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How to Buy A Digital-To-Analog Converter (DAC) & Why You Need One

Read Time: Approx. 15 min.

Various DACs on a bag outside
Everything You Need to Know About Converting Digital to Analog & Why It Matters

Of all the questions we get here at Moon Audio, one of the most popular is "What is a DAC?" It's an honest question because if you're new to the audiophile world or need individual components for your audio system, it's easy to get confused about all the different technicalities of the hobby. DACs are an incredibly important part of your audio system, and as we'll see, there's quite a rabbit hole you can go down when considering what they do, how they do it, and the various types out there. Welcome to your DAC rabbit hole, where we'll go over everything you need to know about how DACs work, what they do, the different types, and how to pick the perfect DAC for your hi-fi audio system. 

The DAC is a necessary ingredient to the audiophile recipe. It's one of those components that you can't do without if you're trying to listen to digital music. There are many different kinds of DACs out there, and an infinite number of questions that can be asked about them. Let's go over a few of these questions to get some of the basics out of the way. 

Dongle DACs
Gryphon and Mojo 2 DACs
iFi Audio portable DACs

Popular Questions about Digital-to-Analog Converters

Question: What is a DAC?

DAC stands for Digital to Analog Converter. It's a component - in your phone, laptop, tablet, audio device - that processes the digital data of your music and converts it to an analog signal. Once it has been converted to an analog waveform, you can send that to your amplifier and play the music on a speaker or headphones. Think of it as a translator. It's just taking that data and translating it to an analog signal that you can hear.

Question: How does a DAC work?

A DAC is essentially the Google Translate of your audio system. Apart from physical analog media like vinyl and tape, most music today is digital. Just 1s and 0s. And since our ears cannot hear digital data, we need a method of converting these 1s and 0s to an analog format so that it can produce sound waves and thus we are then able to hear it. The digital-to-analog converter does just that: converts the digital data to an analog signal. It takes those 1's and 0's and tracks them to a waveform pattern. To do this, it 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 waveform that intersects at all the sample points. However, problems can arise in the conversion process which as we will see later can set some DACs apart from each other. It's an integral part of your system that you can't do without - especially if you have a digital music library.

Question: Why do we convert digital to analog?

The basic fact is that our ears are not designed to “hear” data. It's 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. Analog media, like vinyl and tape, is making a comeback, but still, the majority of music and access to music out there is digital, and ultimately you need something to convert that data before you can hear it.
Auris Euterpe

Question: What makes a good DAC?

The quality of the converter chip doesn't necessarily play the biggest role in determining how "good" a DAC is. In fact, the overall audio signal path needs to be considered if we're specifically talking about the "sound quality" of a DAC. That being said, off-the-shelf factory DAC chips - like in your phone - are not very efficient or accurate at converting the data, so the result is a fair presentation of the music, but it leaves much to be desired. A good DAC chip converts the data efficiently and accurately, so that all the information in the data is transmitted to the analog signal. More data points result in a smoother waveform, thus resulting in more natural audio quality. Having multiple DAC chips can also make a difference in the effectiveness of the data conversion that is outputted. Higher-end DAC chipsets are usually Cirrus Logic, ESS, AKM, or Burr-Brown (of course there are others, but these are some of the most popular on the audiophile market). Some DACs themselves - if we're talking about the device alone - might not even use a proper off-the-shelf chipset. Chord DACs use FPGA and their own proprietary algorithms - and they sound phenomenal. This is another reason that you can't simply look at the chipset (or lack thereof) to determine if a DAC is good or not. You have to look at the complete picture, or in this case, the whole audio circuit or architecture from start to finish.

Question: What kind of DACs are there and what would I need?

Here at Moon Audio we typically divide DAC types by ergonomic scenario. 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 2 or Clarus CODA would be appropriate for your personal use. USB DACs are a perfect portable option. 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 tabletop 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, and sometimes audiophiles use multiple types - so they always have good audio quality wherever they are. We could also get into the differences between AKM, ESS, R2R, Burr Brown, Cirrus Logic, and more – but that gets a bit technical and nuanced, so we’ll save that for further down the page.

DACs also come in various configurations, like standalone, or combined with streamers, or servers, and more. You have your Qutest DAC – which is a standalone unit – just the DAC – and our most popular DAC that we sell here at Moon Audio. Next is something like the Bricasti M3, which is a DAC combined with a headphone amplifier. Then you have devices like the Uniti Atom HE, which combines the DAC, a headphone amplifier, and a streamer. And lastly, there is the Aurender A20 – which Is a DAC, Headphone Amp, Streamer, and Server – complete with internal storage for your personal music library.
Diablo amp with Silver Dragon Cable

Question: Does an external DAC make a difference?

Absolutely. Without a DAC, your digital data cannot be converted to an analog signal, and thus you won't be able to hear it. Every device you have with a speaker has a built-in DAC. Your phone has a DAC in it. Your AirPods have DACs in them. Your tablet and laptop have DACs in them. Your portable speaker you take to the beach - has a DAC in it.

The more important issue here is: that not all DACs are created equal. We mentioned that the DAC is like the Google Translate of your audio system. It translates the digital data to an analog signal. 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. That is why external DACs that are built for the sole purpose of converting this data are better than factory off-the-shelf converters.

Question: What devices do NOT need DACs?

Since the DAC's 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. It's an easier and more ‘direct’ process than that of the digital world.

Question: Do I need a DAC for my DAP?

