If you’re like us who are into music (but are far from being certified audiophiles), you’d understand our frustration.
The music world is FULL OF JARGON.
So many technical things and so little explanation!
The good thing is that things don’t have to be all too complicated for you. We researched and compiled everything you need to know about USB DACs.
Read on to know more about what is USB DAC and if you TRULY need one!
What Is USB DAC?
A Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) is a piece of audio equipment that converts digital audio signals to analog signals.
Let’s say you’re on the windows media center and you want to listen to your favorite song.
You don’t think any more about how you were able to listen to it. YOU JUST DO. A DAC plays a huge role in making this possible.
Your favorite song can be divided into its data form and sound form.
What does that mean?
The DATA form is the digital audio signals stored in your computer. The ability to retrieve a specific song on your playlist is because it’s being stored as data.
As SOUND, it is the form that we hear on speakers, headphones, or even amplifiers.
A USB DAC is a plug-and-play DAC converter. It makes use of your USB port and USB input to transform the music data you want into its corresponding sound.
How Does It Work?
A USB DAC is short for a USB Digital-to-Analog Converter.
Essentially, it is a mechanism that lets you convert musical data into sound that you can hear on your headphones or speakers.
Surely, people had listened to music before DACs were invented. If DACs were necessary, how was this possible?
What Was Used Before DACs?
This was possible because sounds were INITIALLY stored as analog signals.
The best example would be reel-to-reel tapes. Reel-to-reel tapes store analog signals through record grooves that a turntable can recognize.
That’s it, NO CONVERSIONS NEEDED. BUT, we no longer really use turntables on a day-to-day basis anymore.
With the advent of technology, we’ve since migrated to computers and all sorts of players.
The Process Behind DACs
To play audio on a computer, the analog signals first need to be converted to BINARY SYMBOLS.
Simply put, every piece of audio you store will be read as a unique string of 1s and 0s. The 1s and 0s form the language your computer understands!
The binary symbols make your analog signal into a digital audio signal.
Here is a short step-by-step of what really happens.
1 – Analog Signals
Let’s say you’re a great singer, or maybe you’re truly talented in playing musical instruments.
When you decide to finally record your music sound, the microphone you use will record the original analog audio signal.
2 – Analog to Digital Signal
When recorded (at least by most modern equipment), the analog signal is transformed into digital signals. Every song title on your playlist is an entry of digital music stored from its analog roots.
3 – Music Playback
For your daily dose of sanity, you chose a premeditated list of your favorite tracks.
The song you can finally hear in music playback is DAC at work. From digital signals, DAC converts the audio back to its analog form.
The analog form is also sent from the DAC to a headphones amp (amplifier) or a home system (stereo system or speakers).
We like thinking of the USB DAC (or any DAC) as some sort of REVERSER.
DACs and Its Types
A DAC is not solely for music.
DACs cover all types of digital audio you encounter every day. This includes your video calls, alarm chimes, and all sorts of computer sounds. Basically, we’ve been using a DAC without even knowing it.
A DAC can be found in almost everything we use.
Your smartphones, computers, tablets, and music players all have DAC chips in their internal soundcard. This chip is embedded in your computer’s sound card, and voila, you get AUDIO.
If DACs are already present in our devices, what do we need a USB DAC for?
SHORT ANSWER: A built-in DAC (although it does the work) is usually crappy.
An external DAC (such as the USB DAC) is created for those who want a better sound quality from their devices.
A built-in DAC still does the work, but there will usually be noise. The noise levels you can tolerate usually depend on your needs.
When Do You Need a DAC?
We think we know what you’re thinking. If DAC is how we just defined it, almost all of us already own one. WHY WOULD I SPEND EXTRA ON ANOTHER DAC?
Fast-paced technology = Mass generation + Lots of competition
Built-in DACs are usually CHEAP, SMALL, and MEDIOCRE to keep computers and smartphones at a competitive price range. But, for good reason too.
