Ever wonder how you hear the sounds from your games, music, or movie files when you’re using your computer?
The reason why you hear the sounds coming from your computer is thanks to a nifty component: the DAC.
DAC stands for “Digital-to-Analog” Converter. You see, the audio files that are stored on your computer are in digital format, meaning, the audio signal is comprised of 0’s and 1’s. This type of format can only be read by the computer and your speaker (analog system) cannot comprehend it.
Therefore, the DAC’s job is to convert that digital files to readable analog signals so that you can finally hear the sound coming from a particular digital source (may it be an audio file from your game, an MP3, or a movie file).
In this article, I will talk about DACs and I will also recommend some of the best that you can buy on the market.
So before anything else, what is a DAC and how does it truly work?
What is a DAC?
As mentioned earlier in the article, a DAC is an acronym that stands for “Digital-to-Analog Converter.”
Your motherboard comes with a sound chip and the DAC. The DAC is responsible for converting those digital signals into analog signals for use in your audio output device (like a pair of headphones or a complete speaker system).
Back in the day, the DAC that comes with your motherboard is subpar and it can produce jitters. Jitters are produced when there is a timing error in converting the digital to the analog signal. These jitters can be in the form of audio skipping or those hissing sounds that you might hear every now and then.
Fast forward to today, onboard DACs have vastly improved, making them good enough to prevent those jitters. However, since your motherboard produces a lot of Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) due to the components that are on the board, hissing and unwanted audio distortions are still a threat despite these improvements.
So, if you want to prevent that from happening and if you also value audio quality and performance, then you may want to get an external DAC instead. An external DAC is plugged into your computer via a USB connection and it has lots of advantages. Two of the biggest advantages of an external DAC is that it doesn’t suffer from EMI since the DAC is outside of the PC and two, the audio quality it produces is much, much better compared to the onboard DAC.
Now that you know what a DAC is, it is time for you to be educated on the most important terminologies associated with the DAC.
- Jitter- Digital timing errors; can be characterized by audio skips and hissing
- EMI- Electromagnetic Interference; interference that can be acquired from an onboard DAC due to its presence on the motherboard. The Motherboard and its many components can produce this EMI. This is usually characterized by the hissing sounds you can hear from your audio device (speakers or headphones).
- PCM- Pulse Code Modulation; A digital medium that transmits analog data.
- THD- Total Harmonic Distortion; It is a measure of the unwanted noise and distortion that was created during the conversion process. It is expressed in percentage and the lower it is, the better the conversion.
- SNR- Signal-to-Noise Ratio- This refers to the ratio between the desired sound from the unwanted noise. The higher the SNR rating of a DAC, the better the audio quality.
- Dynamic Range- The difference between the smallest and the largest signals that the DAC is able to convert. It is denoted by Decibels (dB).
- Noise Floor- All of the audible background and unwanted noise in a recording. The lower the noise floor, the better.
- Bit Depth- Simply put, bit depth refers to the number of bits of data in each audio sample.
- Sampling Rate- a term that refers to the number of audio “samples” that are carried per second. This is denoted in Hertz (Hz) or Kilohertz (KHz).
Best External DACs
Now that you know what DACs are, it is time for me to recommend some of the best external DACs that you can buy on the market.
Do note that External DACs are converters that can be powered with the use of your computer’s USB slot and some would require additional power from a power adapter. Most of the DACs I am going to recommend have powerful headphone jacks that can power even high-impedance headphones.
So, without further ado, let’s get started with…
- FIIO E10K
Pros: Inexpensive, Solid build quality, Amplified Headphone Jack, Bass Boost
Cons: Barebones no. of ports, May lack some Bass for some people
Many gamers do not want to spend additional money to get a dedicated DAC, but if you want to try one without breaking the bank, then the FIIO E10K is a very good choice.
The E10K is a very modest DAC in that it only supports headphones and some RCA inputs. But, there are two standout features that you may want: the bass boost and the added gain.
The Bass Boost adds another 3dB to the lowest frequency that this DAC supports (which is 20Hz) which amplify the output bass. This feature is a bit of a mixed bag; others like the additional bass while for some people, not so much. The people who dislike this feature said that it “muddies” the sound output. But, audio quality is quite a subjective topic, is it not?
