Advice on buying DACs

These days anybody who buys a DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) will quickly start to tear their hair out, because the choice of products is so immense. There are as many thoroughbred DACs on the market as there are hybrids with additional features like pre-amp functionality (“Pre-DAC”) or headphone amplifiers.
To avoid losing track, you should bear the following guidelines in mind:
– How much high-end do you really need?
If you only want to listen to Red Book-standard music (i.e. CDs), you don’t need a DSD-capable DAC or a DAC that operates at 3-digit-resolution rates.
– What about connectivity?
Are there sufficient inputs (coaxial, AES/EBU, TosLInk, USB) available for your purposes? Nothing is more annoying than buying an expensive DAC and then finding six months later that you have to regularly switch cables on the rear panel, because another digital source has been added and there isn’t a spare connection for it.
– Do I need volume control?
If you already have a great pre-amp or integrated amplifier: Bingo! You can get along fine without volume control. That not only makes the DAC more expensive but in many causes a loss of sound quality.
– Do I need analog inputs?
Some DACs feature analog inputs on their pre-amp pathways. That can be very practical, but is unnecessary if your line sources are already connected elsewhere.
– Which sound do I prefer?
DACs can sound pretty different, depending on what type of chipset they use. You can pick out some fairly radical differences, especially when comparing TI/Burr-Brown and Sabre chipsets. Digital does not mean that all DACs sound the same. You should take as much time to select a DAC as you would to choose an amplifier. In an ideal world you should test a DAC in your home environment first before you buy.

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