Are you thinking about upgrading your audio quality with an external DAC? Is your lack of knowledge on DACs making you hesitant in investing in one? Well, don’t worry because in this article we are going to be explaining to you exactly how DAC works so that you can decide for yourself if getting one would be a suitable option for you.
What is a DAC?
Even if you are not an avid music listener, you might have sometimes wondered how your speaker or any other audio output device is able to produce a clear and legible sound from a digital code consisting of zeros and ones. Well, the thing that makes this magic happen is a small chip in your audio output device known as the DAC.
DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter, and as the name suggests, it converts the digital signals of audio to analog signals, which are used by an analog device, like a speaker, to produce sound. You can find DACs in various audio devices like headphones, speakers, and even phones and computers as they enable these devices to use the stream of digital code to produce actual sound. And so, if you have owned any of these devices, then you automatically have owned various DACs.
Despite being built into most audio-producing electronic devices, many external DACs are also available if you wish to improve your audio quality. This is because many devices that are not just restricted to producing audio, like a laptop or a desktop computer, contain a low-quality DAC chip. And while they work well for ordinary audio, they might not be able to produce the highest quality sound.
How DAC Works
We have already established that a DAC converts a digital code of zeros and ones into an analog signal through which an audio output device is able to produce legible sound. But the whole process is much more complicated than it seems. This is because when a sound is recorded to be converted and stored as a digital file by a microphone, it is done so in an analog form, also known as a waveform.
This waveform is made up of a series of individual waves that display the frequency, amplitude, and qualities, that are responsible for the pitch, loudness, and other aspects of your audio. And as a waveform cannot be stored as it is in the database of a computer or any audio-producing digital device, it is converted into digital code of zeros and ones. But when it comes to playing that audio back, it needs to be converted back into its analog form as it is not possible to create audio with binary numbers.
And so this is where a DAC comes into play. It utilizes the binary code of the audio file and translates the digital signals into analog ones while keeping in check the time taken to convert each signal.
It is important that each signal is translated perfectly on time; otherwise, distortion, in the form of jitters, can occur. After the signals are translated into their analog form, they are then fed into an amplifier, the purpose of which is to amplify the analog signals so that you are provided with an audible sound. And then, these amplifiers carry these signals to your speakers or headphones so that you are able to listen to the audio.
Is a High-Quality DAC Worth it?
Not that you know what a DAC is and how DAC works, the question that arises is whether it is worth it to get one for your sound system as a high-quality one can be quite expensive. While you can easily go without a high-quality external DAC with your audio output device if the sound produced is audible and legible, many audiophiles find DACs to be quite an important part of their sound system.
This is because while your device’s normal sound system may produce adequate quality audio, the sound is accompanied by a static sound that can make the audio seem slightly irritating and less natural to the ear. One of the reasons for this static electrical noise is the casing in which a DAC is residing. If the device you are using to listen to music or any other audio is a cell phone or a computer with audio production not being its sole purpose, then the DAC chip would be housed in a very crowded environment.
This is because there are going to be many other electrical components in the device that are responsible for all of its other features. And so the noise of all of those individual parts will cause interference with the audio production resulting in the presence of a static noise that lowers the audio quality. And so as an external DAC is outside your device and connected to it via USB cable, then it does not have to deal with this noise interference, and therefore is able to produce clear, high-quality audio.
Furthermore, if you have a low-quality DAC chip in your device, then you might have to deal with jitters in the audio. This is basically a type of distortion in digital music caused by timing errors due to clocking variations during the conversion of the digital code into the analog code. And so, a high-quality DAC minimizes these jitters by providing a more accurate clock for the conversion. This provides you with better quality audio, free from almost all sorts of distortion.
Also, if you are a serious gamer and want even the quietest sounds to be audible so that you are able to locate any sort of threat or danger your character might get into, then a high-quality DAC can be a great option. This is because an external DAC is able to provide you with high-quality audio that is from all the extra electrical noise as well as audio jitters. And so this makes the audio more clear and immersive.
Most DACs are also quite versatile as they have a USB connection system. Because of this, they are able to connect most audio output devices like desktop computers, laptops, and so on. You can even connect them with your cell phones and tablets using OTG converters that allow USB connection to these devices. Because of this, if you do decide on investing in an external DAC, then you are sure to get a lot of use out of it and would not have to buy one for each of your devices.
