From Bits to Beats: What is a DAC & Why You Need One

Read Time: Approx. 15 min.
DACs on a ledge

Why DACs Are the Secret Ingredient for Awesome Sound

In the realm of high-fidelity sound systems, one essential piece of technology stands tall: the Digital-to-Analog Converter, or DAC for short. For many audiophiles, the DAC is like the wizard behind the curtain, transforming digital signals from our devices into the beautiful analog sound waves that our ears can appreciate. Imagine this: when we listen to music on our smartphones, computers, or even streaming services, the music is stored and transmitted in digital form. However, our ears don't understand these digital 0s and 1s; they crave the warm, rich tones of analog audio. This is where the DAC steps in, converting those digital signals into analog sound that faithfully reproduces the original recording. In essence, the DAC is the bridge between our digital music libraries and the captivating, lifelike sound that audiophiles crave from their Hi-Fi systems. It's the secret ingredient that elevates the listening experience from ordinary to extraordinary, allowing us to immerse ourselves fully in the intricate details and nuances of our favorite music. So, whether you're a seasoned audiophile or new to the world of high-fidelity sound, understanding the role of the DAC is crucial for unlocking the true potential of your Hi-Fi setup. 

The DAC is a necessary ingredient for any audiophile sound system recipe. It's one of those components that you can't do without if you're trying to listen to digital music. Much like cars, there are a million and one varieties of DACs out there, each offering a plethora of features and catering to different uses and preferences. Just as you wouldn't choose a sports car for off-roading or a minivan for track racing, selecting the right DAC is crucial for ensuring your audio setup delivers the performance you desire. Don't worry, though; we'll break down the complex world of DACs for you, guiding you through the maze of options so you can confidently choose the DAC that perfectly suits you, your setup, and the music you love.


-Converts your digital data to audio so you can hear your favorite music. You can't live without one (if you want to listen to music).
-Countless options to choose from.


-High-end DACs can get pricey.
-So many choices it can be difficult to figure out which DAC is right for your Hi-Fi system.

What is a DAC?...

...and Why Do You Need One?

A Brief History of Sound: In the past, before the advent of digital technology, the recording and reproduction of music was entirely an analog process. This means that the sound waves captured by microphones during the recording process were directly transferred to a physical medium, such as magnetic tape or vinyl records, without any digital conversion or processing. When a musician performed in the studio, the sound waves created by their instruments or voice were captured by microphones. These microphones converted the sound waves into electrical signals, which were then sent through a series of analog audio equipment, such as mixing consoles and equalizers. The recording engineer would carefully adjust these devices to achieve the desired sound and balance.

Once the audio signal was optimized, it was then recorded directly onto a physical medium. In the case of magnetic tape, the electrical signal would be used to magnetize the tiny particles on the tape, creating a pattern that mirrored the original sound wave. For vinyl records, the signal would be used to vibrate a cutting stylus, which would etch a groove into the surface of the record that corresponded to the audio waveform. The beauty of this analog process was that the waveform captured by the microphone was faithfully reproduced on the recording medium without any loss of quality or alteration. When the tape or record was played back, the same waveform could be read by the playback device, amplified, and sent to speakers, effectively recreating the original sound.
This direct, 1:1 reproduction of the audio waveform was a key advantage of analog recording. It allowed for a high level of fidelity and warmth in the recorded sound, as there was no need for digital conversion or processing, which can sometimes introduce artifacts or alter the characteristics of the original audio.

However, analog recording also had its limitations. Tape and vinyl were subject to wear and tear over time, leading to noise, distortion, and degradation of the audio quality. Additionally, analog recordings were more susceptible to external factors, such as electromagnetic interference or physical damage. Despite these drawbacks, many music enthusiasts and professionals still appreciate the unique character and charm of analog recordings. Some argue that the slight imperfections and nonlinearities introduced by the analog process contribute to a more natural and pleasing sound.
mixing board in a studio
In contrast, digital recording, which has become the norm in modern times, converts the analog audio signal into a series of binary numbers, allowing for more precise editing, manipulation, and storage of the audio data. While digital technology has brought about significant advancements in terms of flexibility, portability, and noise reduction, some purists maintain that the warmth and authenticity of analog recordings remain unmatched.

