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...
…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.
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.
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”.
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'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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.