What Is a DAC and Do You Need One?


If you are an avid audiophile or a newcomer to the community, you may have come across recommendations to purchase a DAC at some point. Before you go racing to the nearest store to purchase one, you should read this article to find out what exactly a DAC is and determine whether or not you actually need one.

This article may save you time, money, and energy.

What Is a DAC?

First of all, what exactly does DAC stand for?

DAC is an abbreviated term that stands for digital to analog converter. A DAC works by converting a digital audio signal into an analog signal, allowing you to play the sound over headphones or speakers. That’s all well and good, but why would you require one?

Why are DACs Needed?

DACs came to be as a response to poor audio quality at the consumer level. Back in the day, sound was recorded using the signal straight from the microphone, which was tracked directly to tape. This particular waveform is an analog wave. The wave would then be read, amplified, and sent to a speaker to produce the sound it created.

The majority of the time, recordings are saved as digital data. The problem with that is our speakers and ears cannot easily interpret stored data. This means that a device is needed that converts the data into an analog format. Thus, the DAC was born.

Related: The Best DACs for Hi-Res Audio

DACs are commonly used in music players to convert digital data streams into analog audio signals. To do this, the DAC converts bits of data from digital files into an analog electronic signal at thousands of set times per second.

DACs are also used in televisions and mobile phones to convert digital video data into analog video signals that display monochrome or color images. This begs the question: If most devices are already equipped with DAC, why do you need another one?

Is There a Difference in Audio Quality?

In the past, many audio systems could not achieve adequate levels of filtering needed to reduce the noise produced in the audio output. Although our 21st-century audio devices have come a long way from this period, they can still fall short of expectations regarding sound quality.

DACs often do a much better job at providing improved audio quality than standalone devices. This is because they are designed and manufactured to do one specific task. A DAC improves your phone’s audio quality in ways that the phone’s built-in sound components cannot. With this in mind, it is important to appreciate that not all DACs are created equal.

Related: How to Improve or Fix Sound Quality in Windows 10

What Type of DAC do You Need?

DACs can differ based on type (home use or on-the-go).

DAC Type Pros Cons
Home (Desktop) DAC • Powerful
• More output options
• Better sound quality
• Larger setup
• Less variety of features than portable DAC
(USB and Battery powered) DAC
• Affordable
• Portable
• Convenient to pack
• Less power than desktop (At Home) DAC counterparts.
• Some ‘portable’ DACs are not entirely portable as advertised.

The Verdict: Do You Need a DAC?

Whether or not you need an additional DAC is largely dependant on your existing setup. It might be possible that you require additional power.

For example, if you have power-hungry headphones and listen to music on your phone, but you don’t have enough power, it will result in very poor audio quality. In this case, you may want to consider investing in a standalone DAC, particularly a portable setup that you can carry anywhere you go.

Furthermore, if your sound source does not have an internal digital to analog converter, then you will need a standalone DAC for your audio system. Ultimately, If you’re unhappy with the motherboard audio of your device or if you notice unpleasant background noise, such as static when audio is being played, then upgrading to an external standalone DAC is definitely worth considering.

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