Simply-designed outboard DAC improves computer audio quality

Scot Hacker is the author of O’Reilly’s MP3: The Definitive Guide, and writes about music for Stuck Between Stations. By day, he’s a webmaster and trainer for the Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley.

A few weeks ago, during a spell of unusually dry winter weather, I went to unplug a pair of Grado SR-80 headphones from my iMac. A spark of static electricity leapt from my fingers, I heard a brief crackling sound, and then… [silence]. From that moment forward, the headphone/speaker jack on the back of the Mac has refused to work, and only “Internal Speakers” showed up in the System Preferences Sound panel. My trusty work Mac had gone mute.

My only options were either to send the Mac in for repair or switch to USB audio output. I couldn’t afford to be without the Mac, and I was interested in hearing what kind of audio upgrade I’d get by bypassing the Mac’s internal Digital Audio Converter (DAC), so I hit up an audiophile friend for recommendations. I hit the jackpot when he suggested the NuForce μDAC (aka microDAC) — a handsome $99 outboard DAC that’s both minimalist in design and smaller than a pack of smokes.

The unit arrived a few days later, and turned out to be even smaller than expected (around 3″x1″). The two-tone rust and flat-black anodized aluminum casing looked distinguished, and well-crafted; NuForce really put some effort into the aesthetics on this one. The design is simple, with no unnecessary controls. Just a volume knob and a headphone output jack, nothing more.

I was blown away from the moment I plugged it in and enabled it in the Sound prefs Output panel. Digital audio has never sounded better on a computer I’ve owned. But since the original analog jack was fried, I had no way to directly compare the quality of the Mac’s native DAC with the new outboard. Today I sat down at someone else’s work Mac and did some A/B testing.

For the test, I chose two recordings:

(I chose these two because A) I love them and B) I had them on hand at 256kbps AAC, for best possible resolution).

Note: I appreciate great-sounding audio, but I’m far from a hardcore audiophile. For an audio tweak’s perspective on the μDAC, see HeadphoneAddict’s review at head-fi.org.

Just a few minutes into Cowhand, I noticed something I’d never heard before: The sound of the cork linings of the valves of Rollins’ saxophone tapping away as he played. It was subtle, but it had been there in the recording all along – I had just never noticed it. And that’s exactly the point – the differences are subtle, and you may not notice all of them unless you’re listening for them, but they’re present. And that subtlety adds up to an overall experience that’s simply more realistic, more nuanced than what you get with the cheaper DAC built into consumer PCs. It’s all about presence.

Likewise, I found the harmonies in Because fuller, richer, more bodied than they sounded through the Mac’s native DAC. The French horns far more alive and breathy, the harpsichord more twangy. Virtually everything about these two tracks sounded more engaging.

Another thing I noticed: Usually, near the end of a long day writing code, I feel the need to take the headphones off and rest my ears. I didn’t have that sensation today. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that more natural sound is less fatiguing to the ears (and the brain’s processor).

One caveat: Because there’s no longer an analog sound channel for the computer to manipulate, you’ll lose the ability to control volume or to mute from the Mac’s keyboard. Apparently this is not true of all DACs – the driver for m-audio boxes does allow volume and mute control from the Mac keyboard, so the issue must rest in the generic Mac USB audio driver (the NuForce unit doesn’t come with an installable driver – it’s plug-and-play). In any case, the keboard habit has been ingrained for so many years I don’t even think about it, so retraining myself to adjust audio from the μDAC’s volume knob took some getting used to. However, you can still use the volume control in iTunes itself, and it may be possible to re-map the keyboard’s audio control keys to tweak iTunes’ internal volume directly.

It’s no secret that you can get better sound quality out of almost any computer by routing around the built-in audio chipset. There’s just no way Apple (or Dell, or anyone else) is going to spend more than a few dollars on high-end audio circuitry when most people are perfectly happy with 128kbps MP3s played through cheap-o speakers, and every penny counts in manufacturing bottom lines. But using an outboard DAC for signal conversion can be an expensive proposition, not to mention involving bulky, inelegant, desk-cluttering plastic boxes. The NuForce μDAC gives you high-end computer audio that’s both affordable and elegant.

Another benefit: If you’ve been considering using a dedicated digital audio file player like an AudioRequest connected to the home stereo, you’ll end up having to migrate and store another copy of your audio library, not to mention add more cabling and componentry to your entertainment center. With something like the NuForce μDAC, you can leave everything on your main computer and just route high-fidelity audio to the stereo.

In any case, the NuForce μDAC is one of the best c-notes I’ve dropped on audio gear over the years. Recommended even if you haven’t fried your analog port.

20 Comments for “Simply-designed outboard DAC improves computer audio quality”

  1. posted by Eric on

    Am I reading the wrong blog? Or is it “Unitasker Wednesday” already? While I can appreciate the author’s desire for improved sound quality, it seems this device would simply constitute clutter for “most people [who] are perfectly happy” already.

  2. Profile photo of PJ Doland

    posted by PJ Doland on

    If you’re already happy with your computer’s onboard sound, and you don’t need an easy way to connect your computer to your stereo receiver, then you have no reason to buy one of these.

    This unit can allow you to easily replace an audio transport device (CD player) in your stereo with your computer. It’s also worth noting that this particular external DAC is MUCH smaller, simpler, and less expensive than other alternatives.

