Regardless of your level of audio experience, knowing what is DAC, is essential to hearing and creating high-quality music.
This guide will discuss the multiple types of DACs that you can use, music file types, and why having a DAC is important. By the end, you’ll get a clear understanding of why DACs can enhance your current audio equipment. Let’s begin!
What is a DAC?
A Digital Analog Converter (DAC) transfers digital audio signals (from laptops, iPods, etc.) and converts them to analog form. In most cases, you cannot plug your headphones into a DAC. A headphone amp is needed to act as an intermediary between your DAC and the headphones.
The USB connection is the most common DAC connecting method. Alternatively, Coaxial and Optical outputs (SPDiF connectors) are located in DVD players and other audio devices that can connect to a DAC. Smartphones can connect to a DAC via interconnect adapters or cables.
Remember, low bitrate (lossy) MP3 files will always lack dynamics and detail. The most important thing you can do is rip your music at the highest bitrate or uncompressed formats to maximize sound quality.
Types of DACS
Many DACs are used for sound reproduction and signal conversions. Here are some of them:
The R-2R Ladder is the most basic DAC type. It only requires two resistor values in a ladder arrangement. Think of them as a complex voltage divider, but with more complex math behind it.
When in use, the binary input goes to the R-2R’s resistors while the output goes to the bottom end of the ladder.
Summing amplifiers have multiple resistors attached to a single output. The summing junction is where the multiple resistors meet. The input goes into the resistors (in binary form), and the analog output comes from the op-amp.
With the help of the resistors, the circuits work properly. Each resistor has to be matched in order and carefully chosen to get accurate analog output.
The more bits on the amp, the more resistors are needed – and this method isn’t always practical. You can overcome these limitations by using the R2-R method.
This is a common DAC many of us have used without us even knowing it! This DAC creates an analog signal via a PWM signal.
The PWM signal has a binary waveform with a variable duty cycle and high and low peaks.
Portable DACs are designed to work with smartphones, tablets, laptops, and any other listening device. They have built-in headphone amplifiers, which acts as an intermediary between your headphones and smartphone.
While it might be overkill to have another device alongside your smartphone, this is a suitable solution for devices that do not have a 3.5mm connection.
Portable DACs allow you to travel with the latest iPhone, your favorite pair of headphones, or give your laptop a sound boost on the go.
DAC/Headphone Amp Combinations
This DAC is used for dedicated listening environments at home and desktops. It works by providing a transition from the digital input to the analog output.
DAC/Headphone Amp combinations have a physical volume control feature that allows you to adjust the volume level in your headphones.
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Wireless Streaming DACS
At first, DACs needed a wire connection to remain secure, now that’s no longer the case. Not only do some DACs have Bluetooth capability, but some of them have taken a step further. These DACs can connect directly via Wi-Fi, allowing you to access music applications such as Roon and Spotify.
Wi-Fi DACs are also called music streamers. They allow you to collect music from an external source and provide extra features such as touchscreens and amplifications.
Why Do Sound Signals Need Conversions?
Historically speaking, the analog sound came before the digital sound. The original analog sound made by our favorite artists or bands is made into a digital format (FLAC, Apple Lossless, MP3, etc.).
While computers can understand the digital signals, humans cannot, nor your headphones or speakers.
Before we hear it, the digital signal is converted to analog. This process is enabled by your DAC, which can be built into your music player or laptop.
The higher the DAC quality, the better it will be at processing and converting digital signals. Thus, resulting in better audio from your speakers and headphones.
Why Do I Need a DAC?
Now that you know what DAC is, it’s important to know why it’s so beneficial for audiophiles. Here are some reasons why.
Digital Power Supplies
Microcontrollers are too slow to be used for a power supply control loop. To change the current or voltage of a power supply, you have to change the reference.
This is possible by connecting your DAC to a microcontroller output and adjusting the voltage to a desirable value.
Digital Signal Processing
Signals that are converted to binary are easier to work with. Audio editing is a great example of this. The input audio is converted to binary which allows the user to perform operations on it.
To playback the sound, the DAC converts it into an analog sound signal that can be played through a speaker.
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Music File Types
When using a DAC, you’ll have to consider the music file type. By understanding the size and the file type, for example, your favorite music streaming service, you can determine how much power your DAC needs. Here are the most common forms available:
Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) is used in the Apple Music streaming service. The audio files are in a lossy format with varying bit depths and sample rates. Look at your Apple Music settings to find the data behind this file type.
Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) sound is an audio format that has a high-resolution recording. Tidal does this through a creative technology that “folds” the hi-res file before playing it.
However, you will need a DAC that can “unfold” the file in order to hear the MQA sound. Some DACs can play MQA music, but they are usually on the higher end of the spectrum.
Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) is commonly seen in high resolution streaming services like Tidal. The average file size is 16-bit/44.1 kHz, but it allows the music stream to be exceptional due to its ability to compress files.
Virtually every DAC is equipped to handle FLAC files.
If you want the most realistic sound resolution, go for the DSD files. They have huge bit depths and sample rates, ensuring that you’ll get high-quality sound. There are multiple types, with the DSD256 being the most common. It delivers sound at 1-bit/2.8224 MHz.
You won’t find DSD files on any streaming services, but they are stored on hard drives due to their large size. Not all DACs are compatible with DSDs, but high-end DACs handle such a large file better. DSD files also need a special audio player to handle them.
After determining the file size, plan on getting a DAC that can handle it. That way, you can enjoy the recordings without running into DAC compatibility errors.
Bit Depth vs. Sample Rate
When selecting a DAC, make sure it can convert audio files to your desired resolution. But how can you determine the resolution? You do this by looking at the bit depth and sample rate.
Bit depths measure the amount of information that is recorded. Information is extracted every time the recording software samples audio—the more bits within that information, the better the recording quality.
For instance, a 32-bit recording has more information than a 16-bit recording. Combine the bit-depth and sample rate, and you’ll get a general idea of how good a recorded song is via audio quality.
Imagine every second of music having the appearance of a straight line. Imagine there are sound markings on the line (similar to a ruler). Every marking occurs where the recording takes the sound and extracts information.
You’ll receive more information if you have more markings. This is called the sample rate. The sample rate reflects how many times a recording has been ‘sampled’ – it means how many times the software had to look at the music file. Sample rates are measured in Hertz. For example, a high-res audio file with a file size of 762 kHz, or 762,000 Hertz.
How do both metrics (bit depth/sample rate) relate to DACs? Every DAC decodes sound files based on the internal chip’s quality. Larger file sizes are for high-resolution recordings, but you don’t have to buy a DAC that handles large file sizes if you don’t plan on listening to high-res files.
Now that you know what is DAC, you still have to decide which one works best for your auditory needs. When looking for a DAC, ensure it has the bit depth, sample rate, and compatibility to your preferred music file type.
That way, you’ll enjoy your sound at maximum resolution. Conclusively, having a DAC is a great way to utilize your headphones and audio systems.