What is a DAC? And why do you need one?

what is a DAC?

You may not even consider it, but most of us make use of at least one digital-to-analogue converter (more handily known as a DAC) every single day.

Built into the likes of computers, tablets and smartphones, a DAC is a fundamental key to unlocking the convenience of digital music. It converts the countless reams of digital information into analogue signals that are intelligible to the likes of speakers and headphones – and the human ear. They all need an analogue waveform. Without a DAC, your digital music collection is nothing but a sizeable collection of “0s and 1s” (more on that shortly) that makes sense only within the digital domain. In short, DACs play a large part in making digital music worthwhile.

Therefore, any device that acts as a source of digital sound – be it a CD or Blu-ray player, digital TV box or games console, or phone or portable music player – will need a DAC – either integrated or connected – to convert its digital audio to analogue before it is output.

The biggest problem is the DAC circuits used in many devices are just not efficient enough to accurately convert digital to analogue and thus do justice to the original recording. And that's why a DAC upgrade can be the simplest way to improve your digital music and really get the most from your system, whatever your set-up.

What is a DAC? What does it do?

what is a DAC?

The sounds we hear on a day-to-day basis – traffic, instruments, that baby screaming on your otherwise peaceful commute – are transmitted in soundwaves, which travel through the air to our ears in a continuously varying analogue signal.

Analogue recordings were stored on the likes of shellac (and later, vinyl) discs, and later still magnetic cassette tapes, but the fragility and unwanted noise of these formats made way for something new. The CD was born, kickstarting the digital audio revolution in the process.

  • These are the best DACs you can buy for your phone, laptop or system

what is a DAC?

The five-star Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M desktop DAC (Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

Digital audio takes a very different approach to that of analogue. Digital music files are usually found in the form of Pulse Code Modulation (PCM), and are created by measuring the amplitude of the analogue music signal at regular intervals.

The value of the amplitude is represented as a binary number (comprised of 1s and 0s) and the length of this number is often referred to as bit depth. The timing of the measurement intervals is called the sampling rate.

When recording a standard CD, say, a sample is taken 44,100 times per second. Each of these samples is measured to an accuracy of 16 bits, storing the results in a 16-digit binary format.

Record a high-resolution track, on the other hand, and you’ll take a step up to 24 bits, with a sample taken as often as 192,000 times per second.

Digital audio data can be stored in a variety of sample rates, bit depths, encoding and compression formats – but no matter how it’s done, it is the DAC’s job to make sense of it all, translating it as accurately as possible from its binary format to return it as close to the original analogue recording as it can.

Why do I need a separate DAC?

what is a DAC?

The Award-winning Audioquest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC (Image credit: Audioquest)

While it’s true that just about every piece of digital kit features a DAC, it’s just as true that not all DACs are created equal. For starters, they might not support all file data rates.

Poor converters can introduce unwanted noise during playback due to poorly designed circuitry, not to mention add extra distortion due to jitter. (Jitter is best defined as digital timing errors. The precise timing of a digital music stream is vital to high performance, and if that isn’t done properly - usually because of poorly designed digital-clock circuitry - performance suffers.)

Jitter problems can arise every time a digital signal has to travel around a circuit board – and it’s particularly troublesome when the signal is transferred between devices. In recent years we’ve seen the rise of the asynchronous DAC, which takes over timing duties from any computer it may be connected to for just this reason.

The digital clocks found in dedicated hi-fi DACs tend to be more accurate than those used in the average PC, so usually the conversion process will be performed more faithfully.

Source material is everything

Chord Hugo 2

The Award-winning Chord Hugo 2 portable/desktop DAC (Image credit: Chord)

Of course, to get the most from a DAC you need to start out with good source material – don’t expect miracles if all you’re throwing at a converter is 128kbps MP3s. In fact, better decoding of such a compressed signal can make any sonic shortcomings more obvious.

You’ll hear optimum results with CD-quality content and above, which is best stored in FLAC, WAV or ALAC (Mac) lossless PCM formats, or alternatively DSD if you prefer...

What is DSD and PCM?

DSD, or Direct Stream Digital, is an alternative to PCM and was originally conceived for Super Audio CD (SACDs) – a format championed by Sony and Philips in the late ‘90s and into the ’00s.

It’s a much more niche format, differing from PCM by offering a bit depth of just one, but much higher sampling rates – commonly DSD64 at 2.8 MHz and DSD128 at 5.6 MHz.

The arguments as to which encoding system is better continue to rumble on. Suffice to say if you’re someone firmly settled in the DSD camp, it’s worth checking the DAC you’re considering supports it – most, but not all, do.

What type of DAC is right for you?

what is a DAC?

The Award-winning Chord Mojo 2 portable DAC (Image credit: Chord)

DACs come in all shapes and sizes and offer varying levels of input options and functionality, so you’ll need to think about how you want to use it, not to mention the budget you have set aside.

Compact USB DACs offer portability and convenience at a reasonable price. They vary from USB sticks, such as the Audioquest DragonFly Red and Cobalt, that plug straight into a laptop (or to a phone via a converter dongle), to wireless DACs like the iFi GO Blu that can connect to a source (though not your headphones) via Bluetooth.

Some draw the power from your computer or phone, so there’s no need for an extra power source, and they largely keep connections simple, with just a headphone socket and possibly a line-level output for hooking up to powered speakers or a hi-fi system.

Audiolab M-DAC+

Audiolab M-DAC+ (Image credit: Audiolab)

If you need more connectivity and are not concerned about taking your DAC around with you, a desktop unit like the Chord Mojo 2 or Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M might be more suitable. These are usually bigger and require their own power source, but often offer several additional digital or analogue audio inputs alongside a USB input for connecting to your computer. Some, like the iFi Zen DAC V2, can be either USB or mains powered.

Keep an eye out for a DAC with a headphone amp if you want to use headphones, as most but not all DACs offer this as an option – the Award-winning Chord Qutest, for instance, is a standalone DAC without any headphone features, designed to slip into a system between a digital source and amplifier to enhance performance.

Finally, there are the DACs that are born to work as part of a bigger home audio system. These will usually have even more inputs – particularly more niche sockets such as AES/EBU – and potentially more features too, including perhaps a volume control so they can also be used as a pre-amp. They'll support the full range of high-resolution music formats or have Bluetooth connectivity for streaming wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet, though both of these offerings are increasingly offered by portable and desktop units these days too. These home DACs tend to be at the higher end of the market so should deliver higher performance, too.

These can range from the sensible (the Audiolab M-DAC+, say) to the extravagant (the Chord DAVE) or, if money really is no object, the Nagra HD DAC/MPS.


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Verity Burns

Verity is a freelance technology journalist and former Multimedia Editor at What Hi-Fi?. 

Having chalked up more than 15 years in the industry, she has covered the highs and lows across the breadth of consumer tech, sometimes travelling to the other side of the world to do so. With a specialism in audio and TV, however, it means she's managed to spend a lot of time watching films and listening to music in the name of "work".

You'll occasionally catch her on BBC Radio commenting on the latest tech news stories, and always find her in the living room, tweaking terrible TV settings at parties.