Do You Need To Connect a DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) to Your Computer?

A reader wrote me recently asking my about DACs; digital-analog converters. This relatively new element in the hi-fi audio chain converts the digital stream of audio from your computer, or other digital source, into analog music that your amplifier then amplifies before sending it to speakers. (DAC chips aren’t new, but DACs as standalone devices have only become common in the past five years or so.)

Do you need a DAC? What does it do?

DACs are present in many devices. You’ve got one in your computer (it’s one or two chips on the sound card), in your smartphone, your iPod, or any other device that plays music. If you have an AV receiver, that has a DAC, as do optical disc players (CD, DVD and Blu-Ray). In short, anything that needs to convert digital audio to analog has a DAC.

A DAC, in its basic form, is merely a chip. Some sound cards, and most off-board DACs, contain two of them, or for each of the stereo channels. Some AV amps may contain one per channel; so if your amp can play 7.1 audio, it might have eight DAC chips. The term DAC also applies to a standalone device, which is essentially a housing for one or more DAC chips, and the necessary circuitry to connect the device to both input and output.

All standalone DACs have digital inputs and analog outputs. Some will have just have USB inputs and others will also have Toslink (optical audio); some will have standard RCA jack outputs, while others will also have XLR outputs. So if you do choose an external DAC, you need to make sure it has the connectors you want to use.

But if your computer already has a DAC, then why would you add an external DAC? Many computers scrimp on the quality of the DAC chips they use. The smaller the computer, the less likely it is to have a good DAC. In other words, a desktop computer may have a better DAC than a laptop. So, if your computer – or other playback device – is cheap, then an external DAC might make a difference.

DACs can run from less than $100 to many thousands, but, according to many people who have listened to different DACs, they generally sound the same. In fact, they should sound the same; DACs shouldn’t alter the sound of the audio they convert, they should only convert it correctly. So the analog conversion of a ripped CD should sound like that CD; the sound shouldn’t be altered by the DAC.

So, do you need a DAC? I happen to have one, a Cambridge Audio DACMagic, that I got for review about five years ago. (The current model is the DACMagic Plus (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which is a bit more recent.) I found that it markedly improved the sound of the music coming from the Mac mini, which was the computer I was using at the time.

Dac magic front

However, now that I have a retina iMac, I have a feeling that this better, more expensive computer is likely to have a better internal DAC. I still use the DACMagic, but if I took it out of my stereo chain, I probably wouldn’t notice as much difference. I’ve done some very simple tests, removing the DAC from the audio chain, and using an analog output from the iMac, and not noticed any real difference, but I didn’t spend much time testing it, and it’s very hard to do a blind test; I’d really need two iMacs to test it correctly.

(Apple uses the Cirrus Logic 4206BCNZ in the retina iMac ; this is very similar to what was in the Mac mini: Cirrus Logic 4206ACNZ. I’m not sure what the difference is.)

To be fair, a DAC can work as a sort of digital audio hub. If you have more than one device, and you want to route them all to your amplifier, you can do so through a DAC. I always have two computers on my desk: currently, this is my iMac, and my MacBook. I sometimes want to play music from one or the other for weird reasons (only the MacBook is set to use iTunes Match and Apple Music). So I can connect them both to the DAC.

It’s certainly worth trying a DAC, if you can. Depending on your computer, and your stereo equipment, it may make a difference. If you have a laptop, and want better sound from your headphones, the Cambridge Audio DACMagic XS (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) plugs into a USB port, and contains a small headphone amplifier. But at $189, or £100, it would be a waste if your headphones aren’t worth more than that.

For a standalone DAC that connects from a computer to an amplifier, the Audioengine D1 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a good choice, at $169, or £128.

Again, your stereo equipment should be good enough to justify such an expense. Most people don’t have good enough speakers; if I had a choice, I’d spend that money on better speakers before adding a DAC.

If you’re listening to music from your computer, the first thing you should do is connect an amplifier and real speakers to it. (I’ve updated both my amp and speakers since I wrote the article linked to in the previous sentence.) If you’re using standalone speakers, you’re probably not getting the best sound you can get. (Sure, if you’re using studio monitors, this is a different story…) And make sure that you’re listening in stereo.

The only case where you definitely need a DAC is if you listen to high-resolution music. Your computer’s internal DAC won’t be able to play the music at its full resolution, and you’ll need a DAC capable of handling the resolution of the files. However, this assumes that you think that high-resolution is worth paying more for; I don’t.

So, do you need a DAC? Probably not. Spend the money on good speakers. Do you want a DAC, just because? If so, there are plenty of models to try. Start at the low end; you may find that you don’t need to spend very much.

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19 thoughts on “Do You Need To Connect a DAC (Digital-Analog Converter) to Your Computer?

  1. Hey!

    What do you think about Fiio-DACs and amps? Although their stuff is very cheap, compared to other brands, they’re very open about what components they use, and you can often find the same key components used (like the DAC or amplifier-chip) in much higher priced products. I know, that there’s more than the chip involved in sound quality, but again, they’re very open about that, tell you which, for example, opamps are used, complete with datasheets, show pictures of the boards, and all of that looks very very good for the price. Sure, you won’t find big torroidial transformers in there, and they might not filter the power input that well, but at the same time, other small USB DACs won’t either.

    I currently only have the smallest of their current battery powered headphone amps, the E5, i think, which retails around 30 dollars, and altough it adds bit of noise when no audio is playing, sounds fantastic for the price and especially the size (around the size of the current gen iPod shuffle). I bought it since my iPhone 6 Plus can’t handle my Shure over-ears, and I actually think that apart from delivering more volume, sounds better, when you don’t turn up your iPhone all the way, and have the amp do most of the heavy lifting.

