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DAC buying guide

How to choose the best digital-to-analog converter for your home and portable audio systems


Dave Bar

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

Audioquest Dragonfly portable DAC

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.

Shop our selection of portable USB DACs

Turn your work station into a concert hall with a Desktop USB DAC

Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus

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.

Shop our selection of desktop USB DACs

Audioengine D2 wireless DAC

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.   

Shop our selection of wireless DACs

Show your headphones some love with a Headphone Amp/DAC

Sennheiser HDVD 800 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.

Shop our selection of headphone Amp/DACs

Arcam rSeries drDock

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.

Shop our selection of iPod/iPhone DACs

Upgrade the sound of your home audio system

NAD Masters Series M51 DAC

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.

Shop our selection of component Hi-Fi DACs

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.  

See our Guide to High-fidelity Computer Audio

See our Computer Audio Setup Guide

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.

 Shop our selections of USB, coaxial digital, and optical digital audio cables.

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.   

  • David Drew from Crawley West Sussex uk

    Posted on 5/2/2015 7:21:11 PM

    Hi i use my iPad and iPod classic some times with my Bose headphones but mostly through my main Hifi which is seventy watts rms per channel. I have two floor standing speakers twelve inch bass five inch mid range tree inch liquid cooled tweeters and a pair of Elax book shelf two way bi wired speakers. What would you recommend and how much do I need to spend approximately. Any advice would be greatly received. Great website by the way. Thanks Dave Drew.

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/4/2015 1:52:10 PM

    Dave, there are a lot of variables to consider here (especially the generational versions of your iPad and iPod), but if you are looking for a decent DAC to connect your Apple devices to your current sound system, you might want to check out the Arcam drDock.

    Jabo, since DACs decode digital audio music sources, you can't really use one with an analog FM radio broadcast. If you are streaming the station on the internet via your computer, a DAC with a USB input may be just the ticket to improve performance. As for DVDs, it depends. If you are playing music CDs on a DVD player, then a DAC connected to the player's optical or coaxial digital audio output would make a good choice. Otherwise, DACs designed to decode PCM or DSD audio files are not capable of decoding the Dolby Digital or DTS soundtracks contained on most movie DVDs. That's what the decoder in your receiver is for. Lots of options here; you may want to give our advisors a call to see which one is best for you.

  • Brad from Ontario Canada

    Posted on 6/8/2015 1:09:05 PM

    I have a McIntosh system and use a Wadia 170I dock with my ipod (iknow it's wrong but is easy) would adding the Wadia 151 to the system make a substantial difference?

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/9/2015 9:19:10 AM

    Brad, I'd doubt that adding the 151 would make any significant difference. And by the way, the iPod played through a good DAC makes an excellent music source, especially if you're playing CD-quality files from it.

  • Henry Britton Jr from Vancouver

    Posted on 7/26/2015 6:36:01 PM

    I want to connect my LG HDTV (Smart, Web/OS) to my stereo receiver via TV's optical output to receiver's analog RCA input. Is this connection possible for better sound?? HELP

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/27/2015 9:47:48 AM

    Henry, It is possible to play your TV's audio through your stereo receiver via its optical digital output by using an outboard DAC. However, most TVs output a combination of PCM audio and Dolby Digital (when using the TV's built-in tuner). A standard DAC designed to handle stereo PCM and DSD audio signals from conventional music sources can't process the Dolby Digital bitstream audio from your TV. The solution? A DAC such as the WyreStorm Express. It's designed to handle both PCM and bitstream audio, converting them to analog stereo sound for connection to your receiver.

  • Sunny from Seoul

    Posted on 8/20/2015 2:44:59 AM

    Hi I recently bought some active speakers with a built-in DAC (USB connection), but my tv only has RCA and optical audio outputs. Is it worth adding an external DAC to this setup, or will my TV's internal DAC work fine?

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/20/2015 9:44:20 AM

    Sunny, As long as your active speakers have analog audio inputs, such as the Audioengine A2+ for example, I believe simply using your TV's internal DAC and RCA audio outputs to connect them would be the best way to go. No external DAC necessary.

    As for listening to music from your computer through your speakers, adding an external DAC, especially one capable of decoding high-resolution audio, will often result in noticeably better sound than the DAC built into most active speakers. So in this case, it might be worth adding one. It all depends on how good your speakers are, and whether or not you are a critical listener.

  • ONG KOK LEONG from Melaka Tengah

    Posted on 8/21/2015 11:10:09 AM

    can a external high end dac improve the sound of a yamaha rxv 677 av receiver?

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/21/2015 2:37:25 PM

    Ong, I guess the answer is yes and no. An add-on DAC could potentially improve the sound quality of an external digital audio source, such as a CD player or computer, connected to it and then plugged into one of the receiver's analog audio inputs. However, an outboard DAC will do nothing for any of the receiver's "internal" audio sources, such as Wi-Fi connected sources or surround sound sources, since the signal from those sources will always only be routed through the receiver's built-in DAC.

