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DAC buying guide

How to choose a digital-to-analog converter for home or portable audio

In this article: We'll do a deep dive on digital-to-analog converters and how they can improve sound from digital audio sources...

  1. What is a DAC?
  2. How does a DAC work?
  3. Do you need an external DAC?
  4. Types of DACs

…And we’ll also provide some shopping tips to help you find the right DAC.

The digital age has made finding new artists and listening to bona fide classics easy. Digital music can sound great, but how do you get the most out of it?

There are dozens of file types out there, and they all have varying degrees of sound quality. The one thing they all have in common is that you can’t listen to their digital 1s and 0s by themselves. Those digital bits need to be converted to analog. All this time, there’s been a small chip behind the scenes switching the digital signal to an analog one. That chip is a digital-to-analog-converter, or “DAC” for short.

What is a DAC?

At its basest form, the term “DAC” applies to any chip that takes an incoming digital signal of binary 1s and 0s and converts it to an analog one. Every device capable of accepting a digital audio signal has a DAC chip hidden somewhere inside, from your PC’s sound card to your smartphone to even your TV.

what a dac does

But not all DAC chips have similar specs. Some chips can convert meatier files that have higher bit depths and sampling rates. Some can handle specialized file types like MQA, while others can’t.

There are audio components out there that are purpose-built for digital-to-analog conversion. I tend to call these “outboard” or “external” DACs since they’re usually separate components that connect to digital sources.

Outboard DACs are almost always what people refer to when talking about DACs. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and feature different digital inputs and analog outputs. A lot of portable DACs feature a headphone amplifier and are great for taking hi-fi tunes on the go. Some have built in-batteries, while others rely on the source device for power.

How does a DAC work?

Signal flow for DACs is straightforward. The signal starts at the source device (like your smartphone or computer). The audio you’re playing leaves the source’s digital output (like a USB output) and then heads into the DAC and hits the DAC chip. The chip then changes the signal from a digital one to an analog one. The signal passes through the DAC’s analog circuits to the analog output.

dac signal flow illustration

Digital audio signals leave your source device (1) and go into the DAC (2), where they're turned into analog signals before going to your headphones or amp (3).

Do you need an external DAC?

As a Crutchfield sales advisor, I was often asked whether an outboard DAC was necessary. If you’re looking to give your audio a boost, grabbing one is worth it. While your smartphone and computer both have DAC chips inside them, the chips implemented into those devices are an afterthought; more of a necessity than anything.

External DACs, on the other hand, have excellent sound quality. They feature more advanced DAC chips and audiophile-grade circuitry. The improvements a good DAC can make are subtle but sweet. The DAC won’t add more detail to your music — you can’t create something from nothing — but it’ll make the available details more apparent.

My good friend Charles, who’s part of our Sales team, puts it best: “It’s like cleaning a dirty window; you can still see out of it, but the stuff outside the window is clearer.”

Whether you use your DAC as part of a headphone rig or a two-channel stereo system, you’ll notice the sonic benefits. Subtleties like the body resonances of an acoustic guitar or a backing mandolin are more present. Vocal inflections are more noticeable, and the overall soundstage presentation of your music expands further. Imaging also tends to improve, meaning you can better pick out where instruments and band members are in the song.

If you’re using a DAC with a built-in headphone amplifier to drive your headphones, you’ll reap some additional benefits. The headphone amplifier found on outboard DACs is often potent, meaning your cans won’t starve for more power. On top of that, the amplifier and left/right channel circuits are better laid out to reduce crosstalk and other types of distortion.

DACs and digital music files

I’ve mentioned “bits” and “sample rates” a couple times already, but what do those things mean? It’s common to see numbers on digital audio files like 24-bit/96kHz and 24-bit/192kHz. The first number (24 in this case) refers to the bit depth. Think of bit depth as how much information a file has. The second number is the sample rate, which is how many times per second that information gets sampled or “read”.

bit rate comparison chart

The highest resolution possible is 24-bit/192kHz. That's almost 1.5 times the information of CD quality, and that information gets sampled over four times more per second.

Generally speaking, the higher the bit depth and sample rate, the more detailed the track is because there’s more information and that information gets sampled more times per second. CD quality, for example, is right at 16-bit/44.1kHz. Respectable, but not the most detailed. The highest-resolution files can be as high as 24-bit/192kHz.

Most DACs these days support up to, at minimum, 24-bit/96kHz. But if you’re dealing with files with high bitrates and sample rates, make sure the DAC you go with supports them. Also, if you have DSD or MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) files, make sure your DAC can decode them. If you’d like to learn more about different high-res audio formats, check out our guide to high res audio.

What are the different types of DACs?

External DACs come in all sorts of form factors. When trying to determine which style is best for you, consider how and where you’ll be using the DAC. Also consider what features, inputs, and outputs you’d like the digital-to-analog converter to have to make sure it serves you best.

