If you’ve never heard of a “DAC”, don’t worry, most people haven’t heard of it. 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. (Only listen to music exclusively through vinyl? This article is probably not for you.)
We have a whole explainer on what a DAC is and what it does here, but it’s basically a device – available in all shapes and sizes and at all prices – that converts a digital audio signal (a Spotify stream or local music file playing on your phone, for example ) into an analog audio signal so that it can be output (i.e. listened to) through speakers or (if it has a headphone jack output, which most do) a pair of headphones. This explains its full name – Digital to Analog Converter.
Chances are you have at least one device with a DAC inside – any digital kit you have with a 3.5mm headphone port, like a laptop or tablet, for starters – but converters built into these everyday devices, and even digital hi-fi components are generally not of high quality, and as a result music does not sound great after being passed through (and converted by) them. Getting a decent, dedicated external DAC can remedy that and help you enjoy your music more. It could make more of a difference to your musical enjoyment than any other purchase. Here’s why now is a great time to invest in a…
They work on multiple devices
Now that USB-C is becoming more ubiquitous in the consumer electronics market (even the iPhone is heading there soon), more and more DACs have USB-C inputs, making them makes it more universal than ever across multiple device types. That means you can use a DAC for your Android phone, laptop, and iPad if you want.
Even USB stick-style (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 the increasingly common adapters , discreet and cheap that can connect at the end, allowing the DAC to plug into your device. USB-A DACs are just as easy to make compatible with iPhones, via Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adapter.
Whether they are principally Built for it or not, many DACs designed primarily for portable/desktop use can also slot into hi-fi systems without too much faff.
They become less dependent on wires
Most DACs with built-in headphone amplifiers, portable or otherwise, need to be hardwired to a device and headphones (device > cable > DAC > cable > headphones)… but not all. The iFi Go Blu and Audiolab M-DAC nano (pictured above) are two examples of portable DACs that can take a cable at least out of the equation – the one between this and your source device. Yes, you still need wired headphones* to enjoy it, but these two five-star examples show that your portable sound can still be dramatically improved without compromising convenience too much. With desktop/hi-fi DACs, Bluetooth also becomes a ticked box more often than not.
* Although dedicated wired headphones are ideal partners for DACs with headphone amps, you can still use a pair of wireless headphones wired (that’s what the included cable is for, after all!) with a DAC for those circumstances where you’re looking for better sound quality than a Bluetooth headphone connection can offer.
They make it easy to upgrade the hi-fi system
We’re talking broadly here, but sources and amplifiers that offer digital connectivity – especially those on the more affordable market – often don’t have particularly high-quality DAC stages built-in, using the run-of- the-mill off-the-market DAC chips and only benefiting from a limited budget spent on maximizing its output stage. If you buy a £1000/$1000/AU$2000 stereo amp with digital connections, for example, the DAC inside is likely to be of the same quality as a dedicated external five times cheaper. If you regularly listen to digital sources – a CD player or laptop, for example – through your hi-fi system, plugging them into an external DAC which is itself connected to the analog input of your amplifier might be the easiest way. easy to upgrade your system. As well as offering a sound upgrade, an external DAC can also add additional features to your system, such as Bluetooth or broader digital file support.
Likewise, if you’re happy with your all-analog amplifier for most of your listening, but want the extra flexibility to play music from a digital source on occasion, adding a DAC external might be a better option than replacing it with a digital compatible amp.
They reveal the quality of the audio you play
If you’re streaming music in hi-res quality from a hi-res streaming service, you may have found that it’s not always easy to see what bitrate (’24-bit) or rate sampling (’96kHz’) – ie the quality – a track actually is. Song sample rates vary from album to album, but not all streaming service interfaces show the actual sample rate. However, some DACs, such as the iFi hip-dac 2 (pictured above), Chord Mojo 2 and Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M, can tell you the sample rate of a playing file via their LED displays (often color coded). , which can reassure you that you are getting the quality you think you are.
They increasingly support Tidal Masters
If you look at our best DAC buying guide, half of the top 10 recommended products support MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), the technology that powers Tidal’s high-resolution “Masters” streams. Tidal is no longer the only hi-res or most affordable service to consider, but in our minds it remains the best, and the growing number of devices supporting its hi-res streams only strengthens its case.
The fact that Hi-Res Audio is becoming more and more of a “thing”, mostly thanks to tech giants Apple and Amazon supporting it on their music services, also makes the role DACs play more relevant than ever. After all, why spend money on music that sounds better and is now very accessible if you don’t have a kit that sounds good enough to really enjoy it?
They also improve poor quality files
You do not have need to play hi-res audio to benefit from using a DAC, however. While all of the DACs we’ve come across support Hi-Res Audio, they’ll make an audible difference even to your Spotify streams – again, as long as you have semi-decent headphones (i.e. not EarPods!) which are transparent enough to hear what the DAC is doing. As we’ve said in our AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC review and so have others of its caliber, “If you want to go back to basics and wonder if a DAC like this will do a difference in your daily dose of Spotify, allow us to confirm that this will be the case.Even those relatively low resolution streams benefit from a considerable improvement in detail, definition and dynamic departments.
That said, you’ll hear more noticeable differences and get the best results feeding it lossless and above CD quality content.
They can be very affordable
Like most things, DACs vary in quality and therefore price. But since a fairly recent crop designed for our phones, laptops, and other portable devices to improve sound on the go has appeared, they’ve been reasonably priced as such. Our favorite budget desktop DAC, ideal for a laptop or computer, is the iFi Zen DAC V2, priced at £135 / $189 / AU$265, while the aforementioned AudioQuest DragonFly Red and iFi Go Blu both cost under £180 / $230 / AU$300 as well. For a modest outlay, they will do wonders for your everyday musical 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, while the same rules apply to hi-fi DACs as other components. hi-fi: get one at an appropriate level for the rest of your system.
What is a DAC? And do you need it?
Wireless headphones are the best they’ve ever been – and yet wire is more relevant than ever
MP3, AAC, WAV, FLAC: all audio file formats explained