DACs: Do You Need an External Digital to Analog Converter for your Hifi System?

Discussion in 'CD/DVD/Blu-ray & Misc Hardware' started by admin, May 14, 2014.

  1. admin Audioholics Robot Staff Member

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    A Digital to Analog Converter, or DAC, takes your digital content and transforms it into analog so that your hifi system can amplify it and play it through your speakers. If you think you already have DACs in your system, you would be correct. So, if you already have DACs, why would you need an external one? More to the point, could you actually use it and would it make a difference? We walk you through the reasons you might need an external DAC and what problems you can expect it to fix.
    [​IMG]

    Read DACs: Do You Need an External Digital to Analog Converter for your Hifi System?

    Are you running an external DAC in your system? Tell us which one and why you decided to add it and how it sounds.
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  2. agarwalro Audioholic Ninja

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    Very well written and balanced article Tom.

    Was this pun intentional :)?

    In the context of, 'But Seriously, Do I Need an External DAC', barring justified needs mentioned by you, my take is that the speakers and room make such a huge impact to the overall sound that the "sonic signature" of DACs is completely swamped beyond measurement by even the most sensitive room response measurement gear. Yet, audiohiles with untreated "critical listening rooms" will wax eloquent about their external DACs having improved the sound.

    Conversely, with high quality headphones, the external variables are better controlled and therefore, it may be possible improve the sound by moving to an external DAC.

    Last but not the least, there is something to be said for number of D-A-D-A conversions. Frequently, we see folks with high end disc players using analog outs fed into AVRs that then overlay room correction process. Another AD-DA step has been introduced and the benefit of the high end DAC in the disc player is lost. In this situation, one might as well send digital signal to the AVR and let its DAC do the D-A conversion once, after all processing is overlayed in source signal.
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  3. Josuah Senior Audioholic

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    Your choice of DAC can still make a huge difference in an untreated listening room, and is definitely not swamped beyond measurement. Of course, if the gear you are comparing are already very close, then the difference is going to be very small.

    A follow up on do you "want" an external DAC might be a good article. :)
  4. skizzerflake Audioholic Field Marshall

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    I got one recently in the hopes of improving indifferent computer sound through headphones that I use a lot. It seemed like an impulsive purchase until I plugged it in. Basically, whatever the source, the sound has improved. I would not say that it makes a low bit rate mp3 sound as good as a CD that it was ripped from, but rather that both the mp3 and the cd are better than what they were. DVD sound is also improved. I bought an AudioEngine D1 and am using it with a Macintosh. It was a very worthwhile $170. I definitely recommend this little gadget for computer - headphone sound.
  5. agarwalro Audioholic Ninja

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    My stance is based on the reasoning that, first having good speakers (with flat on axis FR, controlled roll of as one goes off axis, well designed crossover, low distortion, etc.), good placement in room and finally, working towards not having strong first reflections (within 30dB of original) and an overall RT60 of 200-400ms will go a lot further than changing DACs if the aforementioned are not optimized.

    Can you elaborate on your reasoning for saying this?
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  6. anamorphic96 Audioholic General

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    I gave up on DAC's awhile back as I never hear any differences. I have switched to a Fiio D3 after my receiver stopped working and have never looked back. 30.00 bucks and sounds the same as the Yamaha CD-S300 I picked up, a Marantz DV-4001, and my old NAD C541i. It also handles my 24/96 files with no problem.

    My ears tell me the most important changes someone can make to the sound of a system is to TREAT THE ROOM, POSITION THE SPEAKERS CORRECTLY, AND UPGRADE TO BETTER SPEAKERS. These are the three most important aspects in my book assuming someone already has a good amp and source.
    Last edited: May 14, 2014
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  7. FozzieT Enthusiast

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    I had used an external DAC in my system. I had read great reviews about the Audioquest Dragonfly, so I bought one and ran it out of one of the USB ports on my Mac Mini. I ran the converted, analog signal through my Emotiva UMC-200 pre-amp's analog inputs, bypassing the pre-amp's internal DAC.

    However, on certain solo piano recordings, I was hearing audible distortion. At first I thought I had blown a tweeter, which totally sucked because I absolutely love my Monitor Audio Gold speakers with their ribbon tweeters.

    But then someone on this forum suggested I try removing the external DAC and simplify the signal path. Voila! Problem solved! No more distortion, and no blown tweeters! The Emotiva's internal DAC does a perfectly fine job on its own, no need for the external DAC.
    Last edited: May 15, 2014
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  8. BoredSysAdmin Audioholic Overlord

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    I had horrible issues with hum and noise from PC's both on-board and add-on sound card. External dac with optical in solved the issue.
    I could've bought something like Fiio D3, but I also wanted to have good headphone amp, my Fostex heads are quite needy for extra juice.
    Very few of such combo devices are what I would call "affordable" and in my case AE's D1 fit the bill.
    Did I over-payed for it - heck yes, but external dac was needed for my setup- only question how much one needs to spend in the situation similar to mine.

