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Everything you need to know about DACs; digital-to-analog converters

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A DAC or digital-to-analog converter, what is it? In this article we will discuss the basics of what you need to know about the DAC, such as how it works, the differences between integrated and independent models and the various reasons for getting a good DAC.

What is a DAC?

A DAC may not be the most familiar part of your audio set, but it can play a serious role. The chances are that you already have one at home. Because as soon as you are dealing with a digital sound source, you need a DAC. Such a device, also known as a d / a converter, translates the digital data stream to analog sound, or the ones and zeros of your source to a signal that your speakers can actually handle. Not unimportant to mention is that DACs also play a role in AV receivers, for converting the digital audio data on Blu-rays, but also from Netflix, to analog audio.

A dac is a chip that you can devices such as CD players, streamers and ac-receivers and also as a stand-alone device. More concretely: a DAC can be found in any device with an analog output. Integrated into your existing equipment or purchased as a separate component, the fact is that the DAC has a significant influence on the display quality of your audio set. It is true that a lot can go wrong during the conversion. It is therefore very interesting to take a good look at the quality of your existing DAC and, if necessary, to switch to a separate model. The odds are that you can take a serious step forward with a (better) d / a-converter.

Besides the differences in hearing, there are also some practical matters to take into account if you want to purchase a DAC – still separate from all conceivable types and sizes that can be found on the current market.

Why a stand-alone DAC?

The most important question: why would you purchase a stand-alone DAC? ? That is actually very simple: a loose DAC usually has a much better quality than the DAC chip that you find in your PC or telephone. The DAC in a computer is usually a cheap component. Moreover, it is close to all kinds of other parts that influence the conversion, and thus the display and performance.

There are basically two scenarios in which you are already much better off with an investment in a stand-alone DAC. : for mobile use and for headphones at home. The – of course also handy – mobile DACs replace the d / a converter in your smartphone. In addition, they are often combined products: in addition to DACs, it is usually also headphone amplifiers, which also take over that part of the audio process from the technology in your phone or mobile player – certainly interesting for the better headsets! A hi-fi headphone at home is also helped with some extra attention for the signal conversion, because you usually connect it directly to the source; there is a good chance that the stand-alone DAC will handle the conversion better than the technology in your source device.

What are the differences?

Under the hood you will find the differences mainly in the chip used, because not every chip converts equally well. In addition, the structure of the entire circuit and its influence on the performance, the connections and of course the construction quality of the component are decisive.

Good to know: a DAC chip and associated filters do not merely a ‘cold conversion’ (or sec the conversion from one signal to another without affecting the result), but they do contribute to the timbre. In addition, some manufacturers do not use special DAC chips from brands such as ESS or Texas Instruments, but program a universal chip or FPGA themselves. That is why it is very important to compare well, just as with the other combinations in your set.

Since a DAC has to convert the digital information of all your digital sources to the analogue domain, it needs the right inputs and outputs. to have. As far as the inputs are concerned, you generally have the choice of six types: optical, coaxial, XLR (AES / EBU), I2S, HDMI, USB. As far as the outputs are concerned, it is a lot easier. What you need is a pair of RCA outputs (cinch), possibly supplemented with a pair of balanced outputs on XLR. And if you are a headphone lover, an output (preferably on the front panel) in the stereo jack format is of course a nice plus.

Ideally, your DAC has multiple optical and coaxial digital inputs, with at least one XLR input (AES / EBU), an I2S port and a USB port that allows for asynchronous data transmission and complies with the USB Audio Class 2 standard. It is particularly convenient that you can choose the desired input with a remote control – infrared or an app on your iOS or Android device. In some cases the correct input can also be chosen by an ‘auto sensing’ system, where the DAC then chooses the entrance to which it sends an active signal.

When to buy a DAC?

Admittedly, a DAC is not the first purchase in your set. The old adagio is ‘source-amplifier-speakers’, where you would have to spend 20, 40 and 40 percent of your budget. You can also add 5 to 10 percent for the cabling, and then you do not have an external dac. However, it is interesting to lift a system with such a DAC to a higher level. Please note that the purchase (price) of a DAC must be proportionate to the rest, just like the other components in your set. A good DAC can not save a qualitatively bad set, so to speak.

If you are planning to purchase a DAC, please note that it has enough inputs, so you can properly connect all your digital stereo sources. A remote control to switch between the different inputs is useful, but not necessary. As far as the sound-technical side of the case is concerned, it is wise to choose a model that is compatible with as many different sampling frequencies and bit depths as possible.

For the rest you can not identify a good-sounding DAC as such on the basis of the specifications. . And also not on the basis of the chipset used, because manufacturers place that chip in a larger circuit, where, among other things, filters are still subject to sound adjustments. It is strongly recommended to read the necessary reviews and to make a shortlist of some devices on that basis. You can then listen to it at the hi-fi dealer, in order to make a definitive choice.

Tip: a good starting point is the DAC Special on sister site HiFi.nl, which can be found via hifi.nl/dac . There you will find more background information, news about the latest product introductions and a random selection of d / a-converters in many price ranges.

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