What Is USB DAC & How It Works?

DACs are fashionable. And it is perfectly understandable. The popularity that is being acquired through the Internet distribution of digital music encoded in high resolution formats has caused many users want to make us a DAC that allows us to enjoy it with the highest possible quality. This is the reason why in Xataka Smart Home we usually talk about them with relative frequency.

Several of our readers have suggested that we prepare a post in which we explain in a simple way what a DAC is and what exactly we can do with it. So, said and done; here it is. Although we have explained it before , I will try to develop it with the maximum possible rigor, but, at the same time, in a simple way, and, above all, contributing some new ideas to what we have counted until now. Of course, it is likely that after reading it, you begin to think seriously about becoming one.

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Let’s go there……

Digital to Analog conversion


The first thing we have to keep in mind is that the music contained in our CDs, SACD, the hard disk of our computer or our mobile phone, for example, is coded in the digital domain. This is something that we are probably all clear of, and we also know that old cassette tapes and vinyl records contain music in analog format. Now that we have remembered that our music can be stored in digital or analog format (if we like vinyl records), we must remember that the speakers of our stereo need to receive a continuous electrical signal, and therefore analog, If we want them to sound. We can not send you the zeros directly and the ones we can extract from a digital media, such as a CD.

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The work done by Digital to Analog Converter (DAC ) is to pass a signal from the digital domain to the analog . No more no less. There are also devices that perform the opposite process, and that, therefore, manage to transform an analog signal into a digital one, but these are not the ones that interest us at the moment. The way a CAD performs this conversion process is beyond the scope of this post because of its complexity, but we may approach it in another post later.

Most of the CD, DVD and Blu-ray Disc players we all have at home incorporates a DAC inside . But we can also find it on our mobile phones, computers, and, in general, any device that is capable of playing digital music and send it directly to speakers or headphones. If we already have it inside many of our devices, why do we want a dedicated DAC such as the McIntosh D150 we talked about yesterday ?

Let’s see.

Reasons to get a DAC

Essentially, we can have two reasons to become an external or dedicated DAC. The first is, simply, to process with more precision, and, therefore, quality, our digital music. Each converter can use a circuit topology and a very different conversion chips, and these differences precisely determine its final sound quality . If we have a CD or SACD reader and want to improve its sound, we can use one of its digital outputs (usually optical or coaxial) to send to a high quality external DAC the digital data stream it extracts from our disks.

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The other reason for getting a dedicated DAC is that the latest models are compatible with a huge amount of high-resolution encoding formats, such as PCM up to 24/32 bits and 192/384 kHz, DSD or DXD. If we want to enjoy the great sound quality that these formats can offer us, and the integrated DAC in our stereo is not ready to process them, the best option happens to be us with a new converter .

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If we keep in mind all that we have reviewed so far we can easily intuit what inputs and outputs we can find in a DAC. As we have seen, these devices receive digital signals, so they must necessarily incorporate inputs for digital signals, such as USB, optical (EIAJ / TosLink), coaxial (S / PDIF), etc. And its outputs will be of analog type. However, the latter can be, at the same time, two types: single ended or balanced (if you want to know them better you can have a look at this other post in which we talk about them ).

Before you buy, Investigate

Currently in the market we can find dozens of CAD with very different benefits and prices also very different. Converters designed to coexist with smartphones and tablets, reference DAC designed to work side by side with high quality transport mechanics, preamplifiers and CD players with built-in DAC that can be accessed externally … Of everything. For this reason, I suggest that you think carefully about which devices you need to use and which formats to decode , and that you choose the one that best suits your needs. It will not cost you to find it.

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