A DAC or Digital to analog converter is an electrical device that converts digital audio signals (0s and 1s) to analog signals. Digital to analog converters can be found in phones, laptops, receivers, audio/video processors/preamps to help smooth out the audio for the listener.
Although they can be built-in in some devices like the ones mentioned above, this may not always be the case for all the devices and in this case, you may need an external DAC.
You may not always need an external DAC but having one could definitely improve your home theater listening experience. This is because it bypasses the inferior audio decoding in your devices be it a stereo amp, a computer, and so on, and adds extra details to the stereo sound which digital sound lacks.
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How does a Digital to Analogue Converter work?
Digital audio signals are not similar to analog signals. Let me explain.
When we go to a live music performance event, the sound that we hear from the artists is analog. Analog sound is continuous with no interruptions which are different from digital sound signals that are represented by values namely: 1s and 0s.
Therefore, when you look at the wavelength (amplitude against time) of an analog signal you will quickly realize that it is a continuous sine wave but a digital sound wavelength is denoted by square waves.
What a DAC does is convert the square waves to continuous sine waves that humans can comprehend or hear through preset codes. The DAC converts the bits of 1s and 0s to an analog electrical signal which is then amplified and can then be played by your headphones or stereo speakers.
It is impossible for humans to comprehend digital sound signals as no sound is produced. That is why all devices need to have a DAC, either built-in or external for you to hear the sound.
If you decide to add an external DAC to any of your devices, the internal sound processing of that device is bypassed and this can have a significant positive impact on the sound clarity. However, if you are not an audio nut, adding an external DAC may not be of much use to you.
Types of External DACs
1. Component High Fidelity DAC (Hi-Fi DAC)
Component Hi-Fi DACs are mainly used in dedicated stereo home theaters by avid music listeners. These DACs are designed to have advanced circuitry, large power supplies, built-in CD players, and wireless connectivity options such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
If you have a Hi-Fi DAC, you may not need a receiver or preamp for your stereo music system as you can connect directly to your amplifier.
2. USB DAC
A USB digital to analog converter is compact and portable and can be used with your phone or laptop to connect to your headphones or stereo speakers.
These DACs mainly have a similar size to that of a flash drive and mostly get their power from the device it is connected or may have internal batteries.
If you are using a smartphone or tablet (either android or IOS), you may require either micro-USB to USB-A, lightning to USB-A, or USB-C to USB-A adapter to connect the portable USB DAC.
3. Headphone DAC/Amplifier
A headphone AMP/DAC is simply a Digital to Analogue converter with an internal amplifier. An Amp and DAC combo can be a great addition if you want the best sound out of your headphones.
4. Desktop USB DAC
A Desktop USB DAC is similar to the portable USB DAC in that it connects to your computer’s USB port but is not portable. This type of DAC may require an external power source and has output ports where you can connect to an amplifier or speakers with built-in amps (powered speakers).
You can also connect your audio sources and music streaming devices to your DAC.
5. Wireless DAC
With a wireless DAC, you do not need cables to connect to your wireless headphones or powered speakers. Some may only need a cable to connect to the media source but some may also work completely wirelessly using Bluetooth, Airplay, the Wi-Fi network, and so on.
Some of the devices with built-in DACs
- AV receivers
- Integrated amps
Although the built-in DACs will work just fine, if you are an audiophile, you will quickly notice the difference between not having and having an external one. This is because most DACs in these devices will not be of the highest quality as they are other components that are squeezed into them.
Here is when having an external can be a great addition to improve the sound from your headphones or stereo system. This can help reduce some possible problems like limited bitrate, jitter, aliasing, and a narrow dynamic range that is associated with built in DACs.
Common DAC problems jargon
- Jitter is time distortion that may occur in your audio playback that may occur when the digital signals are converted to analog signals. It occurs when the DAC’s sampler does not work as well as it should mainly affecting the high frequencies. This should not be a problem for an average home theater user but to an audiophile, this is a big disadvantage.
