Besy bet would be to find a Theta Digital Cobalt DAC. Great sound!
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Bndtracey, if your amp/receivers accept direct digital input (and I assume that to be the case based on your comment), then you are correct--a DAC is not only not necessary, but would probably introduce some more ADC and DAC steps. Also, depending on the manufacturer, the onboard DAC may be well better than the Airport Express' onboard circuitry.
If you only have analog inputs then having a DAC is still not required, BUT may be desired.
This is because an outboard DAC is likely far better quality than the onboard DAC in the AE. I use AEs in both configs. My Meridian h/t processor has optical digital input, and I go straight in and use the DAC this is onboard the processor. This is preferable since Meridian gear converts all analog inputs to digital anyway, thereby avoiding two more "conversion" points.
For my analog two channel rig, I go from the AE to an Assemblage DAC and then to my BAT pre-amp. I could go from the AE to the BAT via analog interconnect but I'm sure my Assemblage is way superior to the AE dac. Hope this helps.
The Airport Express through a High Quality DAC really makes for enjoyable listening. I run my Airport Express into my Electrocompaniet ECD-1 right along side my Theta CD Transport and now probably listen to Airport Express probably 75% of the time just due to ease of accessing my music and not having to change discs.
On the cheap, you could pick up either a Bel Canto DAC-1 or DAC-2 depending on your budget. They are really hard to beat and both have the Toslink input. You can find them for ($400-$700) here on Audiogon..
Bndtracey - You need a good DAC to improve sound quality and to reduce jitter.
Read this airport express review
I highly recommend Benchmark DAC1 to go with airport express. I have great success in this combination.
For a benchmark dac1 review, see
My Setup consists of a Mac Notebook Pro, using iTunes (APple Loseless) to connect to my AirTunes. The AirTunes is connected to a Zhaolu DAC (with Preamp at $225) using the toslink cable and from there to a Headamp Maxed Out amp.
I did many tests, there is a HUGE quality gain by using the toslink output of the AirTunes as opposed to the mini DIN. Also, the Zhaolu DAC offers superb sound quality. May agree that the Zhaolu and the Lavry are superior to the DAC1.
If you really are looking for something cheap that will give you a good bang for your buck you can check out ebay or here for an Entech Number Cruncher DAC. they're older, but you can sometimes still find new old stock. The 203.2 often can be had for $50 or less and the 205.2 typically goes for $100.