In case you didn't know, the music on your phone, or your tablet, or your laptop, is stored digitally.
At some point those digital files have to be translated into an analogue signal your speakers, or your headphones, can understand. And that’s where digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) come in.
Everything that plays digital audio has a DAC inside of it. They may sound unglamorous in tech terms (and, God knows, in the case of most external designs, they look it), but they do essential work – they make the difference between your music sounding diabolical or sounding divine.
But not all DACs are created equal. The one inside your laptop is probably hooked up to a headphone jack with cattle-class amplification, which means it'll never do its best work. External DACs are the solution.
(Incidentally, some new devices, such as the LG G2 and Samsung Galaxy Note 3, have internal DACs that support hi-def audio sources up to 24-bit/192kHz, while most devices top out at 16-bit/48kHz. If all this is gobbledegook, check out the jargon-busting boxouts below)
And quality external DACs aren't just for those audiophile 'lossless' FLACs and WAVs that are taking up all of that memory space, either – even the tightwad file sizes on sale at the iTunes store can sound great, and every device, be it an iPhone, iPad, Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One or a MacBook, can benefit. But only if you’ve got a proper external DAC to take care of business.
HRT microStreamer (£180)
The USB stick-sized DAC is nothing new but, despite the comedy brand-name, HRT has delivered the best-sounding pocket-DAC we’ve ever heard.
It connects to your laptop via a short USB-to-mini-USB cable at one end, and to either your headphones or hi-fi amplifier at the other. Its asynchronous design takes control of data flow, and it can handle music resolutions up to a heady 24bit/96kHz. And it does an absolutely brilliant job of turning the raw digital data on your computer into full, rich, clear and detailed music.
It’s not just about making the best of high-res audio, either. Those 320kbps streams from Spotify get the full treatment, too: music sounds sturdy, nimble and engaging, with none of the hardness or obvious compression that less capable DACs are prone to.
In short, you can’t chuck £180 at your digital music system more effectively. This is the best portable DAC around.
Best for: portable audiophile
Meridian Explorer (£250)
It’s a bit bigger in every direction, but at first glance the Meridian Explorer is just a variation on the HRT microStreamer USB-stick theme. But given this is easily the most affordable product high-end hero Meridian has ever delivered, you’d expect the Explorer to be a bit more than meets the eye.
And, thanks to its USB audio class 2.0, the Explorer’s ability to handle truly high-resolution audio in the form of 24bit/192kHz files means it’s a decisive step on in performance. That audio class 2.0 doesn’t make any odds to iTunes or Spotify-derived music, of course (from which sow’s ears, it should be said, the Explorer manages to extract something approaching a silk purse), but full-fat hi-res audio sounds sublime through this DAC. Where detail, weight and clarity are concerned the Meridian has it all covered, and rhythmically it’s always on the good foot. It’s refined where the HRT is exciting, but let’s not forget it’s a slice of British high-end audio for £250.
Best for: high-end audio at low cost
Arcam irDAC (£400)
Having a remote control isn’t what makes the Arcam irDAC a great product, but when you’ve got multiple sources connected and have made yourself comfortable, it doesn’t do any harm.
You can connect plenty of sources, too, thanks to the Arcam’s four digital inputs (two optical supporting 24bit/192kHz and two coaxial that top out at 24bit/96kHz), type-B USB and type-A, which will work with your iGadget. And thanks to a load of tech derived from the company’s £2K FMJ D33 DAC, this hefty little aluminium box serves up a pretty compelling sound.
Doesn’t matter if you value rhythm above all else: the Arcam’s speedy and agile. More about the vocals? The irDAC is as detailed and communicative as the singer you’re listening to. Like a bit of complexity? The Arcam’s ability to organise a packed soundstage into something that’s easy to understand is unrivalled at this price. And in any circumstance, the irDAC is amazingly dynamic.
We don’t think you own a digital device that wouldn’t benefit from having this Arcam take care of the DAC stuff. And it can do it while you’re glued to the sofa, so it’s win upon win.
Best for: making your iPhone sound incredible