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DAC vs amp: What’s the difference, and why you need both

The first step in building your desktop hi-fi system is defining what you need in order to upgrade your sound. And one of the first questions you should ask yourself is: do I need a DAC, an amp, or both?

In this article, I’ll help you understand the difference between these two components and how each of them affects your sound.

I’ll also discuss which one you should get based on your requirements and different scenarios where you might want to get one or the other.

Why you should trust me

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a music producer and seasoned audiophile with a decade of experience in the world of hi-fi audio.

Mixing and mastering my own music was what drove me to delve deep into the world of high fidelity and study the secrets behind exceptional audio reproduction.

I spent years exploring the best ways to bring music to life in a sound system, and over time, I learned a few things about all the items that can improve the clarity and realism of music, including, of course, DACs and amplifiers.


Use these links below to navigate to the desired section of the article.

What is a DAC?

DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter and is, essentially, what converts digital audio signals into analog signals, which can be played (and heard) through speakers or headphones.

Without getting too technical, a DAC transforms the information stored into a CD or digital audio file into audible sound. In the digital era we live in, digital files are essentially a collection of binary data that represent the original sound wave.

The process of translating this sound wave into data is called pulse-code modulation, or PCM, and the fidelity of such data is defined by the sample rate and bit depth, concepts I talked about many times when discussing hi-fi audio.

Types of DACs

DACs come in many shapes and sizes, as they’re literally in every device that can reproduce music. These are integrated DACs, devices whose quality varies greatly depending on whether they’re part of music-focused gear or not.

For instance, the integrated gear of a smartphone can’t compete with the one included in a hi-res portable player.

Standalone DACs are the ones music enthusiasts buy to upgrade the sound clarity of their digital collection. You connect them to your computer by USB, and it replaces your integrated sound card to give you a more accurate reproduction.

What is an amplifier?

An amplifier is a device that increases the voltage of the audio signal, making it louder before it gets to speakers or headphones.

The amp also ensures that this higher-level signal is clear and devoid of distortion.

With an amp, all you’re doing is amplifying the signal coming from your integrated sound card or external DAC.

Therefore, while the sound will definitely be more powerful, its quality will still depend largely on the original source and DAC you’re using.

Hedd headphones and SPL amplifier
Headphones and DAC/amplifier | Image: Higher Hz

Amps’ efficiency in amplifying audio signals varies greatly. Most amplifiers come with output filters to avoid introducing distortion into the audio signal when you increase the power.

An amplifier is also a crucial element when driving headphones with an impedance higher than 32 ohms. They require more power to truly shine, so you should get an appropriate headphone amp if you have high-end, power-demanding cans.

Types of amps

Amps are divided into solid-state and tube amps. Solid-state amps have a cleaner, more analytical sound, while tube amps have a warmer sound signature reminiscent of the good-old analog era.

So, what is the difference?

The difference between a DAC and an amp is that a DAC focuses on clarity, whereas an amp focuses on power.

A DAC is responsible for translating a digital audio signal into a more accurate, detailed, and enjoyable sound wave compared to the integrated sound card in your listening device.

An amplifier is what makes such a sound wave louder. It boosts the signal to a level that it can drive your speakers or headphones and comes with filters that prevent the amplified sound from getting distorted.

As you can see, while both deal with the quality of sound, DACs and amps have two completely different purposes.

The ideal signal chain to improve your sound is the following:

Hi-res audio source + DAC + amp + headphones

What do I need, a DAC or an amp?

Now that you know the difference between a DAC and an amp, it’s time to focus on which one you should get based on your needs.

Below, you’ll find some of the most common scenarios in which people find themselves wanting a better listening experience.

For each category, I’ll give you an option or two that’ll certainly upgrade your sound system.

Home audio system

Audiophiles who don’t want or can’t afford a traditional hi-fi system with speakers and a turntable should consider creating a professional listening experience through headphones.

Remember that in the world of high-fidelity audio, sound customization is crucial, which is why you should get both a DAC and amp and not rely on your computer’s motherboard or a standalone DAC/amp that won’t allow you to sculpt your sound signature.

A dedicated DAC matched with a carefully selected amp and headphones might end up bringing to life a one-of-a-kind sound system.

Schiit DAC/amp stack
Schiit DAC/amp stack | Image: Schiit Audio

If this sounds like you, I can’t help but recommend the Schiit stack comprising the Modi+ DAC and Magni amplifier.

Their combination offers endless possibilities in terms of sound customization at a price that makes them inviting even for beginner audiophiles.