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 is attributed 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, and so too can using the DAP as a digital source and adding a higher-performance DAC. For example, if you own the Astell & Kern SR35 you can use it as the digital source with the Chord Hugo 2. The Hugo 2 provides a superior sound over just the SR35 by itself, so pairing the two together would result in better sound, but it's not necessary as the DAP already has a high-end DAC chip in the audio circuit.  

Question: Do I need a DAC or an Amplifier?

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 X2. There are many devices - both portable and desktop - that have both a DAC and an amplifier. A lot of the time we just call these "DAC amps." But if you are without one or the other then you aren't going to hear anything. You need both. If you aren't sure about what you have or what you need, shoot us a call or comment and we'll help you out.
Chord Hugo 2 with Silver Dragon Cable

Question: What is the best DAC?

Ooo, tough question. Maybe the better question is, what is the best DAC...for you? There's a lot to consider and each case, each person, will likely have a different answer because - at the end of the day - we all hear differently. And we all have different setups. And we all have different budgets. And on and on. We'll get into proper portable and desktop DAC recommendations in a later video, but keep a few things in mind here when considering what might be the best DAC for you: 1) budget - how much do you wanna spend? 2) ergonomics - where are you going to be listening to music? 3) what is your current audio system? DACs have various I/O (inputs and outputs) options, so picking one that is compatible with your current system is key. 4) What type of sound or sound signature do you prefer? It all depends, and these factors help determine what is the best DAC FOR YOU. It's how we approach our customer service here at Moon Audio - making sure we help you figure out what works best for your specific system, your music, and your ears.

Picking a Source Device

So, what's your source? A computer? Phone? Tablet? Are you looking for a standalone DAC with streaming capability? There are a ton of options here so let's look at some.

PHONE

If you're planning on using your phone, you have the option of playing music locally that's stored on your device or streaming apps. There are a ton of streaming services out there, and more and more options for high-resolution music. You'll get the most from your phone by connecting a dongle DAC or a USB DAC via USB C or lightning, whatever connection your phone has. Dongle DACs are simple - pretty much just plug and play and you're good to go. The phone should automatically detect the DAC when you plug it in and set it as the main audio output. The same goes for tablets, or even a laptop. Depending on if you have a Windows PC or MAC, you might require some additional configuration and driver installation steps to get it to recognize your DAC and set it up as your main audio out, but that's a conversation for another day. We'll put a link below on how to set up and configure your DAC on your computer.

woman with headphones looking at phone

COMPUTER

What if you want to set up a DAC with your computer? You have a few more options in this department - based on what kind of connection you want to use. Since most will interface via USB C, you can use a dongle DAC if you want something small, a USB DAC if you want more features, or a desktop DAC for the full experience. Now there are standalone DAC cards for PCs via PCI connection or high-end audio cards which basically do the same thing and provide various output options for connections to speakers or whatever. That being said, in most cases, the DAC will interface with your computer via the USB connection. The same options apply on the computer - you can either listen to music from your local library or stream from installed apps from the PC. You're using your computer as the source for your music to the DAC in this case, so that's where the DAC will be doing the conversion.

laptop with Gryphon DAC and IEMs

PHYSICAL MEDIA

Say you have some physical media like a CD. Then Cayin's CD transport, the Mini CD-MK2 is a really cool option. It has a built-in, high-end DAC chipset and also does upsampling, so if your source is your huge collection of compact discs, then don't worry - they're not obsolete. People STILL make CD players, they're just a lot better now. If you're a fan of Roon, then you could use your computer as a core, with your music library installed locally, or you could add the Roon Nucleus as a dedicated core. Why would you use the Nucleus? Well, you always have to log in when you're using your computer, shut down, start up, login, etc. The Nucleus stays on all the time - and secondly, it's a designated device to store, process, and playback your music. Computers can be noisy, slower, draw more power, and they don't sound as good.

man listening with headphones in front of vinyl records

NETWORK DACS

Network-connected DACs are great options  - since they can connect to a Roon core, a computer, any source really - and they don't have to be physically connected to that device. You can even use your laptop, iPad, phone, whatever, as a remote control in some cases. If you really want to up your game and get the best of the best you can use something like an Aurender streamer. Aurender and dCS make some of the best all-in-one units that do everything - high-end DACs, streamers, amplifier, and they even have their own proprietary software for streaming music, cataloging, and playback. You get some high-end functionality and features when you go down the network DAC rabbit hole, but beware, they can also get pricey.

LINA Full system stacked with headphones

DAC CONNECTIONS

Now, when it comes to connections and how to set up your DAC, I'll just say a quick note here about connection hierarchy. Here are some common DAC connection ports and the order in which you should use them for the best audio quality - starting at the best and going down: I-squared S, AES,/XLR, SPDIF - either RCA or Toslink - and finally USB. Again - this is the order in which we'd recommend prioritizing the connection options if you're looking for the absolute best sound quality out of your system. I won't get into specifics here, but know that DACs will come in various I/O configurations, so just something to keep in mind.

Chord Qutest DAC with Dragon Cables

Understanding DACs in a Signal Chain

How does the DAC fit into your signal chain - like, where does it go or how do you plug it in? It might sound like an easy question, but for those who don't know - you don't know. And it's pretty important to figure out so you do it right. Typically it looks like this: You have your source which is where your music is located. You need something to then convert the data to an analog signal so that you can hear it. This is where the DAC comes in. Next, you'll need an amplifier to - amplify - that signal to an audible level, and then finally your output device, either a speaker or headphones.

