Are DACs Snake Oil? Every Fact You Should Know

Geek Musician is reader-supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through our links

DACs have become very popular in this modern world of digital audio, with lots of audio equipment manufacturers producing them. The popularity of DACs can be attributed to the fact that; they have become a necessary component of Hi-Fi systems that run analog outputs.

Unfortunately, many audio enthusiasts do not see the purpose of a DAC unit. They claim that these DAC units are unnecessary and are nothing more than snake oil. Due to this, there has been a lot of debate in the audio community on whether these DAC units are a truly necessary component in Hi-Fi systems.

What’s your opinion on this subject? Are DACs worthwhile, or are they nothing but just expensive audio equipment? Here is my take on the subject.

DACs are not snake oil but are a useful component of audio systems. This is because DAC units are the only way to play digital audio through analog audio systems. Thus DACs are necessary if you want to play digital music through an analog system.

Why DACs are not Snake Oil

DACs or Digital/Analog Converters are commonly used in audio systems. They are incorporated into certain microphone units and can be used in multiple audio environments as well. These units process digital audio and convert it into analog audio, which can be sent into an analog system for high-quality playback.

The reality is that DAC units are essential audio equipment. This is because, if you want to play digital audio through an analog audio system, there is no other way to do it but with a DAC unit.

DAC units work by converting digital audio into analog audio, which is transmitted into analog systems for playback. Without a DAC, this conversion is impossible, meaning there will be no way to play music, or any other audio media, from a digital device through an analog audio system.

A good DAC system can be thought of more as a HUB for all of your digital devices, including media players, Blu-ray players, computers, smart devices, smart home devices, and any other audio output devices you may want to connect to your home system.

When Do You Need to Get a DAC Unit?

Another question that is commonly asked in the audio space is when one should acquire a DAC. As you may be aware, a simple dongle that fits in line between the digital device and audio system can serve as a good enough DAC for most purposes.

Two of such dongles are the HiBy FC3 USB MQA dongle (on Amazon) for PCs and the JSAUX USB C dongle cable cord (on Amazon) for smartphones.

This means, such a simple DAC dongle will work well in most instances, especially if you are using a very simple audio system with few inputs and not much versatility. Since that is the case, is it even worthwhile buying a full DAC unit?

The truth is, if you have a full Hi-Fi system, you need to get a dedicated DAC unit. This is because, most DAC units have multiple inputs and outputs of various kinds, that allows you to connect to your Hi-Fi system.

The great thing is that you can integrate a DAC unit into such a system, set it, and leave it alone without ever needing to change connections or crossovers.

Therefore, if you buy a DAC unit that can accommodate your entire audio system and all of your inputs, it can be a game-changer for versatility and convenience. A DAC unit with these features and connections seamlessly integrates with a large Hi-Fi system, and once it is connected, you never need to think about it again.

In summary, if you have a small system, or if you only have one digital device that you want to play music from through your analog system, using a simple DAC dongle is plenty, and there is no reason to buy a full DAC unit.

Are Expensive DAC Units Worthwhile Over Basic Units?

If you have read up to this point, then you have a great idea about when it is appropriate to get a DAC unit for your system. However, as you may be aware, some of these DACs are very expensive.

Therefore, if you want to get a DAC unit for your Hi-Fi or home theater system, is it worthwhile buying an expensive unit? Read along to find out.

The truth is, expensive DACs are not expensive because they are better at digital-to-analog conversion. They are expensive because they offer more functions. The only thing that puts expensive DAC units ahead of cheap ones is that they have more features and better design. In addition, they have a better user interface and better build quality.

What most people do not know is that when it comes to conversion from digital to analog, high-end DAC units are not more capable than cheap units. Basically, all DAC units perform the same task of conversion. However, the unit you buy should be able to handle all the inputs and outputs you need with an interface that you like.

Overall, expensive DACs usually look better in a system than cheap ones. Apart from all these, dealers and manufacturers of these expensive DACs usually offer better after-sale service and customer support.

However, there are a couple of DAC units that are unnecessarily complex and have built-in features that no one ever uses.

The fact that some DAC units are often over-engineered and have features that are not necessary does not sit down well with lots of audio enthusiasts.

Therefore, expensive DAC units are worthwhile if you need the features. If you need those extra functionalities, then it is worthwhile buying an expensive DAC rather than a cheap one.

However, if you do not need the extra features, a less expensive DAC is a far better option.

As a typical rule in this regard, the more expensive a DAC is, the more features it usually has. Thus, when you pay a lot for a DAC, you are paying more for the features rather than the quality of the audio or the audio conversion.

This means that if you need a DAC with a lot of features, many inputs and outputs, multiple port types, a high level of control and functionality, and a DAC that will look good in your audio cabinet, you will probably end up paying a lot more than if you only need a simple DAC with bare-bones features.

Can You Hear the Difference Between DACs?

If you are concerned about the audio difference between expensive and affordable DAC units, then you may have wondered if you can hear the difference in the sound produced by different DACs.

The answer to this is not as straightforward as it may seem. This is because, the difference in sound produced by different DACs is so marginal that if you listen to two DAC units side-by-side or one after the other, it may be hard to tell the difference.

You will find out that they sound very similar, especially when played from the same audio source and through the same system.

One of the factors responsible for the marginal difference in sound produced by different DACs is the hardware the DAC is used with. You will hear the difference between a cheap DAC and a high-end DAC in a very high-end system.

This is because high-quality DAC units are designed to work better with high-end gear. However, when used with a lower-quality system, both high and low-quality DACs are likely to sound precisely the same regarding quality.

The difference in the sound produced by different DACs is also dependent on the quality of the audio that is played through the DAC.

What this means is, an audio signal of high quality played through a DAC will sound better than a lower-quality audio signal. The same audio signal played through two different DACs but through the same system is bound to sound the same or very similar.

I have an article that talks extensively on the subject of whether you can really hear the difference between DACs. Therefore, if you wish to learn more about the subject, you should definitely check it out.

Do DACs Improve Sound Quality?

One of the reasons why DACs have gained wide acceptance in the audio community is because some enthusiasts swear that they improve the quality of digital audio. That notwithstanding, there are others who hold a firm belief that, there is no quality bump from using a DAC.

What do you think? Can DAC units improve audio quality?

The truth is, DAC units do not improve audio quality. This is because the quality of the audio that goes into a DAC is the same as the quality that is output by the DAC. Therefore, if you want the best possible audio quality from your DAC, you have to give it the best possible digital audio signal.

Though DACs convert digital audio signals to analog, the analog signal produced by a DAC is basically an analog recreation of the digital signal supplied to it. This is because a DAC cannot create audio that is not there.

This basically means that if the audio from streaming services such as Spotify does not sound as good as you may expect it to through a DAC, you need high-quality audio files, such as FLAC files, to get the most from a DAC.


DACs are necessary if you want to play digital music through an analog system. However, the DAC you choose should be based on how you want to use the DAC. It should not be dependent on how much you have to spend.

Therefore, DACs are not snake oil. That notwithstanding, buying a DAC with many features is unnecessary if you only need a D/A converter. Therefore, take the time to choose a DAC that suits your need rather than buying a DAC based on its price tag.