In any device that processes and outputs digital audio, there will be a small chip in there that translates a digital signal to an analog one to be used by headphones called a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC).
When someone refers to “buying a DAC,” they’re talking about a standalone unit that you can buy to relieve your computer or soundcard of its audio processing duties. If you have a laptop or your music is staticy and gross-sounding, you might want a unit like this to bring all the processing out into a properly-shielded and higher-quality unit. From there, an amp is typically used to control loudness. That’s it, really.
Very few people need a DAC anymore, because the quality of the chips are already pretty great. Your smartphone, for example, will typically have a near top-of-the-line chip in there because they’re relatively inexpensive to use. Consequently, I’m unaware of any smartphone (and believe me, we’ve tested this) that needs a DAC unit—especially given the fact that you’ll be likely unable to hear any improvements while outside.
Really, you might want a DAC if:
- Your computer is old
- Your soundcard sucks
- You have really high-end headphones
- You already have an amp, and all the above conditions are true.
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