What sounds better – 10,000 songs downloaded to your portable music player or 1,000 CDs you’ve slowly acquired through love of music? It may seem like a sentimental question but it’s actually all about quality of sound. Did you know that just like the quality of a photo on your computer or phone screen being blurry because of low resolution the quality of your music can be reduced to?
Now the important question is how does the conversion from digital music to analogue happen and where we can help so our music is crystal clear.
If you play music, be it from iTunes, Spotify or even CDs you will have encountered a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) during the process. Put simply, a DAC converts the bits and bytes from a digital music file into a nice analogue signal that your amplifier can send to your speakers.
This wasn’t always the case. Vinyl, for example, is an entirely analogue signal. A groove in the record transmits vibration up the needle, which is turned into an electrical signal and passed straight through to your amp and speakers without the need for a DAC. The only trouble with this is that you can also pick up and amplify vibrations (and therefore noise) from dust, scratches and imperfections on your records.
A digital signal should automatically be better right? Not quite. The advent of mp3 players and iTunes meant that a lot of people have large music collections but with very low quality music files. When the iPod was first released, digital storage was expensive so most music was “compressed” to fit on the small hard drives that were available. To put it in perspective – a CD contains files that are sampled at 1411 kilobits per second (kbps) whereas some compressed mp3 files can be as low as 128 kbps which is roughly 1/11 the size!
So, what should you look for in a DAC? Well, the first point of call is to make sure that whatever files you’re sending it are as high quality as possible. If a CD quality (WAV file) music collection takes up too much hard drive space, then looking at turning your music into FLAC or ALAC files will provide great quality without completely filling up your storage..
After this, it’s all about finding a DAC that fits your needs (and your system). If your music files are nearby on a laptop or PC, then a product like the Naim DAC-V1 is perfect. Just as equally, if your audio system is a little more removed from where you have your music files stored a Naim network product may be the answer. These boxes still have a DAC onboard, but instead of requiring a hardwired connection they can talk to your music store over Wi-Fi.
Whichever solution you pick, it makes sense to look at your system from a “source first” perspective. If you’re playing good quality files then decoding them with a DAC that gets the most out of them makes sense. Ultimately, there will be something for every budget so the best advice is to go and talk to your friendly local hi-fi shop and have a listen to some products. After all, that’s half the fun!