With millions of songs at our fingertips every minute of every day, it’s easy not to think about where our music comes from—and how exactly it gets to us. The truth is that whenever we play a song on our computer, MP3 player, tablet, or any other device, the music undergoes a complex (but nearly instant) process of conversions, adjustments, and modifications before it hits our ears. One of the most important steps in this audio playback chain is the conversion from digitally stored files into analog signals.
The Digital Revolution
Before internet streaming and other modern technologies came around, everything we heard was stored physically. To save a song or another piece of audio, you needed physical space and a tangible format to store it in (think records, tapes, eight-tracks, and the like). When a signal was recorded, it was saved in analog format, which uses continuously varying signals to represent the fluctuations in air pressure produced by the original sound.
Up until the 1970s, analog was virtually the only way to store audio. Today, the majority of music is stored digitally. Digital format describes a piece of information that is stored in binary using a series of ones and zeros. By storing all of the bits that make up a file in binary, this process drastically reduces the amount of space that files take up, as well as the cost of distributing them.
How It Works
Although today’s world is almost completely digital, our brains still process information in analog. Because we can’t hear ones and zeros, that information has to be converted back to analog before it can be played. Enter the digital-to-analog converter—or DAC.
A DAC uses a series of protocols and technologies to initiate the digital-to-analog conversion. With a combination of hardware, software, mathematics, filters, and a small pre-amplifier to boost the signal, a DAC is able to convert an abstract binary pattern into a physical quantity that can be discerned by our music players.
Virtually every modern device has a built-in amplifier, and the same is true for DACs. Because there are so many features squeezed into our phones, computers, and tablets, manufacturers often cut corners on technologies that are less applicable to a wide audience—especially DACs. Most built-in DACs can adequately convert our music from digital to analog, but to do it well, a separate stand-alone device is necessary. If you want all of those zeros and ones to sound as good as they did when they were originally recorded, you need a high-quality DAC.
Why Get A DAC?
A stand-alone DAC offers more detail, better power supply, and a cleaner, more pleasing sound signature than the miniature versions built into most devices. They’re also capable of playing high-resolution files. While many people are contently listening to MP3 files (traditionally considered to give listeners the most bang for their buck), there are other file formats that can deliver an even better listening experience.
When an MP3 file is encoded, it gets compressed to save space. When the file is compressed, it loses some of its detail and originality, and is then known as a “lossy” file format. Formats like FLAC, Monkey’s Audio, and WavPack are encoded without compression, leaving all of the raw data as was originally recorded—which, in turn, takes up much more space. A high-end DAC is designed to more accurately reproduce uncompressed files, giving listeners a more robust version of what was originally recorded. Some are more flexible than others, allowing users to decode extremely high-resolution DSD files, too. It all depends on the type of DAC.
It should be noted that although a dedicated DAC can enhance our music, the differences will be hard to notice without a decent amplifier and pair of headphones to go along with it. A good DAC is transparent. It converts a digital signal in the most accurate way possible. If the original file sounds bad, it usually won’t sound better just because it’s been converted with an expensive DAC.
The best way to find the right DAC is to try one out for yourself. A good place to start is a DAC/amp combo, which offers all the benefits of a DAC and an amp in a smaller package, at a more accessible price. There are a few reasons to try separate components. You may want to understand and have control of each item in your system, and to personalize the sound just for you.
Any questions? Leave ‘em in the comment section below, and someone from the community will be happy to help. Have personal recommendations or a cool audio setup to share? We’d love to hear about them—and see pictures, too! Want to learn more? Read another Massdrop 101 article, “What Is An Amp?”, here: massdrop.com/talk/87/massdrop-101-what-is-an-amp
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