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Are you looking for better sound quality for your computer, laptop, or smartphone but don’t know if you should spend your money on a new DAC or audio interface? We all know that both these devices were specially designed to improve audio quality, so what really is the difference between the two? And why should you get one and not the other?
Musicians and audiophiles worldwide refuse to listen to audio without using a DAC or audio interface. Not that there’s anything wrong with your computer or laptop’s built-in sound card. Still, in most cases, they can’t compete with a high-quality DAC or audio interface and won’t deliver the same sound quality as both do.
DACs and audio interfaces will let you hear music how it was made to be heard. Clearly, dynamically, and noise-free. And we have the answer to the question “Which one is right for me?” right here.
What is a DAC?
A DAC, or Digital to Analog Converter, has one job and one job only: to convert digital audio information into an analog audio signal that is sent out through headphones or speakers.
But what does that mean exactly?
It means that every audio file saved on our computer or phone is kept in digital formats, like .mp3, .wav., FLAC, etc. When we listen to those songs or audiobooks or whatever it is, they transform from digital form to analog form through some kind of device. That device is called DAC. When the signal is converted, we hear it via headphones or speakers.
Why get a Standalone DAC?
If you want pristine sound quality, you might want to get a DAC.
A DAC deals with sound issues and noise such as low headphone volume, unwanted noise, and hiss, unsupported file data rates, basically anything that messes with your sound and lowers its quality.
A DAC bypasses all these issues and gives you better sound quality.
How does a DAC work?
We know by now that a DAC’s main job is to convert digital audio information into an analog audio signal. But how does that happen exactly?
When audio is sent to a DAC, it’s sent in a digital form of electrical impulses with binary code. (A binary code represents text, computer processor instructions, or data using a two-symbol system. The two-symbol system used is “0” and “1”, also called “binary digits.”)
As the digital audio information is being converted to analog, a tiny computer within the DAC takes snapshots (or samples) of the audio signal every few microseconds and transforms them into voltage levels. The computer then calculates the voltage levels and assigns each sample a binary number. The samples are then converted back into voltage levels by the DAC so that the processed digital data would be converted to analog sound waves that we can hear. A low-pass filter is applied to the voltage levels to smooth the sound. The audio is then finally transmitted to exit the DAC via a listening device. And voilà! Music is heard.
What Are The Benefits Of A DAC?
The main benefit of a DAC is sound quality. It was built to create sound clarity and depth in music. It will help you hear the fine details in your audio, separate the elements and analyze the different sounds. It will take care of background hiss, jitter problems, unwanted noise, distortion, and overall improve your listening experience.
Who Uses A DAC?
Technically, we all use a DAC. A DAC is built into any device that acts as a digital sound source. Like computers, tablets, game consoles, smartphones, and many more. However, plenty of audiophiles purchase an external DAC for improved sound quality and clarity in their sound. A music producer needs a DAC to be able to hear vocals and instruments more clearly so he can better produce and mix. A sound engineer needs one, a songwriter, an artist, etc.
But you don’t have to be in the audio industry to appreciate a good DAC. You can simply buy one just to have a better listening experience playing games, watching movies, and listening to music.
How Much Does A DAC Cost?
The average cost of a DAC is between $80 and $1500. It all depends on your budget and your equipment. Suppose you have a low-quality or average sound system. In that case, there’s no point in spending thousands of dollars on a new DAC since they will do a lousy job transmitting that clean audio. However, if you’re a musician or an audiophile with a reasonable budget and a high-end sound system looking to upgrade it, feel free to spend as much as you want and enjoy your new immaculate sound.
Which DAC Should I Buy?
If you’re on a budget and looking for high-quality sound, you might want to check out Hip-dac2 by Ifi Audio.
Priced at $189, the hip-dac2 is an excellent, portable replacement for your smartphone, tablet, or PC’s built-in DAC and improves your headphone’s sound. It’s guaranteed to give you a whole new experience listening to music, giving you fantastic sound quality that is noise, distortion, and noise-free.
The hip-dac2 has two USB 3.0 Type ‘A’ ports for audio data. (USB2.0 compatible.) And USB-C for charging.
There are two outputs: a 3.5mm socket for headphones and a Balanced 4.4mm output.
It supports DSD, PCM, DXD, and MQA formats. It has a Lithium-polymer 2200mAh battery that lasts approximately 8 hours.
