May 27, 201613673 views

Massdrop 101: What Is A DAC?

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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What Now?
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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orchardaudio, Chrischen Newkey, and 44 others
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Best DAC/AMP for PS4 to drive the HD58x's? Is the G6 really the best deal and way to go?
New to this, don't have a DAC or headphone amp myself, but it seems that many DACs connect via aux/headphone jack- as well as USB and other inputs. If a DAC is connected via aux what would happen to the audio? Since I'm assuming you're already getting analog sound out of the aux would the DAC re-convert to digital and then back to analog? Would this sound any better since its only getting the already poorly converted analog? Any insight on this would be appreciated. Thanks
Very well explained, for a very beginner like myself.
Last year, I purchased the NuForce uDAC-3, a mini DAC/AMP combo, from Massdrop at ~$80. I had some difficulty searching for the necessary equipment to use with it (cough cough coaxial cable), but after some weeks of having it, the DAC/AMP finally began functioning. WOW! The audio tracks on YouTube that I had listened to previously had more clarity, tighter bass, and higher listening volumes. Together, the uDAC-3 and my AKG M220 Studio Headphones (Thanks Massdrop ;) ) are killing the audio game.
To everyone first exploring the possibility of owning a DAC or an amplifier: I would seriously recommend the NuForce uDAC series as a starting pick!
cpropst421
Great. Thanks
cpropst421
Opinions of SMSL M3? I heard that NuForce used to mess with the sound and it wasn't what was meant to be heard.
This would be my first purchase, so suggest DAC/ amplifier and Audio Player to start feeling true sound quality
what dac amp combo do you guys recommend for the DT1770PRO the 250 one mhm
Would the Grace Design SDAC return for a drop soon?
Hi i got a stereo with a old car amp play mp3s off my laptop. What stuff can make it sound better without tons of $ thx :) need info ask.
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wats speaker do anything
my laptop is newist
https://www.amazon.com/HP-14-inch-E2-7110-Windows-14-an090nr/dp/B01KWCICDW
black one
thx
LOL, he was looking for inexpensive ways and you suggested Zeos? Down the Audiophile Rabbit hole he goes.
do you folks have DAC/Amp combos that support MQA?
Good read!
I have been listening to FLAC files via an external USB DAC from 2010. Currently I am using a cheap Musical Fidelity V90 asynchronous USB DAC. As a player I use Audacious on a Linux Mint 18.3 laptop.
I have to note there is one major disadvantage in using streaming audio via USB. Streaming audio via USB does NOT use any error correction. So for every incorrect package received by the DAC you will hear a glitch/spike like when using vinyl with dirt in the track. This is especially true for high res audio from 24 bit 96 khz and higher.
My conclusion after 8 years of extensive listening to FLAC files via USB DAC: 1. It is OK for standard lossless 16 bit 44.1 khz material 2. It is useless for high res audio due to numerous glitches caused by non-corrected errors in the USB transfer.
After my holiday I will buy a dedicated audio USB cable to check whether the glitches will disappear!
Does a DAC make sense when streaming music from Spotify on an iPhone with audiophile grade headphones?
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Which Sony Xperia phone was that? I have the X Performance and I was wondering if a small portable DAC/AMP would make a big difference with my EDC3's?
idaw
It was an old Xperia Z, the first one.
I greatly appreciate having this article posted.
DACs are like watches. If you want something that can tell the time and reproduce music accurately, you buy a quartz watch and an ODAC. If you want something that is less accurate, but has a nice exterior and some bs marketing behind it, you buy a mechanical watch (think Rolex) and a R-2R DAC (think Schiit Yggdrasil).
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I mean from input to output of the DAC the sound is uncoloured. But sure, at the point of where DACs are today you're balancing marginal trade-offs that are long past the capability of the human hearing.
TheTerriblePuddle
Agreed. The effects of the DAC filter can often be seen as pre-ringing or post-ringing using impulse response test, or square wave test. Whether it is audible is debatable.
Is this not factually wrong statement "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"? In my understanding, FLAC is a compressed file format - but the type of compression is a lossless compression - instead of lossy compression like mp3. Formats like WAV and AIFF or uncompressed file formats.
