The Ultimate DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) Buyer’s Guide 2021


So you’re wondering which DAC (digital-analog converter) you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer’s guide, we’ll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about a digital-analog converter.

If you’ve found yourself asking, “which DAC should I buy?” this extensive resource is for you.

Please feel free to jump around this article and read all additional resources I have provided links to.

With that, let’s get into this comprehensive DAC buyer’s guide to help you in your next interface purchase!

Related article:
Top 9 Best Portable DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) Brands
Top 11 Best Desktop DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) Brands


Table Of Contents


What Is Your DAC Budget?

The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, and so I’ll keep this section brief.

I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.

DACs, like many audio devices, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget.

Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option.

Consider the cost to benefit ratio of the DAC purchase. For example, if the DAC is needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. On the other hand, if you don’t plan on making money with the DAC, perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.

Also, consider any upkeep that may be required for your DAC.

Only you can determine your budget. All I’m here to say is that you should consider it.

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Do You Even Need A DAC?

Before opting to spend money on a dedicated digital-analog converter, we should all ask ourselves if the purchase is necessary.

A dedicated high-end DAC is really only needed if your playback system has a lacklustre digital-analog converter. This could be the case with smartphones, laptops or digital amplifiers and receivers in home sound systems.

Though many consumer-grade digital audio devices may be susceptible to noise, distortion, digital artifacts, and otherwise poor audio, most modern devices have pretty decent DACs. These DACs are found near the output jacks (headphone or speaker) of the aforementioned devices.

It could also be the case that your playback device does not support the full bitrate of the audio files, which could result in a loss of quality.

So do you need a DAC? Likely not, though if you believe the built-in or the current inline DAC to be the weakest link in the audio signal chain, you could consider it.

For example, if you’re listening to Hi-Res audio files (like FLAC or .wav) from your laptop through high-end audiophile-grade headphones, you may benefit from a dedicated DAC.

Conversely, suppose you’re streaming music on your smartphone and listening through earbuds while jogging. In that case, a DAC won’t do much to enhance the listening experience and will likely be a nuisance as an additional piece of hardware in the chain.

So to wrap up, if you’re not using a Hi-Fi digital audio player but your headphones or speakers/monitors are high-quality, consider looking into a dedicated DAC. Similarly, suppose the DAC of your playback device has truly outdated specs, which lead to noise, distortion and artifacts. In that case, a DAC may be worth considering (though upgrading the playback device may make just as much or more of a difference).

Otherwise, a DAC may not be the wisest purchase decision, especially if you’re on a budget. The price-to-benefit ratio is unlikely to be high.

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DAC Inputs/Outputs

Now that we’ve discussed budget and whether a DAC is right for your setup, let’s consider the I/O specifications that can be expected from a standalone DAC.

As we could expect, a dedicated DAC will have digital audio inputs and analog audio outputs.

Typical DAC Inputs

USB (Universal Serial Bus): USB is one of the most popular standards for digital connections in consumer audio and also finds itself in professional applications. USB A, B and C connectors are available, and adapters may allow for additional compatibility.

Lightning: Lightning is a proprietary computer bus and power connector by Apple.

RCA Coaxial: RCA coaxial DAC inputs will provide S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) compatibility, which can carry two channels of uncompressed PCM audio or 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound with compressed audio.

BNC Coaxial: coaxial DAC inputs will provide S/PDIF or AES3 (Audio Engineering Society) compatibility, which can carry two channels of uncompressed PCM audio or 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound with compressed audio or two channels of PCM digital audio, respectively.

Toslink optical: Toslink optical DAC inputs will provide S/PDIF compatibility, which can carry two channels of uncompressed PCM audio or 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound with compressed audio.

XLR: 3-pin XLR can input two channels of PCM digital audio as per the AES3 standard.

Note that in the case that a DAC has multiple inputs, it should also have a way of selecting the appropriate input/source.

Typical DAC Outputs

3.5mm (1/8″) headphone jack: this headphone jack output connects to 3.5mm plugs and carries unbalanced stereo audio. These jacks can be balanced or unbalanced.

