Digital to analogue converters, DACs, are in high demand these days but we consumers face a big problem with them. We’re being asked to pay more than we should.

DAC2DACs turn electronically stored music – the stuff you download – into good quality music playable on a proper stereo system. In some cases they can turn rubbish recordings into entirely listenable music. You simply connect the DAC to your stereo with regular cables, link it into your home wireless network (depending on the DAC you may prefer Bluetooth or even a cable) and stream the music on your computer, phone or tablet to it.

The result is full bodied, nicely defined music swelling out of proper speakers, just like a regular CD.

But these devices are too esoteric for the big electrical discounters. Go into one and ask for a digital to analogue converter and you’ll get either a blank look or be told; “We don’t have those.” And the places that do sell them, the specialist hi fi shops, know this.

I often encourage people to shop at specialist stores even when they charge a bit more than the big discounters because the advice is so much better, but the mark-ups in recent times have been getting ludicrous. A recent example: headphones on sale at a major discounter for $268 are $399 at one specialist store.

DAC1With DACs it’s gone beyond the pale. The Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus I’ve looked at today has a recommended retail price, on Cambridge Audio’s Australian website (and confirmed by phone) of $599. One specialist retailer I visited had a price tag of $979 on it. That’s $380, or a 63 per cent up on RRP. Maybe more alarming was that the cheapest I found it was $699.

There’s nothing illegal here, but anyone who discovers they’ve paid nearly $1000 for a $600 item will never use a specialist shop again. All I can advise is to decide what you want and then check pricing thoroughly. Challenge the dealer if you think you’re being ripped off and be prepared to walk away.

People have been storing music on iPods, computers and phones for years but it’s only in recent times that DACs have taken off in the market. The reason is that electronic storage is now so generous and cheap that downloading high definition music in lossless formats is viable.

And this has underlined just how crook the music on those old MP3 files, squeezed to maximum compression, sounds. But there’s another thing at work here; electronic devices are not built around sound quality. Replace your factory-supplied earbuds with a set of lightweight headphones (as many people are doing) and you’ll hear a vast improvement in quality. DACs bring the same sort of improvement to music on your computer.

One of the problems with electronic storage is jitter, where the timing of the musical signal can be slightly out of whack. Our hearing is extremely sensitive to timing (it’s how we pick the direction of sound) and jitter makes music sound annoying as well as crook. A key feature of a good DAC is reducing jitter to inaudible levels.

DAC3Good DACs can present music in better than CD quality, right up to 24-bit/96 kilohertz levels, the standard offered by some high definition download sites like Linn Records and HD Tracks. Your existing CD player may even sound better when plugged in, with its own internal DAC bypassed by using an optical cable.

Unless your retailer is loading up the price, good DACs start around $200 to $300, although far cheaper ones are available to handle headphones or televisions only. But if you want good flexibility and the ability to plug in multiple devices (and these things do their magic with DVD players, games consoles, media players and televisions as well) you need to start around $500 to $600 for things like Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic Plus or Rotel’s RDD06.

It that’s too much take a look at Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic 100 at $299, and if you’d like higher quality or more flexibility look at Denon’s DA300USB at $799. Rotel’s RDD1580 is good value at $999.

There are other devices with a different primary role that can also serve as DACs, like Yamaha’s NPS2000 network player ($1999) and Oppo’s $1699 BDP105 disc player.

Published September 2014