Not all DACs are created equal

One of my many hobbies, born of necessity due to playing in my own band, is audio recording and engineering.  As such, I’ve spent a good chunk of change on decent-quality entry-level audio recording and playback gear, and I’ve burned hundreds of hours at my home PC working on mixes using said gear.  Yet it seems there’s always a lesson left to be learned the hard way and another better piece of gear to purchase.

I’m not an audiophile, but I am a musician with a good ear and a BS in Electrical Engineering.  I generally understand what goes into making, manipulating, and reproducing sound, and I’ve begun to see the relationship between certain traits of audio equipment and the resulting sound.  One thing that annoys me about many self-proclaimed audiophiles is that they have no real engineering or music-making background, so while they can sometimes hear that something sounds better (while at other times simply *thinking* something sounds better due to other factors such as brand name or price), they suck at explaining to the layperson exactly why one piece of gear sounds better than another.  I’ve often noticed audiophiles using terms like “sound stage” and “resolution” when discussing the ability of an audio playback device to respond rapidly and accurately to very low-volume and/or high-frequency non-primary wave forms.  Generally speaking, the higher the quality of an audio playback device, the better it is at reproducing such wave forms, and the more indescribably detailed and clear the music will seem as a result.  If you’ve never heard the difference, it’s difficult to explain, but allow me to try: if the earbuds included with your smartphone are like looking through a foggy slightly-out-of-focus window, then the real high-end-audiophile-grade stuff costing tens of thousands of dollars and typically used by real recording/mastering studios is like completely removing that window entirely and replacing your eyeballs with Hubble Space Telescopes.

I learned a few years ago the value of a good DAC + headphone amplifier (like my FiiO Andes e07k) to drive studio-quality earphones (like my Audio Technica ATH-M50s) or earbuds (like my Ultimate Ears UE900s) for both casual listening and mixing/production work.  While the amp helps drive more power-hungry earphones, the real magic lies in the DAC, which is of much higher quality than the headphone or line-out jack found built into any PC or laptop.  With entry-level “audiophile” earphones or earbuds, it’s very easy to hear the difference: bad DACs make the music sound flat, lifeless, and muddy, while good DACs make the music sound deep, sparkly, and clear.  In fact, if you’re doing mixing/production work, having a high-quality DAC is downright necessary, because otherwise you just can’t hear your own work accurately.  Using a bad DAC to mix or produce audio is like trying to refine a photo in Adobe Photoshop on a fuzzy black-and-white television.

One other piece of gear I own is a Focusrite Scarlett 18i6 USB audio interface.  It’s meant to be an all-in-one digital interface for both solid-quality recording and playback at high bitrates, so I’ve used it for ages as the primary audio device on my main PC.  It always worked admirably for recording with my laptop, so I naturally assumed the playback side would be equally strong… but I was WRONG!

I’ve been working on some mixes, struggling to get them sounding clear across a range of different playback systems (smart phones, car stereos, Bluetooth speakers, PA speakers, etc).  I thought I had the mix balanced just right, ran a render to raw WAV files, and then settled in with my iPad Air 2 and UE900s to give them a sanity-check… and was shocked to hear how ear-piercingly loud the cymbals were and how horribly muffled the guitar was, relative to what I’d spent hours working on.  I plugged the UE900s into my Scarlett 18i6 on the PC and pulled up the exact same WAV files — dull, bland, lifeless, with none of the details I’d noticed while listening on my iPad.  I swapped out the Scarlett 18i6 for my FiiO e07k (with bass/treble set flat) on my PC and pressed Play again — and it sprung to life, sounding almost exactly like what I’d heard out of my iPad.  I plugged my reference monitors into my FiiO e07k and heard the same details I’d heard out of it through my UE900s.  Using the FiiO e07k, I was easily able to correct my mix and even improve it well beyond what I’d thought was possible.

So, lesson #1: the playback DAC in the Scarlett isn’t very good.  And lesson #2: the DACs built into the iPad Air 2, iPad Pro 9.7″, and iPhone 6S Plus all sound quite respectable.

Of course, the FiiO e07k isn’t even the world’s greatest DAC; according to audiophile reviews, it falls somewhere in the medium-low end of the quality spectrum.  The FiiO is intended for portability anyway, and I needed a better permanent solution for my desktop PC, so I did a bit of research and ordered an SMSL M6.  It should be a slight step up in sound quality in a nice desktop-suitable form factor.


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