What are DACs for?


DAC for what?

Our loudspeakers work with analog sound. The problem is that most modern sources (CDs, DVDs, audio files, etc.) are in digital format.

of DACs A digital-to-analog converter is a device that is inserted between a digital source (laser player, MP3 player, audio output from a computer) and an amplifier to convert it to analog.

To clarify, consider the case of a CD player. They mainly consist of two parts: the reader part, which is responsible for collecting the information fixed in digital form on the CD media, and the conversion part, which converts this digital information into an analog stream. This conversion part is provided by a converter built into the turntable.

All digital sources have built-in converters, but they are often of very average quality. This is why very high-end CD decks often consist of two of her boxes. The advantage of a dedicated DAC is that it takes over the not necessarily high quality converters integrated in the source and guarantees better conversion for an optimized end result.

DACs are available in various configurations

By using the USB input of some DACs, you can connect MP3 players, hard disks and USB keys, and instead of a small integrated printed circuit, the DAC handles the source’s internal data processing. You will notice a significant improvement in the sound quality of the signal sent to the amplifier.

Connecting the CD player’s digital output to a DAC disables the internal converter and sends the file directly to the external DAC for processing. Again, a good quality external DAC makes a big difference.

When outputting from a PC or MAC computer sound card, using the sound card’s SPDIF or USB output allows you to bypass the very mediocre converters that most computers come with. We recommend choosing the SPDIF output if possible. Certainly his DAC’s USB socket is limited to high resolutions.

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This is perfectly fine, but what’s the benefit?

First, we need to be clear that DAC processing doesn’t magically make a low-quality, ultra-compressed file better. On the other hand, slightly compressed MP3 files (eg 256 or 384 kbit/s) or lossless formats (FLAC, WAV, ALAC, DSD, etc.) will be converted. Bandwidth is increased, sound flows more naturally, and the soundstage expands in space. All of this, of course, depends on using a quality DAC. This breakthrough is especially noticeable in entry-level and mid-range CD players, and high-end turntables are often equipped with racing converters.

One last thing, sampling frequency is essential for converters. The minimum frequency of the DAC is 44khz on 16bit (which corresponds to CD quality) and his high end DAC offers 192khz / 24bit. This corresponds to the original format used in recording studios. Some even go further by offering DSD stream management. Compatible files (master tapes) are increasingly offered as paid downloads, so this can be a criterion of choice for demanding audiophiles. Some services (Tidal and Qobuz are the best known) offer high-definition streaming.

As with turntables, there are DACs for all price points. Some manufacturers specialize in making high-quality, affordable DACs, such as NAD, Cambridge Audio, and even Ifi Audio and American Audioquest. artwork Rather, it belongs to the USB DAC category, to name a few. At the higher end of the price spectrum, you’ll find British brand Chord with its own technical solutions, and the more classic Audiolab offering a very impregnable product.

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How do I choose the right DAC?

Several criteria come into play when choosing a DAC.

First, you need to anticipate the number of inputs and connectors you will need. In addition to your computer, you may also want to connect the digital audio output of your television, the digital audio output of your Internet box, an external hard drive, and so on. So having at least 2 optical sockets and 1 or 2 USB ports is guaranteed to cover all your needs. If your system includes balanced jacks, we recommend choosing a DAC that offers these types of outputs.

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The next thing to consider is the supported files. All DACs manage 24-bit files, but few manage DSD natively, or MQA, the format primarily available in Tidal. As for DSD, depending on the converter, supported resolutions range from the relatively popular DSD 128 (offering a bit rate of 5.6 MHz) found on most modern DACs to the very rare DSD 1024 (45.2 MHz ).

Another point to consider is your listening habits. If you listen to a lot of music through computer headphones, a USB DAC is the way to go. On the other hand, if you have a very good hi-fi system, his DAC in the living room will help you get the most out of your sources. And if you’re thinking of making the switch to hi-res audio streaming, this is the network player for you. Simply put, it’s a DAC that can access your network via wifi or ethernet.

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Manufacturers also often emphasize the oversampling capabilities of their hardware. Sound-wise, this corresponds to the video upscaling of our Ultra HD TV to give a very convincing image. Oversampling is intended, for example, to improve a medium quality file to a high resolution file. I don’t doubt the benefits of this oversampling on certain files, but I admit I’m not convinced of the results in terms of musicality and naturalness.

Finally, as is often the case with hi-fi, remember that each DAC has its own sonic characteristics. Don’t hesitate to read expert press tests and other customer reviews to get an idea of ​​the sound ‘feet’ of the DAC you’re interested in. Some surgically analyze the sound, others push the bass forward. This helps in choosing the most harmonious marriage possible in the system.

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5 highly recommended converters

Cambridge Duck Magic 100

Cambridge Audio, specialists in affordable audio converters for music, have struck a chord with DacMagic Plus. This model was surprisingly cost effective and had a very good career at the time. The DacMagic 100 provides he two coaxial inputs in S/PDIF format. One is USB audio format and the other is Toslink optical format. More than enough to meet the needs of a classic system, and in a beautiful way. Perfect as output from a computer or to improve the sound of his somewhat outdated CD player.

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Electronic Code Mojo 2

Don’t let its unusual design fool you. Mojo 2 is a true gem that benefits from all the expertise of a highly regarded player in both the audiophile and studio worlds. What are the benefits? Incredible fishing, great sound, reassuring robustness, battery operation (8 hours of autonomy) that induces unparalleled operational silence, its power that makes it possible to power difficult headphones, 100% A unique design (a rarity in the DAC world), and…a touch of quintessentially British madness found in its style and ergonomics.

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Ifi Audio Zen V2

A user-rated and tester favorite, the Zen V2 fits a quality chain and lets you get the most out of it. The same goes for computer output, which sublimates the reading of high resolution files in particular. Compatible with MQA and hi-RES files up to 32-bit/384 kHz, it delivers clear, detailed playback that can wake up sleepy systems. It is well made and easy to use.

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audioquest dragonfly red

Bestsellers from big names in hi-fi. Audioquest first made a name for themselves with cables and power conditioners, but they also made a name for themselves in the world of nomadic DACs, where today he is one of the leaders. This USB DAC also acts as a headphone amplifier and connects to the USB output of your computer or Android or iOS smartphone (via an adapter, if your USB drive is compatible). This gives you access to a whole new level of sound. Compact and rugged, it goes with you everywhere. And combined with Foobar-type software (100% free), it works wonders for high-quality audio files.

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Audio Lab M-DAC+

Audiolab, a very low-key British manufacturer, offers some unassuming-looking but especially melodious electronics. This Audiolab M-DAC+ is the successor to M-DAC, a very popular product on the other side of the channel. Beautiful OLED screen, 11 pre-selectable filters (7 PCM + 4 DSD), very rich connectivity (AES/EBU + 2 coaxial inputs + 2 optical inputs + 1 USB + 1 USB type B + balanced XLR output + RCA + optical output + coaxial output + headphone jack + ), support for PCM streams up to 32-bit / 384 kHz and DSD 256. Not to mention the comfort of the included remote.

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