A DAC is a device that enhances the quality of audio for speakers and headphones by converting it into an analog signal. DAC (digital-to-analog converter) is a fundamental key to unlocking the convenience of digital music.
What’s going on inside your audio equipment? How does the audio data on a CD, MP3, or WAV file stop being data and become sound? That is in large part thanks to a digital-to-analog converter or DAC.
A DAC takes digital data and transforms it into an analog audio signal. Afterward, it sends that analog signal to an amplifier. When you hear digital recordings, you’re actually listening to an analog signal that was converted from digital by a DAC. Even if you can’t see the DAC – although you sometimes can, as we’ll explore shortly – it’s there.
As with most things audio-related, one DAC isn't necessarily as good as another DAC. For example, your smartphone contains only a very basic DAC. It produces sound that's "good enough" for you to carry on a conversation, but it's not optimal for getting the most from your favorite music recordings.
A Quick Look at Digital Music File Types
If you’re looking to experience the best audio quality possible from your digital music files, you’ll need to understand the different formats they come in.
A digital audio file is a file format that stores audio data.
Different digital music file types:
• AIFF: A high-quality audio file format typically used by audiophiles. Lossless files like AIFF offer the best sound quality but take up more disk space than lossy formats like MP3 or AAC. AIFF is the standard audio file format used for storing music on compact discs. Most digital music files are ripped from CDs and saved in AIFF or lossless WAV format.
• MP3: The most popular audio file format which offers a balance of good sound quality and small file size.
• OGG: An open-source alternative to MP3 with comparable sound quality but less widespread hardware support.
• WAV: The preferred audio file
• ALAC: ALAC is an Apple-developed version of the lossless AIFF format and offers identical audio quality to its PCM counterpart. However, it’s not as widely supported as other formats on non-Apple devices.
• FLAC: FLAC is a popular free and open-source lossless audio codec. This codec ensures high audio quality with minimal data loss, making it the perfect format for high-quality music playback.
A DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) is what converts these digital signals into analogue signals so that they can be played through speakers or headphones.
What is DSD and PCM?
DACs use two digital formats, DSD and PCM, to convert audio files into sound waves. DSD is a lossless format designed specifically for hi-res audio playback. PCM, on the other hand, compresses the file size yet still produces high-quality audio output. A DAC helps improve your listening experience by providing better detail, clarity and dynamics to your music library.
Do we need digital-to-analog converters?
Fifty years ago, we didn't need DACs to produce an analog signal. Microphones inside a recording studio captured and stored sound as analog signals, usually in the form of reel-to-reel tape. The analog signal was then pressed into record grooves. Whenever you wanted to listen to a song, the needle on your turntable “felt” those grooves and created an electrical analog signal. It transmitted the signal through your pre-amp and, ultimately, your speakers.
Today, recording engineers convert analog signals to a bit-stream of numbers (ones and zeroes). That series of numbers is a digital audio signal. In order to listen to it, you need to convert it back to an analog signal.
So, we need DACs. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy digital audio’s portability and convenience.
Here’s how the process breaks down:
During the recording process, an artist lays down a track. Microphones pick up the sounds of voices and instruments as analog audio signals.
Recording engineers store the analog signals as digital. Recording equipment uses analog-to-digital converters to transform the analog signals to digital signals for storage. Nowadays, this usually means storing them as digital signals as a digital audio file.
During playback, a DAC decodes the stored digital signals. In doing so, the DAC converts those signals back into analog audio.
A DAC sends the converted analog signals to an amplifier. The amplifier, in turn, sends music through your headphones or stereo speakers.
There’s a bigger question at hand, Is the DAC inside your device good enough? For those of us who value great sound, it is not.
By opting for an external, or outboard, DAC, you can enjoy sound quality that’s far superior to what your device’s sound card produces. The result? Noticeably better sound quality that heightens your overall listening experience. It’s a worthwhile investment. An outboard DAC usually offers better sound quality.
We know that a digital-to-analog converter makes it possible to listen to music stored in digital formats. So, what makes one DAC better than another?
For starters, it's important to understand what's going on inside a DAC. Remember how we said a DAC converts a bit-stream of ones and zeroes into analog signals? Well, a DAC doesn't always convert that bit-stream to analog according to a consistent timing sequence. These are known as clocking errors. During playback, they reveal themselves as jitter.
And jitter during playback has a negative impact on fidelity. In layman's terms, your music just don’t sound good.
Internal DACs inside most devices aren't equipped to handle clocking errors very well, so they create more jitter. On the other hand, most external, or outboard, DACs are equipped to mitigate these errors. As a result, they more effectively reassemble your music from the bit-stream of ones and zeroes.
You’re getting more consistent, jitter-free sound.
What are the types of outboard digital-to-analog converters available.
You can use an outboard DAC in just about every listening setup and the DAC you select needs to be appropriate for the type of device from which you play your music.
Desktop and laptop computers: For most modern computers, you should use a USB DAC. Just connect a USB cable to an available port on your device. Then connect that cable to the corresponding input on your DAC. If you are using headphones, many USB DACs will have a headphone amp built in for your headphones. To connect your computer to your audio system, you need to run an audio cable from the DAC to your system. With some computers, you might have to go in and assign the audio out to the DAC.
Smartphones and tablets: For smaller devices that you use on the go, all you need to do is purchase an adapter that enables a USB connection from your device's digital output. On a smartphone, this will usually be the same output you use to connect your charger. To the USB end of the adapter, connect a small DAC built for portables.
Home Stereo Systems: This is where you will probably have the most choices for connections. You can use a USB DAC to connect your laptop or computer to your stereo system. If your music streaming player has a digital output, you can add a DAC to improve its sound in your system.
Digital-to-Analog Converters (DAC) are essential audio devices that can significantly enhance your audio experience. Whether you’re listening to music or watching a movie, a quality DAC can make the difference between a dull and an immersive audio experience. With the right DAC, you can enjoy high-quality audio playback with better sound clarity and depth. So, if you’re looking to upgrade your audio setup, make sure to check out the different types of DACs available in the market and pick the one that best suits your requirements.