4.4mm (1/8″) headphone jack: the 4.4mm Pentaconn headphone jack output is generally a 5-pole (TRRRS) balanced connection.

6.35mm (1/4″) headphone jack: this headphone jack output connects to 6.35mm plugs and carries unbalanced stereo audio. These jacks can be balanced or unbalanced.

RCA Coaxial: these outputs are generally in stereo pairs, with each RCA output outputting unbalanced analog line level signals.

XLR: 3-pin XLR is a common output for balanced audio and can carry mic, line or speaker level depending on input signal strength and whether the DAC has a built-in preamp and/or power amp.

Other I/O

The classification of a device as a “DAC” can be stretched pretty far. Some DACs include headphone amplifiers, phono preamplifiers, integrated amplifiers, digital audio players and more. Though not necessarily the focus of this article, you’ll likely come across these “DACs” when doing your own research, so let’s consider a few more I/O you’ll likely come across.

Furthermore, some DACs have analog inputs and digital outputs incorporated into their design; see the lists above for more information since many cross over between digital/analog and input/output.

That being said, you may find the following I/O on a DAC:

  • Binding post speaker outputs (analog)
  • RCA inputs for phono level analog signals
  • BNC for word clock inputs and output (for integration with larger digital audio systems)
  • BNC or optical for MADI (Multichannel Audio Digital Interface)
  • Optical for S/MUX (Sample Multiplexing)
  • Optical for ADAT Lightpipe
  • 3.5mm for remote control connections

Beyond the physical connections, some DACs even offer Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity. Wi-Fi allows access to various proprietary wireless communication protocols, including Apple’s AirPlay, Denon’s HEOS, DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), Google’s Chromecast, and Spotify’s Connect3.

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DACs Vs. Audio Interfaces

Standalone audio interfaces are popular in the recording studio and broadcast markets. They offer digital-to-analog conversion and allow computers and other digital devices to connect to analog playback devices such as headphones and speakers.

So then, what are the differences between audio interfaces and DACs?

Audio interfaces act as digital-analog converters and as analog-digital converters. DACs, on the other hand, are designed only for digital-analog conversion.

Audio interfaces allow for inputs and outputs to interface with the computer. An audio interface can be designed with numerous inputs for microphones, instruments, line level signals (and a variety of networked or digital audio signals protocols). It can also have a variety of outputs, including headphones, monitors, line outs, and networked and digital outputs.

Audio interfaces have built-in DACs that are also generally superior to consumer-grade sound cards. These interfaces also drive headphones and speakers and require analog audio outputs to do so.

So DACs act as the output audio device of the computer and convert the computer’s digital audio to analog audio. Audio interfaces can be selected as the computer’s audio input and output device and therefore require ADCs and DACs.

Related My New Microphone articles:
The Ultimate Audio Interface Buyer’s Guide
Top 11 Best Audio Interface Brands In The World
How Much Do Audio Interfaces Cost? (With Pricing Examples)

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System Requirements

The system requirements for DACs are typically solely in regards to the operating system (the version of macOS, iOS, Android, Windows, etc.).

A computer’s operating system manages its memory and processes along with all of its software and hardware. The OS must be compatible with the DAC for proper communicating between the two.

These aren’t the most exciting specs but are worth the brief mention in this article.

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DAC Form Factor (Portable Vs. Desktop)

Let’s consider the typical form factors for DACs, namely portable and desktop options.

Desktop DACs range in size and are meant to sit on a desktop, hence the name. They are not designed to be particularly portable (designed to move around while in use).

Related article: Top 11 Best Desktop DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) Brands

Portable DACs are designed mostly as single-channel inline interfaces and can be quickly patched in and moved around during audio playback.

Many portable DACs are simple USB-to-3.5mm or Lightning-to-3.5mm converters.

