A DAC is a digital-to-analogue converter, a device which converts the 0s and 1s of digital files to something audible. As many sources observe, these things are everywhere or, for example, there’d be no sound from phones, DAPs, etc.. As many sources observe, a lot of the built-in DACs are allegedly a bit rubbish, which is why we should all be buying some third-party gear to allegedly improve the quality of sound from source devices.
In truth, I have a small collection of headphone amps which happen to be DACs:
- FiiO E17K – decent, versatile, superseded; let down by a temperamental control wheel; 16- and 32-bit modes, but no overt 24-bit mode.
- FiiO K1 – inexpensive and perhaps not much better than the DAC/amps it’s supposed to replace; probably best with cheap Chinese phones.
- Sony PHA-1A – not cheap, not especially flexible (no line-out port; limited to Sony and Apple devices, and laptops); limited battery life; cannot be used while it’s recharging.
- Audioquest Dragonfly Red – a better version of the FiiO K1, but really just a dongle for a phone.
- Oppo HA-2 SE – decent, versatile, and has 16-, 24- and 32-bit modes.
- ifi nano BL – a step up from the Dragonfly Red, but without the flexibility of the HA-2 SE or E17K (i.e., no line-in port).
- ifi micro BL – a noticeable step up in quality from the E17K and the HA-2 SE with the same sort of flexibility. Has RCA ports, and a SPDIF one as well as a 3.5mm line-in port.
In addition to these, I have a FiiO K5 desktop amp which the E17K can be plugged into. I bought it to solve the problems with controlling the volume of the E17K, but there’s a line-in option as well so that I can attach other DACs to it.
My setup is modest being one laptop or another sporting various Realtek sound cards. I rarely listen to music from other sources except in bed when I switch to my Fiio X5 Mk II, my Walkman, or my iPod Touch. I don’t have the room for a full-sized amp and since all my speakers are powered, I don’t believe I need one.
Do these things make a real, audible difference? I don’t honestly know. I like the HA-2 SE because it doesn’t make my HiVi H5s sound loud. I like the ifi nano BL because it makes 320Kbps MP3s sound a bit better. I like the E17K, the HA-2 SE and the ifi micro BL because they’re flexible; I like the PHA-1A and the nano a little less because they’re less flexible. I think the K1 and the Dragonfly Red have their place, but not really in my lineup. And yet almost none of this has anything to do with sound quality because I value the devices that come with a range of options.
But as for judging the sound quality, I’m still waiting to encounter anything that transcends my other musical experiences. What is the quality being measured against? A live performance? Vinyl? What’s the bit rate for human hearing? Or the sample rate? When do these things reach such a point that it no longer matters? Should we just say that if the recording sounds good, the rest doesn’t matter?
What about the other components in the mix? Or the particular part that I’m assessing? Does the music sound good because of the quality of the file, or the DAC~amp, or the headphones, or what?
I’m largely sceptical about claims that files with higher bit rates and sample rates sound better. I’ve listened to the 16- and 24-bit versions of Monteverdi’s E questa vit’ un lampo and can perceive no difference. The same goes for the MP3 and 16-bit FLAC versions of Telemann’s Paris Quartets. All other things being equal, CD-quality sound is as good as human hearing requires. Vinyl, the sound of which I’ve long since forgotten, probably has a different timbre, but that doesn’t mean a better sound.
And does any of this really even matter?