What is a DAC? + FAQs

If you are new to the audiophile world, then you will most likely be confused with the term DAC. Some users refer to it as a device, while some users refer to it as a DAC chip.

A DAC is a device that handles the digital processing of audio. They are found in any digital device that is capable of outputting sound. They are also available as a standalone device that can be paired with a headphone amplifier. They can also be found as a DAC/Amp combo.

In this article, we will be telling you everything that you need to know about DACs. We will be going through the different types as well as their respective use cases. We will also address some commonly asked quotations about DACs and DAC/Amps. Keep on scrolling to learn more about DACs. 

What is a DAC?

wireless headphone and dacs

A DAC is a component installed in devices to convert the digital signals in our devices into analog sound waves. Digital signals are impossible to be heard. Thus, the need for DACs for our sources to produce sounds.

There is also an outboard device which is also called a DAC. This device also has DACs or DAC chips inside. However, the DACs in this tool are of higher quality compared to the ones found on our smartphones and computers. 

These external DACs are mostly purchased by audiophiles and professionals. Unlike the ones installed in our devices, they make the sound from our sources better. 

There are a few types of DACs in the market. These are the standalone DAC and a DAC/Amp combo. Depending on your use cases, you can purchase a DAC for your equipment, such as the desktop DAC, portable DAC, and dongles.

What is a DAC Chip?

HIDIZS AP80 PRO MP3 Player with Bluetooth, High Resolution Lossless Music Player with LDAC/aptX/FLAC/Hi-Res Audio/FM Radio, Digital Audio Player with Full Touch Screen (Black)
HIDIZS AP80 PRO MP3 Player DAC Chip (Image: Amazon)

A DAC chip is the component in a DAC, DAP, or any device that is responsible for processing sound. When you hear brands such as AKM, ESS Sabre, and Cirrus Logic, then it refers to the manufacturers of the DAC chip.

The DAC Chip will determine the resolution and the type of files that are compatible with your device. They will almost determine the type of sound quality that you will get.

Different brands utilize different DAC chips in different ways. Some use a single DAC chip configuration, while others use a dual or multi DAC chip configuration. Check out our dedicated article about DAC Chips to learn more.

Types of DAC

There are different types of audiophile DACs. These are designed for different kinds of use cases. Here are some of the common types of DACs:

Standalone DAC

Schiit Modi 3+ D/A Converter - Delta-Sigma DAC (Silver)
Schiit Modi 3 DAC Silver (Image: Amazon)

The first type of DAC that we will be talking about is the standalone DAC. This device only contains a DAC chip and must be paired with a headphone amplifier. It does not have a headphone jack and therefore cannot be used by itself.

Standalone DACs have lots of advantages. Since other components do not need to be crammed into a single chassis, standalone DACs have more room for different types of ports. This makes most standalone DACs versatile devices that can be paired with different kinds of headphone amplifiers or different kinds of sources.

Additionally, with standalone DAC/Amps, you can specifically fine-tune the sound of your setup. Different DACs have different DAC chip configurations. Hence, different DACs will produce different kinds of sound.

By having the ability to choose what DAC you will be pairing with your headphone amp. You will be able to get exactly what you want. Of course, the only downside here is that your setup can easily get very expensive and complicated.

The majority of the standalone DACs in the market are desktop DACs. This means that you will most likely need ample room as well as a power outlet nearby.

DAC/Amp combo

FX Audio DAC Front View

For those looking for a simpler setup, DAC/Amp Combos are good alternatives. Unlike standalone DACs, DAC/Amp combos contain both a headphone amplifier and a DAC. This means that you can directly plug your headphone into these devices.

DAC/Amp combos are usually suggested to beginners who do not have a dedicated DAC or Amp and simply want a quick and easy solution to get the best sound possible. However, this does not mean that DAC/Amp combos are inferior to a dedicated DAC and Amp stack. In fact, having a DAC and an Amp that was matched specifically by the manufacturer guarantees good sound and synergy.

In terms of amplification power, most DAC/Amps already have a great headphone amplifier. However, if you own a pair of headphones that are sensitive to the type of headphone amplifier that you are using, then the good news is that you can still hook up your DAC/Amp to an external headphone amplifier. Also, you can pair your DAC/Amp combo to a tube headphone amplifier for a warmer sound signature.