The other feature is the added gain. Basically, it gives the headphones a little bit of power so that you can use some high-impedance headphones. Both of these features can easily be toggled with a flick of a switch.
This DAC also comes with an amplified headphone jack that can power high-impedance headphones. However, since this the E10K is only powered via the USB connection, it lacks some of the extra power needed to make other high-impedance headphones work.
If you have a pair of headphones with an impedance of 150 Ohm and below, it should work fine with the E10K. Otherwise, you will need a much more powerful DAC.
If you have $75 to spend on a DAC, then the FIIO E10K is one of the best budget DACs on the market.
- Creative Sound Blaster E5
Pros: Impressive sound, Multiple ports, Bluetooth, Highly customizable through software
Creative is a company that you can trust when it comes to audio. They have created the “Sound Blaster” lineup to cater to gamers. But this time around, they’ve created an External DAC/AMP that will satisfy not only PC gamers but also people who use their smartphones to listen to music or watch movies as well.
Introducing the Creative Sound Blaster E5, a revolutionary DAC/AMP that allows you to plug it into a computer, use it as a recorder thanks to its built-in mic, plug in your smartphone, or you can use its Bluetooth to listen to music from there.
Creative has done a lot of great things to this particular product. It has two headphone jacks that can power high-impedance headphones. Do note that it can support up to 330-Ohm headphones but if you want to drive headphones that have a much higher impedance rating, you can just toggle the switch on the side for more gain. This DAC can support up to 600-ohm (with the gain switch turned on), so no matter how power-hungry your headphone is, you’re sure that it will work with the Sound Blaster E5.
The Sound Blaster E5 uses the Cirrus Logic CS 4398 DAC which can process a 24-bit/192KHz audio file via the USB connection. If you plug an iPhone, it will fall down to 24-bit/48KHz and 16-bit/44.1KHz for Android devices. For its processor, the E5 is powered by the Creative SB Axx1, which is a pretty good audio processor.
This DAC/AMP can be plugged to the computer thanks to its Micro-USB connection. It can also act as a recorder because it has a built-in microphone and if you choose to use another microphone, you can plug it in with the line/mic ports at the back of the device.
It is important to note that even though you can plug in two additional microphones, only two of them will be active at a time (there’s a total of three microphones: two line/microphone outputs and a built-in microphone).
This DAC/AMP comes with a convenient stand so that it can stay in place whenever you put it on top of a desk along with your computer.
Since this device can be used to listen to music via Bluetooth, the Sound Blaster E5 has batteries that can last up to 8 hours; just enough for you to plow through your day before charging it. Speaking of charging, this DAC/AMP can be charged by plugging it into your computer.
The Creative Sound Blaster E5 can be further enhanced by downloading its drivers. Once you fire up its software, you will be given the freedom to enable the equalizer, tweak the CrystalVoice feature that enhances microphone quality, and you can also enable Scout Mode which enhances positional audio, just to name a few features.
This DAC/AMP is a perfect one, although you have to spend a lot of money on it. Still, you will get your money’s worth with this one.
- Audioengine D1
Pros: Simple and compact form factor, RCA and Optical inputs, Solid audio performance
Cons: No optical cable included, Slightly expensive, No software
In today’s world, people usually associate things as “bigger is better”, but that is not the case when talking about DACs. The Audioengine D1 might be a small and compact DAC, but it does boast of great audio performance under its small exterior.
The Audioengine D1 is a simple, no-frills DAC that has a headphone jack on the front, a couple of RCA inputs at the back, and it also has an S/PDIF optical output located at the back as well.
On the front, you will see the volume knob (labeled as the output level), the amplified headphone jack, and the power button.
You can just plug this baby into your computer via the included USB cable and then you can just plug either your headphones or a dedicated speaker system.
Audio quality is pretty good thanks to its AK4396 DAC. Although it is not specified, the D1 can drive high-impedance headphones (despite the lack of a gain button, the DAC can still power headphones that have 300-ohms and above).
This DAC can process any digital audio with a bit depth of 24-bits and a sample rate of 192 KHz, which is a pretty good range. SNR is good at 110 dB and it also has an amazing frequency response of 10Hz-25,000Hz.
According to a lot of people, the Audioengine D1 offers an impressive sound stage and this can be attributed to its impressive frequency response. The Bass is punchy while mids and highs are at respectable levels. Nothing is overbearing.