  3. posted by Lose That Girl on

    Don’t think that I need this product. I’d rather simplify — I don’t think this item would do the trick for me personally.

  4. posted by Christian on

    I use such a device (in my case the V-DAC, similar price, great audio quality) and it really simplifies my setup. No CD player anymore, no radio – the only thing you need is a decent amp and the loudspeakers. I would agree that is does not belong here 100% but if you use it accordingly it is a great simplification of entertainment needs with a lot of pleasure…

  5. posted by Timo on

    Categorizing this article under “Unclutterer” seems a bit far-fetched to me, but since I am interested in computer gear anyway, it was still an interesting read :-)

  6. posted by freemo on

    This is a funny little esoteric article! I can see how it would unclutter the setups for a very small subset of your readers, but it seems to clutter up your blog for the rest.

  7. posted by Anthony on

    Of course now I’m wondering what headphones I should use with a $100 audio port. Especially if I want to hear “cork linings of the valves” of a saxophone.

  8. posted by Hessiess on

    Definitely was not expecting to see this kind of thing on this blog, but it was interesting non the less. The audio on all my machines sounds awful and has a lot of `clicking’ noize in it whenever the computer reads or writes to a HDD. Would an external DAC solve this?

  9. posted by Nicole on

    I’m very surprised (and happy and grateful) to see this entry today. My laptop also has a malfunctioning headphone jack, so I’m looking for options that don’t require a $200 motherboard replacement.

    Don’t forget: always buy the best that you can afford. Buying once and buying right is better than buying twice.

  10. posted by Jay on

    I appreciate the post even though I am, for now, OK with my computer’s audio. If my audio stops working or I decide I want better audio, I now know where to start looking for a solution.

    Thanks for the post.

  11. posted by gypsy packer on

    Will it allow me to translate those imprecations Jimmy Smith mutters while playing?

  12. posted by Daniel Ho on

    Interesting that Unclutterer would post an article on audiophile equipment, a highly fraudulent industry. The truth is, the weakest link in most audio systems is the loudspeaker, not the sound card, amplifier, cables, CD transport, or any digital-analog converter.

    In the case of laptops, the biggest problem is the switching noise that accompanies the phono jack output when connected to the A/C outlet. The noise goes away when a laptop is running on batteries. In that case, I would understand a purpose-built audio attachment.

  13. posted by Keith on

    Saxophones have keys, not valves. For a moment I thought Sonny Rollins had switched to trumpet!

  14. posted by Charles on

    Thanks for the post. I had the exact same thing happen to me on my Mac Mini. Cleaning with a duster and hit my computer speaker cables and zap! — killed my mini’s audio board.

    Since I’m no longer under warranty, I’ve been looking for cheap replacement.

  15. posted by Jamie on

    Daniel, no disrespect, but you have no idea what you are talking about. An external DAC is not an audiophile component. It is the same thing built in to your computer, cd player, whatever, but this one is of higher quality, which translates into better sound. Scot already has excellent headphones, Grado SR-80’s, so he has no weak link there. From that point an upgrade to components will give you some level of improvement, then the law of diminishing returns comes into play. Do you want to pay $400 for a DAC to get 2-3% better sound? Some people do, so don’t.

    It’s only a fraudulent industry if you let it be. If you rely on your ears and not only reviews/heresay, then there is no fraud. The same can be said regarding uncluttering. The Container Store will sell you organization crap all day long, but is it always functional or worth it?

  16. posted by Chriso on

    Scot, regarding your iMac’s hardware failure, if your computer is the “white plastic” Intel iMac then the audio ports are part of the Main Logic Board and will be an expensive replacement. However if it is a ’08 or ’09 model of aluminum Intel iMac (meaning not the new 21″/27″ model), then be aware that your audio ports are located on a separate replaceable audio board, the cost of which should be FAR lower than a new MLB.

    Best of luck with the repair if you choose to pursue it, and cheers on your highly unique and useful work-around, I appreciate your post even if a number of the other commenters feel it is not ‘uncluttering’ enough for them. Good job.

  17. posted by dimitris on

    I have to mention the awesome Squeezebox products here. I’ve used a pair (now down to one, due to uncluttering :-) since ’04 and can’t praise them enough.

    And, since they can run over a wireless network, there’s less ethernet/USB cable clutter :-)

  18. posted by bostongraf on

    This sounds like a great idea for when I’m listening to tunes at work. When doing so, I have my iPod plugged into my PC, and my headphones plugged into the front headphone jack. (I prefer controlling my sound from iTunes instead of from the iPod itself.)

    For any home desktop/home theater/audio systems not using headphones, I would highly recommend getting a sound board that has an optical digital out port. Granted, it takes a slightly nicer sound card, unless it is built right on to the mother board. But this will dump the digital music directly to your audio equipment, which is (generally) far better suited to perform digital to analog conversions. It also prevents any power supplies or unshielded cables from interfering with the signal, which could happen if it were analog.

    Enjoy your nice DAC. It sounds like it really is worth it. I may get one for my work desk…

  19. posted by Sat Vocab on

    Very helpful device in any kinds of music instruments.

  20. posted by Can a HDMI cable replace Component cables? on

    […] Simply-designed outboard DAC improves computer audio quality … […]

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