When one asks about improving sound quality from smartphones or music players, two devices come into mind: an amp and a digital audio converter (DAC).
Both devices are designed to enhance the listening experience of any user, but they work differently.
Make no mistake. The result might be the same, but that does not necessarily mean amps and DACs produce the same outputs.
That said, if you’re encountering any audio issues with the material you’re listening to and have done a lot of troubleshooting with little or no success, you should consider getting one of these devices.
To help you understand what you need, let’s look at how each device works, which will allow you to understand which direction to take to enhance the sound quality of your headphones or speakers.
What’s the difference between an Amp and DAC?
Amps, or amplifiers, increase the signal strength from your audio source to the speakers by driving more power. A DAC converts digital signals from audio sources, such as a smartphone, to analog signals for processing. In both cases, they improve the overall sound.
An amp is also essential in pushing sound, which makes it a prerequisite to drive speakers and headphones. DACs are optional and are often used by audiophiles looking for analog warmth.
What is an Amp?
An amp increases the power of any audio signal to drive any pair of passive speaker systems. You can find amplifiers in various applications, including broadcasting and communications. Currently, there are two kinds of amps: weak-signal amps and power amps.
Both amps are designed to adjust the signal from your sound source to match the speaker’s requirements.
Weak-signal amps are often found in wireless receivers, acoustic guitars, tape players, and CD players. This type of amp is used to process with low input signals, often with low voltages. Weak-signal amps were designed to have less noise as the signal voltage increased significantly.
Power amps are often used in hi-fi audio gear and broadcast transmitters. The signal on a power amp is increased to the point of being able to drive passive speakers and headphones. Unlike weak-signal amps, power amps are often used as the final phase in the amplifier system.
To make the signal compatible with a power amp, it is often driven to devices, such as a preamplifier, which converts the input signal. Sometimes, you also get the option to modify the signal by adding an equalizer section before it reaches the power amp.
What is a DAC?
A DAC converts the audio signal from digital sources into an analog, more audible form. You’ll find DACs in many devices in the market, including smartphones, tablets, and computers. While these devices have DACs built, you can use an external DAC to improve the conversion.
A DAC converts signal quickly, so there’s minimal latency. It handles all the conversion of binary codes in a digital audio signal and makes them audible before sending them to an amplifier that will drive your speakers or headphones.
When should I use an amplifier?
The main reason to use an amplifier is when the signal driven to your headphones or speakers is too weak. If the volume levels leave you wanting more, even with the volume control at full, it means your speakers or headphones are not receiving adequate power and would need an amplifier.
Before even jumping to buy an amplifier, you have to ensure that there are no issues in the signal chain.
- You may want to check any cables between your audio source and speakers or headphones, as there might be damaged wires.
- If possible, try using different speakers and audio sources. Testing different speakers and audio sources might tell you a different issue that an amplifier won’t necessarily solve.
When should I use a DAC?
You should use a DAC when the conversion quality you hear on your speaker or headphones isn’t as consistent as you hoped it to be. That means hearing nuances such as sudden pitch changes or breaks when there shouldn’t be any. If you hear these on the recording, then you should consider getting a DAC.
To be clear, all digital devices have built-in DACs, but not all are made equal. Some might not have enough processing power to handle the accurate digital-to-audio conversion, hence the need to employ an external DAC.
Having a DAC will somehow take off some of the resources your device uses and will handle the conversion externally. It connects to your phone or computer via the USB port, from which you will then connect your headphones or speakers.
Likewise, DACs are also a good option for devices without headphone output, such as modern smartphones. They are a good option for you to use your favorite wired headphones or in-ear monitors.
Do DACs have built-in amps?
Some DACs will have a built-in amp, eliminating needing an external amplifier. You can always check with the manual of your DAC if you need a separate amplifier. The good news is that the newer models will have amps built into them, so you won’t have any problems using them out of the box.
