DACs come in an incredibly broad price range and the specifications are always listed with the product so it should be relatively easy for you to find one that matches your needs. It is a good idea to ask yourself just how much you want to improve the sound on your devices and account for the budget you are willing to spend on your new DAC.
We are here to help you get all the information you need to make the right choice, see our top picks in all price ranges, buying advice, and FAQ below.
Smaller than your iPhone, this FiiO Q1 DAC (full review) can turn your device into a full 32-bit sound-system. It is very limited in options and compatibility but it really works great at what it does.
It received not only MAC´s but also Hi-RES certification and is capable of working with DSD. The battery lasts for a long time (although it drains the phone´s a little too much) and the construction is very sturdy.
I love the fact that you can get a pouch to go with it and protect the cool black-painted aluminum casing.
The first thing I thought when I held the Proster DSD64 DAC in my hand was that I could very well put it in my pocket and go for a walk.
Being battery-operated, I think it was designed for that.
I wouldn´t say it is for home use without RCA outs but it works great for commuting with your favourite hi-end headphones.
The Audioengine D1 (review) is a wired DAC (there´s a more expensive Bluetooth version too). It transforms digital signal into analog, 24-bit audio waves that can come out of the RCA and 3.5mm outputs in the rear and the front respectively.
It is a very small device weighting around 1lb that can fit very easily inside the bag where you carry your laptop around. Although it is very small and portable, it is not made of plastic, but of metal and looks like it can withstand the pass of time.
The power button is the light that indicates it is on. There are no bells and whistles, just a good-sounding DAC.
Thanks to portable amplifiers and DACs (digital-to-analog converters) getting the sound quality that you want from your PC has now been made easier, but the same can’t be said for console gamers unfortunately.
It doesn’t matter if whether you prefer playing your video games on PC or consoles because Creative made sure that the SoundblasterX G6 would be versatile enough to work with the PS4, XBox One, Windows, and the Nintendo Switch.
The true beauty of this device is on the other end because it can only be described as “agnostic.” Once you plug in any cheap or expensive pairs of earphones or earbuds the difference is very audible.
What is a DAC?
You are actually very likely to use a DAC on a daily basis already. DAC stands for digital to analogue converter and they are how the music on your phone, computer, iPod, games console etc get turned from binary code into music.
Standalone DACs have come into existence due to some of the poor out of the box audio quality that comes with many devices. Have you ever listened to music from an old thumbstick style USB MP3 player and then compared it to your new device and heard a difference? Then you’ve probably noticed the difference in the quality of the DAC and a standalone DAC can improve that quality again.
Purchasing high-quality audio products have become a pretty standard practice now and having a better DAC allows your music device to keep up with high-end headphones and speakers.
Why would I need one?
Sometimes your music source such as your smartphone can have a little unwanted noise when listening, especially at higher volumes. There can even be occasions where the inbuilt DAC on your device is not capable of playing back the sampling rate of the music you intend to listen to. You might also want a high-end DAC for audio recording and studio playback.
A super high-end product is generally only needed for professional settings and something cheaper is likely to suit an everyday user needs just fine.
A portable DAC in one that can be moved around easily and are usually battery operated with an internal rechargeable battery or can draw power from the music source.
Given that portable DACs are small they often don’t have as many inputs and outputs as larger units. The most common single input for these devices is USB as they can then easily be plugged into a phone through the charging port with an adapter or into a PC or Macbook.
They generally come with a headphone jack output so they can be used with your favourite pair of headphones or in-ear monitors. Many models also come with a Bluetooth output so that you can get a high fidelity sound alongside a wireless experience.
The big brother to the portable models. Desktop DACs are larger units that are intended to be set up and left where they are. These systems generally have more variations of inputs and outputs to suit a plethora of different devices.
These could include but are not limited to, RCA, coaxial, micro-USB, USB-C, optical and Bluetooth, Desktop DACs also generally speaking have superior hardware when compared to smaller and more portable DACs.
In turn, this means that they can also come with some extra features such as stronger amplification and higher bit-depth playback. A desktop DAC is a smart choice for a true audiophile who wants the most out of their DAC and doesn’t necessarily need it to be portable.
We briefly touched on what a wireless DAC is while talking about portable DACs. Wireless generally means that the analogue sound is from the output is sent to a Bluetooth device to play the music such as Bluetooth bookshelf speakers or a pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones.
Most wireless DACs still need to be plugged into the source for the input though. However, there are DAC’s known as streaming DACs which can be attached to an amp or speaker system and cast to like a standard wireless speaker.
The sound quality over Bluetooth does diminish slightly and is something to keep in mind if you’re after a wireless DAC.
You might like it to also have the option of it being directly plugged in too as there are many portable wireless DACs that only transmit through Bluetooth. That being said, you will still have an upgraded listening experience through a standalone wireless DAC as compared to your device on its own.
Most modern DACs will come included with amplification as well. There are likely occasions where many of us have used a set of our own passive headphones on a plane or a similar situation and the sound coming through just didn’t cut it.
This is because of the amplification of the built-in unit in the plane seat was not enough to power the speakers in the headphones. So this leaves us stuck with using the terrible plane headphones they give out at the beginning of the flight. The solution? A portable DAC with an inbuilt headphone amp.
This will likely be able to increase the volume to ear-bleeding levels. Desktop DACs also often come with this feature and also allow the user to have more control of the level of volume instead of the blocky volume control on your phone, tv, or laptop.
If you are a massive fan of vinyl then you likely already have a component hi-fi system in your home. You also probably have the perfect set of speakers and amplification for your particular listening preferences.
