Any audiophile that wants to update the audio setup for their headphones will be looking at purchasing either an amplifier or a DAC. However, both of these devices have many key differences that should dictate which you pick up first, depending on what your setup requires.
On one end, DAC, or Digital to Analog converter, converts the digital signal from your device into analog signals that can be tangibly heard. Whereas an Amp, or amplifier, increases the strength of the signal coming to your listening device from the source.
Both devices have the capacity for improving sound and audio quality. But other differences can be the deciding factor for picking up one over the other.
Trying to understand these subtle nuances can become quite tricky, but the main aim of this article is to make this information as streamlined and simple as possible. By the end, we hope you’ll know all you need regarding the difference between a DAC and an Amp.
Differences Between A Headphone Amp And A DAC
Before we discuss the specific differences between a headphone Amp and a DAC, we should first recognize that there are certain aspects of both of these devices that are in common.
These features are inherent to many Amps and DACs and thus should be recognized when making informed decisions regarding them. The major similarity then is that many DACs come with a pre-installed Amp inside of them.
These usually are not as powerful as independent, separate headphone Amps. However, they do have a certain level of power within them that carries out a similar function.
Secondly, a DAC is needed by an Amplifier to function, as well as it is the major device that converts digital information into the analog sound that we wish to hear. And thus, an amplifier often connects to a DAC to function appropriately.
With these aspects that might associate these two devices together out of the way, let us move on to the fundamental differences that exist between these two devices.
1. Functional Difference Between An Amp And A DAC
We mentioned this briefly in the introduction above. However, we should investigate the exact functional difference between these two devices. Both devices aim to improve the audio output of your system. But they are very different in the way they go about this.
When we look at an amplifier or Amp, the device exists either within a system already or is usually an individual unit that you attach. An Amp requires signals from a DAC to function, and that is why functionally, it’s far different from a DAC.
After digital signals are converted by a DAC to analog signals, they are sent to an amplifier. The amplifier uses these required signals in order to begin its function and increases the power at which these audio signals are received to increase the quality and volume of the sound produced.
The strength of the signal is given more power by providing more power to the headphones themselves. Additionally, amplifiers also provide additional power to speakers and even IEMs in their attempt to increase the volume and quality of the sound being produced by the system.
On the other hand, a Digital to Analog converter works completely differently and thus has many functional differences that highlight themself. The DAC is either an internal device, as in it exists within some aspect of the audio system that you have installed, or it is an independent external device.
In either case, its primary functional directive is not to enhance the audio quality or volume, rather, it is to convert the digital audio signals that are transferred by your compute to your headphones. This process is obviously important as without this conversion, we would probably only be able to hear static on our headphones and speakers.
In most instances, the amplifier that we discussed earlier in this section is found within the DAC itself or exists as an external unit. Usually, these amplifiers are used to increase the strength of the power signal as they move towards your headphones after passing through the DAC.
2. An Amp Cannot Be Used Without A DAC
If you’ve read through the previous functional differences that we mentioned, then you must have noticed a key difference that exists between an Amp and a DAC. An Amp can only be used in conjunction with a DAC. However, a DAC does not require an Amp to be used.
As we discussed in an earlier section, the amplifier requires an analog signal from the sound system that it can amplify before sending it over to the headphones. If it isn’t an audio signal, then after boosting the power, it would only be perceived by you as static and not as improved sound quality.
This is why in most instances, the DAC is the far more important device to obtain first because without it, your amplifier will be utterly useless. Moreover, this restriction that we talked about does not go both ways.
If you’re using a DAC, then you know for a fact that there isn’t an amplifier that is required to make it function. But rather, it is an important part of your audio system that you always are expected to have and is often a part of your audio system by default regardless of owning an Amp or not.
3. Amps Are More Important For Premium Headphones
The current market space is populated with a host of Premium headphone brands that provide exceptional quality audio and sound. These headphones are highly coveted by the general audience and audiophiles alike. However, it’s a little tricky to get them to work in the first place.
This is because most computers and audio systems do not have the required power that matches up to the requirements of many of these Premium headphones. This can cause several problems that can drastically lower the performance capabilities of even your expensive Premium headphones.
To counteract this issue, a device such as an amplifier becomes an absolute necessity. An amplifier increases the power of audio signals that are being transferred to the headphones. Moreover, they connect to headphones directly and thus have greater control over power flow.
