The Digital to Analog Converters (DAC) is an integral part of any sound system. They convert the 0s and 1s of your sounds into working digital tunes. So, technically every sound system is a DAC on its own.
However, external DACs are a thing and audiophiles love them! So, you might wonder what’s all the fuss about, are DACs really worth it?
The answer is yes! If you have low-quality audio files, the external DAC drastically improves the quality of the sound. It fixes problems like poor filtering and excess noise in the sound. Thus, allowing you to enjoy high bitrate sound without hassle.
In this article, we’re going to discuss everything you need to know about DACs. To help you decide whether you need a DAC or not. Let’s begin!
What is a DAC?
In layman’s terms, DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter. The name itself should be self-explanatory. However, there are certain technicalities that make a DAC stand out!
To begin with, the information processed in our systems is digital. However, most sound sources cannot process digital sound. It needs to be converted to an analog source of sound first, and that’s where the DAC comes in.
Thus, most modern sound systems have a DAC on their own. However, the built-in DACs often fall short when it comes to providing the right output. Thus, making audiophiles resort to external DACs of many kinds.
How Does a DAC Work?
Before we discuss the need for a DAC, we have to understand the functions of a DAC. Generally, the music we hear goes through a number of phases before being played. Firstly, the analog sound is converted to digital while recording and storing and then converted back to analog while playing.
During the conversion from digital to analog, some additional sounds might get into it. These include crackling noise from the amp, sound distortion, etc.
Moreover, in a DAC, the bits of data from the digital files are translated into an electric signal. This allows the DAC to get rid of the additional noises and give you a fresh sound experience.
Common DAC Terminologies
Now, just like any other modern equipment, DACs have some issues on their own. These are especially common for built-in ones. So, you have to understand a series of terminologies before we get into more technical discussions. So, let’s start with them!
Every DAC has a clock mechanism. It controls which samples of data to control when to prevent any distortion and loss of sound. If the clocking doesn’t work right, the sound could be all over the place. This phenomenon is called jitter.
Although jitter is an issue of the past, it’s still something you need to know about! Most DACs now have very robust clocking mechanisms. So jitter isn’t as visible as it used to be!
Sometimes, the data samples can be misinterpreted by a DAC. This phenomenon is called aliasing. Sometimes, there are less than two samples of sound per cycle. In that case, when there are any errors on the single spectrum, the sound can get distorted.
Aliasing is a common problem in older DACs and it has no easy fix. So, if your sound gets distorted too much, you might have to get a replacement.
Bitrate and Dynamic Range
While these aren’t problems per se, knowing about bitrate and dynamic range is helpful. Since most music has a variable dynamic range, you need to take that into account.
For example, if you have access to old MP3 files, you’d see overlapping voices. This often muffles the sound and you can’t hear the music all the time. These are called low dynamic sounds. What governs the theoretical limit of the dynamic range is called the bitrate.
Now, if the file has a low bit depth during recording, the final sound will have a low dynamic range. So, by definition, the higher the bitrate, the better music you’re getting!
Why Do you Need an External DAC?
Now we’re done with the DAC terminologies. Now, do you even need an external DAC? It’s pretty evident that you’d need a good bitrate and fewer distortions to enjoy your music at its very best.
When it comes to internal DACs, they often fall short on a few factors. They might not support all kinds of video files and might have poor conversion. Furthermore, most built-in DACs don’t have a good clock system. So, when the system gets old, it starts jittering.
Therefore, having an external DAC can really help you. Also, most external DACs are asynchronous. So, it takes over the clocking duties from the computer. This ensures high-end clocking and sound all the time.
What Type of DAC Do you Need?
When it comes to DACs, there are many categories. Each of them specializes in different sectors. To help you get the right one, here are the categories of DACs out there-
Compact USB DACs
The most common type of external DACs is the compact USB ones. They offer high-end portability and are the most affordable. Since they’re small, they’re not very power-intensive. So, they can power themselves directly through your device.
So, you can just connect them to your PC and they’ll power themselves through it. The mechanism is also pretty simple and there’s not a lot of features to it. They mostly have a headphone socket and line-level output.
There are two types of USB DACs, these include-
These are somewhat new additions to the list. Contrary to the conventional USB, they’re connected to the computers by the USB C-port. Thus, you can connect them to your computer as well as your mobile phone if you want to.
Desktop USB DACs
If you want a better sound experience, getting a desktop USB DAC could be the way to go! They’re bigger and need more energy. As a result, you need to provide them with an additional power supply.