    Also most older AVR's with optical inputs would've solved this issue equally as well probably cost less; I bet one can find right model on CL's for about $50, but I didn't want the bulky size of most AVRs on my work desk or near it. Besides since my speakers are active such AVR would also must have at least stereo preouts.
  9. Marshall_Guthrie Audioholics Videographer Extraordinaire

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    I think that's the question that separates audiophile from audiophool: for noisy DACs in a laptop, an external will certainly show improvement. I personally use a variety of Line6 interfaces that do double duty for music production.

    ...But, in mid to high-range Home Theater AVRs, would anyone be able to reliably be able to discern the difference between audio via HDMI to the built-in DAC in your AVR vs optical/coax digital to standalone DAC to Analog Pre-ins on AVR?
  10. PENG Audioholic Warlord

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    I don't think I can hear the difference of the DACs in my gear and my two external ones but like IRV said before, over time one could somehow form a preference. Currently I prefer my latest acquisition that is a little DAP by Fiio but just slightly. After that I like my Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS just the same as my Oppo 105, Marantz AV8801 and Denon 3910. In any sort of blind tests though I would have no chance of scoring better than maybe 60%.
    PENG,
  11. jinjuku Moderator

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    Charlie Laub just tested a $40, Cirrus 4396 based, DAC off of E-Bay and it measures great and he thinks it sounds fine.

    Here is the thread at PETT

    I think at the next DIY for them Markk from Audioheuristics.org is bringing his Benchmark and they are going to A/B. Be interesting to see a $40 vs $1800 DAC.

    I think DAC's are so well understood and solid implementations out there that the $40 unit is going to come off showing very well.
  12. swspiers Audioholic

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    Late response, but I see more money wasted on DAC's in the headphone arena than anything else.

    After 5 months of trying to hear a difference between my Oppo BDP-103 and a Schiit Bifrost Uber in my HP rig, I finally gave up and sold the Uber.
  13. wednesday Audiophyte

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    need some advice

    Hi, would need some advice and info from DAC. I had noise when i am connect to PC thru AUX to RCA cable to my HeadAmp. But it dissapear when i connect thru my Z5500 head out(toslink from PC to z5500) or directly to my phone. But somehow the audio quality dropped significantly when i connect to my z5500. Will an external DAC solve my problem? If i would have to get an external DAC. Do i get one with USB input or optical toslink? thanks
  14. kenwstr Audiophyte

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    Hi, This is my 1st post on Audioholics.
    I just ordered an HDMI based external DAC, awaiting arrival.
    I don't know much about DACs but in 2016, my reasons include:

    I have a legacy analogue Stereo system that is very good and would be too expensive to replace at the same or better performance.

    Past disc players have stopped reading some discs within 2 years or so. It isn't an item I want to waste money on. It seems better to invest in a good DAC and just treat players as a throw away transport, saving money with simpler BD players.

    HDMI supports an uncompressed HD bit stream.

    It brings all digital sources into a common quality converter.

    It includes a remote input selection and volume control. This is a big issue for the rest of the family who would rather play everything through the TVs inbuilt speakers than not have remote volume control. This attitude drives me nuts.

    I can put the DAC in one of the Amps dubbing paths to gain remote volume control of all analogue sources while still retaining the option to switch them back to direct input to the amp.

    Hopefully, everyone will be happy now.

    I'd like to know what others think now in 2016, valid solution or not?

    Regards,
    Ken
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2016
  15. slipperybidness Audioholic Ninja

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    What make and model DAC are we talking about?

    I was thinking HDMI DACs are not very common?
  16. mtrycrafts Audioholic Slumlord

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    Not sure what you are trying to accomplish here. If you have an analog setup, where are the digital sources coming from That you need an external DAC for? A BD player has the appropriate dac for the source play on it. Doubt you will find a BD player without a DAC.

    I don't think it is a good solution but I may be missing something about your needs.
  17. kenwstr Audiophyte

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    The DAC is an Essence HDACC, there is a newer version with multiple (4 from memory) HDMI 2.0 ports. I chose the earlier model single HDMI 1.3 as it's on special and I don't think I need more than this. Broadcast signal may as well use optical from the TV but the BD player can use the HDMI.

    Sorry about some confusion. While much of my system was originally analogue, AM/FM tuner, turntable tape deck and integrated stereo amp, there is now a smart TV, PVR, CD &DVD players. However, as it has, until recently lacked any kind of digital integration, taking only analogue signals from all components. Due to the lack of digital integration, I still regard it as essentially an analogue system. The point at which any digital interconnection began was the very recent addition of the smart TV. Prior to this, there wasn't even one single digital interconnect anywhere in it. So I guess it's developing into 2 parallel systems (digital A/V and analogue stereo) with the HDACC providing a single connection point between them.

