DACs and amps are similar pieces of hardware, but they are not the same. A DAC (digital to analog converter) converts digital sound information into audible analog sound waves, while an amplifier boosts sound before it reaches speakers or headphones so that it can be heard at an audible level.
Understanding the differences can be tricky, but this article aims to clear up some of this confusion about DACs and amps. You’ll also find out if or when you’ll need a DAC or an amp. Read on to learn more.
The differences between a DAC and an amp
DACs and amplifiers are similar in that they both process audio in order for it to be heard by a listener, but this is pretty much where the similarities stop.
A DAC, or digital to analog converter, converts digital audio information into analog sound waves.
For more information, check out our article on what are DACs and how to use them.
Oftentimes, a DAC actually has an amplifier built into it, but many don’t have a built-in amp, in which case you would need to purchase an external one.
Audio information goes through a DAC in the form of 1s and 0s. This is called binary code, and each number has a piece of information that has been snapshotted by the DAC. The binary numbers are then converted into an analog signal along with going through some other steps that filter the audio further.
This audio signal is very low in volume and needs to be boosted before it goes to speakers or headphones, otherwise the audio will be too quiet and you will likely experience frequency spectrum issues. This is where an amplifier comes in handy.
An amplifier boosts an audio signal, giving it more power before it reaches speakers or headphones so that when it exits such listening devices, the analog signal can be heard by the listeners without issues. An amplifier boosts the voltage of the analog signal.
An amp is built to specifically take a digital audio input and create a very high-level signal. This high-level signal goes directly to speakers or headphones.
Many times, output filters are used with amps to smoothen the waveform before it goes to the speakers in order to take care of any harsh frequencies or potential distortion caused by the boost that the amp provides.
It’s important to remember that DACs and amps are completely separate from each other in terms of circuitry.
Inside a DAC, if it has a built-in amplifier, there will be a circuit for the DAC to convert the digital information, and then there will be a separate amplifier circuit that the converted audio will then be sent to in the signal chain before reaching the speakers.
Considering it is the same for an amplifier that is externally connected to a DAC or set of speakers, it makes sense that it would be the same way if the amplifier is actually inside the DAC.
DACs vs. amplifiers: pros and cons
DACs and amplifiers have their own sets of pros and cons that we’ll take a look at, so you can see which would be better for you and your situation.
- Provides a cleaner sound free of interference.
- Splits signal with crossover filters.
- Inputs pure digital audio information.
- Usually has less feedback than other devices.
- Capable of high-resolution audio and high accuracy.
- Longer signal chain and circuit leads to slower processing.
- Can introduce audio jittering into the signal with a low-quality DAC.
- Resistors in the circuit can cause various offsets.
- Shorter signal chain and circuit, faster processing.
- Easier to operate.
- Can be used with more devices than just USB compatible ones.
- Easy to upgrade with various systems.
- Closer to the end of the signal chain.
- Can introduce electromagnetic interference or feedback in some cases.
- Introduces a possibility of distortion in the signal chain.
- Can get very expensive depending on the internal hardware (such as vacuum tubes).
Do you need a DAC or an amplifier?
In order to know if you need a DAC, an amp, or a combination of both, there are a few steps you can take to figure out the answer to this question.
Firstly, you need to identify your problem or whatever it is that you want improved.
Secondly, you’ll need to identify the proper gear that will solve the problem you need fixed.
Let me first say that many people purchase DACs or amplifiers or both without a need for them. In that case, these people simply want a better sounding listening experience with the headphones or speakers that they already have. A DAC and/or amp can do this.
In such a case, a DAC being connected to a smartphone or computer will convert the audio to an analog signal, and typically this will improve your listening experience because the audio is being inputted into the DAC as binary code, which means the audio is in its purest form as it goes through a DAC.
This reduces signal interference and chances of the audio becoming colored by poor quality circuits. Signal interference is usually caused by the other electronics in the area around you, including TVs, phones, and computers. With an external DAC, you don’t have this issue because the audio doesn’t go into the DAC in analog form.
If an amplifier is built into the DAC, great. If not, that’s still great too. Since an external amplifier simply connects to the DAC, the amp also has a reduced amount of signal interference.
Overall, using an external DAC and amp combination can greatly improve the audio quality of what you’re listening to. This is why many audiophiles have DACs and amplifiers worth thousands of dollars simply just to listen to their record collection or to use with their home theater.
A scenario that happens quite often, especially in the case of those who are producing music on a low budget, is that headphones or speakers are being connected to a computer or other audio source, but the audio is not loud enough even with the volume turned up extremely high.
The problem here is that there is not enough power (in volts) being fed to your speakers or headphones while the audio is outputted. If this is your problem, you’re in luck: it can be fixed.
In this case, you could use either a DAC with a built-in amp or an external amp. An amp would be a simpler solution if you need to save money.
Essentially, by connecting an amplifier or DAC/amp combo to your audio source and speakers or headphones, the amplifier will boost the signal, making the audio loud enough for you to hear it without having to turn your volume all the way up.
While you don’t necessarily need a standalone DAC in this situation, it wouldn’t be detrimental to your setup either. The main component to solve this issue is the amp.
Another problematic situation is when you are experiencing electromagnetic interference from your existing setup when playing media from a computer or other device.
In this case, an external DAC will improve the audio quality and get rid of electromagnetic interference thanks to the digital input of audio information.
When audio goes into the DAC from a source, it is free from interference due to being in a number form instead of entering the DAC and going through the circuit as analog audio.
Interference is taken care of as the audio information passes through the circuit and gets converted to analog audio. By the time it reaches the amplifier, whether the amp is built into the DAC or is external, the interference issue will be solved and the amp won’t increase the volume of the interference because it’s simply not there at that stage in the processing.
A general rule of thumb
Typically, if you’re starting out purchasing an amp or DAC, it’s wiser to start first with an amplifier. A general rule to remember with audio is that the closer to you an element is in the signal chain, the more it will affect the overall sound that is outputted.
Amps usually come last or close to last in the signal chain before outputting the audio to speakers or headphones. This means that an amp will in general have a greater effect on the audio you listen to.
Standalone units (both DACs and amps) in general have better specifications when it comes to output specs and power, so it’s a better decision to purchase standalone DAC or amp units if your main focus is getting an audiophile-quality sound and great performance.
If you want to save money, getting an all-in-one DAC and amp combo is a fine purchase as well, but it may not perform as well as a standalone DAC connected to a standalone amp.
Digital to analog converters and amplifiers can be confusing at first, but you can quickly see that while they are used with audio sources and they do almost the same thing, they each are their own separate unit and have different circuits.
Now you can use this information yourself to go forth and purchase the proper standalone DAC or amplifier, or even a combination of the two, for your own audio monitoring uses.
Anyone who is passionate about audio deserves to listen to it through a good-quality DAC or amp to experience how artists intended their music to be heard.
Be sure to check back with us soon for more information on everything music and technology related!