An accurate reproduction of sound, albeit ideal, isn’t really a need for most. You’ll probably gloss over sound quality for other factors on a limited budget.
It’s part of the beginner’s kit for beat-making!
Built-in DACs vs. External DACs
Let’s first make sure we understand the difference between USB DACs and built-in DACs in the computer’s sound card.
A built-in DAC is exactly as it’s called. The digital to analog connection is already in your computer’s hardware—NO NEED for USB cables, a USB port, or whatnot.
The consequence, however, is the overall sound itself.
External DACs, on the other hand, are a DAC other than the basic DAC on the computer’s hardware.
They are usually plug-and-play through a USB cable on a dedicated USB port. Once the device receives the USB input, your windows media center can use the USB DAC for the conversion.
A DAC of this type falls under a wide price range and can easily cost you a couple hundred dollars.
Here is a short guide to help you determine if it’s WORTH THE SPLURGE.
Why It May Be for Me
We’ve established that built-in DACs on computers and mobile devices are on the lower-quality end. Some may even use the words “crappy” to describe it.
If audio is extremely important to you, it’s probably worth investing in standalone DACs.
A separate, dedicated DAC will definitely deliver SUPERIOR CONVERSION. Here are some factors that may just make all the difference.
- Accuracy of sound
- Clarity of sound
- Volume of output
External USB DACs will give you a louder and clearer sound with a lot less noise and distortions.
As an avid music listener, artist, or content creator, an external DAC might be the investment you need to get incredible sound from high-resolution music files.
We just want to remind you that purists maintain the stand that even the best external DAC won’t improve sound quality if your outputs (headphone, home system, stereo system) aren’t any good.
If you’re upgrading to a USB DAC, it might be worth it to throw in a high-quality headphone AMP as well.
Why It Probably Isn’t
We all want better sound quality. So shouldn’t we all just hop in and get a USB DAC? It’s not that simple.
Better sound quality has a PRICE, both literally and figuratively.
A USB DAC plus a headphone AMP built for high-resolution music files will definitely cost some money. DAC/Amp combos like the Chord Mojo aren’t the only way to improve the sound.
If YOU’RE NOT SUPER BIG ON SOUND, it may not be worth the extra trouble. Here are some of the ISSUES of computer built-in DACs that some still find tolerable.
- Background Hiss
- Unwanted Noise
- Low Volume
- Jitter Issues
You should also remember that even with the best DAC and AMP, it may not matter if you don’t work with high-resolution files. It totally makes great sense.
Sum It Up: Yes or No to a USB DAC?
External USB DACs may not be a necessity for you. Here are the reasons why you may not really need it.
- You don’t work with high-resolution files
- You don’t have a good outputs device
- You have a limited budget
The quality of your digital audio may be TRULY important to you. The superior conversion of a USB DAC is for you for these reasons.
- You can’t tolerate unwanted noise and sound distortion
- Your digital inputs are Hi-Fi
- The quality of digital audio is most important
Bit Depth and Dynamic Range
Both factors affect digital audio. But, they’re PRETTY TECHNICAL, especially for beginners.
Here are some fundamentals that may help.
We talked about the analog signal conversion to digital audio and the digital to analog reversion. Now, let’s dive into more details of the whole process.
When a sound wave is created, it moves through air to produce vibrations. The vibrations will create electrical signals that eventually get detected. The varying signals are recorded through sampling.
I know that’s a bit science-y. Don’t worry, that’s all the basics you need to know!
The digital system essentially gets enough signal samples to, later on, create the same output. IN LAYMAN’S TERMS, it’s like listening to a song long enough to know the song’s whole tune and sing it out later.
Digital files have around 44,000 – 96,000 samples per second. The sampling rates are known using different sampling rate methods.
A quick guide: More samples = Higher sampling rates = More accurate estimate to the original
We said earlier that the computer language is composed of 1s and 0s. These binary values actually have a name. They’re called BITS!
This is where your computer stores the audio once it’s done with sampling.
