INTRODUCTION TO THE DAC
OK so you are just starting out and are a little bit confused by some of the terms in the audiophile equipment world. Don't worry everyone has to start somewhere and its really not that hard to get your head around some of the core principals. First you can start here with our hardware terminology guide or pick up on some what are the best audiophile file formats for your music. This article is going to cover a very specific piece of equipment in the sound chain (eg. Transport>DAC>Amp>Headphones), its going to explain what is a DAC.
A DAC, otherwise known as a Digital Analogue Convertor, comes in many forms and from many different companies. They can be integrated into something like your phone or computer or the can be a stand alone unit that works in a connected chain. Additionally, you may also come across a combined Amp (Amplifier) and DAC unit, where these 2 pieces of equipment are housed together in a single package. Whatever the brand, form factor or price point, the function of any DAC remains the same as outlined bellow in the simplest possible terms.
WHY YOU NEED A DAC FOR LISTENING TO DIGITAL MUSIC
In this example I will use refer to using your computer with an external DAC unit but the principal is the same in a phone or DAP. Nowadays unless you are a vinyl junkie your music will most likely be stored in FLAC, MP3 etc. In this form your music is essentially nothing more than a bunch of digital information. In computer language it exists as a bunch of 1's and 0's (eg. 10100001110). Your headphones however can only output your music as an analogue signal (sound). Somewhere between your hard drive and headphones a conversion needs to take place turning that digital signal to an analogue signal. This, of course is the role of the DAC.
When you get into the audiophile equipment world you will of course hear people lauding the benefits of different types of DAC. There are many DACs on the market, ranging from good and bad sounding, budget friendly to budget breaking. Some are power hungry, some are efficient. Some are large and some are small. A manufacturer may choose to implement a certain DAC unit for the absolute best sound and some may choose to try and fit inside a super slim modern smartphone. Its about reaching a balance suitable for the end users needs.
WHAT IS A DAC - CONCLUSION
In the portable realm you are going to come across a few DAC brands such as Wolfson, Cirrus and Sabre to name but a few. Each model will have its own benefits and limitations that you will discover on your journey into higher end audio but with this hobby growing incredibly fast there is sure to be a product out there to meet your needs.
On the Audiophile ON website DAC reviews can be found under the audiophile source review section. We hope to bring you as many articles as possible on this awesome bit of audio technology so you can decide what is the best DAC for your needs.