Getting into the world of audio can be intimidating when everything you read online assumes you have prior knowledge in the field. Beginners may not know whether amps need DACs and other basic information. This begs the question: Do you need a DAC with an amp?
You don’t need an external DAC along with an amp. Amps and DACs come included with each other to the extent that the included part will function decently. Specialty DAC/Amp combos are also available in compact packages to maximize your audio experiences.
In this article, I’ll be discussing what amps and DACs are, how they interact, and which of the two (or a combo) would be best for your needs.
What Is a DAC?
DAC stands for Digital-to-Analog Converter, a basic yet essential component of any electronic device with the capability to play music.
Without a DAC, your smartphone, computer, or MP3 player wouldn’t be capable of playing sound. This is usually a tiny chip on the motherboard of any given electronic, and its capabilities depend heavily on what product you’re using.
In past decades, internal DACs of computers and early MP3 players had poor quality and struggled to play music of high bitrates, causing endless frustration for audiophiles. In many cases, the DACs would be improperly shielded, which allowed noise like popping and static into sound.
Others had poorly regulated power supplies, which caused the resulting music to play in a poorer quality than desired. This is where external DACs came in.
External DACs are specially designed to help play higher-quality music, especially music with very high bitrates. Older and average systems may struggle to play very high-quality music files. Still, many systems these days are perfectly capable of playing all the music you’d like.
You might need an external DAC if your specific electronic (laptops, phones, or tablets) isn’t capable of playing music with high bitrates without noticeable noise or distortion.
For more information, check out my guide to the difference between a DAC and an audio interface.
What Is an Amp?
Amplifiers, aka amps, are devices designed to increase the voltage of a source of music to an output device. In simpler terms, this means that it increases the effective volume that the source can “push” to the output device.
Let’s say you have high-grade audiophile-approved wired headphones, and when you plug them into your computer, the volume is extremely low, even with everything cranked up to max settings. In that case, you would need an amp to boost the juice your computer is sending to the headphones.
Other important factors at work are impedance and sensitivity, which we’ll explore in more depth in a minute.
Honestly, not many people need amps unless they’re running very high-end headphones or speakers. Most modern devices are ultra-compatible with most other devices and fully capable of playing an acceptable level of high-quality audio.
However, for the ambitious, there is certainly a wide variety of equipment to choose from.
Impedance and Sensitivity
If you’re looking at buying an amp, you probably run or want to run high-end headphones or speakers. If that’s the case, impedance and sensitivity are two very important variables that you need to know about to make the most of your audio experience.
Impedance measures electrical resistance in the form of measurement known as ohms (Ω).
What this means for you is how much power a speaker or pair of headphones will take, demonstrated by how high you have to turn the volume up to get a comfortable level of volume. More ohms means more power to get that volume up to your level.
A pair of 250Ω headphones will take significantly more power to run than an 80Ω speaker.
This means that your power source has to match or exceed the ohm measurement of your output device. A smartphone, for example, is fine for anything with impedance up to around 35Ω, and even up to 100Ω it will suffice, albeit at a lower volume and quality.
In that case, you’d benefit from a portable headphone amp, which would boost the power your phone pushes to the headphones.
Sensitivity is a controversial term that roughly measures how loud, milliwatt for milliwatt, output devices are. It’s also known as efficiency or Sound Pressure Levels.
It’s supposed to be a measure of volume, but differences in amps and power sources, as well as manufacturers’ inconsistent measurements, make it kind of useless to the average consumer.
You never know how loud a pair of JBL headphones is based on Sony’s SPL measurements and vice versa.
Roughly, though, high sensitivity means that all sound played is amplified throughout the system, including the power source, amp, and output device. Noise from an unshielded power source will get louder, and artifacts, too, will become more prominent.
So while a high sensitivity pair of headphones might be loud and sound great, any weakness in the signal chain will result in poor-quality sound.
Do You Need a DAC With an Amp?
Technically, DACs have amplifiers built-in. When a DAC converts a signal into analog form, the signal is typically too weak to be perceived at an acceptable level by the listener. The DAC works with this amplifier to boost the sound to what it assumes is a suitable volume level.
The opposite is typically true as well.
Dedicated audiophiles would probably argue that the quality of the included DAC in a headphone amp isn’t that high, and they’d technically be right. However, for most people, it would suffice.
DAC/Amp combos are precisely what the name states – a device that combines the functionality of a DAC and an amp in one package.
When Do I Need an Amp?
If you have expensive and boutique wired headphones, you may benefit from using an amplifier, but in most other cases, you likely don’t actually need an amp.
If you have Bluetooth headphones, you definitely don’t need an amp because Bluetooth headphones have built-in amps to control and regulate the level of volume, which is usually separate from your playback system.
What To Look For in an Amp
Aside from making sure the amp provides enough power for your output device in concert with the power source, amplifiers often come with other features.
A common and much-loved feature many amps share is the ability to alter the music, changing the prominence of treble, mids, and bass. Bass boost alone is another common feature for car speaker systems and is useful if you listen to hip-hop, rap, or electronic types of music.
When Do I Need a DAC?
Believe it or not, most people won’t get much use out of an external DAC. The only reason you would really need an external DAC is if your current playback system isn’t capable of playing music at acceptable levels of quality without significant amounts of noise, distortion, or audio artifacts.
What To Look For in a DAC
The features of a DAC depend on the quality of your music.
For example, Spotify and much of YouTube play relatively low-quality music at rates of 160kbps for its free desktop version. Mobile users get an even lower 80kbps, while premium users get access to 320kbps music.
Tidal is a competing service specializing in higher-quality music at bitrates like 768kbps, which is very high-quality.
So while Spotify users don’t need a very expensive DAC (if they need one at all), Tidal users would benefit more from a slightly more expensive standalone DAC. Regardless of the situation, DACs are a luxury device that doesn’t make as much of a difference as your output device.
For more information, check out if you need a headphone amp if you have an audio interface.
DACs and amps can be a confusing area to understand, but the two are basically intertwined. Even a high-end DAC has an amp included, and vice versa. The only thing that differs is your needs as a listener – how much power you need or how high the bitrate of your music is.