Even though the D1 supports Optical inputs, the company did not include a cable for it. This DAC is slightly expensive but it is pretty much worth every penny considering its impressive performance.
The Audioengine D1 is one of those small and simple things that just work,
- Schiit Modi 2 Uber
Pros: Solid Build Quality, Great performance for the price
Cons: Requires a wall wart, The Input selector is a bit wonky, Headphone amplifier is a separate purchase
Schiit has been highly regarded by audiophiles as a company that caters to the specific crowd. Audiophiles are very picky when it comes to audio quality and if you’re looking for a high-quality DAC, Schiit should be one of the companies to turn to.
The Schiit Modi 2 Uber is another DAC that costs below $150. Do not be fooled by its low price because it is actually one of the better sounding DACs in the market.
This DAC has a rather simple but sturdy design. It is made of metal and it has an aluminum chassis to protect the delicate innards.
On the front, you will see the product name and a button. This button is actually the input selector which allows you to cycle through the three different inputs you have put into the DAC. You can either choose between USB, RCA, or Coaxial inputs.
The Schiit Modi 2 Uber DAC supports up to 24-bit/ 192KHz quality which means that you’re getting a pretty good DAC for the price of under $150.
Now, there are two huge things that you need to be aware of. First, the Modi 2 Uber does not have an amplified headphone jack. If you really want one, you need to buy the Schiit Magni 2 Uber, which is going to be another separate purchase.
Second, to power this thing, you will need a wall wart. For those of you who do not know, Wall Warts are kind of like power adapters that convert AC current from the wall and converts it to DC power for the DAC to use.
Despite these two shortcomings, the audio quality of the Modi 2 Uber is pretty good. According to a lot of people, the Modi 2 Uber produces a “warm” sound signature and it pretty much cleans up any distortions that come up upon converting the digital file to analog signals.
If you want a solid DAC under $150, then the Schiit Modi 2 Uber is definitely up for consideration.
- Audioquest Dragonfly Red
Pros: USB form factor, Can power high-impedance headphones, Impressive sound quality
Cons: May not power headphones that have an impedance of more than 330 Ohms, only one audio input can be used at a time
The Audioquest Dragonfly DACs have become highly acclaimed since its release back in 2012. Since then, the company has released two new additional DACs that promise more efficiency and power to drive those high-impedance headphones.
The one I am going to talk about here is the Audioquest Dragonfly Red. Yes, the black and the red editions are a bit different in specs and is not only for its aesthetics. The red version is actually a bit more powerful and can drive high-impedance headphones with relative ease. More on that later.
This DAC actually has a USB form factor and it is pretty compact and portable. You just plug this device inside an empty USB slot, plug in your favorite headphones, and you’re good to go. You can also use a discrete speaker setup; just make sure to use a 3.5mm connector.
The Audioquest Dragonfly Red is intended for use not only in desktops and laptops, but also for Android smartphones as well. It is powered by the 32-bit SABRE DAC and has a higher voltage rating at 2.1v compared to the Dragonfly Black.
You’re probably wondering how this small thing can convert digital files to analog signals. Well, the company makes use of the “asynchronous USB” technology. This technology overrides the timing of the conversion so that the jitters will not be present in the final output.
Despite its lower supported sample rate (at 24-bit/96KHz), it is still pretty good. Just don’t compare it to other DACs. Just hear it to believe that this DAC does its job pretty well.
As previously mentioned, the Dragonfly Red can be used with Android smartphones as well. Just make sure that you are using the correct Android version (Lollipop and above) and have the appropriate firmware installed for the DAC. Connect it via the OTG cable, place your headphone, and blast away!
Now, despite the company’s claims that it can power even power-hungry, high-impedance headphones, some users report that it cannot power more than 300-ohm impedance headphones.
Even though that is the case, there aren’t a lot of high-impedance headphones on the market anyway, at least, the vast consumer uses a pair of headphones with an acceptable impedance rating.
Probably, the biggest downside of the Audioquest Dragonfly Red is its lack of additional ports. Some RCA and optical ports would’ve been nice, but I guess this product was intended as a compact and portable DAC that you can carry with you anywhere.
As for its audio performance, again, it is pretty good for its form factor. I guess that some things are formidable despite their smaller stature, and the Dragonfly Red is definitely one of them.
