Ok, first of all, WTF is a DAC?
For the sake of keeping things simple, a DAC is simply a Digital to Analogue Converter. Digital music (i.e CD’s, MP3’s, FLAC files, Steaming music –basically anything that lives on your phone or computer is a digital file).
Whether you know it or not, when you listen to any digital music, before it makes it’s way to your headphones or speakers the digital code ( 1’s and 0’s) are converted to an analog signal, which is, in essence, a real sound wave signal that a speaker or headphone can understand. Tapes and Vinyl Records were all analog devices. The process of converting that digital code to a real analog signal is a key aspect of what makes some digital music sound far better than others.
Simply put, the DAC’s in phones and computers are average to below average at best, and when you can give this key task of conversion to a dedicated quality DAC device you will add a whole new level of life and realism to your music. Keep in mind, if you aren’t using decent quality headphones or speakers then adding a DAC is probably not the first step you should take, as you will sill get more bang for your buck in upping your speaker/headphone quality.
So, let’s say you have yourself some decent speakers/headphones and other equipment and you want to get your digital music to sparkle just a little more here are 3 simple methods you can use.
Pick up a portable DAC (several good models featured below from Amazon), plug in the digital end of your phone (NOT the headphone mini plug –that’s already an analog signal your phone converted by that stage ) to the DAC. Then your headphones get plugged into the DAC headphone input and voila –enjoy! Yes, you’re adding another thing to carry, but if you primarily listen to tunes on your phone then this is your move.
(Many of these devices can also be used with a computer as well)
This is a common way many are listening to music these days particularly at the office. One of these DAC’s will do, most plug into the USB input, then you would plug your headphones into the DAC (Depending on the DAC you may have to set this up as your new default sound output. Here are some good portable highly recommended options (Some of these can work on your home stereo too), the Chord.
A few options here, so spending on the type of stereo you have, but regardless, one of the best sounding, and most convenient ways to get digital music into.
Modern AV Reciever:
You more than likely already have a built-in half decent DAC. so you may just want to stick with that, if you wanted to go for higher end sound then think about ditching that receiver for a quality integrated amp. BTW, if you are feeding your music using one of those adapters as (seen left), then you are completely bypassing the DAC in your receiver and letting your phone or computer’s inferior DAC do the work –bad call. Make sure you’re feeding into a digital input (Coaxial/Optical/USB/wireless/ipod connector etc.)
Old Reciever/Integrated Amp:
This is a worthwhile investment in you have an older high-end receiver such as on of those big tanks from the pre 80’s (pre-made in China era) by Marantz, Pioneer, The Fisher etc. or a quality Integrated. Adding a DAC is a fantastic way to enhance your digital music and leverage the nice equipment you already have which wasn’t optimized for digital music formats like today. Many good integrated amps today will have built in DAC’s which are a great addition. These are a few that would do a solid job below. The Arcam is cool because it also provides wireless capability (there are a growing number like this now, we’re including the Chord again because it’s so good).
- A DAC can make your digital music sparkle, but make sure your equipment warrants it (eg. decent headphones, usually $100 up
- Ensure you’re not defeating yourself with inferior MP3’s or streaming your music in low quality. Apps like Spotify and Apple Music default setting is usually on low quality to save on data –also Spotify only offers it’s better quality streaming on the paid version and neither of these services meet CD quality! (Of the popular streaming services, Tidal is one of the only services that streams in true HiFi which meet CD quality and above they charge a premium for this, but I think it’s well worth it if you have good equipment and love music!)
- A DAC can also improve and old CD player IF it has a digital out