What Is A DAC (Digital-To-Analogue Converter)?

Have you ever thought what happens inside audio equipment? How does WAV, or mp3 formatted-content in a CD convert from data to sound? Well, what you do not know is that all this is possible because of DAC.

What is DAC? DAC means Digital-to-Analog Converter. DAC converts digital data into an analog audio signal. Once the data is converted, the signal is sent to an amplifier.

When you hear a recording, the sound is an analogue signal converted by the DAC. The DAC may not be visible, but it exists. In this guide, we will have a look at DAC and its functions, as well as reasons to invest in it.

Why do I need a DAC?

Before, there was no need to have a DAC to convert data from digital to analogue form. Microphones used to record sound in the form of analogue signals, and from a reel, format to reel tape.

The signal was then compressed into recording grooves. If you wanted to play music, you would have to attach the turntable needle to the grooves to spark an analogue electrical signal. The signals were then transmitted to the preamp and then to the speakers.

Today, studio engineers can convert analogue signals to bit streams. Bitstreams are digital audio signals. To listen to the audio, you must convert the digital sound to an analog signal. This is why DAC is essential: otherwise, you would not know what digital audio offers.

Here is the breakdown of the process:

During a voice recording session, the microphone picks up instruments and voices in the form of analogue audio signals.  The sound engineers then record these vocals as digital audio signals. Studio equipment converts analogue signals to digital sounds for storage. Today, the signals are stored as a digital audio file.

When playing a song, the DAC reads the stored digital signals and then converts it back to analogue audio. The analogue audio is then amplified and sent to stereo speakers or headphones. Still, some people believe DAC does not guarantee quality sound.

What makes a good DAC?

It is vital to know how a DAC works. As aforementioned, DAC converts digital data (1s and 0s) into analogue signals. Note the DAC does not transform data into signal sounds based on timing sequences (clocking errors). When you play a song, the clocking errors appear as jitter, which affects the fidelity of a song. Precisely, your music will not sound good as it loses its sense of excitement.

The digital to analogue converters found in most devices are not capable of handling clocking errors; as a result, they create jitter. Outboard DACs however, can comfortably mitigate such errors. Thus, they are perfect for reassembling music from digital audio format to conventional audio signals.

What devices are compatible with DACs converters?

You can use Outboard DAC any listen to setup. That being said, the converter you choose should be compatible with the device on which you are playing music.

Laptop and desktops computers

For modem PCs, use USB DAC. You only need to connect your USB cable to your device’s port. Next, connect the cable to the DAC. Notably, many USB DACs come with amps designed to work with headphones. Next, run an audio cable from the audio in the converter to your system. However, some computers may require you to assign the audio to the converter.

Mobile phones and tablets

For portable devices that you use all the time, you must buy an adapter to connect to your converter. Note the output on a mobile phone is the same as the one that you use to connect your charger. Use the small DAC that is meant for portable devices. A good choice is the AudioQuest. You can plug in your headphones to the DAC, and it will work just fine.

Home stereo systems

There are many options to choose from when it comes to home stereo systems. You can connect your computer or laptop using a USB DAC to your home theatre system. If your play streams digital output, include a DAC to enhance the quality of sound, but if you are using powered speakers, you will need to connect the DAC with digital input or a USB cable. Connecting a DAC to your home stereo system should be easy.

What are some of the best outboard DACs?

AudioQuest DragonFly Black

Although not bigger than a flash disk, the AudioQuest DragonFly Black can connect well on your computer or laptop USB port. You only need to connect your speakers or headphones, and you are good to go.

Audioengine D1 DAC

D1DAC is a great option for those who enjoy quality sound. The converter is a plug and play device. It comes with optical outputs and a USB port. Music starts to play once you connect it to your computer’s sound card. You can find a better deal than $169 for a DAC.

NAD D1050

If you want a DAC that can connect to your hi-fi system without any complications, you should get the NAD D1050. The converter can connect to different types of digital sources such as computers. It features a 24/192 USB input that lets you enjoy quality sound in formats such as AIFF and FLAC.

Naim DAC-V1

The Naim DAC-VI has five digital inputs, headphones, analogue variables, and a high-speed USB input. The DAC is compatible with most hi-fi systems.  The quality of sound produced is incredible, and the inbuilt headphone amplifier is versatile.

When it comes to music, quality sound is critical, and a good DAC can certainly achieve this. You can consider any of the above options.

What are the applications for DACs?

Digital to analogue converters are used in many applications. Applications that rely on DAC to function well include:

Audio Amplifier

Converters produce DV voltage gain using microcontroller commands. Normally, the converted is included into an audio codec that has signal-processing features.

Video encoder

This device processes video signals and sends digital signals to different types of converters to transform sound into different analogue video signals formats. In addition, ICs contain DACs.