Gaming PC

When it comes to gaming, there are a couple of things I think you should look for when getting devices to improve your sound, which are portability and mic input.

Portability is easily achieved by buying a DAC/amp combo: after all, chances are you don’t need to get a unique sound signature but rather have a clear and loud sound when playing your favorite games.

A mic input can be useful whether you play games that require voice recognition or are on Discord with your pals. It helps you control volume levels and keep everything nice and balanced, even during prolonged gaming sessions.

Sound BlasterX G6 in gaming setup
Sound BlasterX G6 in a gaming setup | Image: Creative Labs

My recommendation is undoubtedly the Sound BlasterX G6, a powerful and versatile DAC/amp that can create a realistic 7.1 virtual surround sound with extraordinary sound quality.

At just around $120, it’s a phenomenal DAC/amp that’ll satisfy all your gaming needs.

Office/desk space

If you’re looking for a more “casual” sound system for your office or studio space at home, you’ll need something akin to audiophile setup but more affordable and with a smaller footprint.

iFi Zen DAC V2 DAC/amp combo
Zen DAC V2 in a portable hi-fi setup | Image: iFi Audio

Once again, the best solution is a performing DAC/amp combo, and when it comes to the best value for money, the iconic iFi Zen Dac V2 is a certainty.

Small in size yet impressive in how it expands and deepens the soundstage, the Zen DAC V2 is an exceptional all-in-one solution you can get for less than $200. A bargain, if you ask me.

Ultra-portable for everyday commuting

Finally, if you want to improve your sound on the go, you need a DAC and headphone amplifier you can carry with you at all times and connect effortlessly with your phone.

Luckily, the business of portable USB DACs has boomed recently, and one of the best DAC/amp specimens in this category is the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt.

DragonFly Cobalt in mobile setup
DragonFly Cobalt in an ultra-mobile setup | Image: AudioQuest

Despite being the size of a USB key, the DragonFly Cobalt comes with sophisticated technology and an expansive sound that might satisfy even the most discerning audiophile.

Super intuitive and with an exceptionally clear sound signature, this is a must-have if you want to upgrade your music listening sessions when commuting or moving around the city.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about DACs, amplifiers, and combos.

Should I buy a DAC or amp first?

I’d recommend getting an amp first, or a DAC/amp combo, simply because by using a DAC-only device, you’ll have to also get an amp to make your system work, as you’ll be bypassing the built-in sound card and need to amplify the audio after it’s been processed by the standalone DAC.

Do I need a DAC if I already have an amp?

You might not need a DAC, but adding one to your chain can definitely improve the clarity and transparency of your sound, especially if you’re reproducing hi-fi audio and already using audiophile-level headphones.

Do smartphones have built-in DACs and amps?

Smartphones, like all devices that can reproduce digital audio, have a built-in DAC and amp whose quality might vary greatly.

Still, you can listen to music through your smartphone because they all have built-in DACs and amps.

Should I invest in a DAC/amp if I only listen to music casually?

Hi-fi music is like premium wine: it takes time to fully appreciate the fine details and depth that define it.

You might certainly hear the differences between standard and high-end gear, but whether it might change the way you experience music, it’s all up to you.

Can I use any amp with my speakers or headphones?

As a rule of thumb, you need headphone amps for headphones and speaker amps for speakers simply because those have completely different power requirements.

Using a speaker amp with your headphones might end up damaging them, and using a headphone amp for your speakers will probably result in a quiet, flat sound.

Can a good DAC or amp compensate for low-quality audio files?

No. A hi-res audio file is the foundation for high-quality audio. Not even premium DACs, amps, and headphones can fix low-quality audio.

Does a DAC make the sound louder?

No, that’s the amp’s job. A DAC will make your sound clearer and more defined but won’t make it louder.

Will a DAC improve bass?

A DAC will certainly enhance the sound’s depth and articulation across all frequencies, including the low end. However, it won’t necessarily make the bass louder or punchier.

Are there any disadvantages to using an external DAC?

Not really. They don’t add latency and will most likely improve sound quality compared to the sound card in your device.

The only downside is that you might not be satisfied by the cost-benefit offered by your new gear: getting a DAC, amp, and headphones that enhance your listening experience can be an expensive task.

Final thoughts

I hope this guide will help you make a conscious decision about your next upgrade, and as always, let me know in the comment section if there are any items I didn’t mention or questions/misconceptions that we should talk about.

Happy listening!