Amp vs DAC: What’s The Difference?


If you are investing in a more expensive pair of headphones or just want to improve the sound of your current audio setup, you may be looking at amps and DACs.

An amp, or amplifier, strengthens the signal from your source to listening device by giving it more power. A DAC converts digital signals to analog signals. Both devices, when used together, improve sound-quality and listening experience with headphones, IEMs, and speakers.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences and make a recommendation on whether you should buy one.


Amp vs DAC: The Key Differences

AmpDAC
UsageCan be used without a DACCan’t be used without an amp
ConnectionConnects directly to headphonesConnects to amp first
PurposeGives power to headphonesConverts digital to analog signal
External deviceExternal option makes device louder and may improve soundExternal option improves clarity
Premium headphones?Often needed for premium headphonesNot needed, but nice for premium headphones

Amp: An amp or amplifier is a device either within a system or as a separate individual unit. An amp takes the signal from the DAC and it amplifies the signal strength by giving more power to the headphones, speakers, or IEMs.

DAC:
A DAC, or digital to analog converter, is either an internal or external device that converts digital information from a device like a computer to an analog signal for your headphones. This data is taken to an amp, either internal or external, as a low power signal before going to your headphones.

How to Connect: The first step of having a setup with an amp and a DAC is connecting your source to your DAC. The amp, which the headphones plug into, will then connect to the DAC.

Will A DAC Improve Sound Quality?

The short answer is, yes, sometimes.

DACs, also known as a digital to audio converters, do exactly what the name suggests.

It converts a digital signal, like information from a computer or a phone, to an analog signal which headphones, speakers, and IEMs use.

All computers or phones have a DAC as well as an amp that is built into them, so you don’t need a DAC for your headphones.

However, getting an external DAC can definitely improve sound quality. You can’t have an external DAC on its own as they must first connect to an amp which then connects to your audio device.

Buying an external DAC will improve sound quality because it will provide more clarity and more accurate sound. The internal DAC of the current electronic device will not be as good as an external one because those won’t have been made with the focus of achieving clarity and accuracy.

DACs will not, unless they aren’t good, change the sound signature of your device but they will cause the sound to be truer to what the manufacturer intended. Your headphones will sound different but better.

More details will be present, the full frequency range will be used, and more information can be processed.

Audio with higher bitrates will require a DAC because internal solutions can’t process that much information.

An external DAC will improve the audio in your headphones by providing more clarity and accuracy as they have better components so you can get the full performance out of your devices.

If you listen to high fidelity audio with high bitrates, an external DAC is needed.

The final verdict is yes, a DAC will improve the quality unless you have a cheap pair of headphones that won’t improve at all.

If you listen to high-fidelity audio, want more clarity, and want to get the full experience out of your headphones, then a DAC is worth the buy over the onboard solution you may now have.

Will An Amp Improve Sound Quality?

An amplifier, or amp for short, functions by taking a low power signal from a DAC, either internal or external, and then increases the power of that signal for your sound device.

Different amps will be able to deliver more or less power depending on how good they are.

They can improve how loud your headphones sound if you find that you have to use the majority or a lot of the volume scale on your device.

Often, amps are needed for more premium audio devices that require a lot of power. They are not needed for cheaper audio devices though such as $30 earbuds, and those earbuds will see no benefit.

The increased power that is given by the amp to the headphones helps them reach their full potential which as a result often makes them sound better.

You may start to hear different parts of the music more as the drivers in your device may not have been able to have enough power to deliver all the bass or treble they could give.

Amps shouldn’t change the sound signature of your headphones but should give them more power, or enough power to have the correct sound signature.

This could change what your headphones originally sounded like with more bass, more treble, more mids, and more details.

Overall, an amp most likely improves the quality of your headphones, speakers, or IEMs.

Unless they are a cheap pair of earbuds that you got with your phone, then they do nothing.

Amps don’t have an individual sound signature, but by giving your audio devices more power, they will make the headphones or speakers closer to what they were supposed to sound like when they were designed.

You can read more about if an Amp is worth it or not, in this article.

Should You Get An Amp or DAC?

If you want a way to improve the sound quality and power of your audio equipment, you should get an amp/DAC. Unless you have really low quality headphones or speakers.

In most cases, an amp should be your first purchase.

If you don’t have an amp, you will not be able to use a DAC, unless it has an amp built into it.

If you want better sound performance or purchased high-quality headphones then it is worth it to upgrade from your onboard solution to an external amp, DAC, or both with a two-in-one solution.

Should You Get An Amp/DAC for Gaming?

One situation that getting a DAC would be better than getting an amp first would be if you want a gaming DAC. These DACs have an amp built into them, so that is not an issue for you.

These are useful if you have a gaming headset, but it doesn’t support 7.1 surround sound. These DAC/Amp combos will add to the clarity and soundstage as well as directionality of your gaming headset.

It’ll improve the microphone quality as well.

Gaming DACs will improve the quality of your sound in the same way that a regular DAC would and will also give a bit more power compared to your motherboard audio.

These devices have phenomenal system for virtual surround sound which are far superior to the virtual 7.1 surround sound built into gaming headsets.

This will increase your level of immersion and could potentially help you do better in-game.

Should you Get an Amp/DAC For Music?

In all other cases besides mostly gaming, getting a regular amp is the best move for you. Amps are a great place to start in building up your audio setup.

An amp, as mentioned previously, is required before a DAC, and it is the easiest solution to provide more power to your headphones and therefore also adding some more quality.

Often you are looking at amps or DACs because you bought new headphones that will benefit from these. An amp is also required for more premium headphones and will need to be your first device needed.

If your headphones require more power than your motherboard or computer can supply then an amp is needed. A DAC could improve performance but is not required. Therefore, in this case, getting an amp is the first priority as the option you should go with.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are a few major differences between the two. While it’s easy to get the two mixed up, they both play major functions in the delivery of audio.

Amps give power from the low power signal of the DAC to your audio device. The DAC controls the quality of the sound itself. All computers, phones, or other devices that output audio has a built-in DAC and amp.

External amps are needed if you have premium headphones or would like to get more out of your headphones so they are louder, have stronger bass and treble, and ultimately, have better sound.

DACs control the audio quality itself, and if you listen to music in very high quality or bitrates you will need an external DAC that can process this information.

An external DAC will have better parts than the one included in your current device, resulting in clearer and better audio that sounds truer to what the headphones were originally supposed to sound like.

You will need to get an amp first because audio devices can’t directly plug into a DAC.

Also, premium headphones need more power, so an amp is needed to even use them properly. A DAC can come when the wallet is willing to buy them.

If you want more out of your headphones or are upgrading to high-end headphones or speakers, your onboard audio solution won’t be sufficient so getting an amp and then a DAC will greatly improve your audio setup.

Happy Listening!

Giacomo Coltorti

Giacomo has been a tech enthusiast throughout his life. He has built over 10 computers and has grown his interest in the different peripherals needed to use a computer. He wants to share his knowledge and experiences with all these subjects to help others enter these hobbies.

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