DAC buying guide
How to choose the best digital-to-analog converter for your home and portable audio systems
Dave Bar has worked for Crutchfield since 1981. After a brief 23 year stint in the sales department, he now writes about home audio gear and camera equipment for Crutchfield's catalog and website. Dave has been hooked on electronics ever since putting together a 5-tube AM radio in his high school shop class, and still enjoys tinkering with stereos in his spare time. His interests include gardening, cooking, fishing, photography, and music.
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It’s easier than ever these days to enjoy music from your computer, smartphone, tablet or other digital sources. But no matter where your digital music comes from, it has to be converted into an analog audio signal before you can hear it through your speakers or headphones. That’s the job of a DAC, or digital-to-analog converter. And there’s one built into virtually every digital music-playing device that you own.
Why buy a separate DAC?
For casual music listening, the DACs inside your players do an adequate job of converting digital files into sound.
But what if you want more than just adequate sound? Do you own a high-performance audio system or a good set of headphones? Then adding an external DAC may be just the ticket to better sound.
With their advanced processors and electronics, separate DACs convert your digital audio files with greater precision and accuracy than most built-in DACs. They let you experience your music with better clarity, finer detail, and more sonic realism.
Two caveats: Don't expect miracles with low-quality audio files. And don't be surprised if you have to tweak a few of your computer's audio settings to get the best results from a new DAC. We'll explore these issues in more detail toward the end of this article.
Meanwhile, let's look at how to choose the right type of DAC. The best way to determine which outboard DAC works best for you is to consider how — and where — you want to enjoy better sound.
Portable USB DACs: the music lovers travelling companion
Portable DACs are small enough to slip into your pocket, yet they can still deliver superior sound.
Compact portable USB DACs range in size from a typical USB thumb drive to a small point-and-shoot camera. And they power up using the USB connection on your computer — so no extra power supplies or batteries needed. All of them include a headphone output, as well as line-level output for connecting a home stereo system or self-powered speakers. Even though they may be small, these mighty mites can still deliver big sound.
Turn your work station into a concert hall with a Desktop USB DAC
A separate DAC can enhance the sound of your digital music sources such as your computer.
Just like portable USB DACs, all of these DACs feature a USB input for connecting your computer, and they're sized right for desktop placement. Some also include additional digital or analog audio inputs for hooking up more components.
Unlike their purely USB powered cousins, some desktop models require AC power to operate. They all have line-level audio outputs for connecting powered speakers, a receiver, or an amplifier. And many offer a headphone output for private listening when you don’t want to play your speakers.
A high-quality wireless DAC's performance can equal that of a directly connected one.
A wireless way to send music to your home stereo
Looking for an easy way to send music from your computer, smartphone, or tablet to an audio system in another room? DACs equipped with wireless technology provide a convenient, hassle-free connection to your stereo. These DACs create their own wireless networks that run independently from your home’s Wi-Fi® system, so setup is a snap.
Show your headphones some love with a Headphone Amp/DAC
Combination headphone amp/DACs can elevate your private listening experience.
Just like the best speakers, great headphones demand high-quality amplification. A DAC with a built-in headphone amplifier combines the precision processing and the power you need to enjoy better sound with your best ‘phones.
Get the highest quality audio and video from your Apple portable.
Enjoy superior sound from your iPod
Listening to music from your iPod®, iPhone®, or iPad® through your home stereo used to mean plugging the headphone output into an adapter, then connecting that to your stereo. It worked, but your portable’s made-for-earbud audio circuitry put a crimp in the sound quality going to your “big rig.” With their specialized connections, iPod/iPhone DACs are designed to bypass the processor in your Apple portable to deliver richer, fuller sounding music to your hi-fi system.
Upgrade the sound of your home audio system
Component Hi-Fi DACs often provide an array of inputs and outputs, as well as advanced audiophile features for enhanced sound quality and system versatility.
Component Hi-Fi DACs are designed primarily to connect to your full-fledged home audio system. They tend to have more inputs and features than smaller, more portable DACs. Some models even provide a volume control that allows them to be used as a preamp in a minimalist high-end digital sound system.
Important points for getting the most from your DAC
Although the improvements an external DAC makes in the sound of your digital music can be substantial, DACs don’t exist by themselves in a vacuum. They are only one link in the music playback chain. The quality of sound you ultimately enjoy depends on other factors, as well. Here are four important ones to consider.
1. How good are your music sources?
Digital music comes in variety of different formats and quality levels. The amount of detail a DAC can resolve or pull from a recording depends to a great extent on how much is there to begin with. “CD-quality” resolution was long considered the consumer-level gold standard for digital sound — and there’s no doubt about it, CDs can sound pretty darned good.
But now you can download music with significantly higher resolution that offers even greater dynamics and detail. These “high-res” files, and the DACs capable of decoding them, can deliver stunning levels of musical realism.
At the same time there are digital audio sources such as MP3s that are highly compressed, stripped of much of their original information to reduce file size for more efficient streaming and storage.
Outboard DACs can clearly reveal the detrimental effects that digital compression imparts to sound quality, such as the loss of musical detail and dimensionality. But please don’t blame the DAC, it’s simply doing its job by accurately showing you what is or is no longer there on the recording.
2. What kind of system will your DAC be connected to?
The quality of your system’s audio components will also have a major impact on the improvements you’ll hear with an outboard DAC. Inexpensive plastic computer speakers or stock earbud headphones simply can’t resolve enough detail to show off a DAC’s capabilities.
3. How’s your computer comfort level?
Getting the most from a DAC connected via USB to a computer often takes a bit of extra work. Even though you may get music to play by simply plugging in the DAC, it usually requires some additional changes to your computer’s audio settings to optimize sonic performance. In other words, you may need to tinker a bit in the menus to enjoy the best possible sound.
In addition, many high-performance DACs require downloading and installing a USB driver from the Internet in order to play the highest-resolution music files with a Windows®-based computer. Although manufacturers typically include instructions, a good basic working knowledge of computer operation can greatly increase your odds of success.
4. Don’t forget the cables
Many DACs offer multiple input options, including a USB port for your computer and optical/coaxial digital audio connectors for a CD player or network music player. Computers use Type A USB jacks, while DACs typically use Type B or mini Type B. Sending the output of a DAC to your sound system is usually done through an RCA, stereo mini, or XLR audio cable.
Other DACs provide only one type of input, such a dock connector for your iPod, iPhone, or iPad. Just make certain that the DAC you choose has at least one input that matches your music player’s digital output.
Regardless of how you connect your DAC, the quality of the cables can have a sonic impact. Upgrading from the cables included in the box usually pays off in better sound quality.
Let us know if we can help
We hope this guide will help you get started down the path to enjoying better sound from all of your digital music sources. If you need more detailed information choosing a DAC that’s right for you, please contact our expert Advisors by phone, email, or chat.