In electronics, a digital-to-analog converter (DAC, D/A, D2A, or D-to-A) is a system that converts a digital signal into an analog signal. An analog-to-digital converter (ADC) performs the reverse function.
There are several DAC architectures; the suitability of a DAC for a particular application is determined by figures of merit including: resolution, maximum sampling frequency and others. Digital-to-analog conversion can degrade a signal, so a DAC should be specified that has insignificant errors in terms of the application.
DACs are commonly used in music players to convert digital data streams into analog audio signals. They are also used in televisions and mobile phones to convert digital video data into analog video signals which connect to the screen drivers to display monochrome or color images. These two applications use DACs at opposite ends of the frequency/resolution trade-off. The audio DAC is a low-frequency, high-resolution type while the video DAC is a high-frequency low- to medium-resolution type.
Due to the complexity and the need for precisely matched components, all but the most specialized DACs are implemented as integrated circuits (ICs). Discrete DACs (circuits constructed from multiple discrete electronic components instead of a packaged IC) would typically be extremely high-speed low-resolution power-hungry types, as used in military radar systems. Very high-speed test equipment, especially sampling oscilloscopes, may also use discrete DACs.
Video sampling tends to work on a completely different scale altogether thanks to the highly nonlinear response both of cathode ray tubes (for which the vast majority of digital video foundation work was targeted) and the human eye, using a "gamma curve" to provide an appearance of evenly distributed brightness steps across the display's full dynamic range - hence the need to use RAMDACs in computer video applications with deep enough color resolution to make engineering a hardcoded value into the DAC for each output level of each channel impractical (e.g. an Atari ST or Sega Genesis would require 24 such values; a 24-bit video card would need 768...). Given this inherent distortion, it is not unusual for a television or video projector to truthfully claim a linear contrast ratio (difference between darkest and brightest output levels) of 1000:1 or greater, equivalent to 10 bits of audio precision even though it may only accept signals with 8-bit precision and use an LCD panel that only represents 6 or 7 bits per channel.
Video signals from a digital source, such as a computer, must be converted to analog form if they are to be displayed on an analog monitor. As of 2007, analog inputs were more commonly used than digital, but this changed as flat panel displays with DVI and/or HDMI connections became more widespread. A video DAC is, however, incorporated in any digital video player with analog outputs. The DAC is usually integrated with some memory (RAM), which contains conversion tables for gamma correction, contrast and brightness, to make a device called a RAMDAC.
A device that is distantly related to the DAC is the digitally controlled potentiometer, used to control an analog signal digitally.