Anyone trying to squeeze quality sound out of a computer will fall short without a DAC, so we’ve explained the technology and uncovered the best DACs for 2022
What is a DAC?
For anyone investing in high quality headphones or speakers that connect to a computer, a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) is an expected component to complete your system. Also less commonly referred to as DtoA or D2A, a DAC is used because a computer’s built-in soundcard truly is an inferior sound delivery technology. How it works is that DAC chips convert an analog signal from a digital source, and then delivers that signal to a compatible analog device (like speakers or headphones). When we want to play audio, it comes in one of two formats – analog or digital. They differ in that analog is a constantly variable form of information whereas digital is incremental. A DAC takes digital data and transforms it into an analog audio signal to be amplified by an analog speaker. Digital data is 1s and 0s and we can’t listen to it in that format without it being converted back to a bit perfect analog sound.
It is popular to illustrate this difference by using a clock. An analog clock has a minute hand that moves between increments and is always changing, whereas a digital clock is fixed and is expressed in minute increments with nothing in between.
And what reads a digital file’s constantly changing and incremental levels and turns it into a smooth analog curve? You got it – a DAC!
You can’t store analog files on a computer because computers are binary machines speaking in 1s and 0s, storing data together in chunks, and you can’t store a constantly changing digital signal as that would require an infinite amount of storage to capture the infinite increments in between levels. We also have to transition from digital to analog with a DAC because *speakers* are analog devices.
The desktop DAC takes the intangible binary code in a digital audio file, reads the fixed steps, and smooths it out into a constantly variable signal. It does this with voltage, turning the digital file into a perpetually fluctuating electric signal that your analog speakers can actually use.
Because RCA and AUX inputs are analog, you don’t need a DAC for use of those very simple setups, but USB, optical, and coax are digital and will demand a DAC to convert the sound for you when connecting to a computer. Okay, so now that we’ve nerded out about what a DAC is, let’s talk about when you need one and what happens if you don’t have one.
When do you need a DAC?
Let’s say you have a huge library of digital files or find yourself streaming music from a computer all day, and you want to play them on an audio system or even just your headphones – most laptops and desktops have a built-in sound card, so most people just plug in speakers to a line-out jack. That’s fine, but it’s using inferior technology, as a computer has tons of possible noise interference when sensitive analog electronics sit inside the noisy contaminated environment of a computer in a small case. You know that annoying hum you hear when someone plugs in giant speakers or a conventional amp or receiver to their laptop at a party? That’s because they should have been using a DAC, because computers handle grounding from an audio standpoint just terribly. If you’re trying to get any quality audio out of a computer, be it a laptop or desktop, you’ll need an external DAC. It’s especially important if you plan on investing in quality speakers, headphones, or headphone amps – don’t skip this step!
The DAC Box RS2 is a high end option, upgraded from their previous design, the Pre Box S2 Digital, pushing the boundaries of sound conversion even further. The bragging point for their technology is its versatility with all of the digital inputs you could need, and a fully balanced circuit board design. A standout feature is the dual DACs onboard with separate signal paths for the left and right channels – something rarely found at this price point. It supports up to 32-bit / 768 kHz files in PCM and DSD formats via USB, so it can convert any digital file you may have.
According to the manufacturer, “The USB input signal is processed by a powerful multi-core XMOS microcontroller with advanced Multi-Core RISC architecture. The CPLD MAX II (Complex Programmable Logic Device) Altera is used for re-clocking, which together with the XMOS microcontroller brings high quality processing of both classical and MQA technology.” Whoa.
You can choose between solid state and high-quality tube, and it has 8 built-in digital filters and has a sizable display screen up front that is easy to read and offers rapid response. This model comes in both black and silver to match your existing setup.
We would like to pause to drool a bit about the next DAC to consider – the PrimaLuna EVO 100 Tube – it offers the first tube-based data clocking technology and they don’t hide their innovations, they’ve encased it as part of the aesthetic. The SuperTubeClock™ incorporates a mini-triode vacuum tube into the digital clock to minimize noise and offer a huge upgrade to detail and clarity in sound, improving sound definition across the board. Another exciting innovation they’ve mastered is the AC Offset Killer so that no matter how terrible your electricity is, transformer noise is lowered to a level almost impossible for a DAC, resulting in a superior sound experience that completely eliminates that “computer” sound. Many options on the market claim sound quality, but this model offers true high-resolution digital input that converts the notoriously jitter-filled USB signal to S/PDIF before it even gets to the SuperTubeClock.