In the modern era, the landscape of music recording and playback has been revolutionized by digital technology. Unlike the analog process, where sound waves are directly captured and stored on physical media, digital recording involves converting the analog audio signal into a series of discrete numerical values. This process, known as sampling, allows for the representation of the continuous analog waveform as a sequence of digital data points. The sampling process occurs at a predetermined rate, which determines the number of times the analog signal is measured and converted into a digital value per second. For example, the standard sampling rate for audio CDs is 44,100 samples per second, often referred to as 44.1 kHz. This means that for every second of music, there are 44,100 distinct numerical values stored on the digital medium. Each of these values represents the amplitude of the analog signal at a specific point in time.

In addition to the sampling rate, another crucial factor in digital audio is the bit depth, which determines the resolution and dynamic range of the recorded audio. CD-quality audio typically uses a bit depth of 16 bits, allowing for 65,536 possible amplitude values for each sample. Higher bit depths, such as 24 bits or 32 bits, provide even greater resolution and a wider dynamic range, capturing more subtle nuances and details in the audio.

Once the analog signal has been sampled and converted into digital data, it can be stored on various digital media, such as CDs, DVDs, or hard drives. This digital format offers several advantages over analog recordings. Digital audio is less susceptible to degradation over time, as the numerical values remain consistent and can be perfectly replicated without any loss of quality. Additionally, digital audio allows for easy editing, manipulation, and distribution of the recorded material. When it comes to playback, the digital audio data must be converted back into an analog signal that can be sent to headphones or speakers. This process is known as digital-to-analog conversion (DAC) and is performed by a dedicated component within the digital audio player. The DAC reads the numerical values stored on the digital medium and reconstructs the original analog waveform based on those values. The reconstructed analog signal is then amplified and sent to the output devices for listening.

While digital audio offers numerous benefits, such as improved noise reduction, precise editing capabilities, and easy distribution, some audiophiles argue that the conversion process from analog to digital and back to analog can introduce certain sonic artifacts or alter the characteristics of the original sound. This has led to ongoing debates about the perceived superiority of analog recordings over digital ones, with some individuals preferring the warmth, naturalness, and imperfections associated with analog media. To address these concerns and cater to the demands of discerning listeners, the concept of High-Resolution Audio (HRA) has emerged and taken the world by storm through music streaming applications and services. HRA refers to digital audio formats that offer higher sampling rates and bit depths compared to CD-quality audio. Common HRA formats include 96 kHz/24-bit, 192 kHz/24-bit, and even higher specifications. These formats aim to capture and preserve more of the original analog signal's nuances, resulting in a more detailed and accurate representation of the recorded sound. Check out our HiRes Music Downloading Guide to find out more. 

recording screen
However, the benefits of HRA are subject to debate, as the human ear's ability to perceive the differences between CD-quality and higher-resolution audio is limited. Additionally, the entire audio chain, from the recording equipment to the playback devices, must be capable of handling and reproducing the higher-resolution formats for the listener to fully appreciate any potential improvements. Regardless of the ongoing debates surrounding digital audio and its impact on sound quality, there is no denying that digital technology has revolutionized the way we record, store, and consume music. The convenience, portability, and accessibility offered by digital formats have made music more readily available to a wider audience than ever before. As technology continues to advance, it is likely that we will see further developments in digital audio, pushing the boundaries of sound quality and immersive listening experiences.

With the rise of streaming services and wireless connectivity, DACs like those from iFi Audio have evolved to support Bluetooth, allowing for seamless integration with smartphones and other mobile devices. Many modern DACs also feature digital inputs for connecting to computers or other digital sources, ensuring versatility in your audio setup. Notably, some DACs even support MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) decoding, unlocking the full potential of high-resolution audio files. Beyond just conversion capabilities, DACs often incorporate a headphone jack, enabling direct connectivity to your favorite headphones for an immersive listening experience. While specifications like bit depth and sampling rates are important considerations, the true test of a DAC lies in its ability to faithfully reproduce the nuances and emotions of your music, breathing new life into your audio journey. The technology is ever changing and advancing, but the necessity of converting digital-to-analog will forever stay one of the most important functions in your HiFi audio system. 

