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To DAC or not to DAC - an introduction to Digital-to-Analogue converters

"In this article, John highlights the importance of digital-to-analogue converters. Find out the reasons why a DAC improves the overall performance of your audio chain!"

So you've spent time looking for your your new headphones or you already have a pair that you are very happy with, now it's time to further improve your audio experience.So,To DAC or not to DAC.  The obvious route to go could be to buy or upgrade your headphone amplifier. Whether you are listening through a CD player, mobile phone, portable music player or a computer adding a good headphone amplifier to the chain can do wonders. Something that a lot of people overlook though is using a DAC. With the amount of great quality amplifier/DAC combos out there, most of the time it's worth going this route.

What a DAC does is to take the digital data, whether it's an MP3 or movie audio and convert that into an analogue signal so your headphones can pick it up and you can hear the files. The better the DAC, the better the conversion and therefore better sound quality. So if you have a great pair of headphones but a weak DAC, the headphones will only play audio as good as the DAC is putting out – an important part of the chain.

The most common use of a DAC is if you use a computer, all computers have built in DACs (soundcard) but unless you know that you have a particularly good one the quality won't be great. Even using a cheaper DAC such as the FiiO E17 will greatly improve the sound quality coming from your computer. The reason you would go for a better DAC is if you play high quality audio files (WAV, AIFF, Lossless etc.) and you have a top of the range pair of headphones, this is where the quality of the DAC really shows.

You can either get a stand alone DAC or an amp/DAC combo, which one you get will be based on your intended setup. If you want to use your headphones with a computer and you don't already have an amplifier then an amp/DAC combo would be ideal, and if you use a laptop then one of the portable sized units are great as you can even use them on the move. If you mainly use your iPhone/iPod then you could get a dedicated amp/DAC combo for iDevices such as the Fostex HP-P1 or the Cypher Labs Theorem 720 this will bypass the devices internal DAC and amplifier so all of the processing will be done by the Fostex. There is a stand alone alternative with the Cypher Labs Algorhythm Solo -dB and -r, but you would also need to have a headphone amplifier for this to work.

Essentially any digital audio device can benefit from upgrading the DAC, now depending on the device you use you will need the right sort of DAC – but there will be something out there for you. If you have any questions about this subject then please feel free to call us, we will be more than happy to help.

Please check out our youtube video DACs, Sample Rates and how to use Audio Files 

About Shaun Gostelow

Shaun is co-founder of hifiheadphones.co.uk and spends most of his time dealing with the business side of running the store, but still loves listening to music with headphones just the same as ever.
Follow Shaun on Google+
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