When it comes to plug-and-play devices like the dongle DAC and say, a phone, you just plug in the DAC via the USB-type connection to the charging port of your phone and it should automatically recognize and assign it as the audio output. Most dongle DACs can do an average of 2Vrms so the amplifier section is covered here. All that's left is the connection to your headphones.

USB DACs work in pretty much the same way: you connect them to the source, they already have built-in amplification, and all you need to do is connect your speakers or headphones.

Desktop DACs can be a little more confusing because most times they are either standalone units or packaged with a streamer, or a headphone amp, or can even come in all-in-one designs. Either way, just know you need to connect the DAC to the source, then to amplification, and finally your audio output device.

DACs and Ergonomics

The next thing we think you should consider is your listening style,  ergonomics, or how you listen to music in your daily life. What kind of DAC you need is going to vary from person to person. I like to divide it up into three categories:

1) DONGLE DACs: for those who don't want to spend a lot of money, but want something that they can simply plug into their phone or laptop and get some quality gains on their sound. If you fall into this category then you're going to want something resembling a dongle DAC. A small, no-frills DAC that you can pop into your phone, plug in your headphones, and you're good to go.

2) USB DACS: The next person might want to spend a decent amount of money on a DAC with more features, more power, and the ability to use it on the go or even as a small desktop DAC if space is a consideration. These individuals will likely go for a USB DAC - which I like to designate as different from dongle DACs because whereas dongles connect via USB, these larger DACs typically have their own internal battery. Dongle DACs are powered passively by the source device.

3) DESKTOP DACS: Lastly, there are those who are going to want big, beefy standalone or desktop units with even more power, features, and of course a larger footprint. These are going to be more expensive, but give you the best in conversion and sound quality. These are the desktop DAC people. You're not toting these puppies around with you. Put them up on the shelf or wherever you put your music gear and let them work their magic. This is for the audiophile or music lover who wants the best of the best.
CODA and AK DAC
Dongle DACs
Stellia with Hip DAC 2
USB DACs
Hugo TT 2 DAC with Silver Dragon interconnects
Desktop DACs

Ergonomics are going to be important things to consider when figuring out what the best DAC for you is going to be because they are designed for the specific way you like to listen to music. Sure you can spend thousands of dollars for one of the most amazing desktop DACs on the market, but if you travel a lot for work and you're hardly at home to listen to it, then perhaps a different DAC would have served you better. Keep this in mind when you are considering a DAC purchase: where do you like to listen to your music? What source are you going to be using for your music library? If your phone is your primary source of local and streaming libraries, then you're going to want to consider a smaller, portable DAC that you can connect directly to your phone. Maybe you have some harder-to-drive headphones that you like to take with you - that is going to make the difference between choosing a dongle DAC and a larger, more powerful USB DAC that can adequately drive your favorite cans. There are lots of factors that go into play here, so take your time and consider all your options. 

Our Favorite Dongle DACs

All we have left to talk about really, is, helping you find the best DAC for you and your setup. And in many ways, that can be one of the most challenging parts. We're gonna start at the best entry point for better sound: dongle DACs. They're small and affordable, and if you're just looking for something to connect to your phone or tablet, they make huge sound quality gains for the music listener. A lot of times we'll just start off by asking, where do you plan to listen to music? Are you wanting to jam out while on the bus or train during your commute? Do you want to just sit at home in peace in a designated listening space? Maybe you just want a nicer setup when working at your desk. There are tons of places to listen to music and just as many DACs to accompany them.

The most affordable of the bunch here and easiest to take with you, USB dongle DACs can fit in your bag or pocket. They can be incredibly small. They're typically the size of a flash drive and either has a detachable or sometimes attached cable, like a dongle. I know a lot of people attach one to their phones for some serious sound quality gains compared to their phone's off-the-shelf DAC chip. The same goes for a laptop or tablet. The biggest difference between a dongle DAC and larger USB DACs which we'll take a look at in the next section is that dongle DACs are powered by the source device like your phone or laptop. They don't have an internal power source like a battery, so this results in smaller, lighter, and more affordable devices. Here are our favorite USB dongle DACs at Moon Audio:
Clarus CODA Headphone Amplifier DAC

Clarus Coda - it's a nice and robust size, much like a flash drive, and similarly, it has a cap that covers the USB type A connection. It also comes with an adapter for USB C connection and it has a simple 3.5mm unbalanced headphone jack on the back. It can drive most headphones well, and it has a nice detailed, and balanced signature. A big plus here is the physical volume up and down buttons on the side that also double as filter selections. The CODA has always been a great seller and I'm a big fan of the robust sound this thing can produce, especially when connected to my laptop, which I do quite a bit.

FROM THE REVIEW: The Clarus CODA is one of the best portable USB DACs at/under $300 on the market. Its signature SABRE sound is proven and popular, and the construction is durable. What puts the CODA above the competition however are the features and functionality, giving you way more control over your music than a simple plug-and-play device (despite being just as easy to install and use). Don't be fooled by the small size, because it packs a lot of punch and can drive most headphones you throw at it. The CODA is a solid recommendation for those wanting a big, clean sound while being small enough to throw in your bag for everyday use.
Read the Review
Cayin RU6 Portable USB DAC/Amp Dongle
The RU6 by Cayin is one of the best-sounding portable DACs at this price range. Using a discrete 24-bit r-2r ladder DAC (we'll get more into DAC types in a later section), the RU6 includes options for oversampling and also has physical control buttons. The tiny OLED screen is just helpful enough for info and has one of the most natural and balanced sounds for a DAC at this size and price. Cayin just puts out really great-sounding audio gear at superb prices. People just cannot say enough good things about the RU6 no matter where you look on the internet, reviews, and forums which is why we have no problem recommending it to anyone looking for some of the best sound at this size. Also - it has both 3.5mm and 4.4mm headphone outputs, so that's awesome. Most USB dongles here only have one. A big plus for the RU6.