Choosing the Best DAC
If you have decided on getting a DAC, you need to make sure that you get one according to your needs as well as one that suits the device you’re going to be using it with. This is because there are different types of DACs available in the market that are designed for different purposes as well as different devices. For most audio devices, a standard USB external DAC works the best. This is because it provides you with great audio while being versatile enough to connect to almost every audio output device.
But despite having a uniform connectivity system, the features of DACs vary quite a lot. Along with providing more sound options and features, some DACs also have a microphone input option along with an audio output one. This makes it quite useful for those who create audio or video content. This is because, with a DAC, the audio recorded through the mic is quite clear and free of extra noise due to which, the quality of the audio content or the audio in video content of these creators is quite high.
Furthermore, those who love to game and are serious gamers can also benefit from these types of DACs. This is because the sound carried through the DAC is quite clear and high-quality. This improves your gaming experience as not only are you able to hear great quality audio, but if you are playing online, then your teammates are able to hear you perfectly. This is why if you need a DAC for an explicit purpose then you should always look for one that suits all your needs perfectly.
There are further two types of external DACs that you also need to take into account when choosing the perfect one for yourself. They are DAC/AMP combos or standalone DACs. A standalone one is usually more high end providing high-quality audio and therefore great for those obsessed with the best sound experience. But it requires you to connect a separate amplifier with it to work. The combo one, on the other hand, is more a convenient option as the amplifier is built-in and so you don’t have to buy an extra component.
The combo DACs can also come in various small sizes, and so, when combined with the lack of need for an amplifier, they become quite a portable option. Furthermore, as these DACs are not as high-end as standalone ones, they are also less expensive. And so, when choosing an external DAC for yourself, you need to decide which option would be more appropriate for you by considering the things you require from one.
How to Connect a DAC
Once you have purchased an external DAC, to connect your device to it, you need to follow a few steps. The first of these is to plug in the DAC to your device; for laptops and desktop computers, you can use the regular USB port, while for smartphones and tablets, you can use an OTG converter to enable the connection. Next, you need to turn on your device and log into it.
After this, connect your audio output sources to the DAC. If your DAC is a standalone one, then you need to connect it to an amplifier, to which you then connect your headphones or speakers. But if your DAC is a DAC/AMP combo one, then after connecting it with your device, you only need to connect it with your headphones or speakers to be able to use it.
Usually, portable DACs for smartphones and tablets are combo ones due to them being a portable option. But for many computer setups, especially in the case of desktop computers, standalone ones are given priority as they are a more high-end option. And sometimes, with these DACs, you might have to install a program on your computer in order to have them connect properly.
This program will be included with the DAC on a CD, and to install it, all you need to do is insert it in your CD ROM and follow the instruction you are provided with. Once that is done, you are ready to enjoy a better audio listening experience through your new DAC. If the audio is not working, then you might have to change the setting of your computer and set the audio output device, in the tools option of the application you are going to play audio, to DAC.
How does a DAC improve sound quality?
Even though most audio-producing devices already have an in-built DAC chip, it is in a heavy noise environment inside the casing of the device. This is because apart from the audio-producing parts of the device, there are other components in the device that are also in motion in order to make the device work. Because of this, the audio being produced contains the noise of these components, lowering its quality. But as an external DAC is connected to the device externally, it is able to produce audio that is free from this extra noise.
Is a DAC really necessary?
A DAC is an extremely important part of any audio-producing device. This is because it converts audio files from a string of digital code into an analog code that can be used by the speakers of that device to produce audio. But when talking about an external DAC, then unless you are an audiophile who wants pristine audio quality, then you can easily make it without one.
Does a DAC make a difference?
A high-quality, external DAC is able to provide you with audio that is clear and free from any jitter effect. If you are not an audiophile or a serious gamer and okay with the audio quality of your device, then you might not need an external DAC. But if you want a high-quality music experience, the ability to hear even the quietest sounds in your game, then you might benefit from investing in a high-quality DAC.
A DAC can be quite useful when it comes to improving the audio quality of your device for a better listening experience. But as many don’t exactly know what a DAC is and how DAC works, then they would feel hesitant in investing in one. Or, they might buy one on someone’s recommendation without actually knowing if they need one or not or whether the one they have purchased is the right option for them. And so this article tells you all you need to know about DACs so that you are able to make an informed decision if you choose to purchase one.