Digital to Analog Converter

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Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) takes discrete digital values (numbers) and converts them to a corresponding analog voltage. Some high end microcontrollers have built in DACs, and a wide range of discrete DACs also exists.

DAC Types

The most common types of electronic DACs are:

  • The pulse-width modulator, the simplest DAC type. A stable current or voltage is switched into a low-pass analog filter with a duration determined by the digital input code. This technique is often used for electric motor speed control, and is now becoming common in high-fidelity audio.
  • Oversampling DACs or interpolating DACs such as the delta-sigma DAC, use a pulse density conversion technique. The oversampling technique allows for the use of a lower resolution DAC internally. A simple 1-bit DAC is often chosen because the oversampled result is inherently linear. The DAC is driven with a pulse-density modulated signal, created with the use of a low-pass filter, step nonlinearity (the actual 1-bit DAC), and negative feedback loop, in a technique called delta-sigma modulation. This results in an effective high-pass filter acting on the quantization (signal processing) noise, thus steering this noise out of the low frequencies of interest into the high frequencies of little interest, which is called noise shaping (very high frequencies because of the oversampling). The quantization noise at these high frequencies are removed or greatly attenuated by use of an analog low-pass filter at the output (sometimes a simple RC low-pass circuit is sufficient). Most very high resolution DACs (greater than 16 bits) are of this type due to its high linearity and low cost. Higher oversampling rates can either relax the specifications of the output low-pass filter and enable further suppression of quantization noise. Speeds of greater than 100 thousand samples per second (for example, 192 kHz) and resolutions of 24 bits are attainable with delta-sigma DACs. A short comparison with pulse-width modulation shows that a 1-bit DAC with a simple first-order integrator would have to run at 3 THz (which is physically unrealizable) to achieve 24 meaningful bits of resolution, requiring a higher-order low-pass filter in the noise-shaping loop. A single integrator is a low-pass filter with a frequency response inversely proportional to frequency and using one such integrator in the noise-shaping loop is a first order delta-sigma modulator. Multiple higher order topologies (such as MASH) are used to achieve higher degrees of noise-shaping with a stable topology.
  • The binary-weighted DAC, which contains one resistor or current source for each bit of the DAC connected to a summing point. These precise voltages or currents sum to the correct output value. This is one of the fastest conversion methods but suffers from poor accuracy because of the high precision required for each individual voltage or current. Such high-precision resistors and current sources are expensive, so this type of converter is usually limited to 8-bit resolution or less.
  • The R-2R ladder DAC which is a binary-weighted DAC that uses a repeating cascaded structure of resistor values R and 2R. This improves the precision due to the relative ease of producing equal valued-matched resistors (or current sources). However, wide converters perform slowly due to increasingly large RC-constants for each added R-2R link.
  • The thermometer-coded DAC, which contains an equal resistor or current-source segment for each possible value of DAC output. An 8-bit thermometer DAC would have 255 segments, and a 16-bit thermometer DAC would have 65,535 segments. This is perhaps the fastest and highest precision DAC architecture but at the expense of high cost. Conversion speeds of >1 billion samples per second have been reached with this type of DAC.
  • Hybrid DACs, which use a combination of the above techniques in a single converter. Most DAC integrated circuits are of this type due to the difficulty of getting low cost, high speed and high precision in one device.
    • The segmented DAC, which combines the thermometer-coded principle for the most significant bits and the binary-weighted principle for the least significant bits. In this way, a compromise is obtained between precision (by the use of the thermometer-coded principle) and number of resistors or current sources (by the use of the binary-weighted principle). The full binary-weighted design means 0% segmentation, the full thermometer-coded design means 100% segmentation.


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