Portable USB DACs

These DACs are some of the smallest, most portable ones on the market. For reference, some models are about the same size as a USB thumb drive. They serve as small headphone amplifiers that work with your computer or your smartphone. You can also use their analog output to connect your smartphone or computer to your stereo system.

ifi go bar

iFi's new Go Bar is a potent pocket-sized DAC that has no trouble driving most headphones

Most USB DACs draw power straight from the source device. This is important to keep in mind, as you don’t want your smartphone’s battery to deplete while you’re in the middle of a jam session. There are others that have a built-in battery. Those are somewhat larger in size, but never so large that they’d get in the way.

Some of our best-sellers are AudioQuest’s DragonFly series of DACs. These little powerhouses are awesome, offering up plenty of sonic goodness without getting in the way. They can work with smartphones, computers, or anything else that has a USB output.

Desktop USB DACs

Desktop DACs are often larger than their pocket-sized counterparts and sit on a desk or tabletop. They’ll often require a connection to AC power to operate. The neat thing about desktop DACs is that they have more home audio-focused connections to work with. Some have line-level RCA outputs to feed into other components. Almost all of them will have either a coaxial digital, optical digital, or USB connection (or all three) for input.

cambridge audio dacmagic 200m

Desktop DACs are great if you’re looking to, say, connect your CD player up to your home stereo. Doing so allows you to bypass the DAC inside the CD player and use the external DAC’s processing instead. They’re also excellent computer companions and can run almost any pair of headphones, thanks to their beefy headphone amplifier sections.

A personal favorite of mine is Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic 200M. This desktop DAC is a real powerhouse. It features twin audiophile-grade DAC chips, a powerful headphone amplifier, Bluetooth 4.2 for wireless music streaming, plenty of inputs, and it can even decode MQA files.

Component Hi-Fi DACs

These larger DACs are the cream of the crop. Component DACs used in home audio systems serve as central “hubs” for music, although some do offer headphone outputs. It’s not uncommon to find large power supplies, balanced XLR connections, and advanced DAC circuitry inside.

ifi pro idsd

Some models, like the Pro iDSD Signature from iFi are a “jack-of-all-trades” option. It has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for music streaming, along with a plethora of digital inputs. It uses a unique DSP algorithm, four DAC chips that handle the left and right channels independently of one another, and a powerful headphone amplifier to elevate your listening experience. It even has balanced and unbalanced analog outputs to feed into other components.

How to get the best performance from your DAC

Buying and using a DAC is one thing, but knowing how to make the most of it is more important. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Resolution matters

Remember earlier how I mentioned bit depths and sample rates, and how files with higher numbers contain more information? That information is crucial. Basic MP3 files, while convenient and small, sound less than stellar. MP3s get compressed to reduce their file size and are considered “lossy” files.

MP3 files are compressed by chopping off everything above and below the range of human hearing. This may sound like a good way to keep audio files to a manageable size, but the track loses subtle details and soundstage width and depth. A DAC can only do so much to improve their sound.

qobuz streaming audio quality options

Qobuz is a popular high-res streaming platform that offers plenty of sound quality options and a sleek interface.

That’s why it’s important to have high-quality sources on-hand. Streaming services like TIDAL, Qobuz, and Amazon Music HD all have lossless files that play, at minimum, at 24-bit/96kHz. You can also buy high-resolution albums from online marketplaces like HDtracks if you’d rather not stream.

2. What are you connecting the DAC to?

To get the best results, you’ll need headphones and audio components that can put the details the DAC is retrieving on full display. My best advice is to use high-quality headphones and/or speakers alongside your DAC to really enjoy what it has to offer. I’d recommend grabbing a DAC that’s equal in performance to the rest of your equipment.

meze 99 classics and ifi dac

iFi's Go blu is an incredible wireless DAC. It's shown here alongside the Meze Audio 99 Classics.

You wouldn’t want to buy a $3,000 component DAC and use it alongside a low-fi stereo or home theater receiver. The inverse is true, too; you wouldn’t buy an entry-level DAC and use it to feed your expensive headphones or high-end component rack.

3. Comfy with computers?

While you can plug most DACs into a computer and start jamming right away, some require downloading and installing specific USB drivers. You might also need to change some audio settings on your computer. And make sure you switch your computer’s output to the DAC itself, otherwise you won’t hear anything (made that mistake a time or two myself).

If you’d like to learn more about desktop hi-fi, check out our guide to high-fidelity computer audio. AudioQuest also has a pretty rad presentation on computer audio that you can check out here.

4. Cables, cables, cables

I can’t stress this one enough. Getting high-quality interconnecting cables for your DAC helps improve sound quality. High-quality cables are better at rejecting external noise and have greater durability.

