Massdrop 101: What Is A DAC?

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With millions of songs at our fingertips every minute of every day, it’s easy not to think about where our music comes from—and how exactly it gets to us. The truth is that whenever we play a song on our computer, MP3 player, tablet, or any other device, the music undergoes a complex (but nearly instant) process of conversions, adjustments, and modifications before it hits our ears. One of the most important steps in this audio playback chain is the conversion from digitally stored files into analog signals.
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The Digital Revolution Before internet streaming and other modern technologies came around, everything we heard was stored physically. To save a song or another piece of audio, you needed physical space and a tangible format to store it in (think records, tapes, eight-tracks, and the like). When a signal was recorded, it was saved in analog format, which uses continuously varying signals to represent the fluctuations in air pressure produced by the original sound. Up until the 1970s, analog was virtually the only way to store audio. Today, the majority of music is stored digitally. Digital format describes a piece of information that is stored in binary using a series of ones and zeros. By storing all of the bits that make up a file in binary, this process drastically reduces the amount of space that files take up, as well as the cost of distributing them.
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How It Works Although today’s world is almost completely digital, our brains still process information in analog. Because we can’t hear ones and zeros, that information has to be converted back to analog before it can be played. Enter the digital-to-analog converter—or DAC. A DAC uses a series of protocols and technologies to initiate the digital-to-analog conversion. With a combination of hardware, software, mathematics, filters, and a small pre-amplifier to boost the signal, a DAC is able to convert an abstract binary pattern into a physical quantity that can be discerned by our music players. Virtually every modern device has a built-in amplifier, and the same is true for DACs. Because there are so many features squeezed into our phones, computers, and tablets, manufacturers often cut corners on technologies that are less applicable to a wide audience—especially DACs. Most built-in DACs can adequately convert our music from digital to analog, but to do it well, a separate stand-alone device is necessary. If you want all of those zeros and ones to sound as good as they did when they were originally recorded, you need a high-quality DAC.
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Why Get A DAC? A stand-alone DAC offers more detail, better power supply, and a cleaner, more pleasing sound signature than the miniature versions built into most devices. They’re also capable of playing high-resolution files. While many people are contently listening to MP3 files (traditionally considered to give listeners the most bang for their buck), there are other file formats that can deliver an even better listening experience. When an MP3 file is encoded, it gets compressed to save space. When the file is compressed, it loses some of its detail and originality, and is then known as a “lossy” file format. Formats like FLAC, Monkey’s Audio, and WavPack are encoded without compression, leaving all of the raw data as was originally recorded—which, in turn, takes up much more space. A high-end DAC is designed to more accurately reproduce uncompressed files, giving listeners a more robust version of what was originally recorded. Some are more flexible than others, allowing users to decode extremely high-resolution DSD files, too. It all depends on the type of DAC. It should be noted that although a dedicated DAC can enhance our music, the differences will be hard to notice without a decent amplifier and pair of headphones to go along with it. A good DAC is transparent. It converts a digital signal in the most accurate way possible. If the original file sounds bad, it usually won’t sound better just because it’s been converted with an expensive DAC.
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What Now? The best way to find the right DAC is to try one out for yourself. A good place to start is a DAC/amp combo, which offers all the benefits of a DAC and an amp in a smaller package, at a more accessible price. There are a few reasons to try separate components. You may want to understand and have control of each item in your system, and to personalize the sound just for you. Any questions? Leave ‘em in the comment section below, and someone from the community will be happy to help. Have personal recommendations or a cool audio setup to share? We’d love to hear about them—and see pictures, too! Want to learn more? Read another Massdrop 101 article, “What Is An Amp?”, here: https://www.massdrop.com/talk/87/massdrop-101-what-is-an-amp
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(Edited)
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mrjimmy
1
Apr 23, 2021
How does the audio quality of Fiios portable DAC amp compare to these?
Thiv
22
Jan 26, 2021
I'm wondering what a good DAC would be to pair with the THX AAA 789, both budget friendly options (100-200$ mark) and high end DACs, thoughts?
