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  3. Choosing the right DAC: Digital music and you

Choosing the right DAC: Digital music and you

DAC´s, ESS, Burr-Brown, D/A Converters

Where to start?


Over the last 10 years, more and more people have begun to listen to and enjoy music stored on their computers, smart phones and through internet streaming services. The problem is, how do we make these sources sound great?


There was once a much simpler time, where if you wanted to make your records sound better through your stereo, you looked at better cartridges and turntables. It was easy to understand because the process was inherently physical, something we could see. With digital music, it's much harder to imagine the process, because it occurs within microchips and processors. 


What is a DAC?


Very broadly, a DAC or Digital to Analogue Converter converts music stored in a digital format into an analogue electrical waveform that can then be amplified to power your speakers.


DAC's are everywhere. They're in our smartphones, MP3 players, home theater amplifiers, CD players and Blu-Ray players. The quality varies so much and there are so many options that choosing between them isn't as simple as it could be. Don't worry, we're here to help.


CD players are the traditional home of good quality digital to analogue converters. Your music is stored in 1's and 0's on your CD's and comes out the red and white RCA's in good ole' fashioned analogue.


The quality of the digital to analogue converter in CD players is one of the biggest differences between any two given CD players. It's part of the reason why two good CD players can sound so massively different.

DAC´s, ESS, Burr-Brown, D/A Converters

DAC's are everywhere...



How do I choose the right product?


The golden rule of Hi-Fi is to listen before you leap. It's really important that you get good advice from someone who has had experience with a wide variety of systems so that you're listening to the right products to start with. Contact us and we can help!


It's important to think about how your music is stored and how you would like to play it back. If you have a thousand CD's and enjoy putting them in a disc spinner, you should look at a dedicated CD player.


DAC´s, ESS, Burr-Brown, D/A Converters

If you have all of your music stored on a computer, you should either look at USB DACs or dedicated media "streamers". 


If you get most of your music from streaming services or smart devices, you should look at products like Sonos.


Many modern CD players offer external digital inputs so that you can get the best of all worlds.


What's the difference?


Every DAC has different levels of performance and price, but you should keep in mind that the implementation and the overall engineering in a product are more important than any one magical chip that happens to be built into it.


The perfect example of this is a comparison between McIntosh's D100 and the Oppo BDP-105. Oppo's BDP-105 uses the ESS Sabre 32 9018 DAC and sounds excellent. McIntosh's D100 uses the model down in ESS's range, the Sabre32 9016.


In every demonstration between the two I have ever heard or performed, I found the D100 to have significantly more life, air and smoothness than the Oppo's comparatively dry, clinical sound.


This just goes to show that the single most important factor in any product is it's overall engineering design.


This means you can't just pick off the spec sheet and get the best sound for your money. This is where listening comes in. If you ever get the chance, always try and get a solid demonstration in.


DAC´s, ESS, Burr-Brown, D/A ConvertersOppo's excellent BDP-105


What abut for home theater?


Any self respecting modern home theater receiver or processor has Digital to analogue conversion built in. Again, the quality varies massively and has a big impact on the overall sound quality of the receiver. Any improvement here will contribute to better detail, lower noise, better dynamic range and more accurate bass response.


Again bear in mind that this is just one part of a bigger system, so a receiver with the best DAC's and poor amplification will easily be bettered by any receiver with decent digital to analogue conversion and well matched amplification.


As always, give us a call and we can impart this knowledge in a useful and easy to understand way.




Further reading:


ESS DAC's technical info: Sabrewp, (.pdf Format; 327Kb)







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