DAC buying guide
How to choose a digital-to-analog converter for home or portable audio
It has never been easier to discover new music, fire up a favorite song, or unearth a forgotten gem. That’s all good. But how do you get the best sound when you listen to Spotify, Apple Music, and other digital music on your phone or laptop?
Digital music files vary in quality, but they all have one thing in common. You can't listen to them in their digital form. That's where a digital-to-analog converter, or "DAC," comes in.
What is a DAC?
A DAC transforms digital bits — those icy, functional 1s and 0s — into sweet music. It is a necessary, important, and often overlooked part of the audio chain. There's a tiny DAC inside your phone, and another one in your computer's sound card. However, not all digital-to-analog converters are created equal.
How is an external DAC better?
“An outboard DAC bypasses the inferior audio decoding of your phone and computer,” answered Crutchfield Advisor Charles Anderson. “It can deliver music with more precision.”
Charles is the head of our Personal Audio expert group, so he’s well-versed in the world of headphones, headphone amps, and DACs. Earlier this year, he led a training class for our Advisors, where he showed off the benefits of a high-quality DAC.
“An external DAC creates a stronger audio foundation for the rest of your equipment,” he said. Add in a solid amp and a pair of nice speakers or headphones, and you're in for a treat.
Charles recently put together an internal training to better school our Advisors on DACs and high-resolution music.
Which is the best DAC for you?
There are several different styles of DACs available. Some are ideal for driving your headphones. Others are only used with your home stereo. And many work well with both.
“At my training, I ran demos to show the home stereo benefits of adding a DAC,” said Charles. “listening through the larger speakers, the Advisors could really pick out the extra musical detail and better sense of place.”
But most of our DAC customers these days use them for listening through headphones. Charles pointed out that you get a tremendous amount of bang for your buck with a headphone setup. Simply adding a DAC and a good headphone amp can go a long way.
How are DACs similar and different to headphone amps? Read my headphone amp buying guide to find out.
Portable USB DACs
The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt can connect to your laptop computer or phone (with the included USB-C adapter) for super-premium sound while you’re on the go.
A portable USB DAC primarily serves as a compact headphone amplifier for your computer. You can also use it to connect your computer to a stereo system.
Some models draw their power from your computer's USB port — no extra power supply is needed. Models that have built-in batteries are great for use with a phone or portable music player.
Our best-selling DACs: the AudioQuest DragonFly series
By far, our most popular DACs are the AudioQuest DragonFly models. AudioQuest put the USB DAC category on the map with these ultra-portable devices. And there are now three models to choose from -- the DragonFly Black v1.5, DragonFly Red, and the new top-of-the-line DragonFly Cobalt.
These DACs are the roughly the size of a thumb drive, and plug into your phone or computer to deliver high-quality sound. All three have a built-in headphone amp for driving high-performance headphones. Each features a stereo 3.5mm mini audio output jack for connecting a set of headphones or a stereo mini-to-RCA cable.
The main difference is the audio circuitry inside of each. And the sound is dialed in a bit more as you step up through the models. You’ll find one version or another on many of our desks here at Crutchfield.
“The DragonFly Red is hard to beat for portability,” said Charles. “I use it with my work laptop, then unplug it and listen on the go with my iPhone and an Apple® Lightning® adapter.”
So when AudioQuest released the Cobalt, it caused a major stir around here. We tested and compared all three, and discussed it on this video:
Desktop USB DACs
Desktop USB DACs also connect to your computer through USB. Unlike portable DACs, some desktop models need AC power to operate. They feature line-level audio outputs for connecting powered speakers or an amplifier. You can also connect an external CD player or network streaming device to a desktop DAC. Many offer a headphone output for private listening.
“At home, I use the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus desktop amp with my computer and headphones,” said Charles. “It may not be as portable as my DragonFly Red, but it has two Wolfson DACs inside, so it sounds even more spacious with better imaging. Plus I can also use it in my home stereo setup.”
The Audioengine D2 uses a transmitter and receiver combo to wirelessly send audio up to 100 feet away.
