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What is a DAC, how does it work, and how to use it?

DACs, or digital to analog converters, are sometimes a confusing topic, but essentially all a DAC is is a headphone amplifier that preserves (and sometimes betters) the quality of your audio.

There’s more happening under the hood with a DAC than a simplistic headphone amplifier, however, so this article will go into detail on what exactly a digital to analog converter is.

You’ll also learn how a DAC works, how to use it, as well as when you should use one. Keep reading to find out more on digital to analog converters!

What is a DAC (digital to analog converter)?

A DAC, or digital to analog converter, is a device that converts digital signals from an audio source into analog sound waves that can be heard by the listener.

A DAC can be small and easy to use, or it can be large enough to sit on your desktop and have some advanced settings. They come in many different sizes for your various needs.

If you’re familiar with headphone amplifiers or audio interfaces, a digital to analog converter is similar. Audio interfaces, DACs, and headphone amps are all in the same realm but have their differences. Audio interfaces have a DAC built into them, but aren’t considered actual DAC units considering they record audio along with converting it.

A digital to analog converter converts audio after it is inputted into the unit and sends it out, whereas audio interfaces convert audio upon the input and also before the output, depending on what you’re doing.

A headphone amp is usually built into more expensive digital to analog converters to boost the audio before sending it to your speakers or headphones, and there are also DACs that don’t have amplifiers built in, so a DAC is also not the same as a headphone amplifier.

In the case of owning a DAC that doesn’t have a built-in amp, you’ll need to get an external amplifier to connect to the DAC unit.

How does a DAC work?

A digital to analog converter converts the audio that is outputted from a source into it. The audio is sent to the DAC in a digital form of electrical impulses, with binary code.

Binary code is essentially a series of 1s and 0s in a sequence, and these 1s and 0s are what make up the tiny pieces of the digital information that will be sent to the DAC.

The digital to analog converter then converts the digital information into analog sound waves, and outputs them to the headphones or other listening devices that are connected to the DAC so that the user can hear the audio.

When the DAC converts the audio from digital to analog, a tiny computer inside it takes snapshots of the audio signal every few microseconds. These snapshots, also called samples, are translated to voltage levels.

The computer then measures the voltage levels and assigns numbers from the binary code to each sample. The number of measurements that are taken each second is called the sample rate.

After this, the processed digital data has to be converted to analog sound waves that we can actually hear. The DAC converts the samples back to voltage levels. A low-pass filter is applied to the voltage levels to smooth out any rough points in the continuous waveform. The audio is then sent to exit the DAC and goes to your headphones, speakers, or whatever device you have connected to the DAC’s output jack.

DACs preserve audio fidelity thanks to the audio signal being digital. With things like vinyl records, recording to vinyl introduces artifacts that may be unwanted, like distortion and hiss, or popping and warping.

With digital audio recording, the process is simply mixing numbers to a stereo image, so these unwanted artifacts can be removed or bypassed completely.

The digital audio is an exact representation of what was initially recorded because of this ability to bypass artifacts from the analog signal. The same concept goes for DACs, and in some cases with audio that isn’t very good quality, a digital to analog converter can even improve the audio fidelity.

How do you use a DAC?

Depending on the DAC you have, it can be either very simple or more time consuming to use a DAC, but as long as you refer to articles like this, read your DAC’s manual, or check out tutorial videos on YouTube, you should be set and it shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate using your DAC if you’re a beginner.

Some digital to analog converters look like your basic USB flash drive, but also have an input and output jack, and maybe even volume control buttons.

If this is the case, all you have to do is connect your device to the input jack of the DAC and connect your speakers or headphones to the output. From there you should be able to play your music and hear it how the artist intended.

These smaller DACs are most often used (and usually intended for) with smaller devices like iPhones and Androids, or even laptops in some cases.

For more advanced digital to analog converters such as the kind that sits on your computer desk or at the center of your home theater, they can be a little more tedious to use.

More advanced DACs tend to have more features, like a LCD screen that allows you to edit the DAC’s connections or equalize the audio to your sound preferences.

A lot of the time these menus are easy to navigate through by using the volume knob and buttons on the DAC, but in some cases it can be a hassle to fiddle with the various settings.

The most you’ll have to do is set up the DAC’s settings to your liking when you first use it, and after that not much else usually needs to be changed.

To get down to specifics with more advanced DACs, to use one, you simply power on your audio source, whether it’s a record player, computer, or home theater system, or something else.

From there, if the audio source is already connected to the DAC, all you have to do is power on the DAC and plug in your speakers or headphones to the DAC’s output.

In some cases, like with USB-powered DACs, or more portable DACs, the digital to analog converter powers on automatically when you plug it in. With others, you’ll need to press a button or turn a dial.

Don’t forget to make sure that if you’re using a more advanced DAC with a menu, if you have multiple sources connected to the DAC at one time, make sure that your audio source is switched to whatever source you’re wanting to use.

Different types of DACs

There are quite a few different types of digital to analog converters. Each type is good for multiple purposes, and some are better for certain situations than others.

Let’s check out the different types of digital to analog converters.


USB DACs are most commonly used with computers and are powered by the USB ports on your computer.

Typically, a USB DAC will be meant to be used on a desk or table since the average personal computer is usually more stationary than not, but there are also USB DACs that are portable and made to be powered by your phone or other mobile devices.