Make no mistake, the Audioquest Dragonfly Red has been praised by a lot of people. So if you want a DAC that has been acclaimed by a lot of people, then the Audioquest Dragonfly Red warrants a purchase.
Tips to Maximize your DAC
Once you’ve gotten your very own external DAC, you need to be aware of these tips so that you can make the most out of them.
- Have a good set of speakers and headphones. The DAC just improves upon your current sound setup; so if you have a crappy pair of headphones or a mediocre set of speakers, the DAC will not be fully utilized. Make sure to get a good pair of cans or a solid speaker system to get the most out of the DAC.
- Aim for Lossless Audio files. Another great tip is to use lossless audio files like FLAC or WAV. This ensures that you get the highest possible audio quality. If you’re using MP3 files, just make sure to opt for the 256 or 320kbps variant.
- Do not use “gaming” headsets. Audiophiles and gamers who value gaming audio would tell the novice user to ditch gaming headsets. That is because the said headsets have mediocre sound quality. Again, the DAC can only do so much in improving the audio quality, so you will need a good pair of cans to make the most out of your setup. Get studio-grade headphones instead.
- Ensure that the cables are plugged in properly. This might be common sense, but you’ll be surprised to know that a lot of people make this mistake. When you find that you’re not getting the full benefit of the DAC and you just hear that odd, distortion-laden sound, then check the cables. See to it that the cables are plugged in correctly.
- Use Companion Software Whenever it’s Available. Although most DACs work right out of the box, some of them have companion software. Use the DAC’s companion software when it has one so that you can further improve its capabilities.
- Update firmware/drivers. Again, most DACs do not need drivers, but there are some that come with them and have their own firmware as well. It is good practice to update the DAC’s drivers or firmware to ensure that you’re getting the most out of them.
What to look for when buying a Digital-to-Analog Converter?
Before you head out and buy an external DAC, it is important that you know the things to look for- what features and qualities you need so that you will get the most bang for your buck.
So, what are the things that you need to look at before buying one?
- I think that DACs are not something that most people or gamers would spend money on. But, if you want to buy one, it is best that you look at the price first. Establish a budget so that you can narrow down your options.
- Not all DACs are created equal. There are some DACs that have a multitude of ports while some just have a lone 3.5mm headphone jack. Before getting one, make sure that the DAC you’re going to buy has enough ports that you need.
- In simple terms, Upsampling is a manner of increasing a certain sampling rate, giving you a higher quality audio. Although most DACs are equipped with this feature, make sure that the DAC you’re getting does indeed have this one in its feature set.
- Jitter Reduction. Jitter, as previously mentioned, are digital timing errors that are characterized by audio skips and other unwanted distortions. Make sure to get a DAC that has an efficient Jitter Reduction feature so that the output signal provides a clean sound.
- Build Quality. Since we’re talking about external DACs, it is important that you get one that is sturdy enough. Accidents happen sometimes and you might drop it, have external physical forces damage it, or something of the sort. Having a DAC with a solid build quality ensures that it will last for a very long time.
- Do you need a microphone? Some DACs have a built-in ADC (Analog-to-Digital Converters). If you need a microphone for gaming and other purposes, then get a DAC that has an ADC. Do note that most of these DACs cost more than others.
- DACs, as I’ve said, are things that not a lot of people are willing to spend money on. Buy a DAC that has all the necessary accessories that you need. These can be USB cables, Coaxial cables, Optical cables, among others.
- Other features. Some DACs can be used not only in computers but also for smartphones as well. If you’re going to use the DAC for your phone, make sure that it has a hefty battery and a Bluetooth functionality. Look at its features and see if it satisfies your need for a DAC.
Digital-to-Analog converters are essential if you want to hear digital music files. Although there are already DACs built into your computers and smartphones, not all of them produce a high-quality sound.
In most cases, you won’t need a DAC. But, if you value high-quality audio that much, then I highly recommend getting one.
If you have a hard time finding the best DACs on the market, do not worry as I have already mentioned the five best ones you can find.
The DACs that are mentioned in this article are relatively inexpensive and they do the job pretty well as a lot of people have also recommended them to other people.
So to recap: if you just want sound to come out from your computer or smartphone, then you won’t have a need to buy an external DAC.
However, if you want better sound quality overall, then definitely get a DAC that suits your needs.