If you need an amplifier, connecting it with only one cable will be easy. Otherwise, you can plug your headphones in without issues into the DAC.
Can you use an amp with a DAC?
You can use an amp with a DAC, especially if the latter does not have a built-in amplifier. Some DACs still need an amplifier to drive the signal to a passive speaker system, such as a pair of headphones. An amp after your DAC will create a louder signal that can drive your headphones or in-ear monitors.
Even if your DAC has a built-in amp, you can still connect it to an external amplifier. Doing so will also help you improve the sound quality. You can use the built-in EQ in the amplifier to shape the sound based on how you want it. This feature helps, especially if there are frequencies that you want to tame, such as bass or even treble.
And if you need to get louder, especially when playing music at a party, an amplifier can also help you drive the speakers louder for people to enjoy the music.
Can you use wireless headphones with a DAC or amp?
You can’t use internal or external DACs or amps with a pair of wireless headphones. Wireless headphones, such as those using Bluetooth, have built-in DACs and amps that handle the signal processing from your device. The wireless signal transmitted is then processed by the headphones to your ears.
That said, a DAC or amp is meant to connect your device to your wired headphones or speakers.
How do you connect a DAC or amp to your device?
Connecting your DAC or amp to your device is rather straightforward and needs little setup, if ever. All you need to do is connect the corresponding cables, which are often supplied with every purchase of a DAC or amp. It only takes minutes to get your devices streaming with high-quality audio.
Connecting a phone or computer to a DAC
To connect your phone or computer to a DAC, all you need is the device you wish to connect, your DAC, and the USB cable that comes with it.
- Make sure you have the right USB cable for your device and DAC. With more devices shifting to USB-C, ensure the cable is compatible.
- Some cases, such as laptops, will still have the old rectangular USB port. When connecting a DAC, ensure you have the right cable or converter.
- Plug one end into the device and the other end into the DAC. You can plug in your headphones if the DAC has a headphone output.
- Otherwise, plug the DAC into an amp, then plug your headphones into the amp.
Connecting your device to an amp
Connecting your device to an amp is rather straightforward unless your device doesn’t have a line out or headphone out jack. If your device doesn’t have these ports, you will need a DAC to connect to an amp.
- To connect your device to an amp, ensure you have the right connector.
- Some amps may require a 1/4-inch jack, while others may need a pair of RCA connectors. You can get a dedicated quarter-inch to 1/8-inch cable or an RCA to 1/8-inch cable.
- Plug one end of the cable into your device and the other end into the amp. Adjust the volume first on the amp, then adjust it on the end of your device.
- Adjusting the volume of your device is crucial in case the amp has no volume control.
Connecting a DAC to an amp
Using a DAC with an amp opens more possibilities with the sound quality you can get. It’s also easy to connect the two devices.
- Ensure you have the right cables and connectors for the amp and DAC, such as 1/8-inch plugs or 1/4-inch plugs.
- From the DAC, connect the output jack to the amp’s input jack.
- Adjust the volume on the DAC, amp, and main audio source.
An amp and DAC were designed to help you improve the sound quality coming out of your headphones. While they have their ways of fixing the sound, at the end of the day, both devices improve the listening experience of any user. It’s good to have both, but they can be cumbersome when traveling.
To help you decide which you should get, an amp focuses on volume and even EQ frequencies. A DAC ensures accurate recreation of sound from a digital source. Combining both gives you a richer sound, which will help you appreciate the music more.
That said, if you consume music a lot on the go, and your main concern is sound quality, you should consider going for a DAC, which will ensure that your music will have little to no hiccups when played.
But if you’re concern is merely volume, then an amp should be good enough for your use.
In any case, what you decide on should be based on what you hear currently with your current headphone and music player setup.
John Narciso is a guitar player and music technology hobbyist. He loves exploring guitar effects processors in pedal and plugin format and free music applications. His music preferences tend to be diverse, listening to genres spanning from metal to alternative rock and a little hip-hop.