DISCRETE 24-bit R-2R LADDER RESISTOR: The basic idea of the R-2R ladder is a matched pair of two resistors, the first is "R" and the other is "2R" which has twice the value of R. To achieve 24bit R-2R decoding, you need 48 resistors ( 23xR and 25x2R ) for one channel or 96 pieces of high precision resistors for stereo. R-2R is famous for its natural and realistic sound signature, and it’ll offer a very different experience to music lovers. To achieve 24-bit R-2R decoding, Cayin uses resistors that can deliver extreme precision and remain stable during temperature changes.
Astell&Kern AK HC4 Portable USB DAC
Introducing the new high-end portable USB DAC dongle from Astell&Kern: the HC4. The successor to the popular HC3 and HC2, both of the previous versions were designed with either a single 3.5mm (unbalanced) headphone jack or a 4.4mm (balanced) headphone jack. The HC4 now brings those two together for the first time, offering both a balanced and unbalanced headphone jack on a single device. Equipped with an AK4493S DAC, the HC4 portable DAC provides exceptionally clean audio quality, with a musical presentation with plenty of detail and resolution. New to the HC4 model is the design of a detachable cable, giving you the option to switch connector types as needed. We like this design much better than the attached cable design of the previous generations. The HC4 headphone amplifier is equipped with a USB type-C connector and also supports UAC1.0 for gaming scenarios.
NEW ADVANCEMENTS: The HC4 expands upon its highly acclaimed predecessors, the HC2 and HC3, delivering even more perfected sound in various usage scenarios through an advanced design. Featuring dual output headphone jacks, the HC4 is compatible with most IEMs and headphones, The AK4493S DAC chip delivers true Hi-Fi sound, along with Digital Audio Remaster (DAR) technology. It brings a level of Hi-Fi sound previously exclusive to Astell&Kern's digital audio players (DAPs), to the AK HC4. Enjoy Hi-Fi USB Audio like never before.

Our Favorite USB DACs

Now, what if you wanted a little more? More features, more power, more...options? Well, then we have some of those for you. These USB DACs are a bit different than the last section. They have internal batteries, better input and output options, some have wireless options to connect via Bluetooth, larger screens, dual headphone jacks, and much more power. These USB DACs provide the user with lots more options when it comes to listening to your favorite music whenever you want. Do you have more power-hungry headphones but still like to be portable? Step up your audio game with these portable USB DACs:
iFi Audio GO Blu Headphone Amp DAC

The iFi Audio Go Blu might be one of the most versatile DACs here, as along with Bluetooth capability, wired connection options, a built-in microphone for taking calls when connected to a phone, it's a lot like a Swiss army knife. Both balanced and balanced headphone jacks, and a dedicated volume knob. It's somehow packed with all these quality features at a super low $199. It's one of the only DACs you'll find on the market with a microphone, and combined with hi-res BT codec options, the super-small size, and an eight-hour battery life - there's no reason why you shouldn't have this in your audiophile-to-go bag.