Alan Sircom, Editor at Hi-Fi Plus Magazine explains this device’s power elegantly: “This is the DAC you play to people who love music, but don’t like the sound of digital. It’s all about grace and space… with a little bit of pace thrown in… PrimaLuna’s EVO 100 DAC is incredibly informative, but in a musical rather than audio-detail way.” We agree, Sir Sircom.
NAD Wireless USB DAC 2
Most DACs are wired, but some setups would really benefit more from a wireless option, and we’re swooning over the NAD Wireless USB DAC 2 which boasts point-to-point 2.4GHz wireless tech so you can plug in the DAC 2 and stream any file, even 24/96 studio quality music files, without compression. Impressive. Not only is the DAC 2 wireless for convenience, it is one of the more economical options for this level of quality. This model takes over and becomes the sound card for your computer and converts all sound to hi-fi, without requiring a wi-fi connection and uses Burr-Brown OPAmps, 24/192 Delta-Sigma DACs with selected passive components, and a proprietary NAD circuit. It is a simple option and isn’t set to visually dominate any space and weighs in at only 1.35 pounds, making it perfect for transporting between home and work. The setup is easy and straightforward and can be a great option for someone new to improving their sound, but is well known amongst audiophiles for its quality of rich sound, despite being wireless.
4. McIntosh D1100 2-Channel Preamplifier
If you’re looking for the big boy of the bunch, this is it – one of the best DACs on the market, filled to the brim with the innovations you’ve come to expect from McIntosh, and a perfect
complement to any audio system that delivers accurate and authentic sound as it was meant to be heard. It offers a phenomenal quad balance mode and precision tracking volume control. The D1100 has been praised for sounding the most like a live performance at a concert (with impressive bass boost, luscious midrange, and comprehensive treble), rather than a recording – a baffling feat for a DAC, and a must for anyone who has (or will) invest in any hi-fi speakers that connect to a desktop or a laptop.
No matter how complex your setup, the D1100 is ready to accommodate – with 9 inputs: 3 optical, 3 coaxial (2 RCA and 1 BNC), plus 1 MCT, 1 AES/EBU, and the USB inputs are on board. The outputs to connect the D1100 to your system are three sets of balanced and unbalanced outputs so that one set has a fixed volumes, while the other 2 have variable volumes which can be turned on and off. This DAC is extremely easy to use, from getting set up, to being able to rename all inputs and program all data ports and power control triggers. And what we are wildly impressed by is their HXD®, the Headphone Crossfeed Director (headphone amplifier) which immediately brings soundstage audio quality to your private listening.
Pro-Ject DAC Box E Mobile
If you’ve ever thought a DAC should fit in the palm of your hand, Pro-Ject heard you and crafted the Box E portable DAC which offers surprising sound at an extremely low price point. It’s a great mobile companion device for your permanent DAC. The Box E is powered by the device it is connected to so you’re not swimming in a sea of wires or carrying around external battery packs (thus, the “mobile” part of its name). It does not have a Bluetooth connection, so it doesn’t support a wireless headphone output, but it is compatible with iPhone and Android devices and offers a USB-C input. This device supports sample rates of 32bit/192kHz and its power Output is 32 Ohm. It has a 1x 3.5mm (stereo) analog output, and a USB-C digital input. Great as a starter device or a simple converter in the field, the Box E is a fun addition to the 2022 DAC lineup!
The takeaway today is that we can’t listen to 1s and 0s, but with a DAC, we can experience sound as it was meant to be heard, without that nasty hum, or the clearly digital noise interfering. For anyone who is searching for the perfect piece to complete their setup, a *good* DAC brings your computer into the fold and converts that sound for quality speakers or headphones. We would love to show you in person how these devices can be a game changer!