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
Jargon buster: Bitrate
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
Jargon buster: Resolution
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
Chord Chordette QuteHD (£1,000)
Yes, of course a grand is an awful lot of money to pay for a DAC, even if it looks like steampunk hi-fi and is heavy enough to stun an ox. But when you consider the bulk of the QuteHD tech has trickled down from Chord’s £5,000 QBD76, it starts to look a bit of a bargain.
Get some digital music files flowing through it and it sounds like even more of a steal. The ability to handle ultra-hi-res 32bit/384kHz is admittedly only a theoretical benefit (unless you like downloading stupendously obscure, perversely well-recorded music from special sites like Linn, Naim and Bowers & Wilkins), but give it some 24bit/192kHz stuff to deal with and it’ll rock your world. You don’t know just how good all that computer audio can sound until it’s had the Chord treatment.
And just to put a cherry on it, the illumination on the top-panel window changes colour (red, green, blue) depending on the resolution of the signal the QuteHD is being fed. Awesome sounds and a lightshow. You can’t go wrong, even at this money.
Best for: unlikely value for money
Jargon buster: Sampling rate
Burmester 113 (£2,300)
Brace yourself. The Burmester 113 has lossless aptX Bluetooth streaming ability alongside its 24bit//192kHz inputs, you see. That’s why there’s a tooth-shaped light in the middle of the fascia. And it glows blue when streaming that way. A blue tooth. Oh, our aching sides.
Fortunately, in every other respect the Burmester is all business. Though reasonably compact it’s built like the proverbial brick outhouse, and it sounds similarly hefty. If it’s control and authority you want, you can’t go wrong here – the 113 punches like a heavyweight but is as light on its feet as a ballet dancer. It’s a little bit hyperactive, admittedly – even songs that ought to soothe are launched, rocket-like, from the Burmester. But if you crave excitement from your music and want streaming from your phone to be a real event, the 113 has exactly what you need.
Best for: a German sense of humour
Jargon buster: Asynchronous