What Is a DAC?

You buy your first set of fancy headphones or IEMs. You are so impressed by the sound that you start to find the world of high-fidelity quite alluring. Soon, you ask yourself, how much better can my sound get?  This is a common scenario. And investing in your first DAC may be the the solution to your quest. Let’s explore what a DAC can do for you.

What is a DAC?

You may not know it, but you use DACs all the time. A DAC stands for a digital to analogue converter. Any kind of sound you play from your phone or your computer is originally stored in digital form. And because we humans can’t hear digits but only sound waves, there needs to be a technology that converts the digital signal into an analogue one. 

Why Do I Need a DAC?

If you are already using DACs to convert a digital signal into an analogue sound, why would you need an external dedicated DAC? The answer is that some DACs are less efficient than others. This means that the conversion from digital to analogue may not be as effective as higher performing dedicated DACs, which can deliver a truer presentation of the original recording. In short, your music may not sound as good as it could.

This brings us to high resolution audio. Digital music files are most commonly made with a technology called Pulse Code Modulation or PCM. PCM involves measuring the amplitude of the of the analogue music signal at consistent intervals. The amplitude is called “bit depth.” And the speed at which the intervals are measured is referred to as the “sample rate.” There are other technologies that measure these digits and amplitudes in different ways, but to keep things simple, let’s look at an example of a PCM file:

A Spotify track, for example, is 16 bit 44.1kHz. This means that a sample of the music is taken a little over 44,000 times per second, while the amplitude is measured with a precision of 16 bits. Bust some higher resolution files,  can deliver 24 bits with a sample rate of 192kHz and even higher. 

The question then becomes, how well can the DAC return the digital information to its original analogue form.

At the end of the day, there are two reasons why you might need a DAC. The first is that mediocre DACs, for many reasons, (including less precise digital clocks and cheap circuitry) can bring in noise and distortion during playback. And the second reason is that not all DACs support high resolution formats. 

Types of DACs

Most DACs these days are capable of decoding high resolution files in a number of hi-res formats. And all DACs have different sound qualities depending on the technology used to design them.

Stand Alone DACs

A lot of audiophiles like to have complete control over their audio setup. This means they decide the music source, the type of stand alone DAC and finally, the type of amplifier that will execute the DAC’s signal.

iFi Zen Stand Alone DAC


Many DACs, are combined with amplifiers. This consolidates things, making the setup simpler, more compatible in terms of sound, and also more portable.

Portable DAC/Amps

Portable DAC/Amps are often ideally designed to go with portable headphones. Because of their small size, the power output of the amplifier is often just enough to drive IEMs or lower impedance headphones. That being said, some portable DAC/Amps, like the Chord Mojo 2 (shown below) are impressively powerful.

Chord Mojo 2 Portable DAC/amp

Desktop DAC/Amps

Desktop DAC/Amps, of course, tend to be larger and can usually drive more power hungry headphones.

iFi Desktop DAC/Amp with streaming capability

DAC/Amps with Bluetooth and Streaming Capability

Many DACs and DAC/Amps are now able to receive Bluetooth and transmit the sound in high resolution formats. So, although you’ll still be attached via wire to your DAC, you’re free to roam around without your phone or computer, while still enjoying high-res sound. The FiiO BTR 5 (shown below) is an example of a Bluetooth DAC.

Some DACs, like the iFi Pro iDSD Signature DAC/amp and Streamer shown above, are also able to stream files via WiFi on your home network.

Bluetooth DAC

Sound Qualities of DACs and DAC/Amps

As mentioned above, DACs and DAC/Amps produce different sound characteristics depending on the chipset used and the type of processing technology employed. For example, some DACs produce a warm, lush profile, while other DACs may sound more neutral in their presentation. Some sound smooth and controlled, while others are dynamic and lively. The sound of a particular DAC can also be offset by the character of the amplifier. So, there are endless possibilities when it comes to pairing various types of headphones with various types of DACs and amplifiers. DAC/Amps can also have an effect on the soundstage. Often, they can widen the space, or manipulate the imaging. So, not only can DACs and DAC/Amps improve sound, but they can also give you creative control over your sound signature.

All of these factors combined are a great reason to consider investing in a DAC.

To shop for DACs and DAC/Amps, check out Audio 46’s collection.

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