A Guide To Buying The Right DAC For You - Misc. NZ
A Guide To Buying The Right DAC For You

A Guide To Buying The Right DAC For You

How to choose a digital-to-analog converter for home or portable audio use? It has never been easier to discover new music, fire up a favorite song, or unearth a forgotten gem from your back-catalogue. That’s all good... but how do you...

Words by Rapallo

How to choose a digital-to-analogue converter for home or portable audio use?

It has never been easier to discover new music, fire up a favourite song, or unearth a forgotten gem from your back catalogue.

That’s all good… but how do you get the best sound when you listen to Tidal, Spotify and other digital music on your phone or laptop? Digital music files vary in quality, but they all have one thing in common. You can’t listen to them in their digital form and get the best from them, you can’t hear the subtlety’s in the music that makes listening really involving. That’s where a digital-to-analogue converter, or “DAC,” comes in.

Let us help and provide some detail about your options, as they are varied.

LET'S START WITH THE BASICS, JUST WHAT IS A DAC?
A DAC transforms digital bits, those itsy bitsy, functional 1s and 0s into sweet-sounding tunes. It is a necessary, very important and often overlooked part of the audio chain. There’s a tiny DAC inside your phone and another one in your computer’s sound card. However, not all digital-to-analogue converters are created equal, “not even close”

ONBOARD DAC vs. EXTERNAL DAC
An outboard DAC bypasses the inferior audio decoding of your phone and computer. It can deliver music with so much more precision.

Whereas an external DAC creates a stronger audio foundation for the rest of your equipment.  Add in a solid amp and a pair of nice speakers or headphones, and you’re in for a treat.

Rapallo (Deano) has tried and tested many DAC’s in the past 5-10yrs. So our team are well-versed in the world of digital to analogue conversion. All year round we are constantly trying new and different DAC’s with computers and home audio systems

WHICH IS THE BEST DAC FOR YOU?
There are several different styles of DACs available. Some are ideal for driving your headphones. Others are only used with your home stereo. And many work well with both.

Most of our DAC customers these days use them for listening through headphones, Home Hi-Fi & TV, you get a huge amount of bang for your buck with your setup. Simply adding a DAC to a HiFi system can have huge impact.

OPTION – ​PORTABLE USB DACs

A portable USB DAC primarily serves as a compact headphone amplifier for your computer. You can also use it to connect your computer to a stereo system.

The Lotoo Paw S1 or the AudioQuest DragonFly series can connect to your laptop computer or phone (with the included USB-C adapter) for super-premium sound while you’re on the go.

Some models draw their power from your computer’s USB port — no extra power supply is needed. Models that have built-in batteries are great for use with a phone or portable music player.

OPTION – ​DESKTOP USB DACs

Desktop USB DACs also connect to your computer through USB. Unlike portable DACs, some desktop models need AC power to operate. They feature line-level audio outputs for connecting powered speakers or an amplifier. You can also connect an external CD player or network streaming device to a desktop DAC. Many offer a headphone output for private listening at home or at work.

The Chord Electronics TT2 is a desktop stereo DAC/headphone amp that can drive high-performance hard to drive headphones like the Denon AH-9200 & ZMF Verite Headphones easily.

OPTION – ​WIRELESS DACS

Wireless DACs broadcast digital content to an audio system in another location. Some connect to your computer and use a transmitter system. It sends the digital information to separate wireless connected to your stereo or amplifier through RCA cables.

More often these days, wireless DACs use Bluetooth® for transmission from a smartphone or tablet. Some have extended wireless range, so you can move around more freely with your phone.

For many of us, our main music source is our phone. We have several DACs that will work with Apple devices or Android phones. Your phone may however require a special Apple Lightning adapter, USB-C adapter, or micro-USB adapter.

The Audioengine D2 uses a transmitter and receiver combo to wirelessly send audio up to 100 feet away.

OPTION – ​COMPONENT HI-FI DACS

Component Hi-Fi DACs are designed to connect to your full-fledged home audio system. You’ll find large power supplies and advanced circuitry in these DACs. They are ideal for two-channel stereo systems.

Component DACs offer the widest range of connection options. And there are “jack-of-all-trades” models in these categories that have a built-in CD player, Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi. Some connect to your home network, so you can stream directly from music services and sources.

The Cambridge CXN (v2) component DAC is a network audio streamer with built-in Wi-Fi® and Bluetooth. It can even be used as a preamplifier in a digital sound system.

ADVICE – ​IMPORTANT POINTS FOR GETTING THE MOST FROM YOUR DAC

Adding an external DAC can make a substantial improvement to the sound of your digital music.

Sometimes you may not always hear a night-and-day difference. But we use the analogy of spraying Mr. Muscle on a smudgy window. You can still see through the window beforehand. But everything gets a little cleaner and clearer after.

Your sound quality ultimately depends on other factors as well, but here are four important ones to consider:

1. HOW GOOD YOUR MUSIC SOURCES ARE?
Digital music comes in a variety of different formats and quality levels. The amount of detail a DAC can resolve or pull from a recording depends on how much is there to begin with.

Make no mistake: whatever audio you play should get a sonic boost. That includes music downloads, streaming services, and even YouTube™ videos. Just make sure you’re using the highest resolution available. This can be as simple as changing the streaming settings in Spotify. The most discerning listeners often choose high-resolution music or lossless streaming services like Tidal, Amazon Music HD or Qobuz. These large digital files retain more audio information than compressed MP3s.

With quality gear, stepping up in resolution can give you that extra 5 percent that really makes your music sound more lifelike. The sound is more dynamic with better texture. And there can be a big difference in the bass, it’s more focused and punchy. Vocals stand out more, too. Really, you get a more three-dimensional sound.

2. WHAT KIND OF SYSTEM WILL YOUR DAC CONNECT TO?
The quality of your system’s audio components has an impact on the improvements you’ll hear with an outboard DAC.

Be sure to use capable speakers and well-made headphones to get the most out of your system. You wouldn’t want to use a $2,000 component DAC with a mid-fi home theater receiver. Likewise, if you have a rack of equipment with high-end amps, an entry-level DAC won’t cut it either.

3. HOW’S YOUR COMPUTER COMFORT LEVEL?
Getting the best performance from a DAC connected to a computer can take a little bit of extra work.

You may get music to play by simply plugging in the DAC. But, some additional changes to your computer’s audio settings may be necessary to get the best sound. Some DACs also require downloading and installing a USB driver to operate.

Manufacturers typically include instructions, but a basic knowledge of computer operation will increase your odds of success. We can help with any questions as well as we offer free lifetime tech phone or email support with every Rapallo AV purchase.

4. DON’T FORGET THE CABLES!
The quality of the cable you use with your DAC can have a sonic impact.

Upgrading from the cables included in the box usually pays off in better sound quality. Check out our USB cables for your computer and our optical digital and coaxial digital cables for your CD or network music player.

You’ll also want to be sure you have the right analogue cable to connect your DAC to your stereo. Check out our selections of stereo mini, XLR, and RCA analogue cables.

Recommended reading