Unless you’re truly serious about the vinyl revival, chances are you listen to digital music on a daily basis. What you might not realise, is that to do so, you’re using a DAC. Digital-to-analogue converters are built into every bit of kit capable of digital sound.
Not just that, but the kit through which we hear music – whatever that may be – can’t play a digital signal either; it can only receive it. In order to transmit it, that signal must be converted into an analogue soundwave first, which is where a DAC comes in.
It sits in the middle of the whole process, unpacking all the binary information stored in the digital file, so the resulting sound most accurately represents the original analogue recording.
A DAC can only work with what it’s given, and the better the DAC, the better job it can do – with all file types. Just be aware that feeding a good-quality DAC a poor-quality signal could make the shortcomings in that recording all the more clear.
For example, cheaper DACs might not support more unusual file data rates, and are more likely to have lesser quality circuitry that results in timing errors, distortion and noise in the reproduced sound.
Timing errors are one of the biggest issues with lesser quality DACs, which is the reason devices such as mobile phones and laptops often aren8217;t the best source for digital music. The DAC included is usually something of an afterthought rather than a priority.
Some mobile manufacturers are trying to address this – in particular, LG with its V-series range of smartphones. These devices come with high-performance internal DACs, which makes the current LG V30 a popular smartphone for audiophiles.
In particular, they can tackle timing issues thanks to better, more advanced digital clock circuitry. This means the file conversion to analogue will be tighter, cleaner and closer to the original recording.
Which DAC should I buy?
While any external DAC is likely to offer improvement on the sound pushed through something more basic, this isn’t a given – and its effectiveness will vary. As ever, it’s worth doing your research before you buy.
Equally, an investment of £89 in a USB-style Audioquest DragonFly Black could be all you need to make the difference to your audio setup.
Portable DACs such as the DragonFly, or the Cyrus soundKey (£90), don’t require any external power – they take it from your device). They keep things simple, with just a USB input and headphone jack for playback.
A unit such as the Audiolab M-DAC+ (£700), on the other hand, is much bigger and requires external power. That makes it one for your hi-fi rack rather than your backpack. It does offer stacks more connectivity options for those with more involved setups.
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Just make sure these types of DACs come with a built-in headphone amp if you intend to do some private listening as well as through a pair of connected speakers – not all of them do.