoming more and more ubiquitous in the consumer electronics market (even the iPhone is headed that way soon), more and more DACs have USB-C inputs, making them more versatile for many types of devices than any when before This means you can use one DAC for your Android phone, laptop and iPad if you want.
Even USB stick-like (USB-A) DACs – and older ones with USB-B inputs, for that matter – can easily be made compatible with USB-C devices these days thanks to increasingly common, discreet and cheap adapters that can connect all the way through, allowing the DAC to connect to your device. USB-A DACs are just as easy to make iPhone compatible with the Apple Lightning-to-USB Camera Adapter.
Are they first of all Intended or not, many DACs designed primarily for use in laptop/desktop computers can also be seamlessly integrated into hi-fi systems.
They rely less and less on wires
Most DACs with built-in headphone amplifiers, portable or otherwise, need to be plugged into a device and headphones (device > cable > DAC > cable > headphones)… but not all. The iFi Go Blu and the Audiolab M-DAC nano (pictured above) are two examples of portable DACs that can one wire at least out of the equation – between it and your source device. Yes, you’ll still need wired headphones* to take advantage, but both of these five-star examples show that your portable device’s sound can still be amped up significantly without significantly compromising comfort. With desktop/hi-fi DACs, Bluetooth is also ticked more often than not.
*While dedicated wired headphones are ideal partners for DACs with headphone amplifiers, you can always use a pair of wireless headphones wired (after all, that’s what the included cable is for!) with a DAC in cases where you need better sound quality than a Bluetooth headphone connection can offer.
They make it easy to upgrade your hi-fi system
We’re talking in general terms here, but sources and amplifiers that offer digital connectivity – especially those at the more affordable end of the market – often lack built-in high-quality DAC stages that use off-the-shelf DAC chips and only benefit from a tight budget. spent on maximizing the output cascade. For example, if you’re buying a £1,000/$1,000/AU$2,000 stereo amplifier with digital connections, the internal DAC is likely to be of the same quality as an external dedicated one five times cheaper. If you regularly play digital sources – say a CD player or a laptop – through your hi-fi system, connecting them to an external DAC, which is itself connected to the analogue input of your amplifier, may be the easiest way to upgrade your system. In addition to an audio upgrade, an external DAC can also add additional features to your system, such as Bluetooth or greater support for digital files.
Likewise, if you’re happy with your all-analog amp for most of your listening, but need the extra flexibility to play music from a digital source, adding an external DAC to it may be a better option than replacing it with a digital amp.
They show the quality of the audio you are playing
If you stream music in high quality from a high-definition streaming service, you may have realized that it’s not always easy to see what the bit rate (“24-bit”) or sample rate (“96 kHz”) – i.e. the quality – of a track actually there is. The sample rate of songs varies from album to album, but not all streaming interfaces show what it actually is. However, some DACs, such as the iFi hip-dac 2 (pictured above), the Chord Mojo 2 and the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M, can tell you the sample rate of the file it’s playing via LED displays (often color-coded). , which can offer some reassurance that you’re getting the quality you think you’re getting.
They are increasingly supporting Tidal Masters
If you look at our best DAC buying guide, half of the 10 recommended products support MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), the technology that powers Tidal’s high-definition “Masters” streams. Tidal is no longer the only or most affordable HD service to consider, but it’s still the best in our opinion, and the growing number of devices supporting its HD streams only helps.
The fact that high-resolution audio is becoming more common, thanks primarily to tech giants Apple and Amazon supporting it in their music services, also makes the role of DAC more relevant than ever. After all, why spend money on better sounding music that is now very affordable if you don’t have a set that sounds good enough to really use it?
They also improve low quality files
you don’t need however, for high-resolution audio playback, to benefit from the use of a DAC. While every DAC we’ve come across supports hi-res audio, these will noticeably improve even your Spotify streams – again, if you’ve got half-decent headphones (i.e. not EarPods!) that are transparent enough to hear the DAC does As we said in our review of the AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC, and this also applies to other similar converters: “If you’re looking to take things back to basics and wonder if this DAC will change your daily dose of Spotify, let us confirm that it will. Even these relatively low-resolution streams greatly improve detail, sharpness, and dynamism.”
However, you’ll hear more noticeable differences and get optimal results when playing lossless CD-quality content and above.
They can be very affordable
Like most things, DACs vary in quality, and therefore in price. But with the recent arrival of new products designed for our phones, laptops and other portable devices to enhance sound on the go, the price was reasonable. Our favorite budget desktop DAC, perfect for a laptop or PC, is the iFi Zen DAC V2 at £135 / $189 / AU$265, while the aforementioned AudioQuest DragonFly Red and iFi Go Blu are also under £180 / US$230 / AU$300. For a moderate cost, they will do wonders for your everyday music enjoyment.
You won’t be surprised to read that you can spend a little or a lot more to get better sound quality in the desktop/laptop market, although the same rules apply to hi-fi DACs as to other hi-fi components: buy one at a level appropriate for the rest of your system.
What is a DAC? And do you need it?
Wireless headphones are the best headphones ever — yet wired ones are more relevant than ever
MP3, AAC, WAV, FLAC: explanation of all audio file formats