FROM THE REVIEW: The Go Blu is a neat portable USB DAC Amp that packs more features than products 2-3 times its price. It's small enough and affordable enough that if you're looking for a solid portable audiophile-grade solution with a swiss-army knife of configurations, it would be tough NOT to recommend checking out the Go Blu from iFi Audio. Yes, it's a budget DAC amp but the construction quality is top-notch, and iFi uses premium materials with separate BT, DAC, and Amp stages for maximum performance. The CS43131 chip sounds robust and detailed, the iFi sound enhancements aren't just gimmicks - they actually provide some nice added bass response and soundstage to the music if you prefer. There's not much to be disappointed at here when taking everything into consideration. 
Read the Review
Chord Electronics Mojo 2 DAC Headphone Amp
Mojo 2: quite possibly one of the most popular DACs in the entire audiophile market, the Mojo 2 from Chord Electronics is compact, has plenty of power, filter and EQ options, and dual headphone jacks. Chord makes some of the best-sounding gear out there, and if you're a detail freak - then you'll really love the Mojo 2. It pairs perfectly with phones, laptops, and even desktop computers if you're looking for a small setup. The Mojo 2 is a substantial upgrade from the original, which is why it's one of our favorite DACs at Moon Audio.
FROM THE REVIEW: The sonic upgrades are there - don't be fooled by some of the specs being identical. Sound doesn't just lie in new chips. Chord has a design process where they assess what really needs to be improved, and the Mojo 2 is a refinement in that art. Better transparency, more depth, improved bass response, larger battery - it's all there. And this is where I look to you, current Mojo 1 owners. I consider the best upgrading talking point to be the features. Let's just ignore the fact that the Mojo is seven years old already and probably in need of a new battery anyway. But it's the new features and upgrades that allow the listener more control over their music: Low/High gain options, better color-coded indicators (which will take some time to learn), new menu filters, intelligent desktop mode, EQ, and much more. Yes, I would say it's a worthwhile upgrade even if you have the existing Mojo.
Read the Review
iFi Audio xDSD Gryphon Headphone Amp DAC
The Gryphon from iFi Audio is a strong runner-up, as you can see in our DAC Face-off video which we'll link to in the description below. The Gryphon basically has everything that people wanted in the Mojo 2 but never got - Bluetooth options, a display screen, a balanced connection, and much more. iFi has their proprietary X bass and X space sound enhancements which actually do a lot for the overall sound, and I find myself using them more than not. I'm not a bass head or anything, they just enhance the music, and that's enough for a lot of people. It's cheaper than the Mojo 2 as well, at $599, so if those features appeal to you, then I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Gryphon for just about any scenario out there. It's one of my personal favorites.
FROM THE REVIEW: I'm just gonna go ahead and say it: the Gryphon has everything that audiophiles wanted in the Mojo 2. The obvious comparison I left for last, as the Mojo 2 is without a doubt what the Gryphon is gunning for. I don’t think it sounds better than the Mojo 2, but I might like the sound better than the Mojo 2 if that makes sense. The Mojo 2 will give you more control over your EQ, but the Gryphon just has easier tone controls that sound great in their own right and some major additional features that you won't find on the Mojo 2 that many people wanted. To me, it’s the better value, it’s the more versatile DAC and amp, and it has tons of power. Bluetooth, a really great sounding DAC, and a premium experience that I think many will appreciate. I’m glad we picked up iFi here, and I’m really impressed with the Gryphon overall.
Read the Review
Earmen Angel Reference Portable DAC, Amp, Pre-Amp
The Angel from Earmen is a DAC amp, giving you more than enough power for most headphones. We did a faceoff between the Angel and the Diablo from iFi Audio a few months ago in a video that we'll link to below. Both are popular and portable options, with similar form factors and some slight variation with the inputs and outputs. I'll focus on the Angel here, as it has excellent detail retrieval and dynamics. It's great for vocal-centric music, as the clarity in the midrange really stands out to me. It's fully balanced, with tight bass, a pre-amp option, and a whopping 8.5Vrms balanced output - it's hard to go wrong with the Earmen Angel.
COMPARING WITH THE IFI DIABLO: The Angel is more detailed than the Diablo, showing off more clarity and mids which make it a great choice for vocal-centric genres. The Angel also has a much tighter bass response than the Diablo, sounding a bit more punchy and still providing a great low end. The Diablo on the other hand excels with amazing layering and depth. It's more musical sounding than the Angel, with the Burr Brown DAC sounding incredibly natural and dynamic. Personally, I thought the Diablo had a much wider presentation or soundstage than the Angel, largely in part due to the increased power and great layering. Of course, if you didn't have the opportunity to A/B test these side by side you would think that each DAC amp would offer a substantial upgrade to your portable sound, and they do. You can't go wrong with either, but wait for the verdict to figure out if the Diablo or Angel might be better for your personal setup.
Read the Review
Astell&Kern ACRO CA1000T All-In-One Head-Fi Audio System
The CA1000T from Astell&Kern is the odd duck of the bunch because it's technically a portable DAC, DAP, and headphone amp that can also do double duty as a desktop DAC amp. It's a great design, albeit a lot more bulky than some others in this category. It's more square, but it has a great flip-up screen since it's also an integrated music player. It's an Astell&Kern DAP mixed with a headphone amplifier that can even connect to smaller bookshelf speakers with the RCA outs. The CA1000T has the integrated tube circuit for those wanting a bit more warmth and vintage tone, a lot like their more portable DAP, the SP2000T. If you're looking for a desktop DAC that doesn't take up a lot of space, the CA1000T is perfect, and with the internal battery, you can even take it on the go with you.
FROM THE CA1000 REVIEW: The ACRO CA1000 is a bit of a strange duck and difficult to place in a single category. It's a DAP, DAC, amplifier, and streamer, all wrapped up in a (reasonably) portable package. The ACRO features all of the functionality of an Astell&Kern music player, only adding more power than they've done for any Astell&Kern portable to date. If you have a headphone that requires a lot of power and you want to be able to take them with you, then the ACRO should be a no-brainer. With up to 15Vrms (balanced) output, you'll be hard-pressed to find a headphone that won't work.
Read the CA1000 Review