The Google Translate of Your Audiophile System

Various DACs on a table

Our ears can only perceive analog signals, which are continuous waveforms that fluctuate in amplitude and frequency over time. However, most modern audio sources, such as compact discs, digital downloads, and streaming services, store audio data in a digital format, which consists of binary code represented by ones and zeros. To make this digital data audible, we need a device that can convert it into an analog format that our ears can interpret. This device is called a digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Unlike digital sources, traditional analog sources like AM/FM radio, vinyl records, and tape recordings do not require conversion since they already produce an analog signal. However, for digital audio formats, the DAC acts as a "translator," much like how a human translator converts English to Spanish or vice versa.

The DAC's primary function is to translate the digital data from stored audio files into an analog electrical signal. This process involves converting the binary data into a series of samples at thousands of set times per second, known as the sampling rate. The DAC outputs these samples, which are then connected to form a continuous waveform that approximates the original analog signal. However, the conversion process is not flawless, and issues can arise that differentiate the performance of various DACs. Some DACs may introduce noise or distortion during the conversion process, resulting in a degraded audio quality. Others may struggle with accurately reproducing the dynamic range or frequency response of the original signal.

To address these potential problems, audio enthusiasts and manufacturers often invest in high-quality DACs that employ advanced techniques and components. These DACs aim to minimize conversion errors and preserve the integrity of the original digital data, ensuring that the resulting analog signal is as faithful as possible to the source material. Furthermore, the performance of a DAC can be influenced by various factors, such as the quality of the digital audio files, the sampling rate, and the bit depth. Higher sampling rates and bit depths generally result in a more accurate representation of the original analog signal, allowing for better sound quality and fidelity.

If Most of My Devices Already Have A DAC, Why Do I Need Another One?

Phones and computers today are amazing pieces of technology. They do a thousand things well, but in the case of audio, they get the job done (barely). In the case of recording, most times engineers do not use the mic input on their computer tower to record their audio, so why would you use your standard audio output in the same way? Standalone devices do a much better job at this because they are designed and manufactured to do one thing, and one thing only. Even though most modern devices like smartphones, computers, and some audio components have built-in DACs, there are several reasons why audiophiles and enthusiasts choose to use a standalone (external) DAC:

    • Superior audio quality: The DACs integrated into devices are often basic and designed for general use. Standalone DACs, especially high-end models, employ superior components, advanced circuitry, and more robust power supplies. This results in better sound quality, improved dynamic range, lower noise floor, and more accurate conversion of the digital signal to analog.
    • Dedicated purpose: Standalone DACs are designed solely for audio conversion, whereas the built-in DACs in devices are multi-purpose and may be influenced by other components or processes running on the device. A dedicated DAC can focus solely on the conversion process, leading to better performance.
    • Bypassing the internal audio path: In many devices, the internal audio path (from the source to the built-in DAC) can introduce noise, interference, or quality degradation. By using an external DAC, you bypass the internal audio circuitry, potentially improving sound quality.
    • Upgradeability: With an external DAC, you can easily upgrade or replace it with a better model as your needs or budget evolves, without having to replace the entire device.
    • Connectivity options: Standalone DACs often offer a wider range of input and output connections, such as coaxial, optical, USB, and balanced outputs, allowing for greater flexibility in connecting to various sources and amplifiers or headphones.
    • Support for high-resolution audio: Many external DACs can handle high-resolution audio formats (e.g., DSD, 24-bit/192kHz) that built-in DACs may not support or struggle with.
    • Additional features: Some standalone DACs include additional features like headphone amplifiers, volume controls, or even equalization options, providing a more comprehensive and customizable audio experience.
    While the built-in DACs in devices are designed for convenience and general use, audiophiles and enthusiasts often prefer the superior sound quality, flexibility, and potential for upgrades offered by dedicated standalone DACs, especially when paired with high-end audio systems or headphones.

    What Source Device Should I Use for Hi-Res Music Playback?


    If you're planning on using your phone for music playback, you have two main options: playing locally stored music files or using streaming apps. With the growing popularity of high-resolution audio, there are now numerous streaming services offering lossless and hi-res music streams. To get the most out of your phone's audio capabilities, you'll want to connect an external DAC, either in the form of a dongle or a USB DAC, depending on the available ports on your device (USB-C or Lightning).

    Dongle DACs are incredibly convenient for use with smartphones and tablets. They're simple plug-and-play devices – just connect them to your phone's port, and your device should automatically detect the DAC and set it as the primary audio output. It's a seamless process that requires minimal setup. The same principle applies to tablets and laptops. Simply plug in your DAC, and it should be detected and configured as the main audio output. However, for Windows PCs or Macs, you might need to go through some additional configuration steps and driver installations to ensure your computer recognizes the DAC properly and routes audio through it.