Crhaize
2
Apr 20, 2019
DAC technology has been available at a reasonable price for music listeners since the 1990s. I bought my first DAC, a Forte, in the mid 90s and it is still in my main system. Once I got a DAC, I got rid of my vinyl collection and I have never, and will never, look back. The resurgence of vinyl makes no sense to me and as a studio musician, it appear the lack of knowledge of DAC technology is the one piece of information I think too many younger listeners are missing.
Nyved
1
Mar 7, 2019
Audio noob here, recently bought a HD 6xx. Is the fiio e10k a good buy? Also where do I get audiophile quality audio? Plz help.
Extrxe
1
Mar 10, 2019
the 6xx are excellent headphones. Its basically a hd 650 for 200$. The fiio e10k is good for people on a budget but you won't get the most out of your 6xx because it needs 300 ohms. I would get the JDS Labs atom amp or Schiit magni. If you get one of these two amps you would also need a DAC. you can get the Schiit modi and the JDS Labs ol dac, they are both good choices for 100$ DACs. P.S. the DAC and amp by JDS labs are better on paper than Schiit's DAC and Amp but Schiits amp has a higher max power.
Heefty
1387
Mar 11, 2019
I keep forgetting about the Atom! It's also a great choice.
Hi-ho-hi-ho
25
Jan 31, 2019
I'm itching for a DAC. Please, can we work with Violectric to offer some of these great beauties.
(Edited)
orchardaudio
95
Nov 21, 2018
Crhaize
2
Apr 20, 2019
$3000 for a Burr-Brown chip over a decade old?
orchardaudio
95
Apr 20, 2019
Its $300 not $3000
jwho
3
Oct 6, 2018
Best DAC/AMP for PS4 to drive the HD58x's? Is the G6 really the best deal and way to go?
GiBBERSTiX
12
Oct 4, 2018
New to this, don't have a DAC or headphone amp myself, but it seems that many DACs connect via aux/headphone jack- as well as USB and other inputs. If a DAC is connected via aux what would happen to the audio? Since I'm assuming you're already getting analog sound out of the aux would the DAC re-convert to digital and then back to analog? Would this sound any better since its only getting the already poorly converted analog? Any insight on this would be appreciated. Thanks
PrestonXHR
10
May 15, 2019
Disagree. I have consistently plugged in high(er) quality DACs into multiple consumer grade output devices (speakers) -- think entry level car speakers -- and gotten shockingly better sound. I've done this with both Alpine head unit stereos (dual 24-bit DACs), as well as standalone DACs from Fii0 and CEntrance. I'm not making an argument for $3K vs $300 DAC -- I'm simply saying that it's my objective belief that a good DAC changes one's listening experience exponentially more than good speaker/headphone paired with a low quality DAC.
Luke.Cage
46
Jan 25, 2021
I agree that DACs change the sound and some are better than others. Take phone DACs. I had an HTC phone with duel DACs and it was noticeably clearer that my Samsung Note 9. But I agree with Floranski that you need to prioritize your equipment and speakers or headphones are the single most important piece of equipment. Yes, you need a good source, a good DAC, good amplification, but you can have all of that and it won't sound good if you have bad speakers or headphones. I'm not saying they have to be expensive. There are plenty of great inexpensive speakers and headphones. I have a $50 Edifier H-650 that I always go back to. Experiment and see what you like. Everyone's hearing is different.
Alarico
1
Sep 17, 2018
Very well explained, for a very beginner like myself.
cpropst421
7
Jun 10, 2018
Last year, I purchased the NuForce uDAC-3, a mini DAC/AMP combo, from Massdrop at ~$80. I had some difficulty searching for the necessary equipment to use with it (cough cough coaxial cable), but after some weeks of having it, the DAC/AMP finally began functioning. WOW! The audio tracks on YouTube that I had listened to previously had more clarity, tighter bass, and higher listening volumes. Together, the uDAC-3 and my AKG M220 Studio Headphones (Thanks Massdrop ;) ) are killing the audio game.
To everyone first exploring the possibility of owning a DAC or an amplifier: I would seriously recommend the NuForce uDAC series as a starting pick!
Nawab
0
Jun 11, 2018
Great. Thanks
Ultimate_Input
1
Aug 14, 2018
Opinions of SMSL M3? I heard that NuForce used to mess with the sound and it wasn't what was meant to be heard.
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