Check out our selection of USB cables if you’re using your DAC with a computer. We also carry a ton of great optical digital and coaxial digital cables for hooking up CD players and the like. And you'll want to check out our selection of unbalanced RCA, balanced XLR, and stereo mini (3.5mm) cables for connecting the DAC to external components.

Any questions?

All this talk of digital-to-analog conversion and file types can seem overwhelming. Our team of knowledgeable Advisors are ready and waiting to help you pick out the right DAC. Feel free to give them a shout and ask them any questions you might have. They’d be glad to steer you in the right direction.

And if you ever run into any trouble with your new DAC, you get free lifetime tech support with your Crutchfield purchase.

Last updated 7/1/2022
  • Hla Oo from Yangon, Myanmar

    Posted on 8/23/2022

    How many speakers can connect with DAC?

  • John Little from Rockville

    Posted on 3/4/2022

    This is just what I needed, I what a DAC in the worst way and I was going to buy the first one I found...that is until I saw this info on how to choose the right DAC. Price is the big hurdle, and Im trying to overcome that after reading this on buying a DAC. I had NO idea there was so much that goes into buying a DAC, and with your help, I will get the best one I need for my listening pleasure. Again thx for helping and doing the leg work for the rest of us

  • Scott Tibbetts from SANTA FE

    Posted on 2/16/2022

    I would think one of the most important choices to make, especially for a DAC connected to a full audio system, is what kind of platform is being used to get the material. I have an Anthem MRX720 which uses PlayFi, and my Anthem has a horrible time connecting to my network, whether it is the Cat5e connection or Wi-fi. I understand I'm not alone with the connection issues. I love everything about my Anthem except for this issue. Of course I purchased it from Crutchfield. I have been thinking of investing in a DAC simply to make it easier to get the stream. I would like to know which DAC's are the most seamless when connecting to my home network or phone.

  • Don from Metairie

    Posted on 1/21/2022

    Great Article. I'm hoping to put all my music, classical, popular, rock, and Christmas on my new computer system. This information helps me decide what equipment I need.

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 1/25/2022

    Thanks, Don!
  • Dan from Lincoln

    Posted on 1/3/2022

    Hello - I have a DAC from my PC into my desktop speakers in my office. I stream Tidal on my PC and it sounds great. I also have a two-channel system in my office. If I add a low-priced bluetooth receiver (without a DAC) to the integrated amp on the two-channel system so I can stream there also, would adding another DAC between the bluetooth receiver and the integrated amp improve the sound quality? Or would it be better to just buy a better quality bluetooth receiver that already has a built-in DAC?

  • Mun L from Santa Clara

    Posted on 11/23/2021

    I play my music CDs via Sony dvd player UBP-X800M2 which has no DAC. So the digital output goes to my 70wpc Yamaha RXV385 receiver dac. If I want to upgrade which dac (or integrated amp-dac) do you recommend? I listen to 2 channel stereo only (70s,80s,jazz genre), with the bi-amp capable Jamo C97ii speakers bought from you.

  • Joel Leef from Carpinteria

    Posted on 8/28/2021

    I have a ifi Zen DAC V2, what bookshelf speakers do you recommend for use with it. Looking for something that can handle decent bass and it not be distortred.

  • John Telakis from Bonney Lake, Wa. 983

    Posted on 2/27/2021

    I have a portable battery operated CD player which does a great job on my fine CDs. I have used an amp with it which actually improves the sound. Is there such a DAC Amp combo that are made for such an appliance? To now I've onlyread where a dac is used with a home system computer and such. Please reply or if I don't hear from you I can assume the reply is negative...thanks!

  • Joe from MATTHEWS

    Posted on 11/30/2020

    I run my audio sources through a 482i sonic maximizer and into an old Philips 7871 receiver. This setup works perfectly for my record player, phone, and laptop connections. However, I haven't been able to find a DAC to hook my TV's optical audio to the system. I tried bypassing the sonic maximizer, and using it, and both setups result in a clicking sound that I can't quite place. It sounds a bit like static but it's different. Looking for a DAC that might help solve this. Thanks.

  • Karl K. from Quebec City

    Posted on 6/14/2020

    With regards to using a desktop DAC I believe it's important to inform customers opting for a USB-powered unit based on perceived value that their computer's PSU has to be relatively powerful (over 600 watts) in order to send enough juice to the USB ports. This has a nothing short of spectacular impact on sound quality, and I mean really spectacular, as in day and night. Assuming of course that the buyer has a good quality self-powered headphone amp that can swing the volts. Also, when using a USB-powered DAC one must make sure to disable onboard sound in BIOS settings. Failing to do so will cause the audio signal to be routed through the computer's own very basic DSP system and as a result the external DAC will receive a degraded signal and regardless of what heaphone amp is being used, the SQ will just be godawful horrible. Switching off on-board audio will allow the signal to bypass the audio circuit and be sent directly to USB then straight out to the external DAC.

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