If you asked an audiophile about their first encounter with terms like DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and amp (amplifier), they’d probably tell you they initially considered such acronyms confusing. If you haven’t used these, you may also wonder what they are and why you’d need them.
You need both a DAC and an amp to get the best listening experience. A DAC converts stored audio signals from digital to analog form, making it possible to listen to sounds, while an amp powers your speakers, making the signals audible. Therefore, you can’t enjoy quality music without either.
An amp and a DAC are two components you’ll never find missing in a working audio system. Read on for a detailed explanation of their functions, why you should use both, and what to consider when buying them.
When Do You Need a DAC?
Before I answer this question, let me explain how the process of audio production works. During recording, the microphone picks up sounds in analog form. However, storing those signals in analog form requires a lot of space, which would be quite a hassle.
To put this into context, imagine the amount of space you’d need to store 300 vinyl, analog LP records. Modern audio equipment comes with analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) and digital-to-analog converters (DACs) to solve such problems.
An ADC converts analog signals to digital information, which requires less storage space.
However, you can’t listen to sound signals in digital format, so they must be converted back to analog form, and that’s where a DAC is needed.
In other words, a DAC transforms digital content into analog so that your stereo system can amplify and play it.
Because of that, a DAC is an indispensable device in any modern audio player. You’ll find it in your MP3 player, receiver, PC, speakers, clock radio, to mention but a few.
At this point, you’re probably thinking: “Great! I already have one in my audio player, so it’s unnecessary to buy one.”
Not so fast!
In a lot of cases, internal DACs are not up to the same quality as external DACs.
Suppose you can hear some background hiss during playback. In that case, you’ll need an external DAC. If you hear some warbling, your device’s internal DAC may have clocking issues, requiring an outboard DAC to solve.
Read more: Can You Use A DAC With An iPhone?
When Do You Need an Amp?
Now that we’ve discussed what a DAC does and why you need it, let’s dive into the second device: the amplifier.
In simple terms, an amp’s job is to power up audio signals, pushing your speakers. Without it, you would hardly get audible output.
Active speakers have an amplifier built-in, while passive speakers will need a standalone amp to drive them.
Related article: Do Active Speakers Always Need a DAC?
An amplifier is essential, but just like with DACs, devices like phones and laptops already have an amp built-in.
Unfourtnaley, most in-built amplifiers in those devices are not powerful enough for some high-end headphones. This often results in too low volume and not as great audio quality in some cases.
For example, if you plug your headphones into any sound source, like your PC or phone, and notice the sound isn’t as loud as expected, including at the highest volume. In that case, you’ll need an amp.
However, you won’t need one if there’s more room to increase the volume and you get a good clean sound.
Additionally, you won’t need an amp if you’re using Bluetooth headphones since they come with built-in amplifiers.
There are two specifications you need to check before buying an amp:
Generally, your smartphone and laptop can easily drive any headphones with an impedance of up to 32 ohms.
Because of that, you don’t need an amp, and if you try using an amp with that kind of headphone, chances are you’ll get distorted sounds.
Conversely, if your headphone’s impedance rating is higher than 32 ohms, you’ll need a dedicated amp.
This is because high-end headphones usually need more power to produce better quality sound. Additionally, they tend to scale well – you’ll notice more fullness and detail on the low and high ends, respectively.
On the other hand, headphones with higher sensitivity are easier to drive – you may not need an amp to use them. In fact, powering such kinds of headphones with an amplifier causes them to pick up irritating background noises that can ruin your listening experience.
Related article: Can an Audio Interface Be Used as a Headphone Amp?
Check out this video for more information and some great examples. He talks a bit about better audio for PC gaming but the information is the same even though you don’t play games.
Do You Need an Amp if You Have a DAC?
Practically, you already have an amp and a DAC on your phone, PC, and home stereo. The two components are usually embedded on these devices’ circuit boards.
As I mentioned previously, a DAC takes digital signals and turns them into analog signals, and if you buy a high-end device, there’s a high chance you’ll get a better output signal.
As the name suggests, an amplifier amplifies the signal. From this, we can deduce that although the two perform different functions, they complement each other; the DAC converts signals to a format you can hear, while the amp powers them up so that they’re audible. Therefore, you need both to get the most from your headphones or speakers.
My two cents is that it would be better to buy a DAC/amp combo instead of buying a DAC and an amp separately. The DAC component will create line-level signals, which the amp will augment, offering an incredible listening experience. Also, you can adjust the amp to your preferred level.
Alternatively, you could buy them separately. As some argue, this gives you the freedom to try out different amp/DAC combinations to determine the pair that gives the best results. However, that depends on how much you can flex your budget.
What To Look For in an Amp or DAC
When buying an amp or DAC, it’s critical first to check its features to determine if it’s the best choice, depending on your audio system. Here are some of the factors to consider:
- Power output: It would help to determine if the amp’s power output can drive your headphones. An amp with a higher power rating is an excellent choice if you use high-impedance speakers.
- Impedance matching: As a rule of thumb, your headphone’s impedance rating should be 2.5 to 8 times higher than that of your amp to get the best quality sound.
- Compatibility: It would help to check if the available DACs or amps are compatible with your speakers or headphones. For instance, pick a DAC that comes with a 3.5mm jack for input and output if you intend to use your headset.
- Versatility: You should check if the device supports various digital and analog inputs. I recommend checking the file formats the amp/DAC supports. Some support hi-res audio, making them excellent choices for audiophiles.
- Features: Undoubtedly, you want an amp/DAC that’s convenient to use. Therefore, you should check for extra features like portability, remote control, power draw, and wireless capability to pick the most user-friendly option.
3 of the Best Amps/DACs on the Market
By now, you probably would like some first-hand experience of how DACs and amps improve audio quality. If so, here are some of the best amp/s DACs that would make your curated playlist an absolute pleasure to listen to.
If you are on a budget, you should check out this post instead: 14 Best Headphone Amps Under $200 (Buyer’s Guide).
Burson Audio Conductor 3X
This DAC/amp combo is designed to produce the best audio quality. It comes with an attractive, corrosion-resistant, and durable aluminum case and delivers remarkable soundstage, frequency response, and depth.
It’s rated 7.5 watts, which means plenty of power and extra headroom, and produces a lively and immersive sound signature. However, it’s not the best option if you use in-ear monitors.
This standalone DAC is an ideal option if you need to listen to quality music on the go. It features a 3.5 audio output and handles various file formats, including Tidal MQA.
It’s compatible with android and iOS, but you’ll need a separate USB adapter to use this device.
Cambridge Audio CXA61
The CXA61 comes with all the features to deliver the ultimate hi-res audio experience, such as digital and analog inputs, Bluetooth connectivity, and a terrific aptx HD encoding that improves audio quality.
Although it’s marketed as an amp, this device comes with a built-in DAC, so you get the complete package in a single product.
In a nutshell, an amp and a DAC work like a system, meaning they’re designed to complement each other, improving your listening experience. Without a DAC, you’d not hear any music from your speakers. This is because this device converts stored digital audio to the analog form you can listen to.
Similarly, you wouldn’t hear any sounds without an amp despite your home stereo, phone, or PC showing your favorite track is playing. This is because an amplifier powers your speakers, making sound audible. Therefore, you should have both to have the best listening experience.