In the case of portable USB DACs, they often need a USB adapter in order to work with your smartphone. These types of DACs usually have a built in amplifier to boost the audio volume to an audible level, especially the more portable USB DACs.

Portable DACs

Portable DACs often have a built-in battery that can be charged so that the DAC can be used without needing to be plugged into a wall outlet or other port that would provide it with power.

These types of DACs are great for listening to high-fidelity audio while exercising or going about your day since they don’t need to be connected to anything while they’re running, and many of them are small enough to fit in your pocket. Some of them even have a clip on them so you can attach it to your clothes.

Desktop DACs

Desktop DACs typically can be powered by your computer’s USB ports, but some need to be powered with an AC or DC power cord and should be plugged into a wall in order to power on and operate.

If your headphones have a high impedance level, you may want to get an external amplifier if you have a desktop DAC to ensure that enough power is being sent to your headphones in order for you to take full advantage of your gear.

If you get a desktop DAC, they can usually be connected to CD players and other audio devices that are similar, so you’re not limited to using your computer to output audio to the DAC.

In addition to the standard RCA outputs, desktop DACs often have a dedicated output for headphones, and some even have an output for in-ear monitors.

In-ear monitors have a higher sensitivity level, so the in-ear monitor output on these DACs is usually tailored to be extremely low-noise compared to the regular headphone outputs, which is advantageous overusing in-ear monitors with a regular headphone output.

Wireless and Bluetooth DACs

Wireless DACs, also called Bluetooth DACs, can be used without being plugged into anything as far as power goes, but some models do require being plugged into something for power.

For the most part though, the majority of wireless or Bluetooth DACs have a battery inside of them that needs to be charged in order for the DAC to operate. This makes many of them portable, so they can be great for using with your smartphone as you go about your day.

Component hi-fi DACs

These types of DACs are perfect for using with your home theater system, a record player, or even a TV. Component hi-fi DACs let you listen to audio that is extremely high-fidelity.

Often these DACs have a very large variety of connections, both inputs and outputs, for ultimate connectivity and flexibility, so you can use them with a multitude of devices.

Some of these DACs can even connect to your home Wi-Fi network for wireless playback of audio from your phone and other Bluetooth compatible devices, making them great for listeners who like to be able to get up and move around the room or around the house and listen to media from their phone or other Bluetooth devices while still having access to great-quality audio.

When and why do you need a DAC?

If you have seen the price tag of many DACs, you probably already know that DACs can get outrageously expensive.

If you’re not an audiophile, producer, or if you’re just not very passionate about listening to high-fidelity music, you might think that DACs are unnecessary or simply a frivolous device meant more for looks than function. You may think that the price of many DACs makes it not worth it to buy the product.

Preserving and bettering the quality of audio isn’t the only thing a digital to analog converter does. Because the signal that is inputted into the DAC is purely digital information, artifacts aren’t picked up in the conversion process and instead you get a clean sound.

This leads me to the main point of this section: the appropriate time to use a DAC is when you want to clean up the signal from your audio source.

Many computers, phones, and other devices add a fair bit of noise to the audio that is outputted from the source. This is due to the electronics of these devices; there are low-quality electronic components and parts in some of these devices that can cause it to create electromagnetic interference.

The electromagnetic field can also create interference if you are using a listening device in an area that has a lot of electricity being used, for example in a room where you have a TV on and a couple lamps or lights running, you may get interference from the electromagnetic field, especially if you use audio cables that are old or low-quality.

The electromagnetic interference can manifest itself in the form of a humming, hissing, buzzing, or crackling sound and can get very annoying super easily since it distorts the audio you hear.

Let’s use this example: Say you plug your headphones into your laptop to listen to music. As soon as you plug them in, you hear a humming noise in the headphones before you’ve even started to play your music.

The humming doesn’t go away and you can tell that the audio you’re listening to is suffering in quality because of this weird interference going on.

The perfect solution? A digital to analog converter.

By plugging a digital to analog converter into the computer’s USB port or headphone output, audio can be routed through the DAC to clean up the irritating humming noise from the computer’s electronics, resulting in a clear, clean audio signal that sounds tons better than the original thing sounded without the DAC.

Another situation when you would need a DAC is if the device outputting your audio is incapable of outputting it at the sample rate that your audio files were recorded at.

Another case where one might find a DAC useful is if you are recording music at high sample rates.

So, why exactly would anyone need a DAC otherwise?

It’s simple. An artist intends for their music to be heard the way they created it. By the time the audio reaches your ears, a song can end up sounding muddled or even be lower quality.

A DAC will clear up the audio signal and help improve the overall sound of the audio a bit. This can help you to hear music exactly as the artist intended, especially if you’re also using audiophile headphones that have an accurate soundstage.

Audiophiles tend to especially enjoy listening to music and hearing it how the artist intended, and it’s definitely not uncommon for audiophiles to have a DAC in the mix of their record players and other audio playback gear.

While digital to analog converters can get expensive, they are absolutely worth checking out and considering as the next piece of your personal sound system or as a sidekick to your smartphone or computer.

With the many different types of DACs available, you will be sure to find one that fits your needs perfectly, whether you need something for use with your smartphone while exercising or you want something to connect to your record player or home theater so you can listen to music or watch movies and be sure that the audio will be free of interference and interruptions.

There is a DAC out there for everyone and I highly recommend you take a look at a few when you get the opportunity.

For more information on music gear and technology available on the market, be sure to check back with us soon!