A digital to analog converter (DAC) is an essential part of the audio chain. They are what makes listening to digital music through headphones and speakers possible. The majority of music and gaming sounds we hear today are digital, but do active speakers always need a DAC?
All computers, phones, and audio players that can playback sound already have a DAC built into them, so active speakers do NOT need an external DAC to work. However, if you really enjoy excellent audio and want the best possible listening experience, a standalone DAC will usually perform much better.
The rest of this article will explain a few topics related to this question in great detail, including reasons you may need a DAC even though your device has one already built-in, a brief description of available DAC options, and a few DAC devices we like.
Reasons You May Want a DAC
Few casual gamers or music fans think about sound quality unless it’s terrible. The sound, to them, is secondary to the purpose for which they are listening, so they most likely will never need an additional DAC.
Music enthusiasts, however, will cringe at distortions and noise that casual listeners do not even hear. What’s more, they desire to hear music as initially intended, so it’s second nature for them to add a DAC (and possibly an amplifier) to their speakers.
Fortunately for both groups, it’s easier to improve sound quality on various devices than you think.
Although most units such as laptops and smartphones come with a built-in DAC, few of them have the top-of-the-line components necessary to create such a sound space. The focus during the design and manufacturing phase is on device functionality rather than listening pleasure.
Therefore, most of the DACs in these units are mass-produced with little thought for sound output. Manufacturers build them as quickly and as cheaply as possible. As a result, the output sound is acceptable for the average user, but you need a separate DAC if you want beautiful, pure sound.
Does a DAC Really Improve Sound?
Aside from improving the listening experience for the average user, a DAC also enhances the overall soundstage, which means that you can hear more details in the music.
These details include crisper vocals and separation between sound elements. Instruments and vocals are differentiated more efficiently, and games sound more realistic.
Consider listening to a live recording of your favorite music genre. With the right DAC, you’ll experience as close to a live performance as you can get without actually being at the concert. But, of course, you will need other high-quality audio equipment as well.
Even with a low-end external DAC, you’ll experience a significant difference in sound quality because the DAC creates space between musical elements allowing for a better definition and separation of those elements.
Types of DACs
Average listeners often play music for background or white noise. They, therefore, don’t need an external DAC because the internal one that comes with the device will do the primary job of converting digital information to sound.
But for those who need a better sound quality to enjoy the music, a DAC can make the difference between a relaxing, enjoyable listening experience and a stressful one that defeats the purpose of listening to begin with. The same is true for serious gamers who want to experience rather than just hear aspects of their favorite games.
Depending on the active speaker, there are three DAC options to consider. All work the same from a technical aspect but have different price points, functionalities, and conveniences.
Standalone or External DAC
This converter bypasses your speaker’s inferior DAC. It’s more costly than the other version but is available at several price points. The external DAC creates a stronger foundation for the equipment and removes most of the poor sound quality to make the listening experience enjoyable.
There are two main drawbacks to the standalone DAC: it’s pricey, and often not truly a “standalone,” because most often, you’ll need an external amplifier to boost the sound.
Most users will opt for a portable DAC because portable units work well with smartphones, tablets, and other mobile listening devices; however, you can also use them to connect your computer to your stereo.
These DACs are especially popular among users whose devices don’t have a 3.5 mm (0.14 in) connection. The trade-off is that you’ll be carrying around another piece of technology. Still, for many, the quality boost is worth any inconvenience that bringing the portable DAC presents.
Some models run using the computer’s USB port, while others have built-in batteries, so determine which option is best for you before beginning your search.
Desktop USB DACs
Like the portable model, the desktop DAC model allows users to connect their computer to a stereo system, external CD player, or streaming device. Although it connects through the USB port, some models still need a separate power source to operate.
These DACs can send digital content to audio systems in different locations via a Bluetooth transmitter. Most often, people select these devices to use with smartphones and tablets since they’re more convenient with mobile devices.
DAC/Headphone Amplifier Combos
Home sound systems, desktop units, and other dedicated listening spaces will prefer this option because it works with standalone speakers and headphones. This DAC type also has a volume control knob so that you can easily adjust your volume level.
In essence, listeners get the best of both worlds with the combo: flat frequency response and clearing up the soundstage.
From a consumer standpoint, the good thing about DACs is that they’re readily available at prices your budget can handle. So, finding one is relatively easy and depends mainly on the type you want and how much you want to spend.
A quick internet search will provide many options but the following from Amazon.com are a few we like:
- iFi Portable DAC – this DAC is for high-end users who require a pure, balanced sound. It supports all hi-res audio formats and has an amplifier.
- Prozor DAC – this unit is popular with gamers and those with home entertainment systems.
- Sound BlasterX Gaming Dax – this DAC is also popular with gamers and has an enhanced realism feature, and supports in-game voice communication.
- NextDrive USB DAC – this unit is a portable DAC with excellent bass, mids, and treble points. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on iPhones or iPads, but Android users rate this DAC as one of the best in its price range.
All of these DACs will do the job well, but it’s your ears that will tell you which does it best.
All DACs convert digital files to a format your speakers can use to deliver the sound at its primary function. Because that conversion is already taking place, as evidenced by your ability to hear music now, you don’t need a DAC because you already have one. The question is, do your ears want you to have a better one?
From a practical standpoint, whether your speaker needs a DAC or not depends mainly on how you view the listening experience. If you just want music to help you concentrate, your internal DAC will likely be sufficient. If you want a distortion-free experience, your active speaker needs a DAC.
From a technical standpoint, active speakers do need a DAC when:
- There’s noise distortion or interference that disrupts the listening experience.
- The device is lacking a 3.5 mm (0.14 in) jack, and your headphones need that input source. (And even then, you could purchase an adapter rather than a DAC.)