Should I buy a Digital-to-Analog Convertor (DAC)?
June 23, 2014 5:52 AM   Subscribe

Just wondering if this is something I should invest in, or would it be a waste of money?

Ok, I listen to a LOT of music on my computer (both desktop and laptop) at work. Pretty much the entire time I am there, I am listening to some sort of audio (music, podcasts, talk sports radio, etc). I have invested in a couple of nice pairs of earbuds (nothing super high end), and have a couple of decent pairs of over the ear headphones that I use quite a bit (I have a pair of lower end Bose and a pair of Sony MDR-7506s that I bought about 6 months ago and I love).

I converted virtually all of my music from my CD collection to mp3 format to have it on my computer and in iTunes (I listen to a lot of content on my iPhone as well).

That being said, would investing in something like a DAC be a big improvement over just listening through my computer (and laptop). I read the reviews and know that most computers only use a part that’s a couple of bucks for playing sound, so it should help amplification, etc, but again, I am not using super high quality headphones/earbuds and I am listening to compressed audio files (mp3 formats, for the most part). Will it help and make my listening experience better or will it be a waste of money?

I was thinking of units such as the Fiio E17 or the new Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS. I was hoping to keep this around the $100 mark (I know both of these are over that amount), but I would splurge if I thought it was worth it. I am looking for something smaller and portable (that I can also use with my laptop) vs. those larger, bulkier more expensive units.

Side question – and sorry for my lack of understanding – is there a difference between a DAC and a headphone amp? Both of these products appear to be both (a DAC and headphone amp). Are all DACs also headphone amps? Or am I way off base?

Thanks in advance.
posted by dbirchum to Technology (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I've spent my money of waaay better headphones and I've made my own amp. I don't really feel the need for an external DAC.

If I was still dissatisfied (I'm not) then I'd think about external DACs or re-rippingin in a lossless format.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 6:07 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: is there a difference between a DAC and a headphone amp?

A DAC converts a digital signal (the digitized sound waveform from your computer comprising of '1's and '0's) to an analog signal (the electrical waveform to your headphone comprising of a time-varying voltage). That's why the devices you're looking at have a USB input connection and a headphone output connection - they are "digital in, analog out".

A headphone amplifier converts a "small" analog signal to a "big" analog signal. Some headphones require a lot of power to drive properly (certain "low impedance" headphones). Low-end computers and laptops tend not to be able to provide that power very well for various reasons, causing distortion with higher end headphones. In addition, some computers/laptops don't amplify very well in terms of sound quality when the volume on the computer/laptop is turned up. Headphone amplifiers allow the computer/laptop to drive a "small" analog signal that it can handle reasonably well while the dedicated headphone amplifier turns that signal into a "big" signal for the headphones. These devices are "analog in, analog out."

Note that headphone amplifiers and DACs can be combined (as you've seen). You can also have discrete headphone amplifiers (this is one randomly picked). Dedicated DACs also exist (again, randomly picked).

Just wondering if this is something I should invest in, or would it be a waste of money?

I'm going to suggest for your use case it'd be a waste of money.

Your MDR-7506 headphones are "high impedance" (they are 63Ω, which is greater than the ~25Ω that defines "low impedance"), so you probably don't need an amplifier to drive them. Since you are presumably using compressed MP3s, I think the subtleties added by nice headphones will be pretty darn subtle.

I have a pair of Sennheiser HD558s and a FiiO E10 DAC/amp. The only time I can differentiate that setup from my unamplified Sennheiser HD-280 Pros is when I'm listening to classical music with a wide dynamic range in a quite environment.
posted by saeculorum at 6:34 AM on June 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, be careful of the audiophile path. You can get gear addiction very easily and once you find yourself reading a review of a $800 headphone cable, you suddenly realise, you've taken this way too far.

That being said, I have a DAC for my desktop computer. I treat it as my sound card basically. It's a Hlly DMK-IV from China. I think they go for about $360 on ebay but I got mine for $250 after I bid on one that did not reach the reserve price and the dealer offered me a lower price. It's also a Headphone Amp, though it's renowned more for it's DAC abilities. After about 3 years, the usb on mine got fried, probably cause I was using my computer running in a garage in summer (these things get hot by the way), so I switched it to use the optical out on my motherboard and it sounds even better to my ears than when it was running USB. I've a/b'd it with the built-in sound card and it's no contest that it absolutely sounds way better, has way better range.

Although I do use the headphone amp on it for general use, like watching movies and youtube and stuff, for music you might want something more. I bought a Burson Audio Headphone amp to power my old AKG k701 headphones. I like Burson cause they are in Australia and I live close to that neighbourhood (NZ) but I think you'll find a lot of positive reviews of them. They make DAC's now as well (They didn't yet when I first got my headphone amp). Check them out. I'm fairly sure they will be miles ahead of Filo. And if they can make my ageing K701 'phones sing, they'll likely do wonder for yours.

