Can You Really Hear the Difference Between DACs? (Explained)

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There is a school of thought that all DACs have a unique sound signature that sets them apart from each other. What this means is, the sound produced by every DAC is different.

This belief is mostly fueled by audiophiles, most of whom claim that it is possible to tell the difference between DACs just by hearing them. Is there some amount of truth in this?

Can one really notice the difference that exists between the sounds produced by different DACs in a situation where no EQ or any form of digital signal processing is applied? Read on to find out

There is a marginal difference between sounds produced by different DACs. However, it is not easy to hear this difference. You can only perceive this difference through high-end sources and speakers. 

To hear this difference, the same amp and headphones must be used with the DACs, with no EQ applied. Unfortunately, most people are not able to make out this difference.

How Much of a Difference Does a DAC Make?

Every DAC has its strength and unique characteristics. These characteristics are typically evident when a particular track is being played. What this means is, certain tracks highlight the unique characteristics of a DAC and make it stand out from others. 

Some DACs have a sharp filter, which makes them sound better when playing music. Others do not. 

The difference in sounds produced by different DACs is primarily attributed to the different DAC chips present in these DACs. What this means is, the DAC chipset that comes with a DAC affects the sound it produces.

The truth is, years ago, the differences that existed between DACs were quite large. However, that is no longer the case. This is because, nowadays, most DAC chips come with similar levels of signal-to-noise ratios and distortion. 

Due to this, most people find it hard to tell the difference between the sound produced by one DAC over the other. 

In fact, for over two decades, the differences that exist between most DAC chips have been so small that they are virtually not talked about.

It is worth noting that some DACs sound so incredibly similar that telling the difference between them is almost impossible during a blind test. A clear example of such DACs is the Gustard X26 Pro (on Amazon) and the Gustard X18 (also on Amazon)

Another thing you should note is that it is the EQ, normalization, and other coloration that audibly change the tone produced by a DAC. Thus, if all of these variables are switched off, there may be only a little audible difference between the sources. 

However, you can audibly hear the difference in sounds produced by DACs if the headphone or speakers you are using is of high quality

That notwithstanding, this difference is usually not so distinct. Thus, even though most audiophiles claim to hear the difference between DACs, this is only a marginal difference.

What Makes a DAC Better Than Another?

One of the things that make a DAC better than another is its ability to improve sound quality by adding color to audio signals. Some DACs are great at adding color to audio signals. 

The making of music can be likened to painting using frequencies. Such DACs come with powerful EQ, normalization, and other coloration settings that enable you to tweak audio signals to make them sound better to you. 

That notwithstanding, great DACs are still capable of and do a great job of producing a sound that is crystal clear. With this, there is no loss of clarity.

Apart from the quality of sound, a DAC may produce, there are quite several things that make a particular DAC better than another. 

These include the connections and features that come with DACs. Most DACs come with a port that enables you to connect them to computers via a USB cable. 

However, some DACs offer you more connection ports or options. They offer users a wide array of wireless, digital and analog connections such as Bluetooth, FireWire, S/PDIF, AES, and many more. 

Such DACs open up your setup to different means of connectivity. They are able to connect to audio sources that are clean using adequate cables as well as via wireless means to stream high-resolution files.

Another point is that some DACs are built to have a processor in addition to their basic DAC chipset. Due to this, they are able to process Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) formats and file formats. Such DACs usually have higher internal conversion frequencies and higher sampling rates. 

DACs with higher sampling rates are capable of sampling analog inputs or sending out analog outputs at high speeds. Due to this, they have more advantages and are ideal for both audio production and professional music works

Finally, the audio fidelity of some DACs is glaringly lower than others. Some DACs come with features such as error correction, which works to correct systematic errors that come up during transmission. 

They also come with more filters that are sophisticated and are used to further approximate the perfect signal. These are some of the things that make one DAC better than another. Addition of such DACs to your setup results in a glaring improvement on your unit.

Do Expensive DACs Sound Better Than Cheap ones?

The truth is, no one will buy an expensive DAC if it does not sound audibly better than a relatively cheaper one. The DAC chips that are built into smartphones, PCs, and portable music players are the cheapest DACs you can find. 

Thus, a decent enough DAC will noticeably improve your sound quality over the analog output from your computer.

Most of the great external DACs on the market are relatively expensive. These great modern DACs come with chips that are capable of converting the most recent complex digital formats. 

These DACs produce a clean sound that has high definition and clarity over its frequency range.

To add to these, expensive DACs come with high-quality electronic parts such as the D/A Chip, transistors, and capacitors. The electronic parts used in building DACs have a great impact on their audio quality. 

High-quality electronic components in a DAC introduce little to no jitter and interference to audio, ultimately producing high-quality sound.

I mean, in all honesty, you don’t expect a $100 DAC such as the Schiit Modi 3E (on Amazon) to sound as great as a $1000 DAC like the RME ADI-2 DAC FS (also on Amazon)

Therefore, more expensive DACs sound better than cheaper ones. Not only do expensive DACs sound better than cheaper ones, but they are also more durable as well since they are made from high-quality materials. 

Notwithstanding, there are excellent but affordable DACs that can provide you with sounds of great quality.

Do All Good DACs Sound the Same?

All good DACs do not sound the same. Most DACs come with different chipsets. These chipsets are primarily responsible for the sound produced by DACs. DACs with different chipsets tend to sound different from each other. However, only a few people are able to notice these differences.

Every DAC has its unique tonal characteristic. Some DACs have a characteristically warmer or brighter sound while others produce relatively harsher sounds. Some also function much better at specific sample rates than others.

These notwithstanding, it can be difficult to notice these differences if your ear is not trained to do so. Hearing the difference between DACs also depends on the audio system playing the audio, the individual doing the listening, and finally the quality of the music tracks being played. 

That is why most people are not able to perceive it. However, for individuals with trained ears, the many differences that may exist in a sound are quite audible.

Some differences can be quite obvious and can be identified by even those with untrained ears.

How Does an External DAC Improve Sound Quality?

DACs are digital-to-analog converters. They are a vital component when it comes to the conversion of digital media to analog media so that they can be heard via headphones or speakers. 

This is why all modern gadgets and smartphones come with DACs. Some of the built-in DACs that come with some PCs and certain smartphones are so good that you might not notice any difference in the audio they produce and that of an external DAC.

The truth is, how great your DAC sounds will depend on the rest of your audio system. It is also dependent on every individual’s opinion and musical taste. 

That notwithstanding, in most cases, using an external DAC in place of the built-in DAC of your smartphone or PC can do you a world of good. 

This is because most external DACs sound better than built-in DACs. These DACs have good shielding against noise generated by computers. Thus, they are not easily susceptible to electrical noise produced by these computers. 

Due to this, they produce sound with lower distortion and lower noise than most built-in DACs.

To add to these, external DACs come with high-end DAC chips and headphone amp chips that produce the best sounds. Apart from the chips, external DACs also contain a number of electronics that enable them to receive different digital signals and output them as audio for your listening system.

To end it all, external DACs demand relatively more power than built-in DACs. This power makes them function efficiently at top capacity. All these serve to improve sound quality significantly. 

However, even though a good DAC will improve the quality of sound you produce, this final output audio is also affected and determined by the room, the components of the audio system, and the hearers.


The difference in the sound produced by different DACs is subjective. It depends on everyone’s personal taste and opinion. In fact, most people can barely hear the difference that exists between DACs. 

If you really want to hear the difference between DACs, you may need to focus entirely on listening. Apart from this, you need high-quality and expensive speakers, amps, and headphones if you want to hear the difference between DACs.