DAC has been part of my musical life since early 1984, when I bought my first CD player, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was, for the first time in a long time, I could listen to certain albums without the pops, crackles, and skips that had come to define my record collection. No one knew if CDs would catch on. Audiophiles screamed they sounded edgy and tinny, and were ruining the purity of the music. Musicians resisted. And the discussions about DAC began.
What is DAC?
DAC is digital to analog conversion, and it controls how your digital files will sound. Any component that translates binary into physical pressure, including your computer, CD, DVD, and Blu-ray player has an internal DAC. It must, so that it can translate the numbers into sound. If sound is imagined as a wave, then digital recording can be imagined as a wave made of tiny stairs. The more stairs you have in the wave, the more memory it takes to remember all the stairs. The more stairs you have, the smaller the gaps are between information. So in order to make a smaller file, you use less stairs, which would be termed as file compression. Which leaves large gaps in the music.
Why it’s important
Here’s where it gets interesting. As you go up in quality with DACs, the ability to “fill in” between those stairs becomes greater. All DACs have some ability to fill between the gaps in the stairs, but the better the DAC, the more accurate and larger the fill will be. Most standard internal DACs play a compressed file basically as is, with the information removed, providing the recognizable thin sound you get from compressed files. Sure, internal DACs add some additional information, but not enough to flesh out the sound of a compressed file.
And where it comes into play
So you start to wonder, how can a CD player can cost $900.00? Or a Blu-Ray player? It’s because of the conversion costs. If you want the best sound, then you need the best DAC you can get, and that’s what’s found inside these expensive players: great digital conversion.
So now we come down to brass tacks. Before I got CDs, I had albums. And when I went to friends’ houses to hang out and and listen to tunes, I carried those albums. And if you weren’t careful when carrying an armful of albums, they fell out of their sleeves onto the ground. Remember the pops and crackles! Now you know where some of them came from. In 1980, I would have mugged my grandmother for an iPod. Which is not a positive, I have to admit. But to carry your entire music collection in your pocket? Heaven.
But the price paid would have been lousy sound. And sound is something I take seriously, and so do a lot of my friends. This is what got me looking into DACs. A friend travelled out to visit, with his pocket full of music, and it sounded pretty bad. He had downloaded, not taken it from a source, and it just didn’t sound right. He could have saved it as a larger file, but that takes up valuable iPod or computer space. The music itself was awesome (Timmy’s totally into Derek Trucks right now, and he had some interesting live material), but the sound was wrong. So I started to look into how to fix the downloaded music situation, and came across the DAC. I took one home for a test drive, and they really work. They fatten up the thin, downloaded sound that came from my computer, and, very surprising to me, made my old CD player sound better as well. So, at least I know what I’m saving my money for: