A digital-to-analog converter, which is also called a DAC, is a device that changes a digital audio signal into an analog one. Basically, it is used in headphones to enhance sound output and achieve optimum performance.
These days, songs are usually stored in digital form to make it lighter and to avoid transmission losses. As mentioned, DAC processes digital information into analog, which makes the signal more pleasing to the human ear.
If you have not tried using a DAC with your headsets yet, then you may be missing a lot when it comes to enjoying high-quality audio.
Below are five things you need to know about DACs before considering to buy one.
Advantages of Analog Over Digital
Digital signals are more convenient to manage. They could easily be saved because of their binary nature.
It does not take so much memory space to store digital files. This is why it is the preferred medium in this modern era of technology that is trying to get smaller and more compact.
Also, the hardware needed for storage and implementation is more portable and flexible as compared to analog devices.
Digital audio is less likely to deteriorate and get affected by noise during transmission. It can be accurately copied at an unlimited rate. Analog signals inherently deteriorate with errors and disturbances once they are transmitted or copied.
Despite all these benefits of going digital, analog signals also have its advantages. Perhaps, the most obvious advantage is its production of a continuous signal that is closer to the actual sound being recorded.
The human voice when traveling in the air is analog. This means that an analog signal produces an infinite resolution closer to what the human senses can perceive in real life.
A digital signal naturally has that “empty space” between the ones and zeroes of a binary code. Analog ones do not have those spaces, which results in a complete sound.
An analog sound wave better represents an original sound as it carries a recorded sound as a whole. In contrast, digital sound waves only replicate a limited sample of sections in the original sound.
Despite the latest audio technologies available, a digital signal could still not 100 percent replicate any original sound in a way analog does.
Understanding these primary differences between analog and digital signals would help you a lot before deciding whether to buy a DAC or not.
Most DACs Need an Amplifier to Work
A DAC typically goes together with an amplifier to function. Most of the time, DACs cannot connect directly to your headphones. Thus, it requires the need for an amplifier to come between it and your headphones.
Most headphones come with a built-in set of a DAC and amplifier. But others don’t, which means you may have to purchase an external pair to enjoy its benefits.
The quality of the sound depends on the accuracy and efficiency of the DAC. Sometimes, those that come with your headphones are not precise enough to provide your desired output.
So, even if your headphones already have a built-in DAC-amplifier pair, you may still have to buy an external one to improve its output sound quality further.
Meanwhile, some DACs in the market right now already come with its own amplifier, so you do not need to buy the two items separately. You can save some cash by looking for these DAC-amplifier combo products.
You may not realize it, but the absence of a DAC and amplifier could be the reason why you are not contented with the sound coming out of your headphones. While the DAC converts the actual digital sound back to analog, it is the amplifier that sends the converted sound to your headsets as an output.
Sometimes, a DAC does not need an amplifier for it to work. This is the case if your computer or media player can already produce the desired volume you want. An adapter may be needed to connect your headphones directly to your PC.
Whether you are using a standard headphone or a high-end earpiece, DACs could still make quite a difference in your listening experience.
The most common DAC connections are through a USB device from a PC. For other media players, such as CD and DVD devices, SPDiF connectors are utilized. Meanwhile, several types of interconnected wires and adapters connect the latest smartphones to external DAC and amplifiers.
Some Issues that DACs are Trying to Prevent
The first issue a DAC would be able to prevent is jitter problems. Jitters take place when there are timing errors to the digital information you are listening to.
When the clock in your media player and the built-in DAC in your headphones do not coincide, then the sound produced becomes irregular. Having a more accurate external DAC will solve this problem.
DACs also help minimize and even eliminate any background hiss. This irritating sound actually comes with the original source of the sound itself and not from your headphones. A premium DAC can “clean” this noise out in the output analog sound without much trouble.
DACs can also help prevent compatibility issues. There are internal converters that are unable to support some file data rates, which inhibits you from opening a digital sound file.
Having an upgraded DAC could quickly solve this issue as the latest versions mostly cover all types of file data rates. The versatility of an external DAC ensures that you can open any audio file in your media player.
Instead of improving the sound quality, some substandard internal converters can make it even poor. The ability to reduce as much unwanted noise as possible is another benefit premium DACs could give.
Aside from lessening playback noise, external DAC could also get rid of interference coming from your computer’s sound card. This ensures a smoother and calmer music that is a joy to one’s ears.
Another issue that DACs help prevent is insufficient headphone volume. Some headsets have a high impedance rating that also needs high voltage production from your audio player. If the voltage is not enough, then it results in a lower output volume. With its amplifier, an external DAC easily resolves this problem.
Lastly, DAC helps enhance the overall audio quality of your headphones. High-end external converters help your earpieces produce more precise and detailed sounds that generally outdo most internal converters.
If you are experiencing any of these audio issues, then getting an external DAC-amplifier set would be a wise investment to do.
Common Types of External DACs
- Portable USB converters – These DACs are smaller than the other types, and are quite handy for mobile devices. They have a headphone socket and usually have a line-out for speakers as well.
- Desktop USB converters – These versions are made for PCs and laptops. They are larger than the portable ones, and also have both digital and analog inputs and outputs.
- Hi-Fidelity converters – This type of DAC is designed for components or bigger audio setups. It generally has more features and connections available and can support any file format.
- Wireless converters – As the name suggests, this DAC eliminates the hassle of having to manage cables or wires. Built for maximum convenience, you can use it with a Bluetooth-enabled earpiece. It allows more freedom of movement while in use.
Other Factors Affecting Sound Quality
Sometimes, the sound quality remains poor even with the presence of an external DAC. It is because there are two other factors that may affect the output sound which goes beyond the function of a converter.
- Music file condition – No matter how accurate your external DAC is, if the quality of the music file you are playing is weak, and then you cannot expect good sounds to come out of your headphones.
It is recommended for you to save and play only high-quality audio formats, like WAV, DSD, FLAC, and ALAC. MP3 and MP4 formats are not that secured when it comes to signal losses. You may not experience an evident sound upgrade by sticking to low-quality formats.
- Headphone quality – The quality of your headphones itself is a huge factor in producing the sound that you want. Of course, buying higher quality earpieces is the first step to enjoying high-quality audio.
Getting a DAC simply enhances your experience, but it would depend on the type of headphones you are using. You cannot expect higher sound quality by using a low-end, cheap earpiece.
Now that you know these five basic things about digital-to-analog converters, it would be much easier for you to decide whether you need one or not.
If the question is, “Are DAC’s absolutely necessary to have for your headphones?” Then the answer is it depends on your existing audio setup.
Based on the principles mentioned above, if you discover that the cause of your audio issues is a poor internal converter, then getting an external DAC is essential. However, if your internal DAC is already reliable, then purchasing an external one would only bring minimal improvements.
Some headphones are quite fine as they are, but there are others that may need the support of DACs to reach its maximum capacity.
Bottomline is you must be aware of the kind of audio setup you are implementing, your listening habits, and the issues you have been facing before making a purchase decision.