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Do you need a Dac? What is it?

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DAC is the source of your audio setup. DAC stands for digital to analog conversion. If you are taking your music listening seriously, you have known about DAC. But Do…
Do you need a DAC?

DAC is the source of your audio setup. DAC stands for digital to analog conversion. If you are taking your music listening seriously, you have known about DAC. But Do you need a DAC? You should not put everything you have. Learning about audio gears and spending on what you need is a must. Because the audiophile journey is actually a rabbit hole. I hope this article will create a feasible insight. Mostly this will make you understand whether you need a DAC or not. 

I would request to go through the whole article. It will be a complete demonstration of DAC. In the end, you can answer a few questions easily. 

  • What is DAC?
  • How does it work?
  • Do you need a Dac?

So, let’s start. 

What is a DAC?

DAC Stands for digital to analog converter. It processes a digital signal and converts it into an analog. Our audio gears like headphones, earphones, and speakers use the analog signal to create sound. This is it. Nothing complicated. If you use mobiles, computers, laptops, audio players, most of them come with DAC chips inside them. This is applicable to all devices which create sound. Generally, DAC chips cost a manufacturer from $3 to $30. It’s a must-have element if any device wants to create sound. Let’s make it simpler. Think about A mobile phone with a 3.5mm jack. It pushes the digital data from the memory. DAC converts those ones and zeros into analog signals. Lastly, your earphone plays music.

Not every DAC chip is the same. Standalone DACs and Amplifiers are available to solve the poor audio quality of consumer products. If you have a pair of high-end headphones or speakers, you certainly need to feed them with quality decoding and amplification. Furthermore, in some devices DAC chips’ assembly shielding is improper. Therefore there is static noise. Some devices use a dern chip DAC chip which is not capable of processing higher bit rates. Therefore, the audio output suffers. Lower bit rate, Bad decoding of audio files is also an issue. Are you ok with lower quality tunes? 

Nonetheless, tech is getting better every day. The shortcomings of audio gears and sources are almost zero. Now you can upgrade your listening system, avail high bit rate recording, without sacrificing a lot of money and space. Quality audio sources are getting compact. Quality gears are getting cheap and cheap gears are upping its quality.

When do I need a DAC?

Let’s break down this segment a little by little. You listen to your music from Computer, smartphone, or home system. Check whether you are hearing noises. Do they process your high bitrate audio files? If the above statements are true for your case, get a DAC. In the beginning, You don’t need to spend a fortune to get an ultra-high-end DAC. There are a lot of quality options that won’t break your bank. 

DAC chips have some particular specs. You can narrow down your needs and get one easily. Some great Chinese manufacturers like FiiO, Xduoo, Aune make, SMSL, Topping make quality stuff for cheap. Moreover, Adding an amplifier with the DAC will never make you look back. SMSL m3, Fiio K3, E1DA 9038S Gen 2 are solid offering around $100. These are the DAC and Amp combo packages. But you can go for separate DAC and amp setup too. I think at the beginning A cheap combo is the way to go. 

How does DAC work?

All audio is a compression wave when it’s played back. When we record an analog signal in computers, it will be displayed in the waveform. It’s mostly the portrayal of the wave where the Y-axis is the amplitude (the power of wave), and the X-axis is time. Each wave will have a crest and valley. It’s called a period. And how many periods there are in a second is called frequency (displayed as Hz). The frequency of a sound is also correlated with the note. The higher the frequency, the higher the note.

DAC’s work is to take digital data of recording and retrieve it into an analog signal. It processes the bits of data at thousands of set times per second. This is known as samples. Nonetheless, DACs aren’t Flawless. Most importantly, this leads to some issues. Jitter, aliasing, lack of dynamic range, and bitrate limit are most of them.

Let’s know a few points about bitrate, bit depth, and sample rate

  • Bitrate means how much data is processed per second. 
  • The sample rate refers to how many samples of data are taken in a second. 
  • Bit depth means the density of data is recorded per sample.

Jitter

Jitter is a term that is familiar to nearly all audiophiles. But only a few people understand it correctly. It’s a theoretical term too. It’s present in Signal conversion but barely audible. Let’s get it through. Jitter is a close relative to the sample rate.