    Regarding Apple stuff, I think most of their products since a couple years back, use all in one cirrus audio chips, which have the DACs, ADCs, MUXes, amplifiers and noise cancellation circuitry all in one tiny package. I don’t really know if thats good or bad, but my iPhone 5 (and now my 6 Plus) sound much much better than my iPhone 4 did, but my MacBook Pro retina sounds worse than my old 12″ PowerBook, which in turn sounds worse than my first generation 27″ iMac.

    I’m currently thinking of buying one of the rather cheap Fiio-DACs for my MacBook, and would like to hear what you think about those. Although I have now considered for a long time, to build my own USB-DAC, since those chips have become easily and cheaply available, and mainly, just because I can. I would mainly use it with my Sure Over-Ears in the office, and regarding home use, I will honor your advice to invest in better speakers first. My Amp and Record player are fine (although I’m still always hunting on ebay for nicer ones), but I got those speakers second hand god knows how many years ago and don’t actually know what they are, I just know that they’re very very old. They do sound okay, but are definitely the weak link at the moment.

    Always love reading your audio-related posts!

    Best wishes,
    Urs

    • I can’t afford to try many of these devices. I have read a lot of good things about Fiio products, but I did try a portable headphone amp of theirs a couple of years ago, and the build quality was poor, and it didn’t do anything useful (I bought it to connect to an iPod, to see if it offered better sound).

      I’d avoid anything that adds noise when no audio is playing, because it probably also adds noise – that might not be very audible – when music is playing.

  2. Good article and good advice. One quibble, stand alone DACs have been available for many years, especially at the high end. Back when CDs were the rage, the highest end would split the CD drive and the DAC into separate boxes. And as with all audiophile stuff you can find gushing reviews and over the top descriptions just like cables and other enhancements.

    • Yes, but they only became mainstream about 5 years ago, or so. By that, I mean at prices that non-audiophiles could consider paying. There were some cheaper models before that, but there was also not much awareness among the more general listening public, and that changed around the same time.

  3. You can spend as much as you would like for a DAC, but the low end DACs (less than $300 are fine for most people). The chip is only a small cost of the DAC, most of the improvements as the price increases are to the power filtering to the DAC and the analog stage of the DAC. I have a Schiit Modi DAC which sells for $100. Sounds much better than the audio output from my Dell Mini. This feeds my AV receiver and main speakers.

    • Yes, as I say, all DACs should sound the same. I’m not sure that power filtering is a big deal, but you’re right that the chips themselves only cost a few bucks each.

      • Noise is the enemy of analog sound reproduction, so the better designed a power supply the lower the noise floor and ultimately better sonic results. Often this means using linear supplies as opposed to switched mode power supplies. Separating the power supply from the equipment also normally yields better results.

        While DAC chips are cheap, linear power supplies and femto clocks are not, which accounts for the cost of some higher end DACs. Femto clocks are interesting because reclocking the incoming signal can significantly reduce jitter which is something of a proxy for noise. The best DACs often reclock more than once to reduce as much jitter as possible.

        Ironically these two subjects are unusual in hifi because the benefits can be objectively measured, rather than relying on subjective opinion.

  4. I’m a fan of nu-force, and have a UDAC-3 at work and a DDA-100 connected to a Mac-Mini, just received for Christmas. The comment on investing in quality Speakers – first and foremost – is a good one.

  5. I bought an Epiphany Acoustics O2DAC, and I have to admit I feel a bit cheated – it doesn’t really make a significant difference in the audio quality, even though I use it with a good set of headphones. The biggest benefit I get is that it moves the headphone port from the back of the iMac to somewhere where it’s more accessible.

  6. Hi, great article! I have a question though: do you think one might need a DAC if you’re plugging the computer to an analog old-school receiver? I have a vintage Sansui G5500 receiver and I’m kind of dubious if a really need one just to make the pc sound through it. Thanks for the advice :)

    • No, you just need a cable connected to the headphone jack up your computer and then to the amplifier. Your computer’s sound card does the conversion.

  7. Hi Kirk, currently I’m using a straightforward 3.5mm jack to XLR female cable to connect from macbook pro (retina 2015) to the church sound system. Will DAC able to minimize the flickering-microwave sound? (i don’t know the exact term but it sounded like a microwave) If yes, do you have any recommendation of models that are portable enough to carry around? My usage is for churches audio/visual purposes and wedding events. Thanks in advance.

    • 3.5mm jacks can cause a bit of distortion. As they get old, or oxidized, they can get staticky when you move them. First thing to do is twist the plug in the jack and see what happens. Often, you find a spot where it works. A DAC would allow you to connect via USB, so that would mean that you aren’t using that jack. It is a way to get around a bad headphone jack, and even the cheapest DAC would allow that. But also check the KLR cable to see if that’s causing the problem.

  8. i have a Musical fidelity M6i with Dali zensor 5 speakers, Using te Denon 2300 as a preamp .
    Would adding an audioquest Red 1.0 USB DAC to the laptop via amp make much of a difference in the music quality of online radio?

  9. Dear Mr, McElhearn,

    I am really very happy to read your article. I bought a laptop to be specifically used for my HT and stereo system and contemplating to purchase a DAC.

    Your insightful write up will definitely serve as a benchmark should I ever decide to buy a DAC.

    Again many thanks to your wonderful article.

    Regards,

    Arnel

  10. Dear Kirk
    Thank for your excellent article on DACs.
    However I’m left with a puzzling question. If you use an external DAC with a laptop or computer, even if it has a cheap/poor internal DAC what would be the point? Since the sound coming out if the system is now in Audio format, having been converted by the internal DAC, the external DAC would not be doing any converting or so it seems. So how could a more expensive ecternal DAC in any way improve the sound as you claim in your article?

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