  • Tom from joplin mo

    Posted on 8/28/2015 8:17:16 PM

    I have a new 55" Samsung 7100 TV It has only the optical audio output and my 1977 Pioneer SX-1250 only has RCA inputs. SO I need a converter that is of better quality than the $15 ones on Amazon or a bit more at best buy. What do you offer that a real stereo system will be sounding rif=ght with the TV.

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/31/2015 9:32:33 AM

    Tom, we sent your question to our sales team for the best answer. They'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • Bob from Augusta

    Posted on 11/8/2015 10:14:26 PM

    will a dac make a difference in my home audio video system,I have a cambridge azur 752bd player ,audio out to my vintage macintosh model 1900 thru rya connections ,then to my custom built altec model 19 speakers? I like my two channel set up, I just want to make sure I am getting the most out of the signal to the receiver.

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/9/2015 12:17:47 PM

    Hi Bob, The Cambridge 752BD has a pretty sweet audio section to begin with, so I'm not sure a DAC upgrade would gain you much ground sonically. If this were my setup, I'd be tempted to upgrade the patch cords with something like the AudioQuest Evergreen or Golden Gate RCA cables. I would also swap out the 752BD's power cable with AudioQuest's NRG-2. Either or both of these changes would, in my humble opinion, result in a noticeable improvement in sound quality.

  • Winver from Manila

    Posted on 12/4/2015 11:49:25 AM

    Hi Dave. While I've been using pretty nice sounding earphones for my smartphone such as the Vsonic GR07, Fischer Audio DBA-02, Ortofon e-Q7, I'm a complete newbie when it comes to using a DAC and AMP. One simple question. When using a DAC/AMP, does it matter which player I use, since the external DAC replaced the one embedded on my DAP/smartphone music player? Or does the sound change if I use a different DAP with the same DAC/AMP?

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/4/2015 2:55:32 PM

    Winver, Many subscribe to the "bit are bits" philosophy that would disallow the possibility of any audible differences in sound of the same music file played back from different players. But experience has shown me that every link in the playback system has the potential to affect sound quality. So yes, I do think the player will matter. But I expect that difference to be quite small compared to the differences in sound quality between various amp/DACs.

  • Jacinthe from Ottawa

    Posted on 12/9/2015 9:30:13 AM

    Hi, I have a Pro-Ject dock Box S IF connecting my iPhone, IPAD my tube preamp Melody 1688 II, streaming music. My speakers are ProAC Studio 140. I am looking at getting the most out of the digital streaming into my analog set-up by adding a DAC but I am uncertain to which to choose that will work well with the Melody?

  • John from Lexington, VA

    Posted on 12/30/2015 10:40:33 AM

    I am now putting together my ideas for wireless sound system in my apartment using the Sonos SUB, model 1, 3, and 5 units. What is the way in which to configure an external DAC with Sonos? We have a lot of our music stored already on the Sony Walkman NWZ-ZX1. If we use this as our music source do we, in effect, have our external DAC? Thank you.

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/30/2015 5:36:23 PM

    John, The Sonos models you mentioned are all closed, self-contained units that have their own built-in DACs and amps. They do not need, nor can they use an external DAC. The sole exception in the Sonos product range would be the CONNECT. It, too, has a built-in DAC with line-level audio outputs. But unlike the others, the CONNECT also provides optical and coaxial digital audio (S/PDIF) outputs that can be connected to an outboard DAC for an audio upgrade.

    As far as using your Walkman as some kind of music server in a Sonos network (or even just plugging it into the aux input on the PLAY:5, the only Sonos piece with one), I can't really say. I'm not familiar with your 'ZX1's capabilities, and I'm uncertain how you would propose to stream music from it to your Sonos. You may want to give our advisors a call to discuss the details.

  • Martin from Rosario

    Posted on 2/3/2016 9:53:08 PM

    Hi! I have a Yamaha AS-500 Stereo Amp paired with Polk RTI's A7 in a bi wired setup. Currently I'm using a CD-changer and a turntable, but I wanted to play some music I have in high res files that I can't get in CDs or Vynil. I don't know much about DACs, I just landed here looking about how to play this files in a hifi system and all roads lead here. I've looked a bit online and I saw some Asus Xonar Essence One (that thing looks amazing and theoretically it's good) but I wanted some feedback from experts. I'm from Argentina so it's not likely that I get many brands here, I think I saw some stuff from Cambridge but not too much. I know I can get some of the Asus models tho, for some reason they get here. Is there any advice you can give me? I intend to use this with a USB cable for files and then RCA stereo to connect to my amp. Thanks in advance for the help!!!

  • Dave Bar from Crutchfield

    Posted on 2/4/2016 3:53:12 PM

    Martin, I'm not certain how much the Asus costs where you are, but it looks pretty pricy to me (maybe too pricey for what it is?). Looking at the gear you are using, and the fact that you might be able to obtain Cambridge Audio products, I would highly recommend the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100. I've heard this DAC in several relatively high-end systems, and it sounds pretty amazing. Plus, it's not too expensive for what you get. It doesn't decode DSD audio files, but if that's not a deal breaker, I highly recommend it.

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