Display Electronics

The display electronics contains a graphics controller that uses a look-up table to form data signals, which are then conveyed to a video converter for along output including RGB signals.

Data Acquisition Systems

The Analog-to-digital Converter digitizes the data that is to be measured and then directs it into a professor. Data acquisition also features a process control end, where the process sends feedback information to a digital-to-analog converter for transforming to analogue signals.


The DAC has a broad calibration for gain. It also features a voltage offset for measuring systems as well as for accuracy.

Motor Control

Monitor controls require voltage control signals. The DAC is its ideal application since you can fuel it with a processor or a controller.

Data Distribution System

Manufacturing plants require different programmable voltage sources. Several DACs can certainly do this, but they have to be multiplexed. Using DACs allows multiple voltage adjustments when a system is in operation.

Why do I need a separate DAC?

While many digital machines have built-in digital-to-analog converters, not all converters are the same. Some DACs support only several file data rates. Poor DACs can cause irritating noise during playback due to poor circuitry.

Jitter also adds distortion to sound, resulting in musical havoc. Jitter is a digital timing error. Digital music requires precise timing, which is important to high performance. When the digital-clock circuitry is poorly designed, it causes jitter, which, in turn, compromises performance.

Issues with butter can occur any time a digital signal travels on a circuit board, and it could be worse when the signal is transferred to different devices. In the past, asynchronous DAC was used because of this reason only. Digital clocks in Gigi DACs are more accurate than the ones for computers. Thus, the conversion process is more efficient.

To get the most out of your DAC, you must first start with the reliable source material. However, do not expect magic if what you provide your converter with is 128kbps MP3s, because decoding compressed signals will result in many shortcomings. However, CD-quality content will give you the best results, which is ideal for storing ALAC, WAV, DSD, or lossless PCM formats, whatever you want.

What type of DAC is right for you?

Digital to analogue converters are available in different sizes, shapes, as well as different levels of input options. Therefore, the converter you choose depends on what you want to use it for, and your budget will determine the DAC to have.

Compact USB DACs are convenient and portable, and they are cheap. They come in different sizes, but smaller than a normal USB disk such as the AudioQuest DragonFly Black. There are also pocket-sized variants that you can connect to an independent USB cable.

Most of the time, digital to analogue converter uses power from the computer. Therefore, you do not need an additional power source. Additionally, connections are simple; they have a line-level output and headphone socket to connect to a hi-fi system or powered system.

However, if you are looking for more connectivity and do not want to carry your DAC everywhere, you may want to consider the desktop USB DAC. A good example is the Audiolab M-DAC. These DACs are bigger and need an additional power source but normally come with extra analogue and digital audio inputs and a USB port for connecting to a laptop or PC.

If you want to use your headphones, look for a headphone amp because not all digital-to-analog converters come with this option. Consider the Chord Quest; a standalone DAC that does not have headphone features. There are many options out there which this functionality.

The best DACs you can buy in 2018

It does not matter whether you are spending £1000 or £100 on a digital to analogue converter, be sure that there will be a huge change with the quality of sound when using DAC.

Here are the best DACs currently on the market:

Cyrus soundKey

At only £100, this is perhaps the best machine at this price. The portable DAC can improve the quality of sound into a high-fidelity experience.

AudioQuest DragonFly Red

The AudioQuest DragonFly Red is yet another great DAC at £170. It is convenient and portable. The DragonFly is among the first USB DAC on the market, and it is still one of the best digital-to-analog converters.

Chord Mojo

The £400 Chord Mojo is a great DAC that features sonic appeal. This award-winning DAC is sure to enhance your system, whether it is a hi-fi system or PC, or a laptop.

Audiolab M-DAC

The Audiolab M-DAC currently retails at £600. The experience with the DAC is exceptional. It is one of the most talented and enjoyable DACs around.

Chord Quest

The cheapest Chord Quest DAC goes for £1195. It is a commendable product. While it is not as portable as Hugo and Mojo digital to analogue converters, it surely does a great job of improving the performance of your system.

Chord Hugo 2

Chord Hugo is an ideal product for those who are serious about finding the best sound quality. It works perfectly with a hi-fi system. The market price for Chord Hugo 2 is £1800.

Related questions

What is a V/LSB? This is the smallest change that takes place in the analogue output caused by a change in digital output.

Why you need DAC ICs? The ICs comprises of few resistors, and it is affordable. Additionally, there is no restriction for input bits. You can expand it to 32 or several hundreds of bits.

What makes an external DAC better?  A good external DAC has better components, higher bit rates, better accuracy, and improved functionality. In addition, an external DAC features a superior technical design. Some external DAC have external amplifiers, which are more powerful than built-in amplifiers.

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