- Aliasing occurs when the analog signal is distorted to become indistinguishable from the digital signal it was sampled from. This occurs when the DAC has a low sampling rate.
- Narrow dynamic range occurs when the quietest and loudest parts of the converted analog soundwave are narrow.
- Limited bitrate occurs when the sound produced after conversion has less bandwidth which lowers the quality of sound that is produced. This occurs because the DAC device has a low decoding speed meaning that lesser audio information will be converted from the digital to the analog sound waves.
A DAC with some of these issues will not mean that the music you hear from your stereo system or headphones will be crappy but the quality will be lowered and easily notable to audiophiles.
How to connect a DAC to a computer
- Plug in the DAC to the computer’s USB port.
- Connect the DAC to a power amplifier using an RCA cable or any other analog audio cable.
- Hook up the amplifier to your stereo speakers.
- Play a music file that you love to test the performance of the DAC.
If you are using powered speakers or headphones with a built-in amplifier, you can connect the DAC directly to them without needing another power amplifier.
How to connect a DAC to a smartphone or tablet (Android or IOS)
You will need a USB audio adapter for your phone to this type of connection. This can be a;
- Lightning to USB-A adapter.
- USB Type C to USB-A adapter.
- Micro USB to USB-A adapter.
Connect the audio adapter to the phone’s or tablet’s charging port. Hook up the DAC to the adapter’s USB port then plug in your headphones to the DAC.
If you are using a DAC that requires external power (non-portable DAC), the process will be the same but you can also connect the DAC to an amplifier that can then power your home theater’s stereo speakers.
How to connect your DAC to a TV
You may mainly need to connect a DAC to your TV if you are streaming music directly from the TV. This will be common for those that are using smart TVs.
The TV will need to have a digital output (S/PDIF) to connect to the DAC after which the converted signals will be fed to your amplifier or powered speakers/headphones.
How to connect a DAC to an AV receiver or integrated AMP
To connect a DAC to a receiver or integrated amp, your receiver/integrated should have a bypass input. The stereo source can then be fed through the DAC after which the internal audio processor on the integrated amp or receiver will be bypassed directly to the internal amplifier to power the speakers. In this case, the flow will be as follows, Audio sourceàDACàBypass inputàBuilt-in amplifieràSpeakers/headphones.
If your receiver or integrated amplifier does not have a bypass input it should have a digital audio output(S/PDIF). The DAC can then be connected to the digital output using an adapter (aux to USB). Analog signals from the DAC can then be fed to powered speakers/headphones or to an amplifier and then to passive speakers. In this case, the audio sources can be fed to your receiver/integrated. Audio sourceàReceiver/integrated amplifieràDigital outàDACàpower amplifier/headphones/powered speakers.
However, you should note that the bypass or digital audio-out features are mostly found in high-end receivers and integrated amplifiers so, this may not work for everyone.
How to get the most out of your DAC setup
- Have good digital music sources so that the DAC can have a good amount of detail from the digital signals, to begin with. This will mean using high-quality music CDs/records, streaming services such as YouTube music premium, Spotify, Amazon Music HD, Prime phonic, Qobuz, Apple music, and so on.
- Use high-quality speakers/headphones that can output high-quality sound.
- If you are using a computer as a source, you may need to tweak the audio settings on the computer for the best sound. You may also need to download USB drivers to the computer for operation.
- Use high-quality audio cables.
Is getting an external DAC worth it?
Getting a DAC will be worth it if you want to improve your system’s audio, especially if you are using your computer to play music. Computer soundcards can have a lot of interference which can lead to a loss in sound quality. DACs are also worth it if you listen to a lot of music directly from your smartphone/Tablet.
In general, if you are very keen on setting up’s sound output and want to get all the aspects of a high-quality stereo set upright, a DAC will be a great addition.
But as I mentioned earlier this is not a requirement and depending on your listening preference you can choose to invest in this device or not.