However, in terms of the final output, they’re miles ahead of the compact USB ones. Also, they provide additional analog inputs for more audio and video. Also, they provide additional services such as better control and specific software.
The iFi Zen DAC V2, for example, has Bluetooth connectivity. Allowing you to connect your DAC to your smartphone and tablets as well.
Headphone AMP DACs
If you plan on using headphones with your DAC, getting a headphone amp is a good idea. They are made specialized for headphone users with an additional amplifier. The amp increases the bass making it ideal for a wireless experience.
The XtremPro X1 for example is a DAC with an additional headphone amp. Made especially for headphone users, the quality it brings to the table is amazing!
Whether you’re a professional audio engineer or someone who wants high-end sounds, professional DACs are the way to go! They’re made ideal for most professional systems so they’re mostly feature-packed.
For example, DACs like Benchmark DAC3 HGC have features like AES/EBU sockets, better connectivity, and better clocking. If you are willing to pay a premium, these might be worth the effort.
These are the most common types of DACs out there!
Since DACs can be a bit technical, they can be a bit hard to understand as well. As a result, there are a lot of myths around DACs. To help you make your experience better, we’ve decided to bust some myths once and for all!
Are DACs a Must-Have?
The answer to this is both yes and no! Any sort of sound system you use already has a built-in DAC. And in most cases, they get the job done decently.
But if you’re not a music enthusiast, you probably won’t be able to notice the difference. Unless your DACs are actually damaged, the chances of distortions are pretty low. But if you are, the difference is easily noticeable.
So, while most audio devices have their own DACs, an external DAC isn’t a must-have.
External DACs are Always Better
This depends on a number of factors. To help you understand, let’s give you a rundown on how the entire process works. The digital signal needs to travel a distance through wires and then come back through a different DAC chip.
So, if you’re investing in a high-end DAC, you have to pair it with a good wire. Otherwise, it’s very likely that there will be some losses along the way. So, unless your external DAC is vastly superior to what’s built-in, it won’t work for you.
For this reason, it’s better to have a clear idea about your built-in DACs before investing in one.
Cheap vs Expensive DACs
There are definitely some differences in the quality between cheap and expensive DACs. However, an expensive product won’t always mean a better value. Because there are a lot of other factors that go into it as well.
There are certain things a cheap DAC might provide better. One of these includes better engineering. If the DAC is built better, it’ll shield your music from losses and electric noises. However, your DAC needs to suit well with the rest of your system for that to work.
Alternatives to DAC
Are there any alternatives to DAC? The answer is, not directly! A good DAC will drastically improve your sound experience. And as we’ve mentioned before, almost every sound product has a built-in DAC.
However, if you’re looking for something to improve your sound quality, but don’t want to invest in a DAC, here are a few alternatives!
The task of an amplifier is pretty simple. It takes a weak analog radio signal and amplifies it. Thus making it clearer and more bass-heavy. Not only that, in fact, you can use a combo of DAC and Amps for the best possible outcome.
So, if you’re looking for better bass in your music, getting an amplifier is the way to go!
The sound card is an integral part of every system. In a computer, the sound card is what controls all the music. It contains both a DAC and an ADC (Analog to Digital Converter). So, it deals with both audio coming in and out of your system.
An audio interface isn’t for everyone. It’s generally more reserved for audio engineers. However, a good audio interface has all the features of a DAC. Also, it gives you complete control over your sound.
However, learning to manage an audio interface can be a bit complicated. any small error in setting it up could make it stop working. So, you need to know what you’re doing before getting into it.
So, are DACs Worth it?
Finally, let’s ask the question again, are external DACs worth it?
The answer is, absolutely! If you enjoy music and want top-notch sound all the time, a good DAC is the way to go! However, you need to take all the factors into account before getting into it!
Why are Some DACs Better than the Others?
The key here is in engineering! Some DACs are engineered better and provide a better final product to the customer. For this reason, you have to research well before getting a DAC!
How Long Do DACs Last?
Generally, most DACs come with 3 years of warranty. However, if you take care of it right, it would last 5-6 years without any hiccups.
Can you Connect a DAC to an Audio Interface?
Yes! If your Audio interface has ports for DACs, you can connect your audio interface to your PC. But you need to check it beforehand.
DACs are a must-have in any sound system. However, when it comes to external DACs, it’s hard to make a decision. While some might appreciate the advantages it brings, it might now be worth the money to others.
In this article, we went through both sides of the debate to find out are DACs worth it, or not. We hope you find this helpful!