Coronavirus: a DAC guide to improving sound for streaming – ABOUT MAG 2020

Everyone is broadcasting via smartphones, smart computers and smart speakers. But a “smart” thing may be doing its best to outsmart your ears. You need a DAC.

That is, you will probably need another DAC. There is a good chance that you already have a dozen embedded as chips in your devices and digital devices. The DAC, which means digital to analog converter, is what translates digital data (a series of zeros and ones) into sound waves.

15:45, April 21, 2020
An earlier version of this column said that DAC was short for digital audio converter; is the abbreviation for digital to analog converter.

There is much more than that, of course. Considerable electronic sophistication is required to achieve decent sound, but it always comes down to that: the better the DAC, the better the sound. A DAC makes all the difference in the world, whether in music (high or low resolution), audiobooks, podcasts, YouTube videos, zoom conferences and everything else online. Vinyl chandeliers, of course, are dispensed with.

However, the DAC on the device that you may be holding at the moment is probably not up to the job. Nor is it so difficult or necessarily expensive to do something about it.

The reason for all this is because Apple, Samsung, Google and many other algorithm experts can get away with it. When it comes to sound, the brain can be tricked. Apple and others discovered this early on with heavily compressed music using MP3 and other formats, which made the iPod a sensation. The goal was to reduce the amount of data needed for each song, which is how the song was initially sold. That way, the iPod could contain more music.

Apple and others have correctly understood that if some connotations above the human hearing range are eliminated, you won’t notice. These connotations give sound its color, texture, and often emotional character, but we have the mental powers to discover what is missing, and the brain simply provides the missing data.

I had proof of this a long time ago, while studying computer music in the first and most difficult days of Stanford. I had a friend who played the organ and passed by the campus chapel listening to her practice. When I heard it, I went in to say hello. But sometimes it was not there.

An audio engineer explained to me that I was also walking by machines that produced white noise, which contains all the sound frequencies in the spectrum. He figured I must have been wanting to hear the organ so badly that my brain picked up from the white noise what I wanted to hear. I’m still not sure that this is really true, but I have no other explanation than to be fooled by a lot of computer coding.

Still, one cannot question the ability of our ears to play tricks on us. I experimented with YouTube videos and, when transmitting at higher data rates, it seems that the sound improves with the image. But blind listening suggests that it is not. My DAC shows that nothing changes.

During our restrictions on stay at home with coronavirus, a lot of music is being done about Zoom, but the group members playing together in their homes seem rude. The microphones on phones and tablets are not that hot. The impact comes from the players’ willingness to overcome any and all obstacles so that their music is heard when they need it most.

We get along perfectly well, without bells and whistles, and we are learning in the pandemic to get back to basics. You can listen to an audiobook on your phone and you will understand the words, as well as feel the character of the reader’s performance. But clothes like Audible and the way that many podcasts are recorded (there is considerable range) has really low fidelity. What a minimal DAC update provides is juice. The voice sounds more realistic, the expression is improved and humanity resides.

You may not consciously realize what is happening or why, but you hear more involved, more moved. You listen longer with less fatigue. When it comes to music, it clearly matters a lot more.

So what to do?

I have been modest and with varying degrees of success and frustration experiencing DACs since they started being offered as separate components more than a dozen years ago. But it is only now that they have reached a level of simplicity, versatility, availability and accessibility that they can be widely used.

A week goes by when there are no new DACs on the market. The variety of options and formats is already stunning, depending on whether you are using a mobile device or computer or high-fidelity system and whether you insist on Bluetooth. The prices of the most basic start at around US $ 100 (although there are even cheaper DACs from external companies, such as Fiio, which perform well beyond prices of US $ 60 to US $ 70).

At the other extreme, you can buy a well-equipped Porsche for the princely price of a first-rate DAC, with all the details and cables, like those of Silicon Valley audio whizzes at MSB Technology. This is not something you connect to an iPhone 11 Pro, but to a half-million-dollar device that includes speakers at least twice as tall and twice as heavy as you.

Back to the real world. A phone may not have the power to power the most sophisticated DACs, but there are inexpensive devices that resemble a computer flash drive that work and surprisingly well. I already owned two of the DragonQuest series from AudioQuest that connected to my car audio with pleasure. That is until they broke (each lasted just over a year), but given its growing popularity, the quality of the construction may have improved.

Chord Mojo.jpg

The Chord Mojo DAC

(Chord electronics)

Some of the best computer speakers come with built-in DACs that are an improvement, but an external DAC, such as the Chord Mojo, is probably much better and is portable (although it requires charging).

Bluetooth is never ideal for audio, and I mostly avoid it. But even I make an exception for the Astell & Kern XB10. This little disc sold for $ 99 is a DAC with a headphone jack that you connect to a phone via Bluetooth. I am rarely without it.

Many home audio equipment, especially amplifiers and streamers, come with high-quality internal DACs, making it easy. The only problem I have encountered, however, is that DACs are changing quickly and are out of date much faster than other components. I’m using a DAC from a local company, Schiit Audio in Valencia, which makes affordable DACs unable to keep up with changing trends, but offers the rich character of the best analog sound that can make vinyl so addictive. It is what is helping to keep me musically healthy and connected in this coronavirus crisis.

Whichever path you choose, and whatever your digital sources are, from the lowest to the highest, remember that a DAC is translating the world to your ears.

Paula Fonseca