Wireless DACs broadcast digital content to an audio system in another location. Some connect to your computer and use a transmitter system. It sends the digital information to a separate wireless connected to your stereo or amplifier through RCA cables.
More often these days, wireless DACs use Bluetooth® for transmission from a smartphone or tablet. Some have extended wireless range, so you can move around more freely with your phone.
To get the most out of your headphones, consider a DAC that has a built-in amplifier that's designed to drive them. High-quality sound processing and robust power will bring new life to your 'phones.
Some headphone amps also can be used as a very capable digital preamp. These are ideal if you're using your DAC to connect to your home stereo system as well as to headphones.
DACs for iPhone®, iPad®, or Android™ phone
The AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 connects to your iPhone via an Apple Lightning adapter (sold separately) and offers a serious sonic boost.
For many of us, our main music source is our phone. We have several DACs that will work with Apple devices or Android phones. Your phone may require a special Apple Lightning adapter, USB-C adapter, or micro-USB adapter.
Component Hi-fi DACs
The Cambridge CXN (v2) component DAC is network audio streamer with built-in Wi-Fi® and Bluetooth. It can even be used as a preamplifier in a digital sound system.
Component Hi-Fi DACs are designed to connect to your full-fledged home audio system. You'll find large power supplies and advanced circuitry in theses DACs. They are ideal for two-channel stereo systems.
Component DACs offer the widest range of connection options. And there are "jack-of-all-trade" models in this categories that have a built-in CD player, Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi. Some connect to your home network, so you can stream directly from music services and sources.
Important points for getting the most from your DAC
Adding an external DAC can make a substantial improvement to the sound of your digital music. Sometimes. “You may not always here a night-and-day difference,” warns Charles. “But I use the analogy of spraying Windex on a smudgy window. You can still see through the window beforehand. But everything gets a little cleaner and clearer after.”
Charles uses the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus as part of his home stereo setup (and with headphones).
Your sound quality ultimately depends on other factors as well. Here are four important ones to consider:
1. How good are your music sources?
Digital music comes in variety of different formats and quality levels. The amount of detail a DAC can resolve or pull from a recording depends on how much is there to begin with.
Make no mistake: whatever audio you play should get a sonic boost. That includes music downloads, streaming services, and even YouTube™ videos. Just make sure you're using the highest resolution available. This can be as simple as changing the streaming settings in Spotify.
The most discerning listeners often choose high-resolution music or lossless streaming services like Amazon Music HD, Tidal or Qobuz. These large digital files retain more audio information than compressed MP3s.
“With quality gear, stepping up in resolution can give you that extra 5 percent that really makes your music sound more lifelike,” said Charles. “The sound is more dynamic with better texture. And there can be a big difference in the bass — more focused and punchy. Vocals stand out more, too. Really, you get a more three-dimensional sound.”
2. What kind of system will your DAC connect to?
The quality of your system’s audio components has an impact on the improvements you’ll hear with an outboard DAC. Be sure to use capable speakers and well-made headphones to get the most out of your system. You wouldn't want to use a $2,000 component DAC with a mid-fi home theater receiver. Likewise, if you have a rack of equipment with high-end amps, an entry-level DAC won't cut it.
3. How’s your computer comfort level?
Getting the best performance from a DAC connected to a computer can take a little bit of extra work. You may get music to play by simply plugging in the DAC. But, some additional changes to your computer’s audio settings may be necessary to get the best sound. Some DACs also require downloading and installing a USB driver to operate.
Manufacturers typically include instructions. But, a basic knowledge of computer operation will increase your odds of success. We can help with any questions as well. Free lifetime tech support is included with every Crutchfield purchase.
4. Don’t forget the cables
The quality of the cable you use with your DAC can have a sonic impact. Upgrading from the cables included in the box usually pays off in better sound quality. Check out our USB cables for your computer, and our optical digital and coaxial digital cables for your CD or network music player.
Get DAC advice from our specialists
Charles designed his enviable home system to squeeze every musical detail from his high-res collection — and he loves to help others with their audio setup.
How do you choose the best headphone/amp/DAC combination? Or figure out which DAC will fit in best with your current stereo setup? Talk to one of our personal audio experts, like Charles.