Sometimes, technology sucks.
As an audiophile, I’ve always had a great sound system–speakers with the appropriate watts per channel, a powerful receiver, top-of-the-line headphones, and later–when surround sound was a thing- a center speaker and a booming subwoofer. Over the years, as albums were replaced by cassette tapes and cassette tapes were replaced by cd’s and cd’s were replaced by digital downloads, my music collection grew exponentially. And my sound system changed too–the receiver with the dual tape cassette was replaced by one with an iPod port, and the cd player was sent to Goodwill.
Digital downloads can be inferior to their cd counterparts, however, necessitating the use of a DAC. Here’s why, according to Headphone.com:
Remember that lossy (low bitrate) MP3 files will always lack detail and dynamics so the most important thing to improve your headphone sound quality is to rip your digital music in uncompressed formats or at the highest possible bitrate for best sound quality.
So to truly understand how a DAC functions, we should first understand what an analog signal is.
An analog audio signal is a continuously varying voltage that perfectly represents (or is analog-ous) to the continuously varying sound wave that you hear.
As example, a microphone turns incoming sounds into an analog electrical signal representing those sounds; room speakers convert an analog electrical signal back into the original sound (or as close as possible).
But how does one store an analog signal? A half century ago, one would store an analog signal as a groove on an LP record that moves the needle back and forth during playback to create an electrical analog signal representing the stored sound.
Nowadays, we repeatedly sample and measure the height of the analog signal over time, and then store that series of numbers on a hard-drive or memory of an audio device. This series of 0s and 1s numbers is a digital audio signal.
A CD disc stores these samples as 16-bit binary (1s and 0s) “words” 44,100 times a second – aka 16-bit/44kHz files – but digital audio data can be stored in a variety of sample rates, word sizes and encoding or compression formats.
In every case, the last thing that happens is the digital numbers get converted back into an analog electrical signal that can be sent to a headphone amp, then your headphones – the device that does this is called a digital to analog converter, or a DAC!
So–what’s an audiophile to do? She gets herself a DAC. The Audioquest Dragonfly is a USB DAC (digital to analog converter), pre-amp and headphone amp, which plugs into a standard USB port in your computer or, with an adapter, into your smartphone. Just plug in your headphones in the other end, crank up your tunes, and you’re in business. The Dragonfly bypasses the crappy soundcard in your iphone, ipod, or computer, and gives you high-end sound without using a conventional receiver.
It’s not cheap–the red dragonfly (a more powerful version) retails for around $250 Cdn, but that’s tons cheaper than a new receiver, and makes those downloads worth your time and money.
If you love music and bemoan the poor quality produced by your iPhone or iPod, give the dragonfly a try.