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The ABCs of DACs

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If you follow the electronics market closely at all, you’ve probably noticed that one of the fastest-growing sectors of the audio world is that of the Digital-to-Analog Converter, or DAC. Simply put (very simply, exceedingly simply), DACs take digital audio signals—the of 1s and 0s stored in CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays, and digital music files—and convert them into electrical signals that can amplified and delivered to your speakers. Any audio system that includes a digital source of any sort includes a DAC somewhere within it, whether it’s built into the source device or preamplifier. More than one, in fact. If you have a CD player connected to your receiver or preamp with analog RCA cables, you’re relying on the player’s internal digital-to-analog converter. If, instead, you have it connected via a digital coaxial or optical cable, your receiver or preamp is handling the D-to-A conversion.

So, given that your home entertainment system is probably positively littered with integrated DACs, you may be wondering why you’d ever need to buy a standalone one. And the fact of the matter is, you may not. But the conversion of digital 1s and 0s into a continually variable analog signal that your speakers (not to mention your ears) can actually understand isn’t as simple as it sounds—all manner of filters are involved, and the tiniest of timing errors can render even the most pristine audio recording muddy and flat. Not to mention the fact that external influences can greatly affect the quality of analog audio that results from the process—everything from the type of power supply used in a device to the vibrations of a spinning CD or DVD itself.

Moving the DAC into a dedicated box not only isolates the digital-to-analog conversion process from these detrimental elements, it also makes room for the much more sophisticated and space-hungry components necessary for more advanced conversion. After all, this is what the inside of a high-quality standalone DAC looks like:

Whereas the DAC built into your typical high-quality receiver, surround processor, or preamp probably looks more like this:

That’s not, of course, to say that more is always better, or that a standalone DAC is always going to be better than an integrated one. Anthem’s D2v A/V Processor, for example, boasts digital-to-analog conversion that many reviewers put on par with the best standalone DACs.

But if you feel like the audio from your digital sources could use a bit of a boost, a dedicated DAC is probably a worthwhile upgrade.

Of course, deciding to buy a new DAC is just the start of the process. You’ll also need to decide which sort of DAC will work best for you, and that’s determined mostly by the source of your music.

USB DACs

You can probably attribute the boom in the DAC market in recent years to another boom: the rise of high-resolution digital music downloads as a respectable audiophile alternative to vinyl, CD, DVD-Audio, and SACD.

The problem with this is that the typical PC sound card is a terrible audio source, plagued with all sorts of noise and cheap audio components. But—without digging into too many technical specifics—the USB output of a computer can be a terrific audio source, especially when paired with a good Asynchronous USB DAC. These can range from big boxes down to tiny little USB dongles like AudioQuest’s Dragonfly USB DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp. In between those two extremes, you’ll find discrete boxes like Meridian’s new USB-powered Explorer DAC and NAD’s MDC DAC, the latter of which is actually designed as a modular plug-in add-on for NAD’s high-quality stereo integrated amps. The inputs, outputs, and implementation of all of these models vary quite a bit, but they do have one thing in common: any of them will significantly improve the quality of audio coming from your computer.

Wireless DACs

Of course, if you’re trying to get audio from your computer to your hi-fi system, the low quality of the typical computer’s sound output might not be your own problem; distance could be a concern, as well. Several DAC makers also offer wireless solutions, like the NAD DAC 1, a two-piece solution with a transmitter that plugs into your computer’s USB port, and a receiver that plugs into your audio system. Communication between the two is handled via a high-speed, high-quality proprietary wireless connection that ensures no signal degradation, and no interference from your Wi-Fi network or other wireless signals in the house.

All Purpose DACs

Granted, your computer may not be your sole source of digital music these days. While USB DACs may be all the rage these days, there are still any number of wonderful digital-to-analog converters made for your “legacy” sources like CD players, or even digital media streamers designed for use in the living room. Peachtree Audio’s DAC•iT, for example, boasts coaxial and optical digital inputs, as well as a USB in, along with a beautiful compact design that would perfectly complement an Apple TV or Sonos wireless music system. NAD’s M51 Direct Digital DAC features the same, as well as an AES/EBU digital input, two HDMI inputs, incredible 844kHz upsampling, and a lovely form factor that’s more reminiscent of traditional audio devices.

Some products even blur the line between dedicated DAC and preamplifer, like Classé’s CP-800, a fully featured processor with volume control, tone controls, and a parametric EQ. But at its heart, the CP-800 is fundamentally a robust DAC that will make even your iPhone sound like a hi-fi device.

These are just a few examples of the incredibly well-populated DAC market, and all of them deliver quite different sound. The important thing, of course, is to decide which type of DAC suits your lifestyle best, and then listen to as many as you can before deciding which delivers the analog sound that best suits your ears.

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