Do You Really Need a DAC? Let’s Find Out!


DAC is something that we all unknowingly use every single day. It is there, in-built in electronic devices like computers, laptops, smartphone, car audio system or any other gadget involving audio files. If your gadget lacks Digital to Analog Audio Converter and if you have your files stored digitally, there isn’t any possibility of listening to music at all. This is because anatomy of human ears doesn’t work that way i.e. human ears aren’t capable of listening to digital audio.

But the question is that whether or not you need another-external DAC?

That very much depends on you, your hearing delicacy and possibly on your profession as well (if you play a part in music industry). You may need it. You may not need it. This article is here for you to know if you need it or not. Read the full piece to get an answer to your question.

What exactly is a DAC?

Digital to Analog converter, DAC, as the name itself suggests is that electronic appliance which takes digital audio signal like MP3, WAV, etc (discrete waves) as input and converts it into analog audio signal (smooth/continuous waves) as output. For human ears to hear digital audio, it mandatorily has to pass through a DAC. Now, the analog audio signal can be propelled to headphone jack amp making it possible to listen to music or audio. DAC and a headphone cannot possibly have a direct connection which is why amp exists in picture, serving as a middleman. This was the function of an internal DAC.

But even if these internal DACs are capable of converting digital to analog audio, they are capable of producing an unwanted effect too. These internal DAC’s are basically chips held onto motherboard of any electronic device. And these tend to produce unsolicited line noise. It is nothing but electrical interference on the noise lines and grounding leading to sounds of buzzing, humming, clicking, etc.

DACs aren’t always successful in converting the stream of zeroes and ones with respect to desired time sequence which result in clock errors. These clock errors are known as jitter which our ears recognize as noise.

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Even the soundcard tends to generate such distortion to the internal audio components. Sometimes, this unsolicited noise is so much in magnitude that it gets evident when you listen to the music or sound. All the distortion becomes audible when you play any of your audio file. You get to hear much jitter making the listening experience quite unpleasant.

It is not that it happens with each and every electronic device in this world. It may not ensue with some upgraded gizmos. And maybe, it can happen but the noise may not occur to you at all. If it doesn’t, you aren’t really in the need of buying an external DAC.

If it does, if you find the music repulsive and find the distortions audible, the role of an external DAC begins –just for the sake of good quality sound. (It is pretty much like watching High definition T.V. over the ordinary one)

Now, an external DAC is that Digital to Audio Converter which increases the quality of sound you hear –manifolds and makes it lively and smooth. Internal DAC’s are not very much capable of producing high quality sound but external DAC’s are. An external DAC helps in eliminating all the unwanted noise, jitter, buzz, etc. This DAC is capable of mitigating those jitters which are produced by the internal DACs.

usb dac

The quality of sound is sure improved using a DAC but how much improvement will be made that varies with device to device. It not only depends on the quality of the DAC you buy but also depends on the internal circuitry including soundcard, amp, internal DAC, headphones, speakers and amplifiers.

  • Also, if you are not into listening to high end files and are only interested in 320kbps MP3’s then the external DAC’s don’t really matter. If high end files (96k, 24 bit) interest you, the external DAC is your thing.
  • A DAC is great not merely because it eliminates all the noise but is also amazing in terms of hardware. Also, the implementation of the hardware is super fine.
  • A DAC can cost you anywhere in between $5 to $100 or even $1000’s for that matter; depending upon your requirement. There exist wireless DACs too but will cost a lot more bucks than the wired ones’.

In-depth working of a DAC.

Working of a DAC is not as complex as it may seem. The digitally saved audio file is simply passed through the Digital to Audio Converter and the output is the analog version of it.

The input that is fed is in the form of bits i.e. zeros and ones and the output is the waveform. It is basically the translation of audio file to set time per second also technically known as samples.

This analog waveform then travels to the amplifier where it gets amplified. After the intensity of the signal is amplified or boosted and the sound becomes audible enough, it is then played via speakers. The catch here is that the internal DAC cannot keep a control over the noise and distortion and as a result, leads to jitter. On the other hand, the external DAC is capable of boosting the signal in such a way that no distortion gets added and high quality sound is produced.

This is all because of the fact that the external DACs are a lot better in terms of components than the in-built ones. The constituents of in-built DACs are of low quality and are cheap whereas the constituents of external DAC are way more superior.

Why do you need a DAC?

Let us discuss the reasons for you to go and buy a DAC.

1. If you are attuned to amazing audio

A DAC can be helpful to only that person who is attuned to amazing sound quality. You need a DAC if and only if you like your music clean and original and if your current system is not able to provide the same. It is probable that the audio files you are currently listening to lack details in many ways.

2. If you are going to stick to mp3 files

The common formats in which most of us have our audio files saved are mp3 and wav. Unfortunately, the truth is that these formats probably produce the lowest quality of sound even if they are ripped at high bit rates. In such a case, the external DAC comes to rescue. Using a DAC in these cases can make a huge difference. It is capable of eliminating all the distortions, noise, jitter that you come across while listening to low bit rate files.

3. If better formats like FLAC don’t help

If, even after switching to the better formats (like FLAC) you don’t find yourself satisfied, there is a good chance that you are in need of DAC.

4. If you are unable to bear the current sound

If the unwanted distortion or noise happens to be very obvious while listening to your audio files and it almost feels like headache, use of DAC can change your listening experience for better.

5. If you are a Music Professional

If you are a professional working in the music industry, owning a DAC becomes mandatory. The in-built DACs are not at all competent enough to produce something that sounds professional and top notch. For a music professional, investing in an external DAC can turn out to be one of the most beneficial investments.