    With a high-quality DAC connected to your phone or tablet, you'll be able to enjoy your locally stored music files or streaming services with significantly improved audio quality, greater detail, and a more immersive listening experience. The DAC will bypass your device's built-in audio circuitry, providing a dedicated path for pristine audio conversion and output. Whether you're a casual listener or an audio enthusiast, investing in a good portable DAC can elevate your mobile audio game, allowing you to truly appreciate the nuances and fidelity of your music library or streaming service on the go.

    Woman listening to music on phone
    woman talking on phone
    While digital streaming has become increasingly popular, many audiophiles still cherish their collections of compact discs. For those who want to get the most out of their CD libraries, Cayin's Mini CD-MK2 is an outstanding option. The Mini CD-MK2 is a compact disc transport that features a built-in, high-end DAC chipset and upsampling capabilities. This means that even if your source is your extensive collection of compact discs, you can still enjoy a modern, high-fidelity listening experience. The upsampling feature ensures that the digital audio data from the CDs is processed and converted to a higher resolution, resulting in improved sound quality and greater detail retrieval. It's worth noting that despite the rise of digital formats, many manufacturers continue to produce high-quality CD players, which have evolved significantly over the years. These modern CD players incorporate advanced technologies and components to extract the best possible sound from physical media.

    For those who prefer a more integrated and streamlined approach, using a dedicated music server or streamer like the Roon Nucleus can be an excellent choice. If you're a Roon user, you can set up your computer as the core, with your music library installed locally. Alternatively, you can add the Roon Nucleus as a dedicated core. The Nucleus offers several advantages over using a traditional computer. First, it's a purpose-built device designed specifically for storing, processing, and playing back music. Unlike a computer, which requires logging in, starting up, and shutting down, the Nucleus stays on all the time, providing a seamless and always-ready music experience.

    The Nucleus is optimized for audio playback, with a focus on minimizing noise, reducing power consumption, and delivering superior sound quality compared to a general-purpose computer. Computers can be noisy, slower, and consume more power, which can potentially introduce interference and degrade the overall audio performance. Whether you choose to stick with your beloved CD collection and a dedicated transport like the Cayin Mini CD-MK2, or opt for a more integrated solution like the Roon Nucleus, the key is to find a setup that aligns with your preferences, allows you to enjoy your music collection to the fullest, and provides the level of fidelity and performance you desire.
    vinyl record
    stack of cds
    If you want to set up a DAC with your computer, you have several options to choose from, depending on the type of connection and level of functionality you desire. For a simple and compact solution, you can opt for a USB dongle DAC. These small devices connect directly to your computer's USB port (typically USB-C on modern systems) and provide an easy way to upgrade your computer's audio capabilities without taking up much space. If you're looking for more features and connectivity options, a dedicated USB DAC might be a better choice. These external DACs offer a wider range of inputs and outputs, including coaxial, optical, and balanced connections, allowing you to connect to a variety of audio sources and amplifiers or headphones.

    For the ultimate desktop experience, you might consider a full-sized desktop DAC. These larger units often incorporate more advanced components, robust power supplies, and additional features like built-in headphone amplifiers or volume controls, providing a comprehensive and high-performance audio solution. Another option for desktop computers is to use a dedicated DAC card or a high-end audio card. These cards are installed directly into your computer's PCI or PCI-Express slots, effectively replacing your computer's built-in audio circuitry with a dedicated, high-quality DAC solution. These cards typically offer a variety of output options, allowing you to connect to external amplifiers, speakers, or headphones.

    Regardless of the specific DAC you choose, most will interface with your computer via USB connection. This allows you to take advantage of your computer as the source for your music, whether you're playing back files from your local library or streaming from installed applications. When using your computer as the source, the DAC will be responsible for converting the digital audio data from your computer into an analog signal that can be amplified and played through your speakers or headphones. This conversion process is crucial for ensuring high-quality audio output and enabling you to take full advantage of your computer's music playback capabilities. It's worth noting that some DACs may require additional driver installations or configuration steps, especially when used with desktop computers. However, the process is generally straightforward, and many DAC manufacturers provide clear instructions and support resources to assist with setup and optimization.
    home office setup
    laptop on a desk

    Network-connected DACs are a versatile and convenient option for music enthusiasts looking to elevate their audio experience. These DACs can connect to various sources, such as a Roon core, a computer, or any other compatible device, without the need for a direct physical connection. One of the key advantages of network-connected DACs is their ability to integrate seamlessly into a home network, allowing you to control and stream music from various devices, including laptops, tablets, or smartphones. In some cases, these devices can even serve as remote controls, providing a user-friendly interface for navigating and controlling your music playback.