Our Favorite Desktop DACs

Desktop DACs are the larger counterparts of their portable siblings. Bigger, more powerful, more features, better sound, and better inputs and outputs. They come in various shapes, sizes, price points, and of course features. You can get a desktop DAC that's also a hi-res music streamer, or a server. You can even get some DACs that are all-in-one complete systems. So, why would you want a desktop DAC? If you're looking for something that is compatible with your full hi-fi system at home or want to integrate speakers, headphones, whatever, then these are the ones you're going to want. Here are just a few of our recommended desktop DACs:
Matrix Audio X-SABRE 3 MQA DAC
The X-Sabre 3 Pro is one of my favorite desktop DACs at Moon Audio. I'm a big fan of the expansive and detailed SABRE sound, and Matrix Audio has made some significant improvements over the last gen X-SABRE to make this one of the most feature-rich DACs on the audiophile market. It has streaming integration with the newly implemented LCD screen - it's small, but Matrix did a good job with the layout - it gives plenty of information and keeps the sleek profile of the unit. I'm a big fan of the glass top and the touch-sensitive buttons. I/o is great too - RCA, XLR, Coax, optical, I-squared S, USB Audio, and on and on.
FROM THE REVIEW: The X-SABRE 3 DAC is an upgrade in every sense of the word from the previous generation DAC. Matrix Audio has put a tremendous amount of effort into improving one of the best DACs on the market and making it even better, more resolute, and packed with the latest features bringing it up to date and putting it ahead of the competition. The addition of Tidal and Spotify Connect, combined with Roon Ready certification make the X-SABRE 3 the perfect hi-res streaming host to add to your system. The DAC is one of the best sounding on the market - hands down - and will provide a level of detail and clarity few DACs can match.
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Chord Electronics Qutest DAC
The Qutest DAC from Chord is our most popular stand-alone DAC at Moon Audio. It's Chord's "pure" DAC - it's just a DAC and nothing more. It retains Chord's amazing detail retrieval and award-winning proprietary FPGA technology. The Qutest is designed and precision-milled from a solid aircraft-grade aluminum block. It's sturdy, hefty, and more importantly isolation from external vibrations and interference.  With filters, input selection controls, RCA outs, and a small footprint, it's an amazing standalone DAC for any system.
FROM THE REVIEW: The Qutest improves on the 2Qute in every way possible. Paired with the Chord Anni amplifier and the Chord Huey phono stage for turntable integration, and you have a full hi-fi system that fits neatly on your desk or shelf without taking up hardly any room. It's hard to beat the Chord sound and the quality of their products, and we're big fans of the form factor, especially for those where real estate is a factor. You're not missing out on quality sound here despite the Qutest's size, and it's another home run for Chord and their DACs. It's no wonder the Qutest is our best-selling DAC to date.
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Chord Electronics Hugo 2 DAC Headphone Amp
On the Flip Side, if you want a portable version of the Qutest to use in both a desktop or portable scenario take a look at the Chord Hugo 2. The Chord Hugo 2 does not need much of an introduction. It adds a battery power supply and a headphone amplifier to the Qutest DAC circuits with some other fun features. No, you are not chained to a desk but can take it on the go. It rules as the King of portable Headphone Amp/DACs. The big difference here is the portable format - the Hugo 2 has headphone jacks. Make sure to take a look at our Chord Hugo 2 review for more information.
FROM THE REVIEW: Hearing is believing. Even after 5 years on the market the Hugo 2 still manages to impress. It's a substantial upgrade from the original Hugo in both sound and internal components. The Hugo 2 doesn't depart much from the Chord house sound, being analytical and detailed, and it has some of the best dynamic range I've heard in a small package. Don't let the size fool you either, the Hugo 2 can pull its weight even in larger desktop setups too, offering a great selection of inputs and outputs to fit in almost any audio system (headphones, IEMs, and desktop setups). Yes, it's on the expensive side, but be assured that you'll get much more from your music. You don't always get what you pay for, but in this case, you get much, much more.
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TEAC UD-701N Headphone Amplifier, USB DAC, and Network Player
The TEAC UD-701N is another desktop DAC type that combines a headphone amplifier, network player, analog preamp and more into one device. The 701N uses a Delta Sigma DAC - it has some nice bottom-end presence, but it's the hyper-detail and natural signature that really stands out. It's fully balanced, includes great port selection and the streaming integration with the HR Music Streamer application is a breeze. It's one of the best-sounding all-in-one units here at Moon Audio, and if you're looking for a DAC that does it all, then look no further.
FROM THE REVIEW: Ultimately, the TEAC UD-701N is an impressive little black box. The design is sleek, and is a great option for a Roon Ready endpoint or for those who rely heavily on streaming services - and it will especially help you get the most out of your higher-resolution streaming audio. One of the biggest draws to the unit however is the fully balanced circuitry combined with the Delta Sigma discrete DAC. The sound is superb, and combined with resolute headphones, makes for an outstanding standalone system. Of course, you can configure it as a single element in your system as well, either a designated streamer source, an analog preamp, a USB DAC, etc; it's an incredibly versatile device that excels at each individual component, not just the unit as a whole. If you’re looking for a music player that does it all, then the TEAC UD-701N is a solid choice that we give a big thumbs up to.
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dCS Lina Network DAC
If you're looking for the best of the best, one of the top DACs on the audiophile market is the LINA network DAC from dCS. dCS' proprietary Ring DAC technology is at the center of the LINA. Instead of using off-the-shelf DAC chips, dCS builds its Ring DACs from the ground up. One of the key advantages of the Ring DAC is its upgradability via firmware updates. The Ring DAC uses a network of FPGAs that are running proprietary dCS software that control the digital-to-analog conversion process as well as digital filtering. Unbalanced, balanced outs, SPDIF, AES, USB - hook it up to anything, especially the corresponding clock and amplifier for the full Lina stack. It's about as end-game as you can possibly get.
FROM THE REVIEW: Let me get straight to the point: The LINA simply blows my mind. I consider it an end-game headphone setup. The LINA DAC has exceptionally low noise performance with vanishingly low distortion, ultra-wide resolution, and soundstage. The DAC does not impose or create any coloration to the sound. The headphone amp is true, clear, and just steps out of the way of the music. It controls just about every headphone I tried with complete authority. Thanks to the LINA Clock combination, there is extremely low jitter. Moving forward, this will be my reference setup to which all other setups will be judged!
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Types of DACs

One thing I really wanted to get into when I started the FAQs on DACs series is figuring out why there are different DAC types, made differently, with different components, technology, and more. Ring DACs, Ladder DACs, FPGA, resistors, off-the-shelf chips, Burr Brown, R-2R - it sounds complicated and technical. And well, it kind of is, but we're going to take a look at all these types and make it easier to figure out just HOW they're different.

