Do DAC Chips Matter Anymore?


Sennheiser HD660 S with Fiio player

If you are in the audiophile community, then you are more likely to be familiar with the term DAC chip. These get tossed around and are usually associated with the marketing materials of high-quality sources such as DACs and DAPs. 

Most guides will tell you that certain DAC chips are recommended because they help make the device sound better. If this is true, then why are some products significantly more expensive than others despite having the same DAC chip? Are DAC  chips truly the primary culprits to good sound? 

These concepts can be confusing and intimidating to beginners who have never touched a high-fidelity source before. That is why, In this article, we will be giving our insights on DAC chips. Our statements will be based on our interaction with several community members as well as our own experience with trying out different devices. 

Of course, you should take note that different users with different gears will have different experiences. Our thoughts are solely based on our experience and not on objectively measured results. 

Does the DAC Chip Make a Difference? 

What is a DAC?

ifi nano bl with hd660s

Before we proceed with our discussion with DAC chips, let us first give a brief outline of what a DAC is. For those unfamiliar with DACs and DAC/Amps, we advise giving this section a quick read.

A DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) is found on any device that can play sound. DAC in its name itself explains that it converts a digital signal into an analog signal. The sounds that we hear from our devices are the converted analog signals. 

To produce better sound quality, you need to purchase an outboard Digital-to-Analog Converter. These DACs are especially needed by music producers and audiophiles who need to hear more details, a better sound stage, and better dynamics on the sound of music. 

There are devices that were used back in the days that did not need a DAC to produce sound. Some of these are the turntables and reel-to-reel tapes. Turntables have needles that create electrical analog signals while the tapes store analog signals.

audirect beam 2se with type c conenctor

When it comes to audiophile-grade DACs, they usually come in different variants. The most common one includes the standalone DAC, and the other is the DAC/Amp combo. Portable DACs and Dongles (type-c and lightning). In this article, we will mostly be talking about portable DAC/Amps. 

What is a DAC chip?

tin hifi t5 with fiio m11 dap

The DAC chip serves as the brain of the audio device. It is what determines the functionalities of your DAC. More advanced DAC chips are able to decode higher-resolution lossless and lossy file formats such as FLAC, DSD, and MQA

This component is also what manufacturers often market as the selling point of their DACs or DAC/Amps. This is because certain characteristics of the DAC’s overall sound are largely associated with the DAC chip used. One of these characteristics is the sound signature. 

You should take note that DAC chips aren’t unique to standalone DACs. Other audiophile products such as DAPs, DAC/Amps, and dongles also feature a DAC chip. 

And with almost every audiophile circle, lots of consumers tend to be interested in models that feature well-known DAC chips. Of course, we will learn if DAC chips should indeed be the selling factor in audiophile devices. 

Additionally, DAC chips can come in different configurations. Most high-end devices feature a dual DAC configuration. There are also less common high-end devices such as the Astell & Kern SE200, which feature a triple DAC configuration. There are lots of benefits with these more advanced configurations, which we will tackle in a separate article. 

DAC Chip Sound Signature

KBear Believe + Fiio M11

The reason why DAC chips have become an integral spec for enthusiasts is that different DAC chips are known to produce different sound signatures. To give some examples, Burr-Brown DAC chips are known for producing a smooth sound, while other manufacturers such as AKM and ESS Sabre are known for producing an analytical sound. 

Additionally, the sound signature of the DAC chip often determines the synergy of your DAC with your headphones or IEMs. Warm-sounding devices tend to work well with bright IEM/headphones, while bright and analytical-sounding devices work well with warm IEMs/Headphones. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and your mileage may vary. 

There are lots of different models of DAC chips. At the time of writing this article, popular DAC chips include the AK3399 EQ used on Astell & Kern’s flagship Astell & Kern SP2000 and the ES9068AS found on the Astell & Kern SE100

Does the DAC Chip Model Matter?

ssp with ak380 + amp
Astell & Kern AK380 + Amp with Moondrop SSP

Given how different DAC chips produce different sound signatures, most users would immediately conclude that the DAC chip matters. However, after trying out different devices, we think that there is more to it. 

The thing with DACs and other high-resolution sources is that they are complicated devices. This isn’t like a gaming PC where the specs pretty much tell the whole story. With these devices, DAC chips are only one part of the picture. 

The best way to illustrate this example is with DAPs. We have tested AK’s former flagship, the AK380, and compared it against the Fiio X5iii. Both DAPs utilized dual AK4490 DAC chips, which were considered a high-end setup at the time. Of course, enthusiasts at the time were excited for the X5iii since it looked like a budget competitor to the AK380.

But upon its release, the X5iii sounded nothing like the AK380. During our testing, we concluded that the X5iii had a warm signature and was not very detailed in the higher frequencies. The AK380, on the other hand, was more transparent and was overall more rich and enjoyable. 

Astell & Kern AK70 MKII with Lypertek Tevi TWS

Even Astell & Kern’s entry-level model at the time, the AK70, had a better and more resolving sound than the X5iii. This was despite only having a single CS4398  DAC chip. 

We can go on and on about DAC/Amps and DAPs that utilize the same DAC chip and DAC configuration. And in most cases, the sound will not be the same. This tells us that you should not immediately judge a device based on its DAC chip. 

What Matters the Most in Audiophile Devices 

Sony NW A55
Sony NW A55 (Image: Stephen Menor)

Beginners may be left with more questions than answers after our statement above. But here’s the takeaway from our experience. 

DAC chips do indeed matter. Higher-end DAC chips are guaranteed to perform well and will have good compatibility with high-resolution audio files. And in terms of technical performance, some DAC chip models will certainly perform better than others. 

But when evaluating a device, you should not just look at the DAC chip and call it a day. You must try out the entire package and see how well it synergizes with your headphones or IEMs. After all, different components such as the headphone amplifier section can also influence the overall sound that you will get. 

We have even tried out devices where the DAC chip isn’t even stated. This was often the case with Sony’s DAPs. The units that we demoed worked very well with our setups. 

So, we highly advise you to try out different devices. You might even find devices that perform way better than what is expected with their spec sheets. 

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