Audio Interface vs DAC

Audio interfaces are very crucial devices for content creators, independent musicians, home studios, and professional studios. These tiny boxes do all the magic and allow music recording to happen.  However, audiophiles and producers who are just starting out wonder if audio interfaces are the same as DACs. This is because they both improve audio and are both used for critical listening. So naturally, this raises some questions.

An audio interface is a device that has both audio inputs and audio outputs. Audio interfaces are usually the heart of a recording setup that your plug your headphones and studio monitors into.  DAC, or Digital-to-Analog Converters, convert digital signals to analog signals analog sound waves so they can be heard.

Do you need a DAC if you already have an audio interface? Can your audio interface completely replace your DAC? Luckily, we will be answering all your questions in this article. 

We will be differentiating audio interfaces and DACs. We will also help you determine which device suits your use case the best. We will also help you determine if you need to own both devices. 

Audio Interface vs. DAC

What is a DAC?

FX Audio (Image Credit: Stephen Menor/ WIE)

Before we start differentiating the two, let us first define what a DAC is. A  DAC is an essential component found in any device that can play sound.  DAC stands for (Digital-to-Analog Converter). Its name tells you exactly what it does: it converts digital signals to analog signals. Because digital signals cannot be heard, DACs are needed to convert them into analog sound waves.

Different types of DACs exist. The standalone DAC and the DAC/amp combo are the most common DACs, which are found on computer setups. The portable DAC and dongles, on the other hand, are transportable and can be used anywhere. These portable DACs and dongles are usually utilized for mobile devices.

DACs improve the sound quality of your music files by bringing out the details. They also aid in the removal of sound interference from our computer, which has an impact on the sound produced by our headphones and speakers.

What is an Audio Interface?

An audio interface is a device that has both audio inputs and audio outputs. It is very similar to an audio mixer but has fewer inputs and outputs and is designed for a completely different use case. Audio interfaces are usually the heart of a recording setup since it is where you plug in your instruments as well as your headphones and your studio monitors.

Audio interfaces typically support the following inputs: XLR input, TRS input, and MIDI. Additionally, most audio interfaces have an instrument input that has a built-in pad to reduce the input level of hot inputs such as electric guitars. 

Additionally, each input of an audio interface has a separate gain control. This means that you can manually set the gain levels of each instrument or microphone, making audio interfaces also great additions to gaming setups. Also, the inputs of most audio interfaces are far cleaner than onboard sound cards since they have preamps that process the signal. 

Is a DAC the same as an Audio Interface?

An audio interface has a built-in DAC, which is used for processing recorded signals and for playback. Therefore, this means that an audio interface can also be considered as a DAC.  

However, this does not mean that a standalone DAC or DAC/Amp combo is the same as an audio interface. DAC/Amps and standalone DACs do not have XLR inputs or instrument inputs, meaning they cannot be used for audio recordings. 

Schiit Hel (Image: Schiit Audio)

Some DAC/Amps, such as the Schiit Hel and the Mayflower Arc Mk2, have microphone inputs. However, they still cannot be considered as audio interfaces because they do not have the same internals as an audio interface, and they are not made for audio recording and production. 

Can an Audio Interface be Used as a DAC?

As we mentioned earlier, an audio interface has a DAC. And most of the time, audio interfaces use a similar DAC chip with standalone DACs. This basically means that audio interfaces can be used as a DAC. 

Also, you have to take note that a lot of audio interfaces such as the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4, Audient ID44, SSL 2, and Universal Audio Apollo Twin Mk2 are used for professional productions. This means that they are used for mixing and mastering tracks that require absolute precision. 

So for more casual activities such as music listening or gaming, audio interfaces will work similarly if not better than standalone DACs or DAC/Amp combos in the same price range. 

However, you must take note that most audio interfaces are not designed to be paired with a high-quality headphone amplifier. This means that you cannot stack these two devices together without doing some workarounds. 

Can an Audio Interface Replace a DAC?

Given how technically capable most audio interfaces are, most of them can replace a DAC. However, there are some considerations to have before you ditch your DAC. 

First of all, most audio interfaces do not natively support the unfolding of MQA. Audio interfaces are not concerned with these kinds of consumer-related features. But if you do use MQA or if you are a subscriber of Tidal, this easily becomes a big deal. 

Other audiophile-related features such as DSD support may also be lacking with audio interfaces. Again, audio interfaces are simply not designed for these kinds of tasks, so that is to be expected. 

So overall, if you only need one unit on your desk and will primarily be doing music production-related tasks, then an audio interface pretty much replaces a DAC. But if you will need more music-related features, then you will still need your DAC. 

Do I Need a DAC or DAC/Amp if I Have an Audio Interface? 

Audirect Beam 2SE with Sennheiser HD660S
Audirect Beam 2SE with HD660S (Image Credit: Stephen Menor/WIE)

As we have already mentioned earlier, most audio interfaces can match standalone DACs and DAC/Amp combos in terms of sound quality. However, what you must also consider is the headphone output. In our experience, our Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Gen 2 was not able to fully drive our Sennheiser HD660S

In these kinds of scenarios, it is still worth purchasing a separate DAC/Amp or standalone DAC + Amp stack to better drive your headphones. This isn’t always the case since our Audient Evo 8 was able to fully drive our headphones. 

In conclusion, you do not need a separate DAC or DAC/Amp unless you have power-hungry headphones or headphones that simply do not play well with most sources. 

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