    If you're truly looking to take your audio setup to the next level, companies like Aurender and dCS offer some of the best all-in-one units that combine high-end DACs, streamers, amplifiers, and even proprietary software for music streaming, cataloging, and playback. Aurender, in particular, is renowned for their top-of-the-line streamers that feature advanced DAC technology, robust audio processing capabilities, and seamless integration with various music sources and platforms. These units offer a comprehensive solution for music lovers, providing a complete ecosystem for high-fidelity audio playback, management, and control.

    Similarly, dCS (Data Conversion Systems) is a highly respected brand in the audiophile community, known for their exceptional DACs and digital audio components. Their all-in-one units combine state-of-the-art DAC technology with network streaming capabilities, allowing you to access and enjoy your music library with exceptional sound quality and precision. When delving into the world of network-connected DACs and high-end audio solutions, you can expect to unlock a realm of advanced functionality and features. These devices often incorporate sophisticated software platforms, offering extensive music library management, metadata handling, and even dedicated control apps for seamless operation.

    However, it's important to note that such high-end solutions can come with a significant price tag, reflecting the level of engineering, premium components, and cutting-edge technologies employed in their design and manufacture. Ultimately, network-connected DACs provide a level of flexibility and convenience that traditional, physically connected DACs cannot match. They allow you to integrate your audio system seamlessly into your home network, enabling you to access and control your music from various devices while benefiting from superior sound quality and advanced audio processing capabilities.


    Different connection ports can affect the signal integrity and, consequently, the overall sound quality of your system. It's essential to prioritize the connections based on their potential for delivering the best possible audio fidelity. Here's the order in which you should consider using the available connections on your DAC, starting with the best option for optimal sound quality:

    • I²S (Integrated Interchip Sound): This is considered the superior connection type, as it allows for a direct digital audio transfer between the source and the DAC, minimizing potential signal degradation.
    • AES/EBU or Balanced XLR: These balanced digital connections offer improved noise rejection and can transmit audio signals over longer distances without significant quality loss.
    • S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format): This can be either coaxial RCA or optical Toslink connections. While not as ideal as the previous options, S/PDIF is still a common and reliable connection for digital audio transmission.
    • USB: While convenient and widely available, USB connections are generally considered the least desirable option for achieving the best possible audio quality. However, modern high-speed USB connections (USB 2.0 and above) can still provide excellent performance, especially when paired with high-quality DACs and proper shielding.

    It's important to note that DACs often come with various input and output configurations, offering a combination of the aforementioned connection types. When setting up your DAC, it's generally recommended to prioritize the connections in the order listed above, as each successive option may introduce more potential for signal degradation or interference.

    You need to think about all the different parts in your audio setup, like your source device (computer, phone, etc.) and any other components you have connected. Making sure all the connections between these parts are compatible and properly matched is really important to get the best sound quality possible. The connection order I mentioned (I2S, AES/XLR, S/PDIF, USB) is a general guide, but you should always check the instructions from the manufacturer of your specific DAC and other audio gear. Your personal preferences, the room you listen in, and other factors can also affect which connections work best for your setup. By understanding the pros and cons of each type of connection, you can make smart decisions when setting up your DAC. This will help you get the absolute best audio experience from your high-quality audio system. Don't be afraid to do some research and ask for help if you need it!

    Digital Audio Players (DAPs) are an excellent choice for audiophiles and music enthusiasts who demand high-quality sound and the ability to enjoy high-resolution audio files on the go. These dedicated music players are designed with built-in, high-end digital-to-analog converters (DACs), making them an all-in-one solution for Hi-Res audio playback. Unlike smartphones or traditional music players, DAPs are purpose-built devices focused solely on delivering the best possible audio experience. Their internal DACs are typically of superior quality, incorporating advanced components and circuitry designed to accurately convert digital audio data into an analog signal with exceptional fidelity, detail, and dynamic range.