It measures 4.0″ x 2.8″ x 0.6″ and weighs 0.30 lbs.
Another great DAC to consider is the more expensive ADI-2 DAC FS by RME Audio. This DAC is slightly bigger and more powerful, making it more suitable for desktop computers and laptops.
2. ADI-2 DAC FS
The ADI-2 DAC FS is a powerful, versatile machine designed to give you an incredibly crystal clear, driven, high-quality sound. It has a substantial built-in amp that is more than enough to handle even the most demanding headphones. It does come with a hefty price of $999, but it is definitely worth the money as you might not need to purchase another DAC for years to come.
The ADI-2 DAC FS comes with 1 USB 2.0 input (USB 3.0 compatible), 1 ADAT/SPDIF optical input, 1 SPDIF coaxial input, 1 RCA analog unbalanced stereo output, 1 XLR analog balanced stereo output, 1 Extreme Power headphone output, and 1 Super Low Noise IEM output.
It features Class-compliant high-end DA converter with professional reference-grade quality, SteadyClock FS, which reduces jitter and digital interference, a High-resolution IPS display, and CC mode.
It is also compatible with iPhone and iPad and includes a remote control.
It measures 8.5″ x 2.05″ x 5.9″ and weighs 2.2 lbs.
What Is An Audio Interface?
In addition to functioning like a DAC, an audio interface enables you to record any instrument or vocals into your computer, laptop, or other devices. It simply serves as the link between your instrument and computer. You connect your audio interface via a USB or Thunderbolt port, plug in your instrument using one of the input ports on your interface, record music with the help of your preferred DAW, and then play back your audio through speakers or headphones.
How Do Audio Interfaces Work?
An audio interface converts analog signals into digital audio information that your computer and software can process. (Typically via USB, Thunderbolt, or Firewire.)
The same audio interface can also do the same function backward, converting digital audio information to an analog signal that we can hear via headphones or speakers.
What Are The Benefits Of An Audio Interface?
There are several benefits to having an audio interface. The main advantage is that it lets you record vocals or instruments that you can later manipulate and shape using a DAW.
An audio interface also significantly enhances your sound and delivers a sound quality that your computer’s built-in sound card cannot. You can connect microphones, instruments, and monitors via an audio interface and expect pristine results once you’re done recording.
Who Uses An Audio Interface?
All professional music producers/mixing engineers need an audio interface to record their vocals and instruments. It’s impossible to find a recording studio without one. Not only do you need one for its XLR inputs, but you only need to plug in your high-end monitors to your audio interface so you can clearly hear all the elements of a song and break them down.
Even If you have the slightest interest in making music, an audio interface is an indispensable piece of hardware to own.
How Much Does An Audio Interface Cost?
The average cost of an audio interface is between $120 and $2000. You can always find audio interfaces that run for less than $100, but they are primarily for beginners and won’t deliver the sound quality that more expensive audio interfaces do. And, of course, you can always find audio interfaces that cost $3000 or $4000, even $20 000, but it all really just depends on someone’s needs and, clearly, budget.
If you still have a question do I need an audio interface, then you can visit our detailed guide.
Which Audio Interface Should I Buy?
An excellent budget audio interface is the Scarlett 4i4 3rd Gen by Focusrite.
This is an excellent interface for musicians and producers and the perfect way to step into studio recording. It’s one of the most popular audio interfaces currently on the market, mainly because of its high-quality sound, its versatility, and its affordable price of $250.
The Scarlett 4i4 3rd Gen offers two upgraded 3rd Generation preamps. High-performance 24-bit/192kHz converters. Switchable Air mode that gives your recordings a brighter, more open sound. 2 high-headroom instrument inputs. 2 balanced line inputs, 4 balanced line outputs, MIDI I/O. Unique, intuitive halo level indicators for optimized gain staging. Super-low latency that lets you monitor with native plug-in effects in real-time. Direct Monitor circuit for monitoring your input with guaranteed low latency. Virtual loopback that makes podcasting, live streaming, and sampling easy, and a headphone output with independent level control. It is also USB-bus powered.
It measures 7.28″ x 1.87″ x 4.71″ and weighs 1.3 lbs.