6. If all you want is high resolution music

If ‘High Resolution Music’ is your thing, a DAC is your savior. At no given cost, can an internal DAC play high resolution music. You just can’t get it with the in-built ones. The only way to listen to such great quality is via amazing speakers and an external DAC.

7. If upgrade fails

If upgrading the existing setup doesn’t change the quality of what you hear, get a DAC as soon as possible.

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Why do you not need a DAC?

Let us now discuss the reasons for you to not go and buy a DAC.

1. If FLAC serves your purpose.

You need no DAC if better formats get you satisfied. If you want to prevent yourself from spending handsome amount of money on DAC, you can try high resolution audio formats like Apple Losseless Compression or FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). These formats are apparently the best formats one can save their audio file in. Mp3’s are low bit rate files which undergo lossy compression. Lossy compression leads to the loss of much of the data from the original file resulting in meager quality. FLAC and Apple Lossless, on the other hand, are high bit rate files with great audio quality.

If, switching to the better formats helps you hear what you want to, you need not go to buy a DAC.

2. If your system is decent and you don’t bother about details.

It is not that every system’s internal DAC is not good enough to produce good quality sound but it is the case with most of the systems. If you have a decent system producing decent quality music and you are not much into details, you need not spend a single buck.

3. Maybe, better speakers are all that you need.

In many cases, the quality of audio seems inferior only because the speakers lack that edge. If your speakers are old and have not been upgraded since a long time, you should first spend a few dollars on buying a different and upgraded set of speakers. There is a great chance that a new set of speakers will solve your entire problem related to sound quality. And if it is the case, you need not require a DAC at all.

In addition, one should consider buying a DAC only if the existing setup is decently upgraded and is still producing distorted audio. If the existing setup is far from the upgraded version, even the DAC won’t be able to help. So, if you really wish to buy a DAC and improve sound quality, first consider improving the existing system which would involve speakers, headphones and amplifiers. After you work on these components, check for the quality of sound again. Chances are that you will already feel a difference. You may discover enhancement just by upgrading the audio components. But if it doesn’t present remarkable change, you can than think of going for a DAC.

But ultimately, whether or not you need a DAC is entirely dependent on how sensitive your ears are or how specific your listening capability is. For instance, a person with low neural sensitivity will never be able to understand noise even in an extremely distorted audio. They, in all probability, won’t even find a difference in between audio via ordinary soundcard and audio via high end DAC. It varies with person to person.

What is the type of DAC that you need?

Like any other electronic device, DAC has many types too varying with respect to the system it needs to be connected with and with respect to the price range. Out of the various types, some are exclusively for desktops, smartphones, i-phones, etc. Not only this, there are wireless DAC’s in the market as well. It depends on you, whether you want a DAC for your personal computer, smart phone, home audio system or if you need a wireless one for streaming remote content.

Choosing the best DAC with utmost functions and within budget depends entirely on an individual and his/her needs.

Various types of DAC:

1. DAC’s for desktop:

There exist exclusive external DACs for personal computers and these are connected via USB. These are not usually portable. Examples are Fostex HP, iFi Audio Micro iDac, etc.

2. Portable DACs:

These are the portable DACs involving USB. Such DACs are also capable of acting as headphone for any of your device. Examples are Cayin C5 DAC, The bit –Opus, etc.

3. Component DACs:

These DACs are the hi-fi and especially designed for large audio systems and offer great performance. This kind of DAC’s has the most number of functions. Examples are Cambridge Audio 851N, Luxman DA-06, etc.

4. Wireless DACs:

As the name suggests, these are wireless DACs. These are very feasible to use and can work via bluetooth or a transmitter. These are capable of broadcasting digital content to the system remotely. Examples are Audioengine D2 DAC, Nad Dac 2 Wireless, etc.

5. DACs for Apple devices:

There are DACs exclusively for Apple devices like iPod, iPhone, etc. These are completely portable. Like for Apple devices, there exist DACs for Android devices as well. Some DAC’s support both Android and Apple devices. Examples of iPod/iPhone DACs are Audio Quest Dragon Fly, Sony PHA-1A, etc.

How to use them?

The most convenient way to use a DAC is by setting up a DAC connection via USB fed from the computer. The DACs are simply required to be connected to a port on pc using a USB cable. But this doesn’t mean you can use a mediocre USB cable. If you use such a cable, it will in fact add noise irrespective of the external DAC. High quality optical or digital cables will provide a good result.

Depending on your system, you may even be required to download and install USB driver for the USB cable to operate.

The USB is in itself capable of providing power, input and output to the DAC. There are other types of connections as well, which you can use. Fire Wire is one such connection which can be used to connect DAC. Although, it lacks behind the USB option as it fails to act as the power option to the DAC.

As far as connecting DAC with smartphones is considered, the connection in this case can be done using adapters and interconnect cables.

The USB cables or the interconnect cables serve better because, as mentioned above, the internal DACs are not always capable of converting bit stream within time sequence leading to clock errors. The USB helps in resolving this issue by using internal clock.

The better the DAC (i.e. the expensive one), better will be the clocking cycle and less will be the jitter.

The implementation of the DAC is very important for exploiting it to the core –so as to yield the best performance.

It is not that by simply connecting a DAC with the device will make your music listening experience absolutely gold. There are other factors which add on to the quality of sound. One of the very important factors is the format of your audio file. If you’re expecting a low bit rate mp3 or wav file to sound amazing, that won’t help. For better sound quality, the audio file needs to be slightly at the higher end of bit rate.

Another factor is that you need to have decent speakers and headphones for good experience. No matter how expensive DAC you may buy, if your system’s audio components are of poor quality, you won’t find any difference.

After connecting DAC to the device, connect headphones or speakers using jack to the audio output.

And then, you’re good to go.