The big selling point of Digital-Analogue Converters (DACs), according to journalists, is the inferior sound which everything else is supposed to produce. That may be true of phones and even small DAPs such as iPod Nanos, but I remain sceptical about the pronouncements which are made about laptops. Are these things really worth having? Are they really worth the expense? Do they make any noticeable improvement to sound quality?
I now have four (or five if you include my FiiO X5) of these things. My original DAC was a FiiO E17K, which seems to be well regarded. Properly speaking, it’s a headphone DAC-cum-amp, but I assume my Swan H5s and the RAR P3s both have built-in amps, which means that I don’t need some seriously chunky device connected to either pair of speakers to make effective use of it.
I then bought a Sony PHA-1a, which is another DAC-cum-amp for headphones. It’s a device specifically for using with a Walkman, but can be connected directly to an iPod or a laptop using a USB connection. This is supposedly better than using a 3.5mm jack cable, but I’m not so sure. The battery life is nothing to write home about in comparison with the longer lasting E17K.
I also wanted a portable DAC, although I admit the E17K is sufficient. Nonetheless, I bought a FiiO K1, which is a flash drive sized thing. Primary issue – volume control. Second issue, connectivity. To use this with other portable devices, you need a male micro-USB-to-female-USB connector. It does work, though, because I was able to use it with my iPod Touch, and it may be usable with certain sorts of Android phones.
The Audioquest Dragonfly Red was a piece of utter indulgence. I’d already heard much about it from various sites on line as a piece of top quality kit. I haven’t had the chance to really assess it beside the K1, but assume the underlying tech is better. This, too, is a flash drive sized device which can be plugged straight into a laptop, but it can also be attached to an iPod Touch (thought not a Nano, which doesn’t recognise it).
The Oppo HA-2 SE was another indulgence. However, the improvement in sound quality is noticeable whether the file is a 320Kbps MP3 or 24-bit FLAC. And besides, the reviews of the HA-2 are overwhelmingly positive.
There are two types of these things: a DAC-cum-amp (the E17K and the PHA-1a) or the flash-drive DAC (the K1 and the Dragonfly Red). The former can, in theory, be used with headphones without an independent volume control (although the E17K has physical issues in this respect), while the latter are dependent on volume control from the device to which they are attached.
The question remains, as it has ever since I became aware of DACs, whether these things have a perceptible effect on sound quality.
The answer to my question is that there is a difference, but not in the sense that one sounds better than the other. I tried connecting the Touch first to the Dragonfly and then the HA2-SE, and playing music from it through the P3s. The sound in both cases was equally as nice, there being no noticeable difference between them. I then hooked the speakers back up to the K5 and tried the same music off the laptop. In this case, the sound had more breadth where the Dragonfly and HA2-SE were audibly more focused. However, sound from the K5~E17K combo is merely different.