External DACs, or Digital to Analog converters, are an essential part of your audiophile setup. They help process your digital music at a higher level of performance compared to an all-in-one device such as your phone or computer (see “What is a DAC?”). Most of your electronic devices have built-in DACs already. In a device like your smartphone, where it can do a million-and-one things, having to convert your digital signal to analog is an afterthought for many phone manufacturers, and they often include subpar converters. Having a standalone DAC is preferred because that DAC is created to do one thing only: to be the English to Spanish translator, or in this case, convert your digital signal to an analog one. That is why external or standalone DACs will always sound better than the factory or stock internal options on most consumer devices.
DACs, fortunately, come in many shapes and sizes. Portable variations are much smaller than their desktop counterparts, but provide just as good performance and either run off an internal battery or USB power if connected to a computer or device. Chord Electronics is a very popular brand that specializes in both portable and desktop digital-to-analog converters. The Chord Mojo is probably one of the best and most versatile options when it comes to portable DACs. iBasso is another great brand that makes portable DACs.
There are a number of brands that make some remarkable desktop DAC components. Chord Electronics, Matrix Audio and Bricasti Design are the top branded DACs that we recommend for home system use. For more technical information on how digital-to-analog converters work, head over to our “What Is A DAC” page.
DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter. It processes the digital data of your music collection and converts it to an analog sound so that your amplifier can play the music to a speaker or headphone. Think of it as a translator. To learn more about DACs and how they work, check out our “What Is A DAC” guide.
There are a number of DACs designed for specific purposes and/or sound signatures. Each circuit design is unique and provides a different coloration or flavor of the sound. The differences really depend on how you listen to your music. Do you travel frequently or do you like to listen to your music while on the go? Then perhaps a portable DAC like the Chord Mojo would be appropriate for your personal use. Do you like to listen to music in the comfort of your home, or perhaps you have a designated space for your sound system? A desktop or table-top DAC would be a good fit; the Hugo TT 2 is a great option, and the Chord Hugo 2 is a powerful portable DAC that can also serve as a dual purpose DAC in your home system as well. There are many kinds of DACs for varying usage scenarios.
You will not need a DAC for your DAP, or Digital Audio Player. Most digital audio players come equipped with a high-end digital to analog converter, which attributes to the premium cost of the device. However, upgrading from a Stereo Receiver to a separate Preamp and Amplifier can elevate the sound performance of the system, so too can using the DAP as a digital source and adding a higher performance DAC. For example, if you own the Astell & Kern SP2000 you can use it as the digital source with the Chord Hugo 2. The Hugo 2 now provides a superior sound over just the SR15 by itself.
It depends on your system. A DAC cannot substitute for an amplifier and an amplifier cannot substitute for a DAC. If your system does not have something to convert the digital data to an analog signal, then you will need a DAC. If your system does not have anything to power your speakers or headphones so that it can amplify the analog signal, then you will need an amplifier. Sometimes there are devices that will have both an amplifier and a DAC like the Matrix Audio Element X. If you want to learn more about the difference between a DAC and an amplifier, check out our segment “Do I Need A Headphone Amp Or A DAC.”
It depends on your setup. Under the question “What kind of DACs are there?,” we know that there are portable DACs and table-top units. Do you like to listen to your music untethered and away from your home? Portable units are great options which are usually battery powered and small enough to pair with your phone or digital audio player. Other options include desktop or table-top Dacs that are designed to work within your audiophile system or a computer.
There are a number of really great and recommended DACs that we carry. Some of our favorites are the Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro, the Chord Electronics Mojo and the Chord Hugo 2. The X-Sabre Pro is a phenomenal DAC using the XMOS XU-216 USB chip and capable of MQA decoding. The Chord Mojo is a versatile little DAC, perfect for portable use, and includes enough juice to power almost any headphone with the included built-in headphone amplifier. It can be used portably and also as a desktop unit. There are a number of really great options on the market for DACs.
Absolutely. Without a DAC, your digital data cannot be converted to analog sound, and thus will not be audible. But the more important issue here is: not all DACs are created equal. We mentioned that the DAC is like the English to Spanish translation of your audio system. It translates the digital data to an analog sound. Are all language translators the same? No - they vary by skill. The same applies to internal factory DACs and external ones. An external DAC is built to do one thing, and to do that one thing very well. The DAC converts the bits of data from the stored files into an analog electrical signal at thousands of set times per second, called samples. The DAC outputs these samples into a signal that intersects at all the sample points. However, problems can arise in the conversion process that can set some DACs apart from each other. That is why external DACs that are built for the sole purpose of converting this data are better than internal or factory digital to analog converters. For more info on how all this works, head over to our “What is a DAC” page.
Since the DACs job is to convert digital data, analog sources do not require a converter. Devices like tape decks and turntables are great examples of gear that read directly from analog mediums (tape and vinyl respectively). The device reads the analog signal in real time, and then through the help of an amplifier, transmits that signal to headphones or speakers. An easier and more ‘direct’ process than that of the digital world.
The basic fact is that our ears are not designed to “hear” data. It is impossible. We can only hear analog signals like sound waves and vibrations, coming from an amplified source through the air. Therefore, we need a device that converts this data into an analog signal. The other factor has to do with the fact that most music today is recorded digitally. This means that the analog signals coming from the instruments and voices being recorded are stored digitally onto computers, mixed and mastered, and then optimized for digital mediums such as compact discs or online streaming and downloading.