So in answer to your question, should you spend some money investing in a DAC and headphone amp, if you value your listening experience, yeah, I'd invest some. Work out what budget you have, and head on over to forums and ask the people there what they thing is the best value for your budget. But then don't get carried away beyond your budget by very much, or else you'll end up like me, with a pari of Stax earspeakers sitting in your closet.
posted by cicadaverse at 6:43 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

A third alternative is an external sound module, like this one (an example, not necessarily a recommendation). These kinds of modules usually have really good electronics, and they have DSPs built in, so they can do things like implement 10-band equalizers, implement reverb and echo, and a lot of other effects which you might like.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:48 AM on June 23, 2014

Best answer: The short answer is that it depends on your computing hardware and on your headphones.

Every computer with a headphone jack already has a DAC and a headphone amp built in. Per saeculorum, the DAC converts the digital audio file into analog sound, and the amp increases that signal to allow for reasonably loud playback of the audio. These are commonly together on the same hardware, but can also be separate.

Some of the built-in DACs and headphone amps are of reasonably high quality (as in Apple gear), and some of them are absolutely terrible (inexpensive Windows PCs and desktops with motherboard audio). Whether or not an external DAC and headphone amp will help depends strongly on the specifics of your existing gear.

Can you hear noises in your headphones that correspond with the operation of peripherals, like a high pitched beeping while the hard drive is being accessed, or changing tones when you change what's on the screen? An external DAC and headphone amp will certainly help. Do you hear distortion or does the music turn "staticy" when you turn up the volume? It will certainly help. Can you not turn up the music to a comfortable level? It will almost definitely help. Does the music sound kind of dull compared with listening to the same audio files on other systems? It will probably help. (A good DAC *will* improve the dynamics of MP3 playback.)

But if music through your existing systems is already loud and clear and dynamic with your existing headphones, the overall change may be subtle, and may not be worth $100 to you.

In most environments, I just listen to music directly from my devices. For my living room, I have an Audioengine D1 external DAC and headphone amp, which sounds really, really great, and does make a difference that I like - but it's not so much better than modern built-in DACs and amps that it would be worth carrying around with me, or buying separate DACs and amps for all my gear.
posted by eschatfische at 6:50 AM on June 23, 2014

I don't have any specific advice for your situation but you might be interested in reading NwAvGuy's blog, the first few posts cover in more detail what saeculorum was talking about, and he also reviews a bunch of audio equipment.
posted by Bangaioh at 9:30 AM on June 23, 2014

Best answer: I have the $100 Fiio, which makes my music sound marginally better, though I'm not sure it was worth the price. The weak link in your setup is using mp3 files, and a DAC won't help that.

If I had it to do over again, I'd spend the time to re-rip my music to a lossless format, and invest in a non-iPod player that can handle it.
posted by grateful at 9:39 AM on June 23, 2014

Yes. I edit spoken word and I usually monitor over a pair of Beyer DT250s via my MacBook's headphone jack. However, occasionally I go through one of my DAT decks and the difference in quality is noticeably better by miles.
posted by popcassady at 10:47 AM on June 23, 2014

Recent thread at Hydrogenaudio discussing sound cards vs onboard audio.
posted by Bangaioh at 2:21 PM on June 23, 2014

FWIW, "I read the reviews and know that most computers only use a part that’s a couple of bucks for playing sound" is something of a bullshit argument on their part, and you should look warily on anyone using it. The 2 DAC/headphone amps you mention also use "a part that's a couple of bucks" - both the Wolfson WM8740 (used in the Fiio) and the ESS ES9023 (used in the DacMagic XS) retail for ~$4/ea 1-off or ~$2-$3ea for 250-500.

(And neither of those chips seem to be particularly outstanding in terms of specs, at least when compared to instrumentation-grade DACs. Their popularity seems to owe more to the fact that they're designed to be controlled by a very basic micro (or even without) and drive a simple current-gain buffer/headphone amp, and so are pretty easy to use. Their biggest claim to fame seems to be that they're used by a couple of audiophile-level brands in their entry-level products, and so have acquired a certain cachet that's out of proportion to their actual specifications…)

As others have said, the big advantage of using an outboard DAC is that it gets the very sensitive low-level signal parts away from the extremely electrically noisy environment inside a computer. Much of the rest of (any) improvement comes from having an output stage designed to drive headphones, and not just a generic-ish speaker/headphone/line output.
posted by Pinback at 5:27 PM on June 23, 2014

In my experience a dac plus headphone amp can make a big difference in the sound quality that you can get. But if you're listening to mp3 I don't think you'd derive a benefit.
posted by MjrMjr at 7:25 PM on June 23, 2014

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