Before the "electronic age" that we live in today, all audio was presented via an analog signal. Today most of us listen to music via a digital signal whether it's from our smartphones, portable MP3 players, or computers. In order to understand what a DAC does, you must first understand the difference between digital and analog audio. An analog audio signal is recorded from a microphone and directly laid onto a tape or record player. The sound waves taken from the microphone are analog, and because these sound waves are laid directly onto the tape or record, the signal remains analog.
|Analog (top) vs. Digital Analog (bottom)|
|FiiO E7 Amp/ DAC|
|Standard DAC internals and motherboard|
|FiiO E17 Amp/ DAC|
There are two different types of headphone DAC's, desktop DAC's and portable DAC's. Sometimes DACS are paired with a headphone amplifier by the manufacturer, meaning the DAC and amplification are all done inside one unified enclosure. An example of a portable DAC/ amp combo is the FiiO E7 and FiiO E17. However, many DAC's are standalone, which means that a separate enclosure is dedicated to the conversion processor and internals that comprise a DAC. The converted signal then travels through an output and then into the input of an amplifier in a separate enclosure.
|Example of standalone DAC,|
the Schiit Audio Bifrost
(and yes the name is Schiit audio
but to be honest they are an awesome
company and they make good humor about
their name on their website)
This rather lengthy explanation has only scratched the surface of the principles of audio sample rates, audio compression, the difference between digital and analog audio, and the conversion of a digital audio signal into an analog signal. Be sure to comment on anything I may have forgotten, or if you need clarification on any of the principles stated above, just leave a question in the comments section.
*Please note the FiiO is a Chinese brand so their website
is translated from Chinese to English. It's far from perfect
so bare that in mind. I have confirmed the quality of FiiO's
products, and they are great! Don't be let down by the
CLICK HERE for FiiO E7 product page
CLICK HERE for FiiO E17 product page
CLICK HERE for Schiit Audio's website