DAC vs. Amp – What’s The Difference? Which One Do You Need?

DAC vs. Amp

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Let’s assume you’re completely clueless about what DACs and amps are. That’s okay because back then, I was clueless too. Amassing knowledge about everything Hi-Fi starts when you delve into the world of sources and their effects on audio gear. 

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty, shall we?

What is a DAC?

A DAC stands for Digital to Analogue Converter. It basically converts digital signals into an analog tone that your ears can hear. The reverse applies to audio interfaces, where analog elements like vocals, guitar, and keyboard audio are converted into digital form to be edited in your DAW.

3 Reasons You’d Want a DAC

So why would you need a DAC? Here are the reasons.

1. Sound Gains

A dedicated DAC will provide you with better sound quality compared to your PC or phone’s built-in DAC. While decoding is one part of what a DAC does, you also get other benefits like reduced distortion and jitters caused by internal circuitry. A quiet noise floor can be a night and day difference.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic-200M right angled front view
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M front view | Cambridge Audio

2. Better Technicalities

Technicalities were something of a novel concept to me back then. I didn’t really understand what someone meant when technicalities were mentioned. Terms like layering, sound imaging, and soundstage, among many others, came up. Do a little homework and see what these terms mean for your music – it’ll be worth it. 

A considerable improvement in your music’s instrumentation, vocal depth, dynamics, and decay are perhaps some of the first things you’ll notice when using a DAC. Proper decoding allows your digital files to be output the way the artists intended for you to hear.

3. Different Chips, Different Sound

There are different brands of chips that audio companies put inside their DACs and each of them has an inherently unique signature to them. This makes for a different experience

considering implementation like output staging and amping come in later to deliver the final sound. 

Some chip brands you’d definitely want to do some homework on are ESS Sabre, AKM, Cirrus Logic, and Burr Brown.

What Kind of DAC to Get

If you’re strapped for cash, maybe getting a DAC dongle would be more suitable. Everything we’ve covered so far applies to dongles and these may be more appealing to you too if you’re constantly on the go since you can bypass your phone or laptop’s built-in DAC via your device’s USB port. 

If you can afford it, investing in a dedicated DAC as a part of your audio chain can enrich your listening experience at home. This is perfect if you have a lot of bulky audio gear back at your crib, like headphones for example.

What is an Amp?

Amp is short for amplifier, but you already know that. An amplifier basically boosts the amplitude of a weak digital signal and allows for appropriate levels to drive headphones and other audio gear. 

While in some cases, there are DAC/amp combos that are simple plug-and-play, a dedicated amp needs to be paired with a DAC. Connections on the back you’ll likely see are RCA or XLR. This ensures that the signal from your DAC gets routed to your amp and into your headphones.

Fosi Audio K5 Pro Gaming Amp DAC - back view
Fosi Audio K5 Pro Gaming Amp DAC | Make Life Click

If you’re wondering if you can amp your IEMs, the short answer is, it depends. Most IEMs don’t need too high of a voltage. If you hear a hiss when you plug an IEM into an amp, don’t play music through it right away. You might end up damaging your in-ears and your hearing. 

You might want something like an impedance adapter or an iFi ieMatch to safely listen to IEMs with your amp. Honestly, a decent DAC dongle or a DAP will suffice for IEMs, but you could always try experimenting with how they scale on your audio chain.

3 Reasons You’d Want an Amp

Here are the reasons you’d want to get an amplifier.

1. More Volume

The primary function of an amp is to make an audio signal louder. High-impedance cans that are hard to power need an amp to sound right and at the right volume. You could definitely try using lower-juiced sources but my guess is that your headphones would sound a little too faint.

2. Dynamics

Another thing an amp does is improve dynamics. A wider dynamic range makes quiet sounds quieter and loud sounds louder when they need to be, making for a more immersive and nuanced listening experience.

3. Voltage

We’ve talked about volume, right? Fundamentally, an amp’s role is easy to understand. In my experience in the hobby though, there are some odd things I’ve come to know. Amplifying audio gear presents audible differences to one or more of its sound bands. 

I’ve found that in my personal collection, the bass seems to be something that surfaces when presented with more voltage. This is from my dynamic driver headphones, a planar IEM, and a dynamic driver IEM. 

Of course, this is in no way gospel. These statements come from my own unique experience. For what it’s worth though, sound can be astonishingly fascinating especially when dealing with different combinations of DACs, amplifiers, and audio gear to match.

Denon PMA-110 Amplifier
Denon PMA-110 Amplifier | Denon

What Kind of Amp to Get

There are loads of amplifiers out there, not counting the ones that are made for guitars. Amplifiers are typically compatible with a wide range of dynamic driver headphones but do note that other driver types may have different needs. 

Cans like planar magnetics or electrostatics may need an appropriate or custom-attuned amplifier to work at the correct capacity. Hifiman and Stax headphones are examples that come to mind.

When looking for an amplifier, make sure to eye wattage ratings, the headphone impedances that it supports, and the type of connections you need at the back.

DAC vs. Amp: Synergy

The synergy made by your DAC, amp, and audio gear is important. 

Different headphones, for example, have varying impedance levels and sensitivity ratings. On the DAC front, you can argue that what you’re looking for is a preference for tone and timbre while on the amp side of things, you have to consider whether it has enough juice to power your cans. 

There are a lot of combinations of DAC and amp stacks out there, as well as dongle DACs. The eternal chase for sound nirvana begins. 

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, although the similarities in shells may confuse you at first, the differences between them are made more apparent with each one’s distinct functions. 

A DAC and an amp serve different but complementary roles in an audio chain. Whether you want a single unit that comes in a neat pocket-size form factor or something that looks and weighs like a tank is entirely up to you and your use cases.

Gavin is a college student who has a lot going on. From collecting IEMs and modding mechanical keyboards, to different hobbies like digital drawing, music mastering and cooking. It is safe to say he is a complete multi-faceted geek (and he's kinda cool too)

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