It seems like everything in this world has a digital version in this day and age. This includes the audio we listen to on our devices. Rarely do we use a disc, tape, or even a record to play our media.
It’s common now to not even use any type of storage at all. Audio streams magically from the sky. How does that digital format become an analog signal so you can listen through your speakers or headphones?
That is where a DAC comes into play. So I decided to answer the question, “What is a DAC?” and explain everything you need to know about it. So, let’s get straight to it…
A basic description…
Best to start with what DAC stands for, which is a Digital to Analog Converter. As the name suggests, its prime purpose is to take a digital signal and transform it into an analog signal. That analog signal is then processed by an amplifier.
Your smartphone, tablet, computer, or any other digital device you listen to music through contains a DAC. It will be contained within the device, and you probably will never have seen it or even known about its existence.
Why is a DAC necessary?
Before the invention of digital formats, the most common way of listening to audio was through a record player. The analog signal was captured using microphones and a reel to reel tape recorder.
From the tape, that signal was pressed onto records, which have tiny grooves that are a representation of that analog signal. The needle on your turntable interprets those grooves into an analog electrical signal and transfers it to your speakers.
Making things bitstream-lined…
Since the conception of digital, the process has changed to converting the recording signal from microphones to a bitstream. As with all digital signals, this is a form of binary made up of ones and zeros, which is coded and decoded by your device’s processor.
This digital format is what makes it possible to store so much information on such a small and portable device. It’s also what makes all these streaming services possible. But that signal now needs to be converted back into analog to be listened to and enjoyed.
How the process works…
By breaking down the process into simple steps, you can have a better understanding of how a DAC works. Nearly all the media you enjoy today on your smartphone, tablet, computer, and even TV follow a similar process.
- During recording, microphones pick up the sounds of voices, instruments, or whatever noise is wishing to be captured.
- Sound engineers use a piece of equipment called an ADC (analog-to-digital converter) to store the recorded analog signal as a digital audio file.
- When the file is played on your device, the DAC converts digital audio files back into an analog signal.
- That analog signal is sent to an amplifier so you can hear it through your headphones or speakers.
How well do built-in DACs perform?
While this magical process is certainly impressive, the DAC which is built into your device is probably only capable at best. While it performs the function it is designed to do efficiently and reliably; the sound quality is often severely lacking.
There are benefits of an external DAC. First, the sound quality will improve dramatically. For a more immersive and dynamic listening experience than a built-in DAC, it is worth adding one of these devices.
What does an external DAC do differently?
Now that you know the answer to the initial question, “What is a DAC?” and understand the basics of what it does. So, why are some DACs better than others? Explaining in more detail how a DAC performs its basic functions should give you a better insight.
While all DACs are capable of translating binary zeros and ones into an analog signal, some do a better job than others. A very important aspect of any audio signal is timing, and this is one area an external device will excel at.
It’s all about the timing…
When a DAC converts the digital signal back to analog, it needs to follow a strict timing sequence. If that timing is off, even just by a tiny margin, it can result in what’s known as clocking errors. When playing back on your device, they’re called “jitter.”
The more clocking errors that occur, the more jitter will be experienced when listening to your audio. While it won’t be as noticeable as with issues such as pops, cracks, or dropouts, the sound quality will suffer.
Reducing the jitter…
Internal DACs do not perform brilliantly when it comes to minimizing any clocking errors, therefore creating more jitter. Because an external DAC is much more capable of reducing these errors, you will be rewarded with heavily reduced jitter.
By giving a closer representation of the original analog signal which was recorded, this, in turn, gives a much more realistic listening experience. In summary, the data is being processed at a smoother and more efficient rate.
Types of External DACs
There are different types of DACs available. And it isn’t only the quality and performance that vary. Some external DACs are only suitable for particular types of devices. What might work on your computer, might not work on your smartphone.
I have broken down the different types of external DACs that are available…
Laptop and desktop computers
An external DAC will usually link to your computer via a USB connection. Simply plug the USB cable from the DAC into an available port on your PC. You usually get a USB cable when you purchase your DAC that will work.