Related article: Top 9 Best Portable DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) Brands

Other Devices With Built-In DACs

As discussed previously, there are other audio devices worth considering that have built-in DACs. Some examples include:

  • Headphones amplifiers
  • Digital audio players
  • Other digital devices with audio playback (smartphones, laptops, etc.)
  • Audio interfaces
  • AV receivers
  • Integrated amplifiers
  • Digital audio mixers and consoles
  • USB microphones with headphone outputs

Related articles:
The Ultimate Audio Interface Buyer’s Guide
The Ultimate AV Receiver/Amplifier Buyer’s Guide

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DAC Resolution Specifications: Bit-Depth & Sample Rate

When it comes to converting digital audio, a DAC must be able to decode the discrete information of the digital signals.

Digital audio resolution is made up of sample rate, which is the number of times the audio is discretely sampled per second, and bit-depth, which is the number of possible amplitude values that could be assigned to any given sample.

The DAC’s job is to convert this discrete digital information into a continuously varying voltage (analog audio). The higher the resolution, the more accurate the audio, but the harder the DAC must work.

Common sample rates include:

  • 44.1 kHz
  • 48 kHz
  • 88.2 kHz
  • 96 kHz
  • 176.4 kHz
  • 192 kHz

Common bit-depths include 24-bit (16,777,215 possible amplitude values and a maximum dynamic range of 144 dB) and 16-bit (65,536 possible amplitude values and a maximum dynamic range of 96 dB).

Any of the above sample rates and bit-depths will provide enough dynamic range and frequency response for a complete listening experience due to how humans hear. Let’s quickly go through the stats.

According to NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), humans can safely listen to 96 dB SPL level sound for about 30 minutes. If we have a dynamic range of 96 dB (the difference between the lowest and highest level), then with no noise floor (0 dB), we’d max out at a level that is only safe to listen for 30 minutes. Of course, there’s a lot more to it but simply put, 16-bit is more than enough and 24-bit (144 dB dynamic range) is plenty.

According to the Nyquist theorem, the maximum audio frequency that can be represented at any given sampling rate is equal to half the sampling rate. Humans can hear 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, so a sample rate of 44.1 kHz (which will provide a maximum frequency of 22,050 Hz) is more than enough to cover our hearing range. Any sample rate above 44.1 kHz is good to go as well.

So then, CD-quality (16-bit 44.1 kHz) gives us what we need for a complete listening experience.

That being said, higher resolutions provide more accurate results objectively (and subjectively in some cases).

Digital audio files will have their own resolution. The higher the resolution of the audio file, the greater its accuracy (though many other factors affect its actual subjective quality).

DACs will decode the incoming digital audio format for conversion. If the DAC has specs higher than the audio file, it should be perfectly capable of converting that audio file accurately. If not, downconversion should occur, whereby some information will be lost from the digital audio file upon conversion.

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Wired Vs. Wireless DACs

Like so much of our modern technology, DACs can also be wireless.

In most cases, this means the DAC will connect to the digital playback device via Bluetooth. However, some designs utilize “regular” RF wireless technology, incorporating a transmitter that plugs into the playback device and a receiver built into the DAC unit itself.

Either way, the digital audio quality is subject to any degradation involved in wireless communication.

For example, Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) is the Bluetooth standard profile for transferring high-quality stereo audio signals. The codecs used within this profile could affect the audio quality (SBC, aptX, aptX HD, AAC, LDAC, etc.). The version of Bluetooth used will also play a role in the quality of the digital audio signals being transmitted.

It’s critical to note that Bluetooth transmits digital audio. Therefore, wireless DACs must connect physically to their transducers (headphones or speakers). The wireless connectivity is strictly from the playback device to the DAC since outputting digital audio from the DAC to a Bluetooth speaker, or headphone would render the DAC pointless.

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Other DAC Specifications & Features Worth Considering

Beyond what’s been discussed thus far, there are other DAC specifications and features worth considering before making your next purchase.

Other DAC Specifications

Other important DAC specifications worth considering are:

Audio Formats

A DAC’s audio formats specification refers to which audio formats it can effectively read and convert.

Common digital audio formats to watch out for include:

PCM (pulse code modulation): this is the most common format, where the amplitude of the audio signal is sampled regularly at uniform intervals (sample rate), and each sample is quantized to the nearest amplitude value (bit-depth).

