The ABCs of DACs

What's a DAC and why do you need one? Let’s take a peek at this popular product category.

Digital audio is easy and plentiful. The problem is that it can sometimes sound kind of terrible. This may not be a big deal to someone that isn’t a self-proclaimed audiophile, but it should be. It’s also a pretty easy fix.

We’ve seen the term “DAC” a lot in the world of audio. It’s seen as a stand-alone audio product and a perk that’s packed inside other components, such as a computer or receiver. It stands for “digital-to-analog converter” and it’s what makes digital music listenable and in some cases, better.

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Hey, I’ve Got One!
Believe it or not, you already own a DAC. If you have an iPod, a computer or anything else that plays digital music, you have a DAC.

A DAC is needed to play any type of digital audio file. Digital music is made to be compact, so you can store a lot of it inside a little device. You can have hundreds or thousands of music files, but without some type of processing, they are useless. That’s where the DAC comes in.

Just like the name says, a DAC takes the digital signal and converts it to analog, so it can be played back on a computer, a stereo component, or even through headphones.

So Why Do I Need Another One?
As mentioned, several products do have a DAC built in. For some, that may be enough. If you’re interested in the Electronic House, you’re probably seeking the best sound quality possible. That means you’ll need an additional DAC. Having another DAC can boost the sound of your existing digital files. And in the case of high-resolution audio, which we’re seeing a lot of these days, a good DAC an absolute necessity. After all, why bother with better music downloads if you’re just going to use the DAC that comes with your computer?

Just by listening, you should know that whatever is coming out of your computer or iPad isn’t the best sound quality possible. How you enjoy digital music may dictate the type of DAC you want. Some receivers have DAC goodies built in, but there are plenty of stand-alone options as well. In fact, there are several types of DACs to consider:

Internal: We’re not talking about what’s inside your PC. Instead, we’re talking about the DACs inside your amplifier or receiver. It’s the secret sauce that makes digital music possible in a larger setup.

External: These are stand-alone products. There’s no amp, no receiver, and no speakers. It’s a DAC and nothing else.

Portable: You shouldn’t have to be tethered to the house to enjoy good music. A few manufacturers make DACs that look similar to a USB thumb drive, for audiophile-quality listening while on the go.

Headphone Amp: If you’re going to invest in a really nice pair of headphones (and actually use them), consider getting a DAC that doubles as a headphone amplifier. It not only makes the music sound more pleasing when it’s so close to your ears, but also balances out that sound so it will be clear, without having to be loud.

The type of DAC you choose will have a lot to do with your needs and your budget. Just remember that while a DAC can improve sound quality, it can’t perform miracles. If you start with a low-quality audio file, a DAC can only do so much.

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