To plug in either your headphones or speakers, use a 3.5 mm audio port on the DAC. Some also include RCA, SPDIF, and optical connections for even more elaborate speaker setups.
Smartphones and tablets
Usually a more compact device similar to a USB stick, these DACs are incredibly simple to use. Linking to your smartphone or tablet is done using a USB cable, just like your charging cable.
Your headphones then plug into the compact external DAC instead of directly to your smartphone or tablet. You can also use external speakers connecting via a 3.5 mm auxiliary cable turning your device into a powerful home stereo.
Home stereo systems
This is the most compatible use for an external DAC. Both of the external DACs above should also be compatible with a home stereo. There are a variety of different connection options, including USB, RCA, coaxial, and optical.
External DACs that I recommend
The following products are all highly capable devices that will noticeably improve your audio quality. My recommendations include products that are compatible with computers, smartphones, tablets, and home stereos.
This is an entry-level external DAC that is suitable for both PCs and home stereo systems. Even though it’s affordable, it still offers fantastic results and is capable of 24-bit/192kHz audio through headphones, amplifiers, and powered speakers.
Connection options include coaxial, optical, and USB, making it perfect for use with computers and game consoles. You can use it with smartphones and tablets utilizing USB, but it isn’t exactly portable.
Around the same size as an external hard drive or powerbank, the FiiO Q1 Mark II is perfect for laptops and mobile devices. The build quality and premium materials make it extremely portable while still being packed with features.
Complete with a volume knob and bass boost function, it can increase your audio quality significantly. Capable of decoding up to 32-bit/384kHz, this slim and convenient little device is highly capable.
The iFi Zen works with desktop computers utilizing a USB connection input to transform your PC into a home stereo powerhouse. It is also compatible with any other USB device like smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
Output can be via RCA, 6.3mm unbalanced, or 4.4mm balanced, giving a wide range of listening and connection options. Capable of processing formats up to 24-bit/384kHz, you can enjoy smoother and cleaner playback.
It’s easy to confuse the AudioQuest DragonFly with a USB stick. Making it the perfect device to use with smartphones and tablets. You can use it with PCs or any other audio source device with a USB port.
Compatible with both Android and Apple devices, when combined with a basic adapter, you can take advantage of improved audio clarity anywhere. It does not need external power, having a USB on one end and a 3.5mm port on the other.
If you don’t like to mess around and enjoy the best of everything, then the Chord Mojo Black is right for you. Once you plug in your smartphone, tablet, desktop, or laptop, you can experience crystal clear audio at recording studio quality.
It will play pretty much any audio file up to an incredible 32-bit/768kHz, offering unparalleled quality. Crafted from a single block of aluminum, you can take this DAC anywhere and boost the output capabilities of most devices, if you can afford it.
Looking for Great DACs, DAWS, or Mixers?
We can help with that. Check out our in-depth RME ADI-2 DAC Review, our Behringer XR18 Digital Mixer Review, our BEHRINGER Audio Interface 4-Channel UMC404HD Review, our Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio 3rd Gen Review, our Presonus Audiobox USB 96 Review, and our Focusrite Scarlett 18i18 3rd Gen Review for great audio you can buy in 2023.
Also, take a look at our comprehensive reviews of the Best USB Audio Interfaces, the Best Audio Mixers, the Best Audio Interface, the Best Multitrack Recorder, the Best Portable Audio Recorders, the Best Digital Audio Players, the Best Music Streamers, and the Best iPad Audio Interfaces currently available.
What is a DAC? – Final Thoughts
It doesn’t matter which DAC you choose. They all offer an improvement to the audio quality from digital audio devices. For all those people who prefer vinyl to anything digital, give one of these a try.
It is certain to add that warmth and character you can feel missing from their digital counterparts. Even if you’re too young to remember what vinyl offered, you too can play audio that will be the envy of all your friends.
For anyone that enjoys listening to music, audiobooks, or even watching video streaming, a DAC is a must-have.
Until next time, happy listening.