Why do you need a DAC?

Published on January 2nd, 2021

What is a DAC?

A DAC is a digital to analog converter, a device that converts your digital audio signal into an analog audio waveform that can be sent to an amplifier, speaker, or headphone. Your computer downloads, stores, and streams music in digital format: a stream of 1s and 0s. However, sound is composed of analog waves, and so the DAC converts your music or audio into this form.

Do I already have a DAC?

If your device has a headphone or speaker output, then it already has a DAC (and amplifier!) built in. For example, many mobile phones and laptops have 3.5mm output jacks that let you connect your headphones to your device, and this means there's a DAC (though, not a fantastic one) built-in.

So, do I need an external DAC?

A quality DAC by itself is an important part of a hi-fi audio setup. It allows you to decode high resolution music files, even higher resolution than your computer or phone's built-in DAC can support, and convert it into a clean analog signal.

Another common feature you can find is a combination DAC and amp. Most of the time, these combo DAC/amps are DAC/headphone amplifiers, meaning they are designed to plug into your computer or mobile device with USB, and then have a 3.5mm or 1/4" plug to drive your headphones.

There's a ton of affordable DACs for your desktop, portable for your laptop, or even that support Bluetooth to connect to your mobile phone.

For example, the Fiio BTR5 is a fantastic mobile DAC/headphone amp combo that features USB-C input as well as Bluetooth (with LDAC and aptX codecs) and will elevate your mobile audio experience.

For your desktop, you may consider an entry-level DAC like the Schiit Modi, which you can combine with a small desktop headphone amp (like the matching Schiit Magni) to drive your headphones.

Overall, a DAC is an important part of your hi-fi audio setup. You may not want to spend a ton of money on a DAC upfront and instead focus your hard earned money on the headphone, speakers, or amplifier, but a DAC will ensure that the audio signal traveling to the rest of your system is clean and free of noise.

Are you still wondering what DAC is right for you? Find which DAC is best for you with our smart recommendation system, which lets you customize your budget and what features are most important to you.