With a headphone amplifier, the sound and quality drastically improve and achieve the full potential a Premium headphone should have. However, a DAC is not so important when dealing with Premium headphones. And most DACs will work perfectly fine with most headphones regardless of their specifications.
This largely differentiates the impact of headphone amplifiers with DAC in this particular market space.
4. Difference Between A Headphone Amp And An External DAC
As we discussed above, many headphones nowadays come with their own amplifiers. This is to mitigate the need for external ones, but also because some Premium brands require them. However, headphone amps have a major difference in their impact on audio than external DACs.
Because largely speaking, a headphone amp will be able to make the sound produced improve only slightly, and that too based on quality and volume only rather than an overall improvement. However, external DACs have far more influence and can have a significant impact.
One of the major aspects that can be improved is the clarity of the audio itself. There will exist less static and fewer gaps in the audio that is being received by you if you use a higher quality DAC. Not just improving the quality and volume, but DACs improve the overall clarity of the audio that you experience.
This factor majorly differentiates the specific impact that a DAC can have in comparison to a headphone amplifier.
5. Many DACs Come With Built-in Amplifiers
Another major difference between the two devices is that often headphone amplifiers that are smaller and less powerful than external amplifiers can also be found within good-quality DACs. Although this was mentioned in passing earlier, this is an important distinction.
The circuitry for the two devices is ultimately very different. However, DACs have the unique capacity to have internal circuitry consistent with that of amplifiers. And thus can be used in conjunction with them on a single device.
This is not true the other way around, wherein most headphones do not have a DAC themself, and more importantly, most amplifiers do not contain DACs within them. This is largely because the input that they are receiving simply is not understandable or readable to the amplifier until it has already passed through a DAC and been converted first.
This is why when differentiating between Amps and DACs, it is important to understand that often the best quality DACs come guaranteed with a, albeit smaller, amplifier of their own. That can generally explain why you would need an amplifier in the first place.
6. Amps Are Better For Music Than DACs
If the choice that you have is between getting a headphone with an amplifier or a DAC for your music listening purposes, then we believe that getting an Amp is better than getting a DAC within this particular scenario.
This is largely because you often are better off getting an Amp for your audio setup than a DAC. It is the easiest solution when it comes to raising the performance of your headphones. So if you have built-in Amps within them, then that’s the perfect combination and adds the most quality.
Many regular motherboards and most computer setups simply do not have the power necessary to increase the quality and volume of music to standards that a true audiophile might want to attain. In such cases, it becomes an absolute necessity that you invest in headphone amps that drastically improve your music listening experience.
A DAC, in these cases, can improve the clarity of the sound and better performance. However, if you had to pick between one or the other, it is clear to us that the most impact you can have is if you invest in some good-quality headphone amps to amp up your music listening experience.
7. DAC Is Better For Gaming Than Headphone Amps
If specifically music is not to your taste, and you’re more of a gamer instead, then you’re going to be valuing many different things when it comes to choosing between a headphone amp and a DAC. Often it is better to get a high-quality DAC than to get a good-quality headphone amp.
First of all, most gaming DACs have an amp that is built into them. So they naturally can cover any effects that not having a headphone amp might have caused you. On the other hand, they have certain benefits that far outweigh that negligible weakness.
Often with a DAC, you can surprisingly improve your microphone quality as well. This means that it’ll be easier for you to communicate with your teammates or friends while you’re playing with them. Moreover, with greater clarity, you can experience all the facets of the game’s music and the sound effects present therein.
This feature is especially great for Pro-Gaming as it allows you to notice even the subtle sounds created by other players because of the enhanced clarity. It’s no surprise then that DACs have become a must-have for many top-level gamers, as this advantage is too good to miss out on.
Finally, DACs have an incredible system that produces a virtual sound that is far superior to most average or common systems. Thus you’ll be able to enjoy the latest gaming entries in their full unbridled glory rather than having to stick with a lesser experience.
Perhaps you now realize that many differences exist between headphone amps and DACs. The primary difference might be their functional difference, however. The headphone amp device increases output power and subsequent volume. Whereas, the DAC increases clarity and converts digital to analog signals.
They both excel in different fields and are uniquely suited to add to your experiences based on whichever content you like to experience the most, whether it be music or gaming. Ultimately, these differences help educate you on these devices and what purpose each serves.
The rest we leave up to you.