Ever wonder what’s going on inside your audio equipment? How does the audio data on an MP3, or a WAV file stop being data and become sound? That “magic” is in large part thanks to a digital-to-analogue converter or DAC.
A Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) is a device that converts digital data to audio signals. Everything we hear around us is in analogue, a format that our ears can conceive.
DAC - Digital To Analogue Converter
Fifty years ago, we did not need a Digital To Analogue Converter to produce an analogue signal. Microphones inside a recording studio captured and stored sound as analogue signals, usually in the form of reel to reel tape. The analogue signal was then pressed into record grooves. Whenever you wanted to listen to a song, the needle on your turntable “felt” those grooves, creating an electrical analog signal. It transmitted the signal through your preamp and, ultimately, your speakers.
Today, recording engineers convert analogue signals to a bitstream of numbers (ones and zeroes). That series of numbers is a digital audio signal, and this binary data is not understandable to us humans. To listen to it, you need to convert it back to an analogue signal, and that is where a DAC comes in handy. This binary digital data is converted into analogue data which is then converted to sound by a headphone or speaker.
This is primarily the reason why we need DACs. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy digital audio’s portability and convenience.
Now that we understand what a DAC is, the question that comes to mind is that does every device that can play audio has a DAC. Yes, they do - From your mobile phone to your laptop to your iPod.
Let's jump to a question everyone has on their audiophile journey. What is the difference between a mobile DAC and the one in a Digital Audio Player?
As with most things audio-related, one DAC isn't necessarily as good as another DAC. For example, your smartphone contains only a very basic DAC. It produces a sound that's "good enough" for you to carry on a conversation, but it's not optimal for getting the most from your favourite music recordings. So there is a compromise on the audio part. Whereas Audio Players have a dedicated DAC to themselves. This converter chip focuses only on decoding your music.
The most critical area where a DAC plays its role is when it decodes High-Resolution Audio. Our every day mp3 files play at around 128 or 320kbps. Audio, when recorded, is at 44.1kHz and 16 bits which value at 9000kbps. See the difference. Files in formats like WAV, FLAC, and other high fidelity formats have data encoded at this rate. So you get to hear the audio signal as naturally as it was when recorded. That is the perpetual reason a DAC is used.
So now that we've established that your phone isn't sufficient to play high-fidelity audio files - let's get convinced on which DAC and what along with it should you be using.
DACs available today also vary in quality. Some even use more than one chip to convert audio. The benefit of a DAC is that it just converts your audio, and you can take your output into a speaker or a headphone. Well, you need an Amplifier to be used alongside a DAC. You may use a high impedance headphone made with better technology. For the audio to be at a level audible to your ears, an amplifier is a must.
There are DACs and Amps available individually that can be paired seamlessly. The option with lesser hassles is to get a DAC and an Amp built into one.
Exceptional examples of DACs that play your music to the purest are the Chord Qutest, Topping D90SE and Denafrips Ares II.
To make things simple and hassle-free, audio equipment manufacturers started making DACs with Amps built-in. Just plug in your music source using USB or optical, and plug in your headphone on the other side to get the best of your music.
The best DAC & Amps available today are Chord Hugo TT2, Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies, Burson Audio Conductor 3 Performance and Chord Mojo 2.
Enhance your musical experience with a DAC that elevates your music to a new level of clarity. To learn more about which DAC to pick, do call our Headphone Gurus.