DACS & Amps: What Are They?

DAC’s and Amps are common terms in the audio world, but if you aren’t an audio enthusiast it’s easy to get confused by the technical jargon. This article aims to explain what both of these products are, how to shop for one, and how they can help you get the most out of your current equipment.

how-a-dac-works

What Is A DAC?

A DAC is short for digital to analogue converter. Even though you may not know it, almost every audio device has a built-in DAC! They take the basic signal sent from your audio player and convert it into something your speakers can understand. In essence, a DAC is a translator that connects your computer and it’s speakers!

What Is An Amp?

An Amp (or amplifier) works together with a DAC to play sound from your device. When a DAC translates an audio signal, it’s still too “quiet” to audibly play through your speakers. The amp then boosts (amplifies) this signal, so you can hear your music!

Quick Note: DACs and Amps are standard in every audio device including ipods, sound cards, and home audioreceivers.

Here’s a simplified heirarchy of how an ipod plays music.

1. You select a song for your Ipod to play

2. The Ipod send the audio signal to it’s built-in DAC

3. The DAC translates the signal into something your speakers can understand

4. The AMP boost the signal so your speaker can play it loud

If My Audio Device Has These Built In Already Why Would I Buy One?

It’s all about quality! Built in DACs and Amps in almost all products are low quality and designed with a low price in mind (high-end receivers are an exception here).

For example, if every laptop came with a high quality DAC/Amp built in, it would cost much more. The company making these products isn’t aiming to provide you with a high quality audio machine, so they cut costs and include a cheap DAC/Amp that simply get’s the job done.

This is especially applicable to devices who’s primary function ISN’T playing audio, such as computers and smart-phones.

How Can I know If My Device Has A Low Quality DAC Or Amp?

There are a lot of tells that give this away. Here’s a short list

1. Unintended Noise – Buzzing or static sound when music is or isn’t being played.

2. Quiet Music – Sounds or music don’t play loud enough.

3. Low Audio Quality – The sounds played simply don’t sound good!

4. Distortion At High Volume – When audio is turned on high volume, artifacts or distortion is heard.

What Are The Main Benefits Of An External DAC/Amp? Who Should Look Into Buying One?

In general, the main benefits are that the issues above will be completely fixed. Here are a few examples of people that would get the most out of an external DAC.

If You Love High Quality Audio – If this is you, that’s what we call an “audiophile”. anyone who loves crystal clear audio, screaming highs, tight bass, or beautiful music in general.

If You Own A Pair Of High-End HeadPhones – High end headphones are designed to handle a lot more than (almost) any audio device can throw at them. Brands like Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic are great examples of headphones that will sound absolutely stunning when paired with an external DAC. Speaking from personal experience, the difference is night and day when paired with hardware that can handle a quality signal output.

If You Play Music At Gatherings – This is a bit broad, I know. But in all seriousness I have been to my fair share of gatherings where a bluetooth speaker or receiver simply couldn’t get loud enough to create a “party” atmosphere.

If You’re Looking To Get The Most Out Of Your Current Audio System – Again, whether it’s a bluetooth speaker, decent set of earbuds/headphones, or desktops speakers I can’t stress the difference in sound quality you will hear by using an external DAC. The only asterisk I would put on this would be if you currently listen using anything less then $100. If that is the case, your money is better spent on some nicer speakers or headphones.

Who Would Not Benefit From An External DAC

All of that being said, My mother (whom I love dearly) would be a great example of someone who should not buy a DAC. She’s the type of person who will watch non-HD channels on her 55 inch smart TV without a care in the world (and there’s nothing wrong with that)! We’re not out to judge you, it’s simple a difference in taste. Along the same lines, she doesn’t put much importance on the quality of audio she listens to and purchasing an external DAC would be a waste of money.

Are There Different Kinds Of DAC/Amp Combinations?

Yes and no. All DAC technology is similar, but different DAC connect in different ways. For example, If you’re trying to play audio through your smart-phone, you should look into a wireless DAC (like the MiniBlink). If you’re primary function is for playing music through a computer, you will need to connect with a USB DAC (Arcam rPAC).

Is An External DAC Right For Me?

The first step is determining if you have the correct hardware to benefit from a high-end DAC. If you’re using a pair of Wal-Mart $30 speakers (or comparable headphones), your money would be much better spent on a better set of speakers.

If you have the proper listening equipment adding DAC will make a night and day difference, increasing your overall listening experience substantially.

I’m Sold, How Should I Go About Shopping For A DAC?

The first step is determining what you’re going to pair the DAC with. Second, determine your maximum price point (DACs can be anywhere from $100 to a few thousand). Once you have that figured out, check out our DAC’s and Amp’s section for a list of our personal favorites.

And as always, we’re happy to custom-tailor a recommendation based on your needs! Getting in touch with us is easy, just use our “Contact Us” page and we’ll get back to you shortly!

 

If you felt that this article lacks important information, feel free to comment below and we will append as needed!

Posted in: DAC's & Amplifiers
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4 Comments on "DACS & Amps: What Are They?"

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  1. Sam Bernikier says:

    Thank you for this article. I am using $150 Denon DSB100 Bluetooth speakers with my laptop. Would I improve the sound with an external DAC? If yes, which DAC would I need to connect via Bluetooth to my Bluetooth speakers? Thank you!

    • Matthew Nance says:

      Hey Sam,

      Thanks for getting in touch. You’ve got great taste in speakers, absolutely love the DSB100’s!

      1 – Yes! An external DAC does offer quality and performance benefits for powered speakers.
      2 – Two of my favorite options are both offered by Arcam. The rPAC offers amazing performance for the price, and the miniBlink is a great option if you’re looking for an option that uses bluetooth.

      That being said, you’re going to get the most bang for buck by pairing a DAC with passive speakers, such as headphones. For example – using a DAC with my $200-ish bluetooth speakers gives me a 25%-50% improvement, but using a DAC with similarly priced headphones gives me the full 100% improvement.

      Of course this is a very crude example, there are a lot more factors than active vs passive, but I think it gets the idea across.

      To sum up – I think purchasing a DAC is worth the money if you’re using a set of nice headphones. If you’re only planning on using external speakers, you’re better off spending money elsewhere.

      Let me know if you have any other questions!

      Here are two options that I’ve personally reviewed in the past.

  2. Cheehpogi says:

    I have an onkyo a 900 it has a built in Wolfson DAC, would I still benefit with an external dac?

    • Matthew Nance says:

      I wouldn’t recommend it, your Onkyo already has a high quality DAC built-in.

      A DAC’s impact will be most noticeable on devices that aren’t built purely for high quality audio playback (laptops, smartphones, ipads/ipods). While there’s a possibility you would see small gains, your money would be better spent elsewhere.

      Great question!

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