Jitter is an occurrence that appears when the clock (this signals the DAC when to sample) doesn’t click as it should. So the sample points aren’t matching preferred timestamp. Thus, a change in pitch for a fraction of time can be present. It also correlates with the bitrate. The higher the bitrate, the more problems occur. However, Imperfections in notes near 20kHz is barely audible. So, it won’t bother you. Most of all, Newer DAC chips are a lot better nowadays. So, these types of situations are highly unlikely. Only super-high frequency notes suffer from Jitter. Because they have the shortest wavelengths. Most of us over the age of 20 barely listen to those notes where jitter is present.

Aliasing

Basically, Cymbal Shimmer, harmonic, are higher notes in the recording. Sometimes higher notes will have weird warbling or oscillating sound that was absent in the recording. It’s because the DAC is not creating an exact high sample rate. This leads to the creation of accidental lower frequency notes. 

Increasing the sample rate can solve this. More data points will prevent probable errors from happening for a certain frequency set. Just like jitter, it’s also not audible on a higher frequency. Essentially, increasing the sample at least twice per period can remove this problem. Only the highest frequencies would be hampered but you won’t listen to it anyway. that you’d likely be unable to hear anyway. 

Let’s Consider the human hearing range from 12-22kHz. If we double that rate, it will be like 24-44khz or 44kHz. Did it ring any bell? 44.1kHz is the most common sample rate for MP3 files!

Bit depth and dynamic range

Did you ever feel that your music is a bit suffocating? There is not enough room to distinguish the notes or the instruments separately. Everything is going at once without a little frequency difference. This is actually what bad dynamic range sounds like. Basically, Dynamic range refers to the difference between all possible gain of sounds in recording data.

The theoretical limits of the dynamic range the bit depth of the recording. Basically, A sample contains data. The more it holds, the more potential output values it offers. If you make the bit depth better, you will get a wider range of notes with different loudness. Low bit depth can occur at the recording stage or at the decoding stage, or even the file itself. As a result, the lower dynamic range appears. You will hear inappropriately emphasized or muted sounds. 

Yet again we are bound to our hearing perception. The most common bit depth is 16 bit. So, per second you will get 16 bit of data, resulting in a Dynamic range of 96ish dB. Any sound under 96dB would be deleted or get inappropriate gain value.

Nonetheless, we hear our audio gear less than that level of loudness. Normally people listen at 70-85dB loudness. So, you might not audit the perceivable dynamic range difference. Additionally, we don’t hear all frequencies similarly. So, our hearing creates a limit here. 16-24 bit depth audio is more than fine IMO. But I would like to suggest avoiding a high-bitrate file with a low-bitrate dynamic range.
Therefore, 16bit files are just fine. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t have 24bit audio.

Good bitrate

We all are familiar with bitrate. If a file sounds bad, it either has limited bitrate or excessive compression. It’s more visible when you use Youtube music and Tidal’s hi-res file. Compression is the culprit here.

Bitrate is the music data decoding speed of your audio file. If it’s not fast enough, you won’t get sufficient information converted into analog waves. It’s really as simple as that.

Now you can ask, what will be adequate? Most of my audio files are FLAC. Though it takes a lot of space on HDD, I am happy with it. Even mobile devices are getting bigger space too. So, I don’t feel cramped. Most of the cases, 320kbps MP3 is enough. But you can build your own archive with a high bitrate audio file for sure.

Let’s sum it up

If you encounter 

  • Noise floor (AKA background hiss)
  • Sound quality issues 

You might want to invest in a DAC. This will help you in certain scenarios. You will get high-quality decoding. Therefore, you will get a cleaner sound. 

If you have a power-hungry headphone, DAC will certainly help you. For pc users, the internal sound card suffers from electrical interference, jitter, and static noise. An external DAC is your go-to for that. However, For laptop users, a USB DAC will serve better. For smartphone users, a portable compact DAC-amp system is most helpful. Besides, there are a lot of type-c USB dongles with hi-res DAC chips to save your back. 

Lastly, it’s important to think about your situation deeply. If you face problems you can certainly get a device. If you are satisfied with what you have, be like that. DACs will improve your sound. But you need to be ready to pay for it. Most of all, enjoy quality music with quality music files. 

You can also read about the differences between Open-back and closed-back headphones.

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