    One of the key advantages of DAPs is their support for a wide range of high-resolution audio formats, including FLAC, DSD, and PCM files with resolutions up to 24-bit/192kHz or even higher. This allows audiophiles to fully appreciate the nuances and intricacies of their favorite recordings, revealing details and subtleties that may be lost or compressed in lower-quality formats. Many DAPs also feature dedicated amplifier sections, with some models offering balanced output options for compatible headphones or external amplifiers. This ensures that the converted analog signal is properly amplified and delivered to your headphones or speakers with minimal distortion or noise, resulting in a truly immersive and engaging listening experience.

    In addition to their impressive audio capabilities, DAPs often boast sleek and portable designs, making them ideal for on-the-go listening. Some models even incorporate features like Wi-Fi connectivity, allowing you to stream music from compatible services or access your personal music library wirelessly. While DAPs may come at a higher price point compared to traditional music players, their focus on audio fidelity and support for high-resolution formats make them a worthwhile investment for those who are serious about their music listening experience. By combining exceptional DAC technology with portable convenience, DAPs offer the ultimate solution for enjoying your favorite tracks with uncompromising sound quality, no matter where your adventures take you. Whether you're an avid audiophile, a music professional, or simply someone who appreciates the finer details in their music, a high-quality DAP can be a game-changer, elevating your listening experience and allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of sound.

    When and Where To Use A DAC: Ergonomics

    The next important factor to consider is your listening style, ergonomics, or how you typically listen to music in your daily life. The kind of digital-to-analog converter (DAC) you need will vary from person to person. We can divide this into three main categories:

    • DONGLE DACs: These are ideal for those who don't want to spend a lot of money but still want to improve their audio quality. If you fall into this category, you'll want something resembling a dongle DAC. A small, no-frills DAC that you can simply plug into your phone or laptop, connect your headphones, and you're good to go.
    • USB DACs: The next group might want to spend a decent amount of money on a DAC with more features, more power, and the ability to use it both on-the-go and 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 while dongles connect via USB, these larger DACs typically have their own internal battery. Dongle DACs are powered passively by the source device.
    • DESKTOP DACs: Lastly, there are those who 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 will give you the best in conversion and sound quality. These are the desktop DAC people. You're not carrying these around with you. You'll set them up on a shelf or wherever you have your music gear and let them work their magic. This is for the audiophile or music lover who wants the best of the best.
    Dongle DACs
    Dongle DACs
    USB DACs
    USB DACs
    Desktop DACs
    Desktop DACs

    Ergonomics and how you actually listen to music are crucial factors to consider when choosing the best DAC for your needs. Even if you have the budget for one of the most amazing desktop DACs on the market, it may not be the ideal choice if you travel frequently for work and are rarely home to use it. When considering a DAC purchase, ask yourself:

    • Where do you typically listen to your music? If you're often on-the-go, a portable DAC that can connect directly to your phone may serve you better than a bulky desktop unit.
    • What is your primary source for your music library - your phone, a computer, streaming services? This will impact what type of DAC connections you need.
    • Do you have headphones that require more power to drive them properly? This could sway you towards a larger, more powerful USB DAC rather than a simple dongle DAC.

    There are many factors that come into play, so take your time and carefully consider all your listening habits and needs. A DAC designed ergonomically for how you actually consume music will provide the best experience. Don't just go for the most expensive option - choose wisely based on your specific listening style and requirements.

    Portable DACs: Easy Hi-Fi On-The-Go

    The portable digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is a compact and convenient solution for music enthusiasts who crave an enhanced audio experience while on the move or traveling. These devices are typically as small as a thumb drive, offering an affordable and space-saving option for audio improvement.

    There are two main types of portable DACs: USB-powered and battery-powered. USB DACs connect directly to your computer or tablet via a USB Type-A port, making them a convenient accessory to pack alongside your headphones or in your travel bag. These devices provide a substantial upgrade to the audio output quality of your device, allowing you to enjoy your music with greater fidelity and detail. When it comes to smartphones and tablets, the DAC solution varies depending on the operating system. For iOS devices, such as iPhones, iPods, and iPads, the connection is typically made through Apple's proprietary Lightning connector or the older 30-pin connector on older models. Android devices, on the other hand, generally connect via micro USB or the more recent USB Type-C ports found on newer models.