However, have you ever felt like listening to a streaming service or mp3’s through this component system and it really just didn’t cut the mustard? That’s the reason you would need a quality standalone DAC to convert the digital files into analogue signals. There are many DAC’s out there that are specifically designed for this purpose.
They are often matched with a particular high fidelity file type such as MQA or DSD to provide the best listening experience, which we will talk about in more depth later.
Amp vs. DAC vs. Sound Card
Amps are the driving force behind your listening experience. They provide the volume to the signal that is created your DAC.
A lot of sound cards and DACs come with amplification built-in. However, some are insufficient to power your high fidelity speakers. Standalone amps can sometimes be too powerful for sensitive equipment and it is important to make note of what your speakers can handle. I am sure we have all heard distorted, blown speakers before and this is generally from an amp driving the speaker too hard.
The DAC is what creates the analogue signal that can be sent to be played through the speakers.
The DAC converts this signal from a digital one which would not be able to be played through an amp or speakers as it is. Different DACs can handle different bit-depth and sampling rate.
There are also other factors to determine the quality of the analogue sounds coming from your DAC to be discussed in this article.
A sound card is generally speaking both a DAC and an amp that is built into your computer or another device to produce sound to go through the outputs.
So if you are looking into buying a DAC with built-in amplification it could also technically be called an external sound card. They are referred to as DAC’s however as their primary purpose is to increase the quality of the end analogue sound.
DAC Connections – Common Types of Inputs and Outputs
We touched on the differences in the types of connections available between portable and desktop DACs earlier but now we can delve deeper into what these connections are useful for.
USB – The most common type of input for DACs. USB can be used with a number of devices including PCs and smartphones. Different DACs use different types of USB input such as micro-USB, USB-B and USB-C.
Coaxial – A useful input for those using your DAC with a home theatre or component system.
Optical – Another useful input for hi-fi systems that sometimes allows for even higher quality.
RCA – Great for older DVD and set-top box systems or if your component system uses RCA too.
3.5mm and 2.5mm jack – The most common wired outputs for headphones and in-ears. A non-wireless portable DAC will almost definitely come with one or both of these outputs.
RCA – A useful connection to drive the signal to certain types of powered speakers or to a separate amp.
6.3mm jack – Used to connect to a hi-fi system.
XLR – A secure connection often used in professional P.A setups.
Sample Rates and Bit Depth
When shopping for a DAC you will often be badgered with the sample rate and bit depth but what does that mean in simple terms?
The sample rate is the rate at which your DAC is able to convert a digital signal into analogue sound. Generally speaking the higher the possible sample rate the DAC can handle the better the analogue signal should sound.
However, you must also pay attention to what the sample rate of the source material is as the DAC cannot convert the signal to something higher than it already was. The bit depth is the accuracy at which the sample rate can be converted.
Think of the bit depth like a ruler and the higher it is the smaller the measurements could be on that ruler.
How it works, for example, a 24-bit 96kHz file has a stream of information 24 bits in size. This stream of information is then sampled 96,000 times a second, giving us the 96kHz part, that signal is then changed to an analogue one by your DAC.
What is considered high-resolution music is constantly changing but generally speaking in terms of digital music the higher the bit depth and the higher the sampling rate, the better?
MQA and DAC
MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated and is a type of audio file that DAC manufacturers can pay to have their units compatible with. MQA is used by streaming services such as Tidal and Qobuz to target the high fidelity listeners market.
MQA is above CD quality and allows the files to be small enough to be streamed or downloaded without the sacrifice of sound quality associated with other file types such as mp3.
DSD and DAC
DSD stands for Direct Stream Signal and creates a high-resolution signal in a different way to traditional sampling. DSD uses a bit depth of 1 with an incredibly high sampling rate of 2.8 million times a second. Fans of this sampling type believe that it provides a sweet natural sound that is easier to listen to and more forgiving than traditional digital listening formats.
Digital Jitter and DAC
Jitter is slight time distortions within playback of digital music. Your DAC will convert the digital sample sequences to analogue voltage level sequences.
The distance between these sequences should match, however, sometimes it does not cause said time distortion. This distance in the waveforms is measured by something called clocking and ‘asynchronous’ DACS are argued to be the best at dealing with this problem,
Our music is encoded using something call PCM which stands for pulse-code modulation and a standard DAC decodes the audio using a method called PDM (pulse density modulation).
As these methods are compatible but don’t match some of the PCM samples are discarded when converting. The DAC makes up for this with the high sampling rate.
Multibit DACs instead decode the true audio signal buy preserving the original PCM samples. This creates a more authentic listening experience.
Is a 32-bit/384kHz DAC always better than a 24-bit/192kHz one?
Yes and no. The higher sampling rate and bit depth does mean that your DAC will be able to handle a digital source at those levels but does your source have a bit depth or sample size that requires that kind of decoding? A 387khz DAC won’t make 192khz music sound any better than a 192hz capable DAC will.
Does a DAC really improve the sound?
Yes! Even the most budget DACs available are of a higher quality than what comes inbuilt with most tech. If you ever get the chance to compare, you will hear the difference instantly.
Do I need a DAC for my phone?
That really depends on you. Do you want to listen to your music or watch movies on your phone at a higher quality than what is built-in? Personally, I have one because I use my phone a lot for music. There are a number of portable DACs out there that can be used with other devices as well as your phone but if you listen to music primarily at home you may be better off with a desktop DAC.
What are the top brands in the industry?
There are so many brands that build DACs and most of them are of high quality. Some of the top brands include Audiolab, AudioQuest, Chord, Cyrus, Auralic and many more. Remember to use this buying guide to make sure the brand and model you like are compatible with features that are important to you such as MQA/DSD compatibility, multibit and inputs/outputs.
Last update on 2021-02-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
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