These days, most of us get our music digitally. Whether that music comes from a streaming service like Spotify or Pandora, a CD played on a player, or from a downloaded file from a source like iTunes, it has one major feature: in order to be audible, the digital file must be transmitted through a digital to analog converter (DAC).
Digital signals are little more than a series of 1s and 0s, and in the case of recorded music, are arranged in a particular form to create what we recognize as sound. But we can’t actually hear 1s and 0s – sound is created via sound waves, which are analog. Therefore, in order to listen to digital music, the digital signal needs to be converted using a DAC, which transforms the digital code into actual waves that can be amplified and output, often in conjunction with a numerically controlled oscillator (NCO), to create sound.
Devices that play digital music, including your phone, tablet, computer, and even home stereo system, are equipped with built-in DACs. Without them, they would be useless when it comes to playing digital music. To the average listener who isn’t familiar with the sound of the original recording, or is simply used to listening to digital music and unaware of the subtle differences in analog recordings, these standard DACs are often perfectly fine. However, for the true audiophile, these DACs tend to be rather inadequate for capturing the true sound of the music. Many opt to upgrade their DAC to achieve better sound quality and enjoy music in as close to its original form as possible.
Buying a DAC
Before we get into what to consider when buying a new DAC, it’s important to talk about the source material that the DAC will be using.
As mentioned above, digital recording measures the amplitude of the analog music at regular intervals, called the sampling rate, and then represents those intervals as a series of 0s and 1s, with the length of the number called the bit depth. The typical CD recording takes a sample 44,100 times per second, and measures the samples in 16 bits. A high-resolution recording might have a sample rate of 192,000 times per second, with a bit depth of 24 bits. A DAC’s job, then, is to translate those bits as accurately as possible from the original recording.
Complicating matters is the type of compression that the digital recording uses. The more compressed the file, the more likely it will be that a more advanced DAC will reveal the shortcomings of the original recording. In other words, using a typical 128 kpbs digital mp3 file with a powerful DAC is probably not going to improve the sound. Most standalone DACs work best with CD-quality files, or FLAC, ALAC, or WAV files. Regardless of the file type, you need to use the highest-resolution recordings possible for the best results.
Beyond considering the actual music file types, though, when purchasing a DAC, you should consider a few other key points.
- What am I connecting the DAC to? There are a wide variety of DACs on the market, from those specifically designed for use with iPods and iPads, to component devices designed for use with high-end stereo systems. Look for a DAC that is designed to work with your device. In addition, consider the quality of the components that you are working with; a high-end DAC is not going to improve the sound out from your low-quality speakers. And by the same token, a basic DAC isn’t going to do much if you have a top-of the line stereo system already.
- What are the features of the DAC? A growing number of DACs offer wireless connectivity, for example, allowing it to work with a larger system easily. Consider how you most typically listen to music. Some DACs aren’t designed for use with headphones, for instance, making them useless if you usually listen to music that way. Other DACs can be controlled by remote, are portable, or offer other useful features.
- How easy is the DAC to use? While some models do allow for plug and play, most require some configuration and adjustments to the settings on the computer or music player to get the best sound. Consider how much patience and knowledge you’ll have when it comes time to tinker with settings.
Listening to music is a great joy for many people. Listening to music that sounds great and is as close as possible to the original recording is even better. If you aren’t happy with the quality of your digital sound, or you just want to hear music as it was intended, consider investing in a DAC.