Now, suppose you have a slightly higher budget and feel like the Scarlett is a bit limited or basic for you. In that case, you might want to go for the Apollo Twin MkII by Universal Audio. (Priced at $999)
The Apollo Twin MkII is one of the world’s most popular professional desktop recording audio interfaces for Mac and Windows. It provides outstanding sound quality as well as access to UA’s extensive collection of Powered Plug-ins. It is loaded with features, has a sleek and compact design, and has excellent build quality. It is a true powerhouse used by musicians such as Kanye West and Dominic Fike.
The Apollo Twin MkII is a Thunderbolt audio interface for Mac with 2 analog inputs (2 x XLR-1/4″ combo, 1 x 1/4″ (Hi-Z)), 4 analog outputs (2 x 1/4″ (monitor), 2 x 1/4″ (line)), and 8 channels of ADAT input.
It has next-generation AD/DA for maximum fidelity, UAD Powered Plug-ins for tracking and mixdown, Unison technology that gives you spot-on emulations of classic preamps, a premium plug-in suite of 5 award-winning UAD plug-ins, along with the Realtime Analog Classics plug-in bundle with accurate emulations of vintage analog hardware, ultra-low latency and massive bandwidth for higher sample rates and track counts. And it is compatible with UA’s LUNA software for ultra-tight hardware/software integration.
It measures 6.31″ x 2.60″ x 6.20″ and weighs 2.35 lbs.
Differences between an Audio Interface and a DAC:
A DAC and audio interface are similar devices with one common job: to convert digital audio information into an analog audio signal that we can hear through our speakers or headphones. However, that’s the only job a DAC can do, whereas an audio interface offers two more that we’ll check out in a second.
|Purpose||Give you an improved sound quality that is clearer and deeper than what your sound card offers.||Not only to give you excellent sound quality but to let you record vocals and instruments via its audio inputs as well.|
|Capabilities||A DAC has one job to do, and that’s to convert digital audio information into an analog audio signal, that is sent out through headphones or speakers.||An audio interface has three jobs to do. Since every audio interface has a built-in DAC, the first job is to act like a DAC and convert digital audio information into an analog audio signal. The second job is the same as the first one, but backward. So it also converts analog signals into digital audio information. And the third job is to let you plug in your microphones and instruments (via audio inputs that a DAC doesn’t have) so you can record your music into your DAW.|
|Connectivity||Connect a USB cable from your computer to the DAC, then use an audio cable to connect the DAC to your powered speakers. If you want to use your headphones, just plug them in using the DAC’s 3.5mm output.||Connect it to the computer/laptop via cable (usually a type A to B USB).If you want to record your vocals or instruments, use an XLR cable to plug in your microphone or a ¼-inch jack lead to connect your instrument.|
|Inputs and Outputs||Most DACs don’t have audio inputs. They have a balanced headphone output and XLA and RCA type outputs. *The number of inputs and outputs will differ of course from one brand to another.*||Most audio interfaces offer MIDI inputs and outputs for your MIDI controller, “combo connectors” for their mic input channels. These accept either XLR mic cables or 1/4″ line and/or instrument inputs. They also provide you with a stereo pair of 1/4″ line outputs, which can be used for your monitor speakers. Some interfaces have additional analog outputs, which you can use to connect to other hardware in more sophisticated setups.There will also be at least one headphone port, which is typically 1/4″ stereo. *The number of inputs and outputs will differ of course from one brand to another.*|
|Power||Most DACs require USB power.||Most audio interfaces also require USB power.|
|Portability||DACs are very lightweight and portable and could be simply put in your pocket.||Audio interfaces tend to be slightly heavier than DACs but are also quite portable.|
Can you use an audio interface as a DAC, or vice versa?
Do you need a USB DAC if you already have an audio interface?
Do laptops have built-in DACs?
Is a DAC better than an Audio Interface?
Do you need a headphone amp if you have an audio interface?
Whether you need a DAC or an audio interface depends on your wants and needs. Both devices were built to improve your sound quality and listening experience. However, audio interfaces are necessary if you’re interested in recording vocals or instruments into a DAW. When it comes to recording, a DAC has absolutely zero benefits as it has no audio inputs for you to plug in your microphone or guitar. If you’re simply looking to upgrade your computer’s sound system, then both an audio interface and a DAC are great options. All you have to do is weigh the pros and cons and pick what is best for you.