Digital to analog converters can be created a number of different ways, and lots of times brands adopt a technology based on how it configures with their design process and overall sound they want to tune for their audio products. There are a lot of reasons why you'll find different technology in different brands, but it's all part of their audio circuit design process - how a DAC type fits into their product based on various factors like portability, power draw, and effect on battery life, and what kind of sound they are wanting to create for their product. The way you design your DAC can affect the way your music sounds - but we'll get more into that in a bit. Let's talk about about the different types of DACs out there, feature a brand, and how they adopt a specific technology for their products.

Chip Manufacturers

Astell & Kern - the creator of high-end audiophile-grade music players - is one of our favorite brands here at Moon Audio. They do portable high-res audio right. We talk about them a lot in our product reviews, but Astell&Kern likes to use off-the-shelf chips for their audio circuit design. These chips represent a perfect combination of small size for portability, power efficiency for extended battery life, and high-quality performance for audiophile-grade sound reproduction.

When we call them DAC chips in this case, they are just that: computer chips where all the digital-to-analog processing gets done. One chip that does it all. Astell&Kern uses a variety of off-the-shelf chips in their music players, and sometimes in various configurations - pairing chips in dual DAC, quad-DAC, or even HEXA-DAC circuit design. This can improve the overall audio quality and resolution of the audio on playback.

Astell&Kern designs their a&Norma product line of entry-level DAPs most commonly with Cirrus Logic DAC chips. These are more affordable and extremely power-efficient converter chips. They provide outstanding clarity and detail in AK's music players, resulting in great battery life as well. Going up the ladder to Astell & Kern's a&Futura line, you'll often find ESS DAC chips. ESS SABRE DACs are known for more detail, depth, and resolution than a lot of Cirrus Logic chips. You'll notice a definite bump in audio quality to be sure. ESS chips in general are great for more analytical listeners who like to pick up on every detail of the music. We finally come to Astell & Kern's a&Ultima line of premium Flagship music players. AK likes to use AKM DAC chips in their premium offerings, resulting in more full-bodied, musical presentations. This is a great option for those who love to get lost in the music. Astell&Kern even has music players now that utilize multiple chip manufacturers - like in their HEXA-DAC circuitry which uses both ESS and CL DAC chips. All the products we carry here at Moon Audio that utilize chips all use reputable chip manufacturers: ESS, AKM, Burr Brown, and Cirrus Logic. They are highly recommended as audiophile-grade DACs and will provide leaps and bounds over your consumer-grade converter.

I'll make a quick mention of iFi Audio here as well, which uses Burr Brown chipsets in their portable DACs across the board. iFi Audio is a great brand offering a lot of affordable DAC options for just about every listening and ergonomic scenario out there. Their Burr Brown DACs are implemented in a way that provides a perfect balance of efficiency for their devices and a robust and full sound. They're more on the natural-sounding side when compared to Astell & Kern's more analytical signature.

The way Astell&Kern and iFi Audio design their products, the chips are not the only part of the equation when it comes to how a device will sound, but they certainly give an indicator of the sound characteristics and sound capabilities of the music player. The entire audio circuit from input to output is considered when determining the tuning and sound of the device when it's created, so the DAC chip should only be used as one of the larger pieces of the sound signature puzzle. 

Ring DAC Technology

dCS is another brand at Moon Audio that takes a very different approach to designing their digital-to-analog converters. They use what is known as a Ring DAC for their high-resolution desktop DACs, and we'll see just how dCS' approach aims to address issues with common ladder DAC design (see more about ladder DACs below).

Resistors (like all electronic components) have an element of error in their values. For resistors used in a ladder DAC, the current generated by that section of the DAC could be lower or higher than needed. This, plus another issue with ladder DACs called Zero Crossing Point Distortion, leads to linear distortion in ladder DACs. A key point here is that the ladder DAC removes the link between the original signal and the physical resistor value errors associated with specific sample values.

dCS' proprietary Ring DAC technology is at the center of the LINA audio system and standalone DAC. Instead of using off-the-shelf DAC chips, dCS builds its Ring DACs from the ground up. One of the key advantages of the Ring DAC is its upgradeability via firmware updates. The Ring DAC uses a network of FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) that are running proprietary dCS software that controls the digital-to-analog conversion process as well as digital filtering.

At first glance, the Ring DAC may look like a ladder DAC. There is a latch and a resistor for each current source, and these current sources are fed to a summing bus. The main difference is that the Ring DAC uses current sources of equal value; this is known as "unitary weighted" or "thermometer coded" DAC architecture. Furthermore, the Ring DAC does not use the same current source for the same bit every time. The Ring DAC is based around a set of latches, all of which are turned on and off at high speeds to produce an equal amount of current. The FPGA - or field programmable gate array - on the Ring DAC uses a sophisticated mapping algorithm to turn sources on and off in such a way that any component value errors are averaged out over time.

Because any combination of current sources can be fired for any bit in the Ring DAC, the error generated is unrelated to the audio signal; it is de-correlated. This means that any errors are randomized and converted to white noise. This approach reduces distortion, or noise, to minuscule levels, and allows low-level details that are so important in our appreciation of music, to shine through.

FPGA Technology

Speaking of FPGA, let's talk about Chord Electronics. The thing that sets Chord DACs apart from the crowd is their proprietary FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) which is the major component of the quintessential Chord sound. The FPGA isn't the DAC itself but rather allows the DAC to run very high-performance oversampling filters. We call these taps, and Chord primarily measures their DAC performance by tap number. A normal off-the-shelf chip like ESS or Cirrus Logic only has a couple hundred taps at most. Chord's flagship DAVE DAC and Headphone Amplifier, in comparison, has a whopping 164,000 taps.