    For added portability and convenience, rechargeable battery-powered DACs have become increasingly popular, especially for use with smartphones and tablets. These compact devices can be easily carried or attached to your device without adding significant bulk or weight, and they don't require a tethered connection to a power source. To use them, you simply plug the DAC into the same port you typically use for charging your device, connect your headphones to the DAC, and you're ready to enjoy superior audio quality on the go.

    Battery-powered portable DACs are ideal for frequent travelers or individuals who want an upgraded listening experience without the hassle of dealing with bulky components or tangled wires. They offer a true plug-and-play solution, allowing you to enhance your audio quality with minimal setup or fuss. Whether you opt for a USB-powered or battery-powered portable DAC, these devices provide a convenient and cost-effective way to elevate your music listening experience while on the move. By bypassing the limited audio circuitry of your mobile devices or computers, portable DACs can unlock a world of rich, detailed, and immersive sound, ensuring that you never have to compromise on audio quality, no matter where your adventures take you.

    Desktop DACs: High-End Conversion


    When it comes to desktop and laptop computers, larger and more substantial digital-to-analog converters (DACs) are often the preferred choice. These units are designed to be a part of a more extensive audio setup, offering superior performance and versatility compared to their portable counterparts.

    One of the most common ways to integrate a DAC into a desktop or laptop setup is through a USB connection. Many desktop DACs feature USB Type-A inputs, allowing you to connect them directly to your computer's available USB port. Once connected, you'll likely need to configure your computer's audio output settings to route the audio signal through the external DAC.

    A significant advantage of desktop DACs is that they often incorporate built-in headphone amplifiers. These amplifiers provide ample power to drive even demanding high-impedance headphones, ensuring a rich and dynamic listening experience without compromising audio quality.


    When it comes to home audio systems, DACs offer unparalleled versatility and compatibility. Regardless of your source device or connection type, you'll likely find a DAC that seamlessly integrates into your existing setup. If you're connecting your DAC to a computer, a USB DAC is a convenient solution that can be easily linked to your amplifier or active speakers. For music streaming devices or other digital audio sources, you can choose a DAC that supports the appropriate inputs and outputs, such as S/PDIF, AES, Toslink, or other common digital audio connections.

    It's important to note that many modern source devices, such as music streamers, Digital Audio Players (DAPs), and even some speakers, already incorporate high-end internal DACs. In such cases, you may not need an external DAC, as the conversion process is already handled within the device itself.

    Ultimately, the specific DAC you choose will depend on your particular setup and the components you're working with. If you're unsure about the best configuration or have any questions regarding gear compatibility, don't hesitate to reach out for assistance. Proper guidance can ensure that you select the ideal DAC and achieve the best possible audio performance within your home audio system.

    Do I Need A DAC Or An Amplifier?

    An amplifier plays a crucial role in providing the necessary output power to drive speakers or headphones effectively. Depending on your setup or application, you might require additional amplification, especially if you're using power-hungry headphones with demanding drivers. For instance, if you're listening to music on your phone but it lacks the power to drive your headphones adequately, it will result in poor audio quality and low volume output, which is particularly important to consider in portable setups.

    Apart from ensuring sufficient volume levels, a headphone amplifier also assists in bringing the volume control of your device to line level and providing the necessary "headroom" to drive your headphones optimally. Fortunately, many portable amplifiers are combined with digital-to-analog converters (DACs), offering a convenient all-in-one solution. The Chord Mojo 2 is an excellent example of such a DAC/amp combo.
    Manufacturers are increasingly integrating DACs into their amplifiers for added convenience. Previously, you might have had to carry around multiple bulky devices: your phone, a separate DAC, an amplifier, and your headphones. Now, we have all-in-one solutions that streamline the process. Some models even allow you to deactivate specific functions depending on your setup. For example, if you only need to use it as a DAC, you can deactivate the amplifier or preamplifier option. However, it's crucial to research thoroughly, as not all DAC/amp combos offer the same level of configuration.

    If your music source does not have an internal digital-to-analog converter, you will need a standalone DAC. It's important to note that a Digital Audio Player (DAP) will not be able to output a signal to a DAC like a computer or iPod does, as it already outputs an analog signal. If your music source, DAC, or speakers do not include built-in amplifiers (or lack sufficient power for your desired output), you will need a standalone amplifier for your audio system. These components are integral parts of your setup, and one device cannot be substituted for another, unless it is a combo device like a DAC/amp, as mentioned earlier.