    The AMC CD8a is now quite old and several DVD players expired quickly and the latest needs replacing. The replacement for CD/DVD is a Sony BDP-S6700 (recommended by Bob@Essence as fulfilling the only real requirement, an uncompressed HD bit stream). I intend to run all digital audio through the HDACC which reviews say lifts perform equivalent to OPPO 105. Both BD & DAC will be run on linear DC PS.


    I hope to achieve several outcomes as follows:

    All digital sources use the same high quality conversion.

    I separate the cruddy unreliable disc transport from everything that really matters, reducing replacement stress and costs.

    Simplify and reduce the number of the input paths to the AMP

    Gain a remote volume and digital source selection control.
    Note that source selection may not be an issue depending on HDMI pass through in the TV.
    Else I can just use optical from the TV and direct HDMI from the BD player.

    If this works out, I get HiFi audio while sharing the system with the family. This is way better than them using the TV internal speakers just to get remote volume control which is currently relegating my enjoyment of the systems potential to when the family are not home.

    I may even get remote volume control over analogue sources by putting the HDACC in the amps tape dubbing path but still revert to direct input mode at the flip of a switch. I won't know for sure until I try to set it up. This is a very minor factor though.

    Will I get better quality audio? Some reviews indicate yes, I am unsure but will see when it arrives. I intend to do some direct comparisons with various sources.


    I hope that provides better clarity.


    Ken
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2016
  18. kenwstr Audiophyte

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    The HDACC arrived yesterday and I have discovered a few thing different from what I expected. The HDMI version appears to be up to 2.0 compatible at least in some if not all functionality.

    It is too early to give a conclusive report but I suppose preliminary impressions are OK provided they a viewed in that light and not taken as gospel truth. It's just today's opinion OK.

    I did some setting up and testing, I very likely don't have all the settings optimised at this point in time. Amplifier is Yamaha A700 and speakers are Polk Audio 10B stereo pair. I connected 2 paths from my AMC CD8a to the amp, RCA direct to the amp or coax to the HDACC and then RCA to the amp. This enabled me to listen to CD tracks from the same source, either through the AMC internal DAC or through the HDACC by selecting inputs at the amp. I played some folk music and some Gregorian Brothers guitar tracks. There was practically no discernible difference between the two DACS at 44kHz except perhaps the AMC direct may be slightly fuller sounding. In blind testing, my son consistently picked the AMC over the HDACC. However, such a slight preference could easily be due to unnoticed signal level differences. Note, up sampling the HDACC was not used.

    Then I played some HD content on the cheap Sony BD player, DHMI passing through the HDACC to the TV. The HDACC handled the HDA significantly better than the Samsung series TV’s internal DAC. Much more detail, expressive and pleasantly smooth and natural musical sound. This is now high end audio quality as good or better than I have experienced before. A definite and very obvious improvement.

    Next I compared PCM Stereo against 5.1 using the double sided Fleetwood Mac DVD on the Sony BD player. The 5.1 via the TV DAC sounds thin, lacks sound stage and dynamics but the HDACC played it very well however PCM stereo still seemed to have a crisper clearer edge over the 5.1 data stream.

    We tried one of my sons CDs that had guitar used almost like percussion, very little tonality. Upsampling noticeably improved resonance and tonality. Guitars now sounded well “guitary” (his word). So contrary to what many people say, Upsampling does appear to improve music, at least for some things. I was skeptical as how can you put back something that's not there to begin with? Well I suppose it's a fictitious interpolation inserted between the original bits that is somehow just more pleasant to listen too. I don't pretend to understand it but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it.

    As a preliminary impression, I guess the differences can be pretty subtle depending on the content, source definition etc. It may be hard to define exactly what the differences are but it just seems more pleasurable and immersive.

    A note on the AMC CD8a:
    I find it very interesting that the HDACC sounds so very similar the AMC CD8a internal DAC at 44.1 kHz output. I suspect though I’m not certain, the HDACC may have the edge with up sampling. I need to compare more tracks. I chose the AMC CD8a about 1997 so for a well-regarded DAC to offer such similar performance in 2016 may say something about AMC. To put the CD8a in perspective, I had listened to every CD player in the HiFi shop in 1997, some were noted for their flat response but lacked dynamic expression across the spectrum, some were expressive in either the top or lower end but the AMC CD8a had it all. Its dynamic musical expression across the full spectrum stood out above everything else I heard and this was the reason I chose it, to my ears, it simply had the most expressive and engaging sound. Though the HDACC is not an obvious winner at 44.1 output, I am very pleased to have an acceptable HD upgrade and CD replacement path.

    Regards,
    Ken
  19. slipperybidness Audioholic Ninja

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  20. kenwstr Audiophyte

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