So what's the deal with the taps? Essentially, these performance filters enable the DAC to more accurately track and reconstruct the original waveform of the audio. These are algorithms built by Chord's lead designer Rob Watts, and they can/could be updated through firmware updates - resulting, in theory, in better performance upgrades without having to get a new device. Chord doesn't do this, but there are companies that do, like PS Audio and dCS mentioned in the previous section. The popular Mojo 2 DAC and headphone amp was a major upgrade over the original, with newly improved and updated FPGA code. The original Mojo had 38,912 taps whereas the Mojo 2 has 40,960. More filter taps mean closer to the original audio of the recording. It all has to do with the modulation between frequency response and the noise level in the unit. As you increase the volume and the freq. response, the noise floor adjusts with that volume. The Mojo 2 has dramatically improved the coding to do this more efficiently and accurately. It also has better filtering, with 40 DSP cores for better transparency (this is a larger influence on the sound quality than the increased tap number).

Essentially we're talking about hardware versus software-based conversion. FPGA is like the software version whereas an off-the-shelf chip is the hardware version. Again, just another way to do it. Watch the video below to learn more about how the FPGA technology works in Chord Electronics DACs: 
Chord Electronics FPGA DAC Technology Explained
R-2R & Ladder DACs

R-2R, or ladder DACs, are just another way of doing conversion. In a ladder DAC, one current source is always working for one of the digital audio bits exclusively. Think of it this way: One current source will always be following what the first bit in the digital signal is doing, and so on, for as many current sources as are needed. As the current sources go on, the amount of energy they must generate gets smaller and smaller. If you look at a diagram of this process, it will resemble a ladder.

Cayin is a popular brand that implements ladder DACs in many of its devices, resulting in astounding audio quality at affordable prices. One of our favorite audiophile devices here at Moon Audio is the RU6 portable USB DAC/Amplifier dongle. The RU6 implements an R-2R ladder DAC for its conversion. The basic idea here is a matched pair of two resistors, the first is "R" and the other is "2R" which has twice the value of R. To achieve 24bit R-2R decoding, you need 48 resistors for one channel or 96 pieces of high precision resistors for stereo. R-2R is famous for its natural and realistic sound signature.

When it comes to the sound of the DAC, ladder DACs and Ring DACs tend to sound more analog because they're using resistors. They're using an analog signal path to do the digital-to-analog conversion. These are important aspects to think about when selecting a DAC or device because it will be more in line with your personal listening preferences. For people who want an analog sound that has a little more body to it, a R-2R DAC would be a great option to consider. If you want a music player with R-2R architecture then take a look at the Astell&Kern SE300 - it's a great DAP that allows the user to listen to their music the way they want - with tons of sound customization, features, and premium sound quality. 

Final Thoughts

There are a couple of things to keep in mind with different DAC technology. First: No DAC technology is perfect or better than the other. Sure, you'll have people out there who swear Ring DACs are superior to Ladder DACs. To that person - Rings DACs might sound better - because remember, we all hear differently. The second thing to reiterate here is that DACs are only a piece of the audio circuit puzzle. They do not indicate how the device will sound in totality - you have to consider other aspects like the analog output stage, the length of the circuit, and more. Things like balanced versus single-ended, transformers, resistors, op-amps, and tube-based analog output stages can play a tremendous role in the coloration and sound signature of a device - sometimes way more than the DAC itself. Before people started messing with FPGA, there were all kinds of different output stages on DACs - that was the thing to do at the time because you were limited by what was available with off-the-shelf chips. No one had created their own true DAC implementation outside of those chips. So people played around with the output stage - solid state, tube, or transformer. Those are really the three primary output stages on a DAC, and you can get a lot of tonal variation from each.

Is one DAC technology better than another? When you're doing your own research, remember that everyone is right and everyone is wrong. There is no perfect answer and it's all subjective. Use YOUR ears to determine what sounds best for YOU - everyone hears differently. Don't use measurement graphs except to get initial impressions. Things like higher bit depths, bit rates, sample rates, lossless formats, and more will make a much larger impact on the quality of your audio data/audio files. Typically speaking standalone DACs or external DACs perform better than built-in DACs or mass-produced off-the-shelf chips, but making sure your DAC is hi-res capable is just as important.

One other very important piece of all this that we have not touched on - and we'll get more into another day - is the topic of the analog output stage that comes after the D to A processing. This can dramatically change the tonality of the DAC. While we can summarize certain DAC chips to have a certain coloration one thing a lot of folks are not looking at is this output stage. You can have a solid-state output stage or a tube output stage. With tubes, you can dramatically change the sound with a tube role. And let's not forget about replacing the entire output stage with a high-quality output transformer. We used to do a mod to the Brand Original on their CD player whereas we used Lundahl Output transformers. Talk about a transformation in sound!

The digital-to-analog conversion stage is incredibly important in your hi-fi system - especially with the rise of digital music streaming - and everyone does it a little differently. Knowing a little bit more about how the technology works should allow you to look at the entire audio circuit with more clarity, and ultimately help you figure out what kind of DAC you like, or what kind of audio gear you want.

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Frequently Asked Questions About DACS

Digital to Analog Converters, or DACs

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.

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> What is a DAC?
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> Does an external DAC make a difference?
> What devices do not need DACs?
> Why do we convert digital to analog?