The love of music has resulted in a wide variety of specialized audio equipment dedicated to the recording (input) and playback (output) of audio. It can be confusing to figure out what piece of equipment you need when some of it seems identical. An example is audio interfaces and DACs: do they accomplish the same things, and can one replace the other?
An audio interface can be used instead of an external DAC because it has an internal digital-to-audio converter with the same functionality as a standalone DAC. However, a DAC can’t replace an audio interface because the latter is mainly used for audio recording.
This article will go into further detail about the differences between audio interfaces and DACs, their exact uses, and how to decide which one you need for your unique audio needs.
What Is the Difference Between an Audio Interface and a DAC?
To understand the differences between audio interfaces and Digital To Analog Converters (DACs), we need to discuss the unique capabilities of each one.
Are there tasks they can both perform, and if so, which does them better? Or perhaps they both do separate things? In the following sections, we’ll be answering those questions and more.
What Is an Audio Interface?
Audio interfaces are devices that receive analog input from recording equipment such as microphones and convert it to digital input that can be read and further manipulated by computers.
By definition, audio interfaces have built-in Digital to Analog Converters. Audio interfaces are mostly used to record music and audio, so the resulting audio is typically high quality, but they can’t play or output music as high quality as specialized DACs or other devices.
Dedicated audio interfaces typically come with USB inputs for recording equipment and aren’t as portable as devices used solely for playback, like standalone DACs.
I also wrote an article on everything you need to know about audio interfaces, which you could check out if you want more in-depth information on what they are and how they work.
What’s a DAC?
A DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) decodes digital signals and converts them into analog signals. It’s an integral component of any sound system, whether a CD or DVD player, a computer, a smartphone, or even a gaming console.
Any device that can produce audio has a built-in DAC because the sound that you hear must be in analog (sound wave) form instead of digital (1s and 0s).
Audio manufacturers make external DACs, too. These devices effectively deliver the analog signal and produce a higher-quality sound. That’s because built-in DACs don’t have an acceptable quality to produce high-fidelity audio.
Another reason why these internal DACs aren’t high-quality is that they’re built on a device’s motherboard along with other components. The components surrounding the DAC create noise while the device is working; the DAC picks up these noises and turns them into analog sound, distorting the original sound.
External DACs don’t have this problem and can deliver the final result noise-free by creating audio with higher sample rates. That’s the most significant advantage of a standalone DAC, which allows you to hear the most delicate details of vocals and instruments.
DACs can also be portable, the size of a thumb drive, which is perfect for listening to music on the go. So, if you want audiophile sound quality while traveling, you can pack an external DAC with your laptop or tablet and listen to high-quality music all the time.
Many DACs come as DAC/amp combos that deliver a much better sound because their amps are stronger than built-in amplifiers in most phones and computers. They remove all the extra noise in the signal chain associated with internal amps.
Can an Audio Interface Replace a DAC?
It is possible to boost the audio quality from your phone or computer by using an audio interface as a DAC. That’s because the internal DACs in high-quality audio interfaces usually are much better than internal DACs in most phones or computers.
With that said, if you don’t need to record audio, you shouldn’t buy an audio interface just to use as a DAC. In that case, a standalone DAC is a much better choice.
However, if you already have an audio interface, like the extremely popular Focusrite Scarlett (link to Amazon), and you like to get better audio quality when listening by your desk, it is absolutely possible.
But remember that the quality of the digital to analog converter in audio interfaces differs between models and they certainly aren’t always as good as dedicated DACs.
Depending on your specific audio needs, you would have to decide which is best for your situation and which benefits your audio most.
Related article: Can an Audio Interface Be Used as a Headphone Amp?
Do I Need an Audio Interface or a DAC?
To decide whether you need an audio interface or a standalone DAC, there’s one main question you must answer: are you recording music? If so, you need an audio interface, because you can’t input from recording equipment to DACs.
However, both of these devices have their places, depending on the situation. Read on to determine when it’s appropriate to use each one.
When To Use an Audio Interface?
You’re most likely to use an audio interface if you record music in any capacity. To take raw analog signals from microphones and recording equipment, it does need a DAC, but just a standalone DAC wouldn’t have audio inputs.
Audio interfaces are capable of playing back what they record (you need to hear what you just played!), and the quality is good enough for most intents and purposes.
For hobbyists recording their own music at home, low-end audio interfaces with a couple of inputs are enough.
Interfaces range from there all the way up to the highest quality audio interfaces that world-renowned studios use to record and edit music for worldwide audiences—think the type of stuff used by artists on the radio.
Thankfully, most people at home wanting to make their own music don’t need that latter type of equipment and probably won’t even notice the fine details of audio recording.
Home studios using audio interfaces benefit from directly recording to DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) in various formats and inputs, like TRS and XLR inputs and MIDI formats.
When To Use a DAC?
This is a little more complicated because standalone DACs were created for a very specific problem – reducing ‘noise’ from computers and playback devices, or helping to output sound at higher bitrates they normally wouldn’t be capable of.
If your computer or phone plays audio that comes out with distortion of any kind, whether it’s pops, crackles, squeals, or other undesirable noises, a DAC would help to reduce or eliminate it.
DACs are by most definitions a luxury purchase because they’re not really needed under the vast majority of circumstances. If you’re extremely particular about your audio, though, a DAC might be just the thing you need.
To really understand what a DAC does and how it helps, it’s necessary to familiarize yourself with some information about audio and how it works.
To start, we need to explain how noise is introduced to audio. Any time music is recorded, transmitted, converted, or stored, undesirable ‘noise’ signals can creep into the sound.
This is because none of these processes is 100% efficient, despite modern technology trying its best. Anytime from the time music goes on a computer to playback, noise can occur.
Computers aren’t perfect, and the billions of calculations they perform every second can interfere with audio and cause noise.
In addition, consumer DACs can introduce noise for a wide variety of reasons, from improper shielding to poor quality power sources. DACs help to mitigate this in order to play the best possible audio.
Noise can also come from poor recording equipment like microphones and nearly anything else that music flows through in its raw form.
Bitrate and Bit Depth
Bitrate is a term used to categorize how much data is turned into audio in a form of bits—most commonly kilobytes.
Bit depth is how much data is actually in it and determines how high the resolution of the resulting audio is. High bit depth means a DAC has to handle more data at one time, so high-quality audio would necessitate a high-quality DAC to be able to handle it.
If a file has low bit depth, it means you can’t change the volume very much, and it would be hard to tell the various instruments apart from the sound played. Sixteen bits is considered standard bit depth for a lot of music these days, but increasing demand for higher quality music has made 24-bit music more common.
An easy example to understand is that 128 kbps MP3 files are going to sound worse than 320kbps mp3 files, and the latter would also take up more storage space because it has more data packed into the audio.
If you’re setting up a home studio to record audio, you’ll need an audio interface to get the sound into your computer. The built-in DAC in the audio interface is usually capable of bringing a nice and clean sound to your headphones to monitor your recordings.
Related article: Should You Plug Headphones Directly Into Audio Interface?
It can also boost the audio quality from your phone or computer when listening to music. A high-quality audio interface can replace a standalone DAC in that sense.
However, an external DAC can produce better sound quality and be a much better alternative if you just want to maximize the playback quality.
If you don’t need the recording capabilities of the audio interface, you have no reason to buy an interface instead of a dedicated DAC.
Also, with a dedicated DAC, you have the opportunity to choose a model that fits your specific needs. There are, for example, very portable ones that are perfect for your phone or desktop models that entirely focus on audio quality.