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Technology 525 views Sep 12, 2018
How to choose a DAC

Before embarking on the purchase of a DAC converter, several elements must be taken into consideration to make the right choice. 

The sampling frequency

The sampling frequency corresponds to the number of samples used to make a second of music. It is expressed in kHz. The higher the sampling frequency, the better the signal. This is one of the most important criteria when choosing a CAD.

The resolution

Operating in conjunction with the sampling rate, the resolution is another important source of data to consider the rendering quality of a DAC converter. Expressed in bits, this resolution translates the processing accuracy of the signal. In order to respect a minimum quality, a DAC must not fall below 16 bits (resolution in which the CDs are encoded), at the risk of degrading the signal.

DACs with a native bit rate of 192 kHz to 24 bit is very close to the bit rate of recording studios. The minimum bit rate of a DAC is 48 kHz to 16 bit, but devices offer outstanding values from 384 kHz to 32 bit. Many DACs allow resampling a signal with the interpolation method: this is called over-sampling.

Warning: over-sampling can cause decoding errors, called "jitter" and causing some noise aggressiveness.

Harmonic distortion

A true measure of the deformation sustained by a signal at the time of crossing a circuit, harmonic distortion is another criterion to be taken into account when choosing a DAC. Unlike sampling, the harmonic distortion must be as low as possible, in order to obtain a better quality sound. As an indication, a rate not exceeding 0.05% is ideal for transmitting a suitable signal.

Connectors

Depending on the use you want to make of your DAC, different connectors are recommended:

  • To connect your DAC to an amp or CD player, opt for a device with optical or coaxial input;
  • If you want to use your DAC instead of the sound card on your computer, the USB input is strongly recommended. An S/PDIF output is even better, as it avoids the problem of slanted USB jacks for high resolutions.

In general, the connectors on the DAC of your choice must be compatible with those of your media.

In terms of USB DAC, two models compete, depending on their class. Class 1 USB DACs are of lower quality than Class 2 DACs, also known as asynchronous USB DAC. If you plan to play HD audio files from SACD (Super Audio CD), prefer an asynchronous USB DAC, which is able to support the extraction of high-speed digital audio streams and stabilize this stream, to avoid the jitter phenomenon.

Good to know: some DACs offer to transmit wireless data. These DACs are mostly network audio players controlled by an application on smartphone or tablet. The various existing transmission standards (DLNA or Apple AirPlay, for example) are all called lossless, which allows them to respect the characteristics of the original file.

Power supply

An important criterion in the choice of a USB DAC, the power supply of your device must also be studied. In fact, models with a power supply are generally more satisfactory than self-powered USB DAC. USB DACs equipped with a transformer has an ideal current stability. Result: the bass is more convincing, and the dynamic margin is higher.