    The advantage of DAC/amp combos is their versatility and compatibility with various systems. Portable units can work well in both desktop and component scenarios, as well as on the go. With the right adapters, you can even use your smartphone as the source, and in cases like the latest iPhones that lack analog inputs, units like the Chord Mojo 2 can bypass the phone's internal DAC through the Lightning port. If you have high-resolution audio files on your phone, even audiophiles can enjoy a premium listening experience wherever they go.

    Dragon Cables

    DACs are an important part of the equation, but your system is only as good as the weakest link - in most cases this weak link is the cable. If you're already making an investment on a high-end DAC, then you'll want to make sure that every single bit of data is getting from point A to point B. Our HiFi Audio Dragon Cables bring out more of what you love in your music and audio gear. We say time and time again that materials matter, and our audio cables and custom geometries actually help to bring out those desired properties in your gear and music. We make tons of custom options for our customers so that you can get the right HiFi Audio cable for your exact needs. If you have any questions feel free to Contact Us and we'll be more than happy to help.
    Dragon Cables Logo
    Generally, stock audio cables are manufactured with subpar materials, metals with impurities, poor geometries, and an overabundance of layers to make them look and feel like a fire hose. Inconsistency and lack of quality control in stock cables can lead to poor sound quality and a veiled sound vs. what the musician intended for you to hear and feel from the music. Dragon Audio Cables are handcrafted with the highest standards and made to order according to your specific needs. At Moon Audio, we create a custom cable for you using the highest quality UP-OCC silver or copper conductors that can be manufactured. UP-OCC metals are void of impurities and are optimized for signal transfer and sound quality. We have one of the largest collections of audio and headphone connection options available online and we create limitless audio cable options depending on your specific gear and needs.

    Why Dragon Cables?

    You’ve heard the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, right? Well, the same applies to your brand-new audiophile-grade headphone or other audio components. The weakest link, in this case, is your stock audio cable or the cheap interconnects the manufacturer threw in the box just to get you up and running. Why is the audio cable always an afterthought, when it’s just as important as the rest of your system? At Moon Audio, we use the purest and best raw materials in our cables to unveil your music. We believe that materials matter and your audio cables should have the same care and craftsmanship that manufacturers put into their audio components and headphones. Audio cables are ultimately the connection to your music. The fact remains that cabling is often considered the last priority to that of the main product and a means to cut down the overall production costs. It’s as simple as that. Dragon Cables elevate every note - as if you were hearing your favorite music for the very time. 



    Is one DAC 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 like the popular Chord Hugo 2 and iFi Audio Gryphon 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.

    There is no universal approach when it comes to Digital-to-Analog Converters (DACs) because everyone's hearing perception is unique. How a DAC sounds will differ from person to person. The key principle to understand is that an external, standalone, or high-end DAC chip will generally outperform the consumer-level DACs found in most devices. Ultimately, the best DAC for you is the one that sounds good to your ears. Rather than relying solely on specifications, the most important factor is how the DAC's audio output resonates with your personal listening preferences. Listen to different DAC options and choose the one that provides the most enjoyable listening experience for you. By trusting your ears and selecting a DAC that aligns with your sonic preferences, you'll never go wrong, and your music will forever be a source of auditory delight and satisfaction.

    A high-quality digital-to-analog converter is truly the heart of any modern audio system, responsible for translating the digital audio data into the analog signals that ultimately drive your speakers or headphones. No matter if it's a tiny portable DAC like the Clarus CODA, a portable music player like the Astell&Kern SR35, or a full-blown high-end standalone DAC like the A15 music server from Aurender, investing in a dedicated, high-performance DAC can breathe new life into your music collection, unveiling intricate details, rich textures, and nuances that you may have never noticed before. With an exceptional DAC at the helm, even familiar albums can sound like you're experiencing them for the very first time, revealing layers of depth and emotion that were previously obscured. Whether you're a discerning audiophile or a passionate music lover, upgrading your DAC is often the single most transformative step you can take to elevate your listening experience and rediscover the magic of your favorite recordings.

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    FAQs on 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. Most of your electronic devices have built-in DACs already. In a device like your smartphone, which 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 buying information on digital-to-analog converters, head over to our “How to Buy A DAC” page.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Does an external DAC make a difference and if so, how?

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.