Choosing a Digital-to-Analog Converter
Get better sound from your digital music sources
A digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is a device that converts digital music files or streams into analog signals that can be amplified and sent to your speakers or headphones.
DACs are built into computers and many different types of audio components. There's a DAC in your iPod®. There's one in your smartphone. Most A/V receivers and some hi-fi amplifiers have DACs built-in. So do some powered computer speakers. And now there's a growing selection of separate DACs - components that do nothing but convert digital signals to analog.
Why should I buy a separate DAC?
Do you listen to digital music files or streams (such as PANDORA® Internet radio, Rhapsody®, Slacker, etc.)? Do you care about sound quality?
If you answer yes to both questions, you're a good candidate for a separate DAC (or an amp with a high-grade DAC built in). We're pretty sure you'll say "Wow!" when you hear the difference between the sound you get from a separate DAC and the sound of the low-quality DAC (and noisy audio output circuitry) built into your computer or other gadget. You'll hear more of the details that capture your imagination and feel more of the energy that makes listening to music so much fun.
Where does it go? Wherever you listen to music
An ultra-compact DAC like the Audioengine D1 is small enough to carry around with your laptop, but the difference it makes in your sound quality is huge. It connects to a USB output on your laptop or an optical digital audio output. It has a built-in headphone jack and analog audio outputs for connection to an amp or a pair of powered speakers.
Spend a lot of time at your desk? Good sound can help make that time fly. If you already have a nice pair of powered computer speakers, you can make them sound a lot better by pairing them with a compact DAC, such as the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100. Versatile DACs like the DacMagic or the Arcam rDac are great for desktop use, and they also work well in a hi-fi or home theater system.
If you don't already have good computer speakers, you can solve two problems at once. Consider a pair of powered speakers that come with a built-in USB DAC. Products such as the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 or the Focal XS® 2.1 fit this bill perfectly.
Component-style DACs, such as the Musical Fidelity M1DAC A are more at home in a hi-fi system. You might think of them as preamps for digital audio. They tend to have more inputs and better sound quality, thanks to their beefy internal power supplies and audiophile-grade output circuitry.
Great sound for multi-room audio
With DIY-friendly wireless digital audio solutions like Apple's AirPlay® and Sonos®, you can have convenient music playback stations throughout your home. But convenience alone is just half the magic. With the right DAC, amp, and speakers or headphones, you can get great sound in each location.
What plugs into a DAC?
You might be surprised how many different gadgets can connect to a DAC. Which of these digital music source components do you own?
- Laptop or desktop computer
- Sonos wireless music players
- Logitech® Squeezebox™
- Apple TV
- Network music player
- Networked Blu-ray player
- Game console
- CD player with digital audio output
What kind of cables will I need?
Audio components and computers can send digital audio to a DAC over a variety of different cables. The most common are USB, coaxial digital, and optical. Computers use Type A USB jacks, while DACs typically use Type B or mini Type B.
Streaming music system for home theater or stereo