The rule of thumb: HIGHER NUMBER OF BITS = MORE STORAGE
- 16-bit = 65,536 information levels stored
- 24-bit = 16,777,216 information levels stored
A 24-bit has about 256 times more storage capacity to play audio outputs!
BIT DEPTH is all about how much information you can store. This is still related to your sampling rate. A higher sample rate can sometimes only be possible with a higher bit.
Audio in a 24-bit can store more samples and record the smaller audio changes. It will show more character, nuances, and identifiers versus the less precise sampling in 16-bit audio.
Bit depth also affects a factor called DYNAMIC RANGE.
The DYNAMIC RANGE (just like any range) is a ratio of the highest and lowest values. In the case of sounds we play on computers, it’s the ratio of the loudest part to the softest part.
We talked about 16-bit and 24-bit audio. The bit affects the dynamic range significantly.
- 16-bit audio’s maximum dynamic range: 96 decibels (dB)
- 24-bit audio’s maximum dynamic range: 144 decibels dB
How is dynamic range relevant to us? Should You Record in the standard 96 dB/16-bit or the higher 144 dB/24-bit?
THE ANSWER: It depends on your needs!
The 96 dB or 16-bit audio is usually the standard. It means it’s what is most commonly used. It actually is the standard CD format.
The 96 dB is strong enough for us to hear but not loud enough to cause damage or irritation.
The 144 dB, on the other hand, is best for recording high-resolution files. Increasing the dynamic range allows us to capture the original analog connection for more precise outputs.
What Bitrate Should You Go For?
The bit rate is pretty straightforward.
HIGHER BIT RATE = HIGHER QUALITY
Bit rate is the rate of bits processed. The more bits you can fit in a minute, the more accurate the audio file becomes. The caveat, however, is the bigger file size that comes with it.
Talking about bit rate in the context of music streaming makes it easier to visualize.
Music streaming services usually set a limit on the bitrate of audio files. The 160 kbps – 320 kbps limit becomes even smaller when you move from the computer to your smartphone. It usually shrinks down to 96 kbps.
Although purists maintain that a more superior sound is ideal, we might settle for a lower bitrate to make it easier for storage. It will also make it easier on the bandwidth.
At the end of the day, ask yourself what the audio is for and go from there!
Best DACs and Accessories
This isn’t an exhaustive list, definitely. You can browse more options, and you can even pick up a hand-crafted USB DAC.
But, in case you’ve decided to pick up a USB DAC, here are some of our USB DAC/AMP favorites that can be added to your home studio set-up!
Best Overall: Chord Mojo ($470)
CHORD MOJO is THE BETTER DAC out of the Chord Mojo and Chord Hugo.
Compared to other DACs, it gives you several choices for inputs and twice the outputs normally available. If you’re on a MacOS X and Linux, you won’t even need a driver to supplement your DAC.
It supports up to an impressive 32-bit. It’s great, but it is also VERY PRICEY.
Best Value: Audioquest Dragonfly Series (Around $200)
The Audioquest Dragonfly Red is a total favorite of many. It’s an AMP/DAC combo you can use on a smartphone. It’s compact and can easily complement your needs.
The Audioquest Dragonfly Red may be pricier than the Black, but the difference in sound makes it worth it.
Our personal favorite, the Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt, is the flagship product of the series. It’s just beautiful. If you have the money to shell out, DEFINITELY PICK THIS ONE UP.
We all just want to feel free to listen to what we want (and unwind!).
But CRAPPY AUDIO can sometimes (or always) get in the way.
A USB DAC is the perfect solution if you’re looking to put a stop to your frustrations. Just remember that it WILL COST YOU a couple of hundred dollars.
But, with the wide price range, you’ll surely find one that fits your needs.
If you have spare time and cash, you can even pick up a custom hand-crafted USB DAC! We hope this article helped you learn if DACs are the only way to improve your audio.
Make sure to pick up good headphones or speakers as well for that full, immersive experience.