Of course, DAC/Amp combos also have their downsides. Most DAC/Amps will most likely have fewer inputs and outputs compared to a DAC/Amp stack. You will also most likely lose the flexibility that you have with a DAC and Amp stack since you cannot change the DAC of your setup. But again, if all you are looking for is simplicity, then DAC/Amp combos are hard to beat.

Portable DAC/Amps

bkear diamond + ifi nano bl

One type of DAC/Amp that has been gaining a lot of popularity in recent years is the portable DAC/Amp. As its name suggests, portable DAC/Amps are smaller and more lightweight versions of traditional desktop DAC/Amps. They have a battery and are designed to be paired with other portable devices such as DAPs and smartphones.

Portable DACs can also be used in a desktop setup. This type of DAC was made for people to carry with them a device that will give them the best audio possible even outside their setup at home. This way, people can enjoy their stored music and streaming apps on their mobile phones.

As time went by, manufacturers also improved portable DACs. They are very close to the performance of desktop DACs. If you are the type of person, who is always outside, this type of DAC is recommended for you.

This type of DAC is the most common DAC used nowadays. Carrying a DAC with almost the same performance as desktop DACs but are easy to carry is very convenient.

The only problem with this is some portable DACs are quite bulky. Using them with your smartphones can be uncomfortable. Carrying two devices is heavy and difficult to hold. Some people buy a rubber to hold both the smartphone and the portable DAC together.

Dongles

One of the best alternatives to DAC/Amps is dongles. These are miniature-sized DAC/Amps that are specifically designed to connect to smartphones.

Dongles were pioneered by the likes of Apple. Later on, audiophile brands such as Astell & Kern and Lotoo adopted and refined the concept of dongles to give small devices that can rival DAPs.

Dongles are incredibly convenient. Most are quite small and do not add to the bulk of your smartphone. Also, lots of modern dongles are incredibly efficient, meaning they won’t easily drain the battery of your smartphone.

We have already checked out a couple of dongles on our website. The TC35B and TC25B, for instance, are incredibly small and could easily be left at the ends of your IEM cables. Additionally, we have checked out dongles such as the Audirect Beam 2SE that have MQA support for streaming services such as Tidal.

And, of course, we have tried out dongles such as the Earman Eagle that can easily rival entry DAPs both in terms of sound quality and amplification power. This Dongle is a USB type A DAC that can be directly plugged into your PCs or Laptops.

The bottom line is that dongles have become so advanced that they are already great devices for audiophiles on the go. Similar to how portable DACs, can almost compete with desktop DACs.

Gaming DACs

EPOS | SENNHEISER GSX 1200 PRO Gaming Audio Amplifier / External Sound Card, with 7.1 Surround Sound, Daisy Chain, Gaming DAC and EQ, Headphone amp Compatible with Windows, Mac, Laptops and Desktops.
EPOS | SENNHEISER GSX 1200 Gaming DAC (Image: Amazon)

The final type of DAC/Amp that we will be talking about is gaming DAC/Amps. As its name suggests, these devices are specifically made for gaming. Products such as the Sennheiser GSX 1000 are designed to work with Sennheiser’s gaming headset.

Also, most gaming DAC/Amps have additional features such as digital EQ and 7.1 surround sound. These features are very useful with game consoles which typically do not have access to an EQ. Also, Gaming DAC/Amps have native support for game consoles such as the Sony Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X.

Additionally, gaming DAC/Amps also feature a dedicated microphone input. However, the quality will not rival the microphone inputs of audio interfaces.

The biggest downside of gaming DACs is their sound quality and amplification power. Most will not be on par with similarly priced audiophile offerings. Also, most gaming DAC/Amps will likely not be enough for demanding high impedance headphones.

In summary, gaming DAC/Amps are more suited for gamers who are looking for game-specific features. They may not have the sound quality and synergy with high-end headphones. However, they have the best compatibility for game consoles.

Alternatives to DACs

DAP

Fiio M11 Outputs Selection

 

DAP stands for Digital Audio Player. Unlike the DACs, this device can run by itself. This device also contains high-quality DAC chips similar to external DACs. However, in terms of sound quality, desktop DACs are still at the top amongst all of the equipment mentioned.

DAPs are a great alternative for people who dislike carrying additional accessories while traveling. As said earlier, portable DACs can be uncomfortable due to their bulky size. In comparison, dongles can also be uncomfortable, as it can get in the way of your hands when it bumps to your palm. 

