Digital-to-analog converters are among the most important pieces of your audio system these days. As their name suggests, they’re the conduit for getting those thousands of songs stored on your computers into shape for your A/V receiver, processor or perhaps straight into a pair of active loudspeakers.
DACs come in all shapes and sizes, and at their musical core are chipsets doing the work on the digital and analog sides to make your tunes sound better than if you just plugged straight into your computer and relied on its built-in soundcard. At T.H.E. Show in California last weekend, DACs and MacBooks were a popular source combination for routing both high-resolution 24-bit music as well as lossless (FLAC or ALAC) digital audio files.
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One of the newest DACs to hit the market is the Lightning from Audio Electronics by Cary Audio. You may be familiar with the Cary name for its high-performance audio products, and Audio Electronics was aimed to deliver Cary-type performance at lower cost of entry than its parent — cost being relative, the Lightning is $1,295, which might sound high to some but in the audiophile world is a relative bargain.
The chipsets within the 13-pound chassis bear the names of highly respected circuit manufacturers, as the digital domain includes a Wolfson WM8805 chipset for the input receiver for the two SPDIF digital audio inputs, while the analog conversion stage is handled by two ESS Sabre ES9023 24/192 DAC chipsets.
Audio Electronics says the XMOS USB chip does asynchronous processing of computer-based music through AE’s Asynchronous Streamlength Class 2.0 USB topology and aids the master clocking for highly accurate bitstreaming of the files, which can range all the way up to 24-bit/192 kHz (and all the way down to your compressed MP3s that deserve the boost of a good DAC before you feed them to your speakers).
Other highlights include gold-plated RCA outputs from the analog section, as well as that section’s own regulated power supply that’s isolated from the digital section. The digital power supply section features Faraday shielding for increased noise reduction, too.