The simplest explanation of a DAC is in the acronym Digital-to-Analog Converter. It takes digital data (Ones and Zeros) and turns it into an analog signal. This makes the digital data primed to be sent to headphones, or an amplifier. You actually might encounter a DAC at least once in your daily life. Our phones, and laptops have miniature DACs inside them, next to all the other micro-processors inside the device. A DAC is being used when ever audio is played through your phone whether it be through headphones, the built-in speakers, or in an AUX input of a stereo. The point of using an external DAC with a HiFi system is convert the digital data and reproduce audio that is as close to the original analogue recording as possible.
There is a small DAC chip within your phone, laptop, AV receiver and CD player. In order for manufacturers to keep production costs down, the converters are not the best quality. They are sufficient for “doing their job” and that is about it.
Types of DACs
Portable DAC or DAP (Digital audio player)
This is the type of DAC you use with a mobile device. A portable DAC is for a person who has a high-end pair of headphones and wants increase the performance of the headphones. Some headphones have high impedance’s, which makes it difficult for some smartphones to drive. The digital signal is sent through the USB output of the smartphone. Portable DACs are battery powered (some are device-powered like the Audioquest Dragonfly’s) and have some sort of headphone amplifier built-in. The best portable DAC you can get your hands on is the Chord Electronics Mojo. Chord has managed to miniaturize their award winning custom FPGA DACs and brought portable audio to new heights (you’ll hear a lot about Chord in this article!). With a flurry of connections, easily the best sounding DAC for the money.
FiiO and Topping make great small portable DACs that are affordable. The NX4DSD is an excellent DAC that comes with all the cables you need, including USB Type-C, which is hard to come by. It comes equipped with the well-regarded Sabre ES9038Q2 DAC chip. The FiiO Q1 Mk2 is an excellent portable DAC that uses the AKM AK4452 chips and a balanced 2.5mm headphone jack.
DAPs are used for replacing the smart phone as the primary audio player. FiiO make excellent DAPs that can be paired with pair of in-ear monitors or over ear headphones. Their newest FiiO M11 Music Player has an android based operating system, dual AKM AK4493 DACs, balanced headphone outputs, and wheel for volume control.
This DAC sits among your HiFi components and will purely convert Digital to Analog. It acts as another component on your HiFi rack and is designed to do it’s job extremely well. It usually has various digital inputs like optical, coaxial, and USB. The primary output would be RCA, or Balanced XLR connections. These can range from the affordable but quality Topping DACs like the D10 USB DAC, or the money-is-no-object audiophiles dream DAC, Chord Electronics DAVE.
Stand-alone DACs sit nicely in your system and make your current digital components even better. For example, you can turn your CD player (if it has a digital output) into a CD transport allowing a good DAC to upgrade the sound quality,. This is one of the most common uses of implementing a DAC into a HiFi system. The Cambridge Audio DACMagic + is a great sounding DAC with an excellent ATF2 upsampling system, that up samples all the audio it outputs through the analog connections. It also comes packed Dual Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs allowing each channel to be converter independently, this increases sound stage and channel separation.
Then you have the Chord Qutest which is Chord’s incredibly small but potent desktop DAC. They call it their most ‘pure’ DAC. It is the latest evolution of their most affordable standalone DAC, the multi-award-winning 2Qute, which it directly replaces.
Component with Excellent internal DAC
Another option is to get a quality component that has an excellent DAC. This will open up many doors and sources to your system. The Cambridge Audio CXN V2 it at the top of our list in this category. It it a fully fledged audiophile preamplifier. Setting up the CXN into Preamp mode will allow you to hook it up to a power amplifier (or monoblocks) through the analog outputs. This Streamer has USB, Optical and Coaxial inputs making it ideal for a standalone DAC. What sets this Streamer apart from the rest is the flexibility. Being Chromecast audio enabled your favourite services (TIDAL, Spotify, iHeart Radio, NAS) are so easy to access through the CXN V2. Implementing their 2nd generation digital filter just like they do in the DACMagic+ everything played through the CXN is up-scaled to 24-bit/384kHz before going through the excellent Dual Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DACs. The large screen on the front is really nice for seeing the album art and track info, it’s the best we have ever seen.
The ARCAM CDS50 is a CD/SACD player with network streaming capabilities. This would be an upgrade to a CD player in a current system but add a whole lot more functionality to the system. The CDS50 has a superb 32-bit DAC and will play SACD. Use the ARCAM MusicLife App on iOS and Android to access the audio files stored on your phone, access your NAS and stream TIDAL, Deezer, qobuz and Net radio.
Sources: WHAT HIFI, Chord electronics, Cambridge audio, Topping, CNET