I innocently searched "hipster glass bottle" because that glass jar looks like it's intentionally placed to make a statement. So yeah, out of the rock I live under, it is indeed a hipster thing to recycle mason jars. On my search, I found an American company called Cuppow and they sell these cool lids for mason jars so you can drink out of them comfortably, the equivalent of adult sippy cups! =D
I have a connection question, please. I have a desktop computer with audio coming through a SoundblasterX Katana soundbar+sub. How would I connect an amp/dac to this setup? USB? Thanks.
webb264
Yes, they'll typically have a USB connection.
Can you tell me what brands these are in the attached photo including both DCA, headphone inpot device, type of headphones shown annd the headphone stand in this photo? Are these available on MasDrop?
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That water bottle tho - any deets on it? ;-)
Drewmon
It's just a tall mason jar. Hipsters are really keen on drinking outta them!
ok- newbie here with a decent analog set up but never really "did digital" except for an Ipod from many years ago. I have a ton of cds and now a growing collection of digital files. I own pretty good headphones but need some advice that is not overwhelming on a stack for my desk. I would like to start pretty basic but good quality and can I do this for less than $3-500? Even better if it is under $250. Ok- thanks in advance for any suggestions.
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THANKS!!!
AaronA58
You got it, buddy! :D
Anyone know of a good and extremely portable dac/amp for my iphone 5? I've been looking at the JDS Labs C5D.
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vong
Despite it's going to be unavailable try Oppo Ha-2SE with Oppo PM-3 headphones.
I should also say that chord love using colours as indicators, which is a right annoyance if you’re like me and red-green colourblind
Anything more expensive than an ODAC is a waste of money.
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What's Heaf-Fi? And who is Jude?
I am not trying to shut down debate, just dogma. To say that according to ones opinion a particular product is over priced, or poorly built or does not sound very good because of a variety of reasons that you explain could be a valuable contribution to a discussion that might help others in their research. But to make an unqualified, mass or faulty generalization (a fallacy of defective induction) like the one you made, "anything more expensive than an ODAC is a waste of money" because "There is no discernable difference capable for the human ear to pick up" does not invite debate nor does it contribute to a discussion in a useful manner. If you had said, "for me, anything more expensive than an ODAC is a waste of money because my ears are not capable of picking up differences between most DACs" or " for me, anything more expensive than an ODAC is a waste of money because the rest of my chain is not capable of scaling beyond an ODAC" than no one would be bothered by your comments.
TheTerriblePuddle
Really....TROLL..haha...
Would it be worth to get an AMP/DAC Combo like the Schiit Fulla 2 for a headset that has 150ohm and a Sensitivity of 108 dB S.P.L. at 1KHz?
If I have powered monitors, can I still buy a DAC with an amp combo?
Austintech99
Yes if it has a line-out. Otherwise you would be double-amping, which is not the best but "might" sound OK depending on your setup. Beware of the power output of the amp and the max power input of your speakers, you could blow them away if not careful and just crank the volume of the amp to 100%.
Austintech99
That's another way of saying "Schiit Jotunheim" ;- )
that Violectric stack. drool.
scoopbb
Vio stack for HE 350 lmao
I use a FiiO E17K which I found gives a much better (less muddy sounding) sound than using my laptop output directly. And that's just with some Ultimate Ears IEM's, not some huge open backed headphones that need a lot to drive them.
I mainly opened this article to see what that DAC in the header image was. Violectric wasn't a brand I'd heard of so went looking them up... I don't think I'll be buying one of those in a hurry!
Raithmir
FiiO E17(k) are two very good products. Can anyone help with how to change the battery in the mark I?
Where can I get that dinosaur pot?
where can I get that dinosaur pot?
instantcrush
I literally Googled 'Dinosaur Pot'. You should try it some time.
https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/212984726/sophie-the-planted-apatosaurus-the?ref=related-1
This explains a lot, thank you. Always wondered why people got headphones that wouldn't fit my 3mm audio jack.
thanks a lot for sharing valuable information, you summed up probably an hour of research :D
cool. Thanks!