When it comes to portable high-resolution audiophile devices, you generally have two options. You either go for a portable DAC/Amp or a high-resolution Digital Audio Player (DAP). However, choosing between these two devices can be a bit difficult.
And while it is true that they are both capable of producing a great sound, the user experience can be completely different between these two. And most people do not have the luxury of getting both of these devices.
For those who are not sure of which device to get, then this article for you. In this comparison, we will tackle the similarities and differences between these two devices. We will also determine which device is best for each task. And by the end of this article, you should have a better idea of which device best suits your needs.
What is a DAC?
You may hear the term DAC all the time in the audiophile community. However, a lot of newbies still have some misconceptions about DACs. So before we compare them to DAPs, let us first define them.
A DAC or Digital-to-Analog Converter are chips that are installed on devices to help in producing sound. This component transforms digital signals into analog sound signals, which are transported to your speakers and headphones. DACs are important because, without them, we would not be able to hear the music files on our devices.
DAC chips installed in our computers and mobile phones are not like the DAC chips used on external DACs. You will need to invest in an outboard Digital-to-Analog Converter to get better sound quality. Music producers and audiophiles who want to hear more details, a better sound stage, and better dynamics in their music will need these DACs.
You can get a variety of DACs depending on your needs. For your computer setup, standalone DACs and DAC/amp combos are the best options. These DACs have a greater ability to improve sound quality. If you want to listen to higher-quality music while traveling, you can get a good portable DAC or a Dongle (type-c and lightning), both of which are small in size. In this article, we will mostly be talking about portable DAC/Amps.
What is a DAP?
A DAP (Digital Audio Player) is a device that was specifically made to play and store music files. Instead of using a mobile phone for playing music, some people prefer to have a dedicated DAP. This is because a DAP can play lossless or high-resolution files like FLAC, DSD, and WAV.
DAPs also have dedicated high-quality DACs and other components, which makes sound production better. High-resolution files can take a lot of storage. This is another reason why people tend to purchase DAPs. The music files compete with the storage that is supposed to be for the apps and other files that you want to install on your mobile phones.
Modern DAPs are compatible with headphones, in-ear monitors, and external DAC/AMP. Most DAPs also have more outputs such as unbalanced 3.5mm, balanced 2.5 mm, balanced 4.4mm pentaconn, and line output. They can also connect to WiFi and Bluetooth devices which is convenient to have for an easier way of listening to music.
Streaming apps such as Spotify, YouTube Music, Tidal, and Deezer can be downloaded on most modern DAPs. This allows for more convenient access to music. Tidal includes a subscription choice for MQA, which requires devices that support MQA files. There are DAPs that have support for MQA, such as Astell & Kern SP1000, Fiio M11, and Sony Walkman NW ZX507.
DAC/Amp and DAP Similarities
Both DAC/Amps and DAPs are designed for reproducing high-resolution audio files. Both devices also have similar components. They both have a built-in DAC as well as a headphone amplifier.
Of course, not all DAPs and DAC/Amps have similar inputs and outputs. But most modern models have a 3.5mm unbalanced output as well as a balanced output (either 2.5mm or 4.4mm).
Both devices are also made to be compact and portable. Again, the sizes of these devices can largely vary. However, most of them are fairly pocketable.
So overall, you can see that DAC/Amps and DAPs aren’t too different. However, they have significant differences that make one device superior to the other.
DAC/Amp and DAP Differences
Despite their similarities, there are lots of things that separate portable DAC/Amps and DAPs. The first major difference is their internals.
Aside from key components such as the DAC chip, the amplifier, and the battery, the internals of a portable DAC/Amp are fairly straightforward. DAPs, on the other hand, are more like smartphones. They have additional components such as internal storage. And since it has storage, it also has an operating system that is used to navigate the files. Modern DAPs either have a modified Android operating system, a Linux-based operating system, or something completely different.
Additionally, since DAPs have an operating system, they are capable of being used as a standalone device. DAC/Amps need to be connected to a source such as a laptop or a smartphone in order to fully run.
But with that said, most DAPs will feature limited connectivity to external devices. Most DAPs can still be connected to external sources, DAC/Amps, or standalone headphone amplifiers. However, they still won’t match the flexibility of portable DAC/Amps.
Which Should You Buy?
When it comes to their value, portable DAC/Amps arguably have the better value. Since they do not have as many internal components as DAPs, most of them are sold at a lower price point. And in most cases, a lot of high-quality DACs can match the sound quality of DAPs twice or thrice their price.
Additionally, they do not have a lot of internal components that can fail over time. They do not have a screen, internal storage, or any other component that is easily prone to damage. The only thing that you will have to worry about is the degradation of its battery.
But with that said, DAPs are pretty hard to beat when it comes to portability. Unlike portable DAC/Amps, DAPs do not need to be strapped onto external devices. And for some people, that is enough of a reason to pay for their premium price.
DAP Pros and Cons
- Size and portability
- Storage availability
- Several outputs availability
- Bluetooth and WiFi
- May encounter a problem powering high impedance headphones
- Quite costly
- Limited components inside which also limits its performance
DAC/Amp Pros and Cons
- Can power high impedance headphones
- Improve the sound quality of other devices such as computers and phone
- Heavy and Bulky to have when connected to the phone
- Lack of storage
- Relies on other devices such as cellular phones