Physical media has enjoyed a 140-year run since Edison invented the phonograph. In technology time, that's an eternity. The audio industry has been way past due for useful innovation.
Millennials lately became the majority market segment. They want to do everything with their smartphones including listening to music. Many Boomers also have also been caught up in phone addiction. However we listen, people naturally prefer music that sounds realistic over music that doesn't, assuming they love music and have convenient access to high fidelity.
Digital technology swept into the sleepy audio market like a tidal wave. Rather suddenly, plastic media became as obsolete as a grandfather clock. So did the "front end" analog source sections that play them, no matter how costly, grandiose, and precision the mechanics may be. Hard media have been all about protecting IP rights ever since digital mastering gained dominance.
Digital-to-Analog Converters (DACs) partly satisfy that need for technology update. They make that obsolete analog source section of an older audio system expendable by seamlessly marrying a common home computer, a smartphone, or a tablet, to any audio system's amplification and speakers. But be sure to verify a source device you may consider has compatible connectivity. Some major brands (Android) support music well, while others purposely corral you into a specific music distribution scheme that may not even stream Hi-Fi music yet (Apple).
Clearly, all DACs are not created equal. But the DAC function makes higher-fidelity music far more accessible. With greater realism, music listening becomes more enjoyable. Digital sourcing from online streaming sites tremendously broadens one's available music catalog. Some now enable 16-bit resolution easily and cheaply (TIDAL and Qobuz.) Streaming at 24-bit resolution is waiting in the wings and 24-bit files can already be saved locally and savored later, offline.
Now that streaming media are so good and so affordable, so should audio systems be. This is a predictable consumer inference. Indeed, a high-value DAC can reasonably only cost a few hundred dollars any more. Above that amount, cost exceeds a point of rapidly diminishing returns and becomes difficult to justify. A $30,000 DAC is just right for someone whose Rolls Royce has solid gold wheels. Note that is one customer.
Many new audio component types have appeared since digital audio started gaining precedence. Some are more worthy than others. Listeners may struggle to sort them out and decide what they want. Confusing or misdirecting marketing messages don't help. They simply raise suspicions. But there's hope for navigating this landscape well.
The best musical results have always followed choosing components that play well together in a system and that each support authentic music superbly for an affordable cost. This mantra survives the digital tidal wave. We can trust it. When you find a component that verifies its superb features and specs as you listen, you're onto a winner. Trust, but verify by ear.
The music we love is the sound track for our lives.
-- Joseph Riden