This article will discuss if it’s necessary to use an AMP/DAC to run bookshelf speakers.
Being a beginner producer building your first home studio, you may ask whether or not an AMP/DAC is needed to run bookshelf speakers. That may be to avoid spending unnecessary money or even due to the pure curiosity of knowing each device’s purpose.
But do I need an AMP/DAC to run bookshelf speakers?
No, you don’t need it. You just need to use your onboard audio device to run bookshelf speakers, since it already does what’s expected for an external DAC. That’s because the AMP already comes with the speakers, while the DAC is only needed if you have bad onboard audio and you hear static noise and distortions.
Every time you see a device (computer, smartphone, etc.) with a headphone output, you must know that it already has a DAC. That’s because there’s the external DAC and those that are inlaid in a device. In the case of a computer, its own onboard. Computers, smartphones, tablets, and even your car already have them, making it unnecessary to buy another one.
But what is an AMP/DAC? What’s its function?
An AMP/DAC is a combo of an amp and a DAC, as its name suggests. A DAC (digital to analog converter) converts the digital signal into an analog one since headphones and speakers require an analog signal to run. An AMP amplifies the analog signal so it can audibly sound.
A DAC can’t run without an amp, since you’ll only have unamplified analog signals. On the other hand, an AMP won’t work without the digital signal being converted to analog. It doesn’t work with either an external DAC, an onboard audio device, or anything else.
As both are necessary to one another, it’s common to see an AMP/DAC (or DAC/AMP) being sold. This way, it already takes the two necessary steps to make digital information sound. Since your bookshelf speakers already contain an amp and your computer already contains a DAC (its onboard), having these two will already be necessary.
Does a DAC improve sound quality? Do they all sound the same?
A DAC will improve sound quality if you have a bad onboard. If your onboard keeps producing noise, it will be impossible to produce good sound without an external DAC. But there’s almost no sound difference between types of DACs since their function is only to convert the signal well. They should all sound the same!
Most audiophiles who claim to distinguish clearly between two types of DACs are actually being deceived by their own minds. In other words, they actually think that the sound is different, but it’s objectively the same. To prove that, you can even blind test them, and they won’t be capable of recognizing the changing of DACs.
It’s correct to say that some subtle differences are possible due to the peripheral circuitry around the DAC. If you use your onboard as a DAC on a desktop computer, there’s more probability of noise. That’s because the power supply and the electromagnetic noise generated by running the PC may degrade the audio system’s signal quality.
So a DAC is only a pre-requisite to reaching great sound quality, not the main factor. If an external DAC becomes necessary, you can buy a less expensive one and use your money to acquire some great speakers or headphones, which determine the final result.
Which is more important: DAC or amp? Which one should I buy first?
There’s no one which is more important since the finality of each one is totally different from the other. They’re truly incomparable. Wondering which one to buy, it’s strongly recommended to acquire an amp first, since a DAC is present in most electronic devices today, especially computers.
But if you want to analyze your needs to choose better, you can see a table with some specific differences between the two:
Transforms pure digital audio information into analog (in the middle of the signal chain)
Makes analog signals audible (at the end of the signal chain)
It’s good if you use a desktop computer (more probabilities of noise in the onboard)
Has nothing to do with the type of computer you’re using, but requires good DAC (including onboard) to function properly
Blocks unwanted frequencies using crossover filters (to eliminate and avoid noise)
If there’s already noise, it will only be amplified.
Provides a signal free of any interference
Interference problems usually don’t depend on it, but determine more the final sound result.
Looking for DAC/AMP combo for bookshelf speakers? See what’s best for you!
Below, you can see a list of some great DAC/AMPs to buy so that you can choose better! They’re on a crescent order of prices, so it may help you choose according to your financial possibilities:
FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier ($99.99) The FiiO E10K doesn’t emphasize any frequency, remaining neutral. When there’s a wide frequency range, it becomes more relaxed, decreasing all frequencies’ quality. It also has a neutral punch, but a good bass definition. For its price, it offers an excellent sound quality.
Schiit Magni Heresy ($119.00)
The Schiit Magni Heresy has a neutral tone and no distortion or noise. The timbral rendering is quite natural since the instruments sound as if they were live and close to you. Some minor problems may be listened to on some instruments, but definitively not a big deal. It also has excellent quality for its price.
Audioengine B1 Bluetooth Music Receiver ($189.00) This Audioengine offers excellent sound quality for a Bluetooth device. It’s also easier than most other AMP/DACs because it is wireless. On the other hand, it certainly shouldn’t be the perfect choice for a music producer, since the wireless may be worse in these cases.
Mayflower Electronics ARC ($274.00)
The Mayflower Electronics ARC is a versatile device that offers clean and powerful sound. It will increase the volume, quality, and clarity of your music, sounding great on any headphone. Although it’s pricy, some audiophiles consider it the best DAC/AMP under $500.
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt ($329.95)
The AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt is a compact DAC/AMP, which may scare you at first because of its size/price relation. Although it may sound too loud on some low impedance headphones, its general quality makes it worth buying. Its sound is lifelike and quite natural.
In this article, you’ve learned that usually, a DAC/AMP isn’t necessary to run bookshelf speakers, since the AMP is already present in the speaker and there’s a DAC in the computer (its onboard). That makes it quite unnecessary to buy an external DAC in most cases, although it may be useful in some situations.
If the sound you’re listening to is too noisy, for example, it may be your onboard audio device that is causing the problem. Especially in desktop computers, the onboard suffers a lot from electromagnetic interferences from its neighbor devices. That will make it necessary to buy an external DAC, which will solve the problem completely.
But although it may solve this kind of problem, there are no major differences between different DACs, since their function is only to convert the digital signal to analog. But there are great differences between AMPs, since it’s at the end of the signal chain, determining more the sound. Knowing that may help you a lot to know if your greater need is an external DAC or an AMP.
You may choose to buy a good DAC/AMP in some cases. It will convert the signal and amplify it to make it sound. Having that (and headphones/speakers) in your home studio will certainly change your musical experience and make your work more valuable. In the list, you’ve seen some great different models to choose from.
Luiz Hauck is a composer, guitarist and music teacher based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Being in the final phase of the bachelor’s degree in musical composition, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, his artistic work concerns mainly concert music, which is his main interest.