What is a DAC? Everything you need to know about digital-to-analogue converters

What is a DAC? Why it’s important and how can it improve the music you listen to? You’ve come to the right place to find out.

Unless you’re truly serious about the vinyl revival, chances are  you listen to digital music on a daily basis. What you might not realise, is that to do so, you’re using a DAC. Digital-to-analogue converters are built into every bit of kit capable of digital sound.

That could be your phone or laptop, but also your TV or games console. And even though CDs might seem like old hat to some younger readers, remember they’re a form of digital music too.

But what exactly are DACs, and why do they matter? Keep reading for the 101 on one of the most important parts of your music setup.

DAC

What is a DAC and what does it do?

Before we get into exactly what a DAC is and does, a quick science re-cap. Human ears aren’t actually capable of hearing the 0s and 1s that make up digital music; they can only hear analogue signals.

Not just that, but the kit through which we hear music – whatever that may be – can’t play a digital signal either; it can only receive it. In order to transmit it, that signal must be converted into an analogue soundwave first, which is where a DAC comes in.

It sits in the middle of the whole process, unpacking all the binary information stored in the digital file, so the resulting sound most accurately represents the original analogue recording.

Of course, digital files come in varying levels of quality – from 256kbps MP3 streams to 24-bit/192kHz FLAC digital downloads – and this affects the amount of information they contain.

A DAC can only work with what it’s given, and the better the DAC, the better job it can do – with all file types. Just be aware that feeding a good-quality DAC a poor-quality signal could make the shortcomings in that recording all the more clear.

DAC

Do I need an external DAC?

So we now know that all DACs aren’t created equal. Although every source of digital music contains a DAC, how well it does its job can vary widely.

For example, cheaper DACs might not support more unusual file data rates, and are more likely to have lesser quality circuitry that results in timing errors, distortion and noise in the reproduced sound.

Timing errors are one of the biggest issues with lesser quality DACs, which is the reason devices such as mobile phones and laptops often aren’t the best source for digital music. The DAC included is usually something of an afterthought rather than a priority.

Some mobile manufacturers are trying to address this – in particular, LG with its V-series range of smartphones. These devices come with high-performance internal DACs, which makes the current LG V30 a popular smartphone for audiophiles.

Of course, if you’re not keen on the handset, or you’re already tied into a stupidly long contract on your current device, that doesn’t much help you right now.

Thankfully, you can improve what you already have, and bypass a poor-quality internal DAC with a better quality external one.

External DACs are more likely to have better internal circuitry to keep things sounding as they should.

In particular, they can tackle timing issues thanks to better, more advanced digital clock circuitry. This means the file conversion to analogue will be tighter, cleaner and closer to the original recording.

DAC

Which DAC should I buy?

While any external DAC is likely to offer improvement on the sound pushed through something more basic, this isn’t a given – and its effectiveness will vary. As ever, it’s worth doing your research before you buy.

The fact is, you can spend thousands on a DAC if you’re rocking a system worthy of that kind of cash – Chord’s top-of-the-range DAVE comes in at £8000.

Equally, an investment of £89 in a USB-style Audioquest DragonFly Black could be all you need to make the difference to your audio setup.

This is the reason it’s important to think about how you most listen to digital music. What devices do you use and what functionality do you need?

Portable DACs such as the DragonFly, or the Cyrus soundKey (£90), don’t require any external power – they take it from your device). They keep things simple, with just a USB input and headphone jack for playback.

Spend a bit more on something like the Chord Mojo (£380), and you’ll keep the portability but add in coaxial and optical inputs for extra functionality, should you need it.

A unit such as the Audiolab M-DAC+ (£700), on the other hand, is much bigger and requires external power. That makes it one for your hi-fi rack rather than your backpack. It does offer stacks more connectivity options for those with more involved setups.

Related: Best USB headphone amps 2018

Just make sure these types of DACs come with a built-in headphone amp if you intend to do some private listening as well as through a pair of connected speakers – not all of them do.