Starting off in the world of DACs (Digital to Analogue Converters) can seem daunting for the uninitiated. I mean, you would never go out to buy a boat without some idea of your requirements – a small sailing dingy or a multi-million pound yacht?
To narrow down the choice, the age old adage of ‘good, better and best’ can readily be applied alongside a good dose of basic common sense and a little knowledge of the fundamentals of digital audio coding. Further to this, a quick analysis of your own requirements — as in identifying if are you looking for something portable, desk-top, or a full blown Hi-Fi system will start weeding out the right product for you.
The reason many look to a DAC these days is because the DAC circuit used in many devices are just not efficient or powerful enough to do justice to the original recording. A DAC upgrade can be the simplest way to improve your digital music and really get the most from your system - whatever your set-up. We'll break down each tier using iFi Audio's DAC lineup. iFi is an award-winning audio tech company with one aim in mind: to improve your music enjoyment. Their sole focus is on products that improve sound quality and eradicate noise, distortion and hiss from your devices (headphones, TVs, speakers, portable audio devices, smartphone, etc) so that you're left with the studio-quality audio the artist intended you to hear. And that's what this article is really all about.
A 'Good' iFi DAC
Who’s this for? Well, generally speaking, anyone who wants to improve the sound quality of their audio feed from the likes of a laptop, tablet or smart phone. The file formats that need to be converted would most likely be pretty basic. I don’t mean MP3 (but even those will probably sound better than the native source can amplify). By "basic", I'm referring to audio streams from the likes of Spotify that are compressed audio being encoded at reduced data rates to save data bandwidth, so it doesn’t cost a fortune on-the-go via mobile connections. This can also mean some of the standard data streaming from Internet radio broadcasters from the likes of TuneIn Radio. Many of these file formats are basic PCM encodings at low data rates up to like 300kb/s.
A good DAC such as the iFi ZEN DAC, or even the entry level ZEN Air DAC can render these basic encoded files into an analogue signal passable for reasonable listening. Typical price points for ‘good’ DACs would be around the $100-$200 mark. Feature sets can vary enormously from basic Digital into Analogue out with no functions, to very useable sound enhancement features. Examples of features would be the bass boost and power match for power hungry in ear monitors found on the ZEN DAC. DACs at this price point should also be looking to the next level of digital audio decoding to allow for hi-res CD quality audio if possible — IE minimum 16bit/44.1khz, although most should do 24bit/48khz PCM (WAV files).
Portable iFi DACs
For portable digital music, you may want a portable DAC/amplifier for your smartphone, tablet, etc. Compact USB DAC’s offer portability and convenience at a reasonable price. They vary from USB sticks, such as the iFi Go Bar (or GOld Bar if you want to get fancy) that can connect to a notebook computer, tablet, or smartphone. They largely keep connections simple with just a headphone or USB connection. More often than not they use the power from your computer of phone so there’s no need for an extra power source, or built in battery.
A 'Better" iFi DAC
Moving up the ladder to ‘better’ DACs and you should see a significant jump in the kind of data file decodable as well as serious attention to detail in terms of construction quality and input/output connection capability. Of course, with these additional features there comes the added price/value consideration. One should ask, “Am I really going to be accessing a lot of hi-res files?”
If the answer is yes because you just got gifted a Tidal streaming subscription for a year, then an upgrade to a better DAC is a must. Better DACs are probably in the region of $400-$1500 and will offer a far wider range of data file decoding as well as inputs/outputs, just like the iFi xDSD Gryphon portable DAC and headphone amplifier. Not only can this unit decode standard CD quality, but also hi-res like PCM 24/96khz and 24/768khz – both of which are found to be at the upper specification for recording direct to computer in the professional audio world. Beyond this we also start entering into data files targeted specifically for detailed hi-res listening such as DXD 24bit/768khz, DSD 64 and 512 as well as MQA. The iFi xDSD Gryphon is a complete Hi Fi system in your pocket.
All of these formats take the sound quality way beyond CD format and allow the user to get far more from their system. DACs in the ‘better’ range can still be employed as simple headphone/DAC combos, but due to the fact that they have more input/output connections, they can also be deployed in more sophisticated systems. The iDSD Diablo DAC not only has USB inputs but also SPDIF allowing for Coax or Optical digital connections from equipment such as CD/DVD and portable players. Indeed, most TV monitors now also have optical outputs and the data stream from an HD broadcast is better than CD quality. Outputs are also important and, in addition to the standard headphone outputs (normally higher spec 6.3mm jacks as well as 3.5mm), you often finds 4.4mm balanced connectors to feed into a hi-fi system or 3.5mm line outputs for connection to music systems.
All this and Bluetooth Wireless in a DAC? Yes. You can get all the above in both the portable iFi Go Blue, xDSD Gryphon, and the iDSD Diablo and they allow you to stream the latest Bluetooth Hi-Res wireless to your headphones, portable, and home system.
Simply The Best (DAC)... Better Than All The Rest
Moving beyond the largest category of ‘better’ systems we start to enter the world of ‘best’. Here, we should remember that just buying the ‘world’s best DAC’ is not going to necessarily produce stunning sound. It’s a bit like buying a Ferrari and running it around the farmyard! No, we actually need a good racing track to get the best from it. In audio terms, this means we need to be looking at the equipment connected to our DAC that will enable it to ‘sing’. Quality headphones, amplifiers, and loudspeakers are a must. We should also look at the power conditioning requirements of our system as now we are entering the elite when it comes to sound file quality playback. Every little noise and distortion may be heard if the system is not a balanced one. True high-end DACs can often sell for over $50,000 but an extremely competent unit can be had for an investment in the region of $2,500-$5,000. Take the iFi Pro iDSD Signature for example.
At this DAC level you should be able to decode any digital-audio file format available today from the lowly CD res of 16bit/44.1khz right through to the super-high resolutions of single bit encoding from DSD 512 and DSD 1024 as well as the top PCM sampling rates of 384kz-768khz and at bit depths (digital volume) up to 32 bit.
Certainly, the ‘best’ category DACs are likely to be the preserve of desktop and system integrated units with a plethora of inputs/outputs such as RCA, balanced XLR, headphone connections supporting both balanced and single ended connectors as a well as a multitude of input source connections. These might include USB, data cards like Micro SD, USB-A source, AES, SPDIF and Wi-Fi, to name but a few.
That being said, each category of DAC, ie. portable or desktop, will have its stand-out best contenders. The iFi xDSD offers many of the hi-res file decoding features mentioned above but in a portable compact design and even includes Bluetooth interface suitable for ‘on-the-go’ use.