PCM is implemented in uncompressed audio codecs such as WAV, AIFF, AES3, and many more. Compressed codecs such as mp3, FLAC, ALAC, and many more. This audio format is largely defined by its sample rate, which is typically a multiple of the base 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz rate.

DSD (Direct Stream Digital): developed by Sony and Philips, this digital audio format utilizes pulse-density modulation. The digital audio is stored as delta-sigma modulated digital audio, which is a sequence of single-bit values at a sampling rate of 2.8224 MHz or a multiple thereof.

DSD is the audio standard used on Super Audio CD (SACD).

DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition): DXD is a PCM format coded with 24-bit resolution and sample rates starting 8x multiples of the standard PCM’s 44.1 and 48 (352.8 kHz or 384 base rates).

Though developed as a way to edit the aforementioned DSD, DXD found its way into the world of audio plugins. That being said, it is sometimes an option for recorded audio.

MQA (Master Quality Authenticated): developed by Meridian Audio, MQA is an audio codec using lossy compression that is intended for Hi-Fi music streaming.

Signal-To-Noise Ratio

As the name suggests, signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) refers to the ratio of the intended signal to the amount of unintended noise in the signal. This specification is generally given as decibels (dB) or decibels A-weighted (dBA)—dBA is designed to account for the natural frequency response of our hearing. These decibels are often relative to 0 dBFS, which is the maximum digital ceiling for amplitude.

So then, most SNR specs refer to the maximum amount of noise the DAC would ever produce in the signal.

If we remember our discussion on 16-bit bit-depth having a maximum dynamic range of 96 dB, we can infer that the best signal-to-noise ratio would be -96 dB (relative to 0 dBFS). With 24-bit audio, the best we can get is -144 dB (relative to 0 dBFS).

The lower the SNR, the better. However, we should note that the audio files themselves will inevitably have noise due to the recording and mixing processes. The SNR of a DAC is only indicative of how much noise will be introduced by the DAC itself.

Crosstalk

Crosstalk refers to the signal leakage between channels in a multi-channel system. Since most DACs can handle stereo audio (2-channels) or even surround sound (5.1, 7.1, and more), crosstalk is an important spec to understand.

Crosstalk is measured by sending audio along one channel and measuring the leakage on the other channel(s). It is expressed as a ratio between the channel with signal and the channel without, given in decibels. Usually, the test tone frequency is also given, though the overall specification is typically close enough to the holistic crosstalk across the audible frequency spectrum.

Recommended headphone impedance specifications offer a range of headphone input impedance ratings that will work optimally well with the DAC’s headphone output. Impedance bridging between the source (the DAC output) and the load (the headphone input) is required for optimal voltage/signal transfer.

To learn more about headphone impedance, check out my article The Complete Guide To Understanding Headphone Impedance.

Other DAC Features

Other important DAC features worth considering are:

LED Indicators

LED indicators can be used to indicate several pieces of information, including:

  • On/standby/off status
  • Sounce/input selected
  • Filter
  • Audio input resolution (incoming sample rate)

Filter Switch

Filters are required in the digital-to-analog conversion process to protect the signal from aliasing and impulse ringing (pre and post). Having a filter switch can alter the filters used in the DAC, offering slightly different sonic profiles and overall specs.

High/Low Gain Switch

High/low gain switches alter the DAC’s output levels between two different sets of gain. This feature is available with DACs with built-in amps and can be toggled depending on the needs of the connected headphones (or speakers).

Variable/Fixed Output Switch

Variable/fixed output switch toggles between allowing users to control the output level of the DAC or having the output level fixed.

Variable output is useful for driving headphones or speakers directly. Fixed output is preferred if the DAC connects to a power/integrated amplifier with its own amplification control.

Auto-Off

Auto-off is a feature that will cause the DAC to shut down automatically after a certain time if it’s left unused. This can help save batteries and prolong the lifespan of the DAC.

Ground Lift Switch

A Ground lift switch can lift the ground of the DAC and eliminate hum at the risk of ungrounding the DAC electrically.

Software-Upgradable

Some DAC manufacturers are confident that their hardware will be compatible with future software updates and offer this as a feature. As new and improved specifications come along, these DACs should be able to get upgraded via software.

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This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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