High end DAC’s are on fire right now. Over the last two years they have exploded onto the market with new products appearing almost monthly. In high end audio, a DAC, D/A Converter, or digital-to-analog converter is a component that takes digital data and converts it to analog for playback on an audio system. There are several different types of high end audio DAC’s; Non-oversampling DAC’s or NOS DAC’s, Upsampling DAC’s and Bitperfect DAC’s. They all have their proponents but they all do the same thing; covert digital data to analog. CD players, DVD players, and music players all have built-in DAC’s.
The high end DAC has been around decades, but A&R Cambridge (ARCAM) produced the first audiophile DAC, the Delta Black Box D/A processor in the late eighties. It was designed by Mike Martindell and used a Philips TDA1541A twin 16-bit DAC chips. The unit had one digital input (coax) capable of accepting 16/44.1 data and at the time the “Black Box” was considered groundbreaking.
The reason high end DAC’s have become so popular is simple; Moore’s Law, which states, “the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every 18 months to two years.” Translation, digital technology moves quickly and the high end source you purchased one to two years ago has now been eclipsed by a new higher end source that costs less. Now imagine for a moment that just by adding a magic black box to your existing source, you could not only avoid the equipment obsolesce grim reaper, but get a high quality audio source in the process. That’s exactly what a DAC offers to us audiophiles. Your old source now has a new life as a transport whose only job is to read data off a disc and send it to the DAC for processing. After the DAC has done its digital to analog conversion, it sends the analog signal to a preamplifier for played back on an audio system.
A high end DAC is the finished product. The engine that drives a DAC is the digital-to-analog converter chipset. Some of the most well known chipset manufacturers are Texas Instruments (TI, formerly Burr-Brown), ESS, AKM and Wolfson. There are others, but these are the big boys. Each company has its fans and popularity seems to shift as the technology advances.
All high end DAC’s aren’t created equal, but the differentiating factor isn’t necessarily the chipset as you might think. The sound quality of the chipset has a lot to do with how it’s implemented, power supply, analog output stage, current to voltage (I/V) conversion and chassis, among other things. A well-engineered entry level DAC using a solid but entry level chip such as the ESS ES9023 Sabre DAC can sound better than a poorly implemented high end chip such as ESS’s ES9016 Sabre DAC.
Unfortunately, the time will come when your source becomes obsolete. Fortunately, a newer, higher resolution, lower jitter, better sounding high end DAC will be available for half as much money. You gotta love progress!