DACs and Headphone amplifiers are two devices that are important in your headphone signal chain. Both of these devices help your headphones and IEMs reach their full capacity. And for high-end power-hungry headphones, having a DAC and Amp is a must if you wish to make your headphones sound as intended.
An amplifier boosts the sound volume from your source. AMPs also increase the power voltage to power high impedance headphones and let you adjust the bass, mids, and highs according to the sound that you want. A DAC converts digital signals to analog signals so we can hear the digital music files stored on our devices. A DAC can also improve sound quality and clarity.
However, purchasing a DAC and amp isn’t particularly budget-friendly. And you even have to factor in the cost of your headphones or IEMs. So with that in mind, which of these two devices should you prioritize?
In this article, we will be answering that question. We will also be discussing headphone amps and DACs in more detail to help you understand what they are for. And lastly, we will also be presenting alternative solutions for budget-conscious consumers who can only afford one device.
What is a DAC?
Before we continue our discussion, let us first discuss what a DAC is. A Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) is an important component that converts digital signals to analog signals. The Digital-to-Analog Converter, or DAC, is the reason we hear the music files stored on our devices.
To improve the sound quality of your device, you can buy an external DAC. The hissing sounds will also be avoided because they will be away from the computer, which is the source of sound interference. Higher-quality DAC chips are used in this type of DAC, which makes sound production better.
DACs are available in a variety of forms depending on their intended use. On computer setups, the most common DACs used are the standalone DAC and the DAC/amp combo. Portable DACs and dongles, on the other hand, are DACs that are designed to be used outside of the PC setup. Typically, these dongles and portable DACs are used with mobile devices such as your phone.
What is a Headphone Amp?
A Headphone AMP is also found on devices that can play sound. The Amplifier is responsible for sending the converted analog signals to your headphones. And in the word itself, it characterizes the word amplify, which means to increase.
The amplifier boosts the sound volume from your source. Other than boosting the volume, you can also change the tone by increasing or reducing the bass, mids, and highs according to the sound that you want. They also increase the power voltage enabling it to power demanding headphones.
This is necessary to have on high impedance headphones; otherwise, the sound coming out from the headphone would be barely heard. Since the built-in DAC and AMP on our sources are not that good, people tend to purchase external DAC and AMP or a DAC/AMP combo.
Purchasing an external AMP is the cheapest option to upgrade your audio setup. They usually come in with RCA input and output, where you can connect directly to your source.
Since they are standalone AMP, this will mean that you will still have to use the DAC on your motherboard. The disadvantage of this is that it will not remove the electrical sound interference coming from your computer. It may also amplify these noises coming from your PC.
However, since its job is to amplify the sound, it will be useful if you own power-hungry headphones. It will help power these kinds of headphones. The AMP also features an equalizer function like boosting the bass sound.
Which is more important?
Both the DAC and the AMP are very important for your setup. And if you have the cash, we highly suggest buying DACs and Amps that belong to the same price tier to achieve the best pairing possible. But if you have to choose one, we recommend investing in a good headphone amplifier.
The reason for this is because headphone amplifiers give you more options in terms of how you want to shape the sound of your setup. If you want to achieve a precise and analytical sound, then you can go with a solid-state headphone amplifier. And if you want a colored but more enjoyable sound, you can go with a tube headphone amplifier.
And depending on the brand and model of the headphone amplifier that you get, you can achieve different kinds of sounds with your setup. The sound of tube headphone amplifiers, for instance, will change depending on what vacuum tubes you use with them. This kind of customizability will greatly help you achieve your desired sound signature.
Of course, DACs are equally as important. Different DACs will affect your overall sound. But for less experienced users, most of these changes may not be immediately apparent. We think that you’ll be good to go with an entry-level DAC such as the Schiit Modi.
Alternative to a DAC and Amp Stack
If you want a more simple approach to DACs and Amps, then you can purchase DAC and Amp Combos. As its name implies, these units already contain both a DAC and a headphone amplifier. Of course, there will be compromises such as less power output or a simpler DAC configuration, but this setup works as a great all-in-one solution.
The only real downside to DAC/Amps is that you will not have the same flexibility as dedicated DAC and Amp setups. But if you are just starting out and just want a high-quality source for your headphones or IEMs, then these are a great alternative.
We have tried DAC/Amp setups such as the iFi Nano BL and iFi Micro iDSD BL, and they have produced satisfying results. Additionally, these devices can connect to an external headphone amplifier, so you still have some options in case you want to expand this kind of setup.
To summarize, we highly advise getting a decent quality DAC and focus more on getting a good quality headphone amplifier. Experimenting with different headphone amplifiers allows you to get different results that are clearly audible. And trying out different amplifiers greatly helps you customize and find the best sound for your setup.
But if you are someone who doesn’t want to tinker with different equipment and just want a great-sounding source, we highly advise purchasing a DAC/Amp Combo. These aren’t as flexible as standalone DACs and Amps but will get the job done.
Aubrey has been a longtime fan of music. She plays arcade music games such as Pump It Up and Dance Dance Revolution. She also loves different genres such as KPOP. Ever since she discovered IEMs and Headphones, her love and appreciation for music have been taken to the next level. And as a writer, she wishes to share her audiophile journey with you.
Favorite IEM: Moondrop SSP, KBear Believe, Noble Katana