Additionally, DAPs have a lot of features which is a plus. Most modern DAPs can install several apps, including streaming apps. Another great thing about DAPs is the availability of 2.5mm and 4.4mm balanced output jack.

However, these devices are quite more expensive than their counterpart portable DACs. This is understandable as it has so many features that portable DACs lack. They have a screen and storage for the files.

FAQ

Standalone DAC vs. DAC/Amp Combo

FX Audio DAC D01 and X6

The biggest difference between these two options is the versatility of the sound that you will be getting. You will be getting more options when it comes to standalone DACs. You can connect them to different amplifiers and get the specific kind of sound that you are looking for.

However, you can easily get confused or run into issues with amp pairings and synergy. DAC/Amp combos, on the other hand, have already been tuned by the manufacturers. This may allow you to find your intended sound signature much easier. And overall, this is more recommended for entry-level users who have not yet discovered their preferred sound signature.

Portable DAC/Amp vs. Dongle

Portable DAC/Amp vs. Dongle cover photo

There are two main differences between DAC/Amps and Dongles; size and internal components. With portable DAC/Amps, you are guaranteed to get excellent sound quality and amplification. However, most portable DAC/Amps are still pretty big and are hard to carry around.

Dongles, on the other hand, are extremely lightweight. Even the heaviest and bulkiest dongle is still more portable than portable DAC/Amps. However, most dongles will lose out in terms of sound quality. This is because of the size limitations of dongles.

It is next to impossible to pack the same kind of components that are found on DAC/Amps into dongles. Even if you were able to fit the components, dongles will most likely not be able to provide ample power to the components.

If you are looking for a portable device specifically for your smartphone, then dongles are, without a doubt, the better option. However, if sound quality is what you are after, then portable DAC/Amps are the better choices. 

Portable DAC/Amps vs. DAP

Ifi Nano and Fiio M11

Portable DAC/Amps and DAPs are both designed for portable use. They both have a high-fidelity DAC chip, and they both have various outputs for different connection types. However, the experience that each device gives is completely different.

DAPs are very similar to smartphones. Some are even running Android and can install apps such as Spotify and Tidal. Most are also not utilizing a USB Type-C Port which can be connected to external DAC/Amps. However, since DAPs are more complex devices, most will have a more premium price.

Portable DAC/Amps, on the other hand, are simpler. They have solely one purpose, and that is to provide the best sound quality.

Of course, since they do not have their own storage and operating system, they will need to connect to a device such as a tablet, laptop, or smartphone. And since it needs to connect to a device, the overall setup will inevitably be very bulky.

So overall, the better device will depend on your budget and use case. If you already have a high-end smartphone or tablet and only need a high-quality source, then portable DAC/Amps are the way to go. However, if you need an all-in-one device that is made specifically for music listening, then DAPs are the better option.

Can I use Portable DAC/Amps on my Laptop/PC?

Despite their name, portable DAC/Amps can also work as desktop DAC/Amps. One specific example is the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label that we have reviewed. Its form factory easily allows it to be laid flat on a desk.

Also, you won’t be getting a lot of ports since portable DAC/Amps are not designed to be connected with different devices. But overall, you can use your portable DAC/Amps in your desktop set up and get good results.

Do I need a DAC/Amps for My Game Console?

Nintendo Switch + Sennheiser HD660S (Image Credit: Stephen Menor/WIE)

Audiophile gaming headsets have been getting very popular with both console and PC games. So naturally, it does not come as a surprise that companies are also pushing audiophile gaming DAC/Amps to console gamers. However, gamers ask if this is even needed.

For most game consoles, purchasing a separate DAC/Amp is not necessary. This is because the majority of gaming headsets do not require a DAC/Amp. Additionally, newer consoles and hybrid consoles such as the Nintendo Switch do not play well with gaming DAC/Amps.

If you are using a more demanding pair of headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800S, then we still do not recommend purchasing a DAC/Amp just for console gaming. Again, setting up the DAC/Amps will prove to be quite a hassle.

Another reason why we do not recommend getting a DAC/Amp is that most games are already optimized to sound good without any additional accessories. Overall, unless you specifically need the feature of a gaming DAC/Amp for applications such as a game capture or streaming, we do not recommend getting a DAC/Amps for your game console. Check out our dedicated gaming DAC/Amp for Consoles article to learn more.

 

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