How to Choose the Right DAC

Gustard A18 review featured

If you are an audiophile who cares about the quality of your sound, you might have heard of DACs. DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter, and it is a device that converts digital audio signals into analog ones that can be played by speakers or headphones. DACs are essential for any digital audio source, such as a computer, a smartphone, a streaming device, or a CD player.

But how do you choose the best DAC for your audio system? There are many factors to consider, such as the type of DAC, the features, the compatibility, the price, and the personal preference. In this blog post, we will guide you through some of the most important aspects of choosing a DAC and give you some recommendations for different scenarios.

How to Choose the Right DAC for Your Audio System

SMSL DO300 review featured

Type of DAC

There are two main types of DACs: standalone and integrated. A standalone DAC is a separate device that connects to your audio source via a digital cable and outputs analog signals to your amplifier or speakers. An integrated DAC is built into another device, such as an amplifier, a speaker, or a headphone. Both types have their pros and cons, depending on your needs and preferences.

A standalone DAC gives you more flexibility and control over your sound quality. You can choose a DAC that matches your audio source and your amplifier or speakers, and you can upgrade or change your DAC without affecting the rest of your system. A standalone DAC also tends to have more features and inputs than an integrated DAC, such as multiple digital inputs, volume control, filters, or Bluetooth connectivity.

An integrated DAC saves you space and money by combining two devices into one. You don’t need to buy a separate DAC or worry about connecting cables between devices. An integrated DAC also ensures compatibility and synergy between the components of your system. However, an integrated DAC limits your choices and options. You have to stick with the DAC that comes with your device, and you can’t upgrade or change it easily.

Topping E70 and L70 review featured

Features

DACs come with various features that can enhance your listening experience or make it more convenient. Some of the common features are:

  • Sampling rate and bit depth: These are the parameters that determine how accurately a digital audio signal is converted into an analog one. The higher the sampling rate and bit depth, the more detail and dynamic range the sound will have. However, not all DACs can support high-resolution audio formats, such as 24-bit/192 kHz or DSD. You need to check if your DAC can handle the formats that you want to play.
  • Filters: These are the algorithms that shape the sound of the analog output. Different filters can have different effects on the frequency response, the phase response, and the distortion of the sound. Some DACs let you choose between different filters or turn them off altogether.
  • Volume control: Some DACs have a built-in volume control that lets you adjust the level of the analog output. This can be useful if you want to connect your DAC directly to a pair of active speakers or headphones without an amplifier. However, some audiophiles prefer to use a separate volume control or no volume control at all for better sound quality.
  • Bluetooth connectivity: Some DACs have a Bluetooth receiver that lets you stream music wirelessly from your smartphone or tablet. This can be convenient if you want to play music from online streaming services or apps. However, Bluetooth can also degrade the sound quality due to compression and interference.
  • MQA support: MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated, and it is a technology that delivers high-resolution audio in a compact file size. MQA files can be streamed from services like Tidal or downloaded from online stores. However, not all DACs can decode MQA files natively. You need to check if your DAC has MQA support or if it can work with an MQA-compatible software player.
Earmen Angel review featured

Compatibility

Another important factor to consider when choosing a DAC is compatibility. You need to make sure that your DAC can work with your audio source and your amplifier or speakers.

The first thing to check is the type and number of digital inputs on your DAC. You need to match them with the type and number of digital outputs on your audio source. For example, if your audio source has a USB output, you need a DAC with a USB input. If your audio source has multiple outputs, such as optical, coaxial, and AES/EBU, you need a DAC with multiple inputs.

The second thing to check is the impedance and sensitivity of your amplifier or speakers. You need to match them with the impedance and output level of your DAC. For example, if your amplifier has a high input impedance (such as 47 kOhm), you need a DAC with a low output impedance.

Link2 Bal with iPhone and Meze 99 Classics

So Which DAC is the Best for You?

Well, we’ve covered DAC types, features and compatibility but there’s one more thing I’d add to the list and that’s aesthetics. While some people may not care about the appearance of their stereo components, others, like myself, value both usability and physical appearance.

As someone who does most of their listening at the desktop, I prefer DACs that are not too bulky, yet visually appealing. A nice, large, and weighted volume knob is also important to me for easy and precise volume adjustments. Additionally, I find that DACs with OLED displays add a certain level of sophistication to the user experience.

When it comes to choosing the right DAC, there are a variety of factors to consider. Hopefully, this article has provided you with the information you need to find the best DAC for your needs.

For reference, here are a few of our current favourites:

Standalone DACs

Topping E70 Velvet (read the review)
SMSL DO300 (read the review)
SMSL C100 (read the review)

Integrated DACs

Earmen ST-Amp (read the review)
Yulong Aurora (read the review)
SMSL C200 (read the review)

Portable DACs

Earmen Angel (read the review)
xDuoo Link2 Bal (read the review)
Cayin RU6 (read the review)
FiiO BTR7

Earmen ST-Amp design

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