Do I Need a DAC if I Only Listen to MP3?

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One benefit of having a DAC is the ability to play high-resolution audio files such as high-res certified FLAC and DSD as well as proprietary formats such as MQA. But what if you are not interested in these file formats? What if you only use more common file formats such as MP3? 

Will a DAC make a difference with these non-audiophile certified file formats? Will a DAC improve their sound quality? And if not, then what is the point of even having a DAC?

DACs have many things that can change in your device. You can have a better sound stage or a different sound mix. Depending on the kind of DAC that you are using, emphasis on the mids, highs, and lows varies. One of the most reasons why DACs are needed is to remove the sound interference that affects the sound production on our devices.

In this article, we will be answering all of those questions, We will be dwelling deeper into what a DAC does as well as what all of these file formats truly mean. 

Do I Need a DAC To Listen to MP3s?

What is DAC and What Does it Do? 

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When it comes to DACs, there always seems to be some confusion with newer audiophiles. To further understand the topic at hand, let us first clear out what a DAC truly is. 

A DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) is the component in your sound chain that is responsible for converting digital information that is understood by your computer to actual sounds that we can hear. All devices have DACs. However, audiophile equipment has specialized DACs that are optimized to produce the best sound quality possible. 

The thing that you have to note is that DACs come in different flavors. There are standalone DACs as well as DAC/Amp Combos. The main difference between these two is that a DAC/Amp combo contains both a DAC and a headphone amplifier. The most common example is the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label that we recently checked out. 

Additionally, DACs can also be found on digital audio players (DAPs) such as the Fiio M11. So when talking about DAC, we must be clear about which kind of DAC we are talking about. For the purpose of this review, we are referring to standalone DACs and the DAC portion of DAC/Amp combos. 

Audio File Formats Explained

Before we talk about the relationship between MP3 files and DACs, let us first talk more about audio file formats. There are generally two types of formats used for music; lossless audio files and lossy audio files. You might already have an idea of what these are based on their names alone. 

Lossless audio files contain all information of the track. They are an exact reproduction of the final master of the audio file. Some examples of lossless files are WAV, FLAC, AIFF (audio interchange file format), and DSD. 

Lossy audio files, on the other hand, are the exact opposite of lossless files. They carry all the necessary information found on the track. This means that the song will still sound complete and is virtually the same as their lossless counterparts. 

However, some information is lost depending on how the files are converted. The most common example of lossy files is MP3. 

MP3 files generally have three levels of compression; 320 KBPS, 256 KBPS, and 128 KBPS. 320 KBPS is widely used because they have the most information and therefore have the best sound quality. 

128 KBPS MP3 files are generally not desired because they have the least information available. They are generally quite muddy and not very detailed. Most users can immediately spot these files in a blind test even with lesser quality gear. 

MP3 vs. FLAC

 

The two most common audio file types that you will typically find in an audiophile’s library are MP3 and FLAC. Most audiophiles will tell you that FLAC or any lossless file is superior to MP3. And while this is correct from a technical standpoint, there are many reasons why a lot of people still use MP3. 

The most obvious reason is file size. FLAC files tend to become very big and can occupy lots of space. Sure, storage options these days are now more accessible. However, not everyone can afford lots of storage just for high-res FLAC files. 

And aside from their file size, 320 KBPS MP3 (highest accepted compression) is already very close to the sound of FLAC files. This has been widely debated in different audiophile forums. But in our testing, we had trouble telling the two apart in a blind test even when using higher-end gear. 

FLAC files are still generally superior and are better options for long-term storage. And if you ever purchase digital albums, we highly recommend picking up the lossless version. But in terms of sound quality, both are very close. 

Should I Buy a DAC for MP3? 

We believe that you should purchase a high-quality DAC or DAC/Amp regardless of what file format you will be using. Having a high-quality source optimizes the signal chain and allows you to have the best listening experience possible. 

DACs will clean up and remove any unnecessary electronic noise generated by your device. Additionally, each DAC has its unique sound and will affect the overall sound quality of your setup. 

And while it is true that you do not get as many benefits when only using MP3 files, we will argue that there are many components in your audio chain that have a bigger impact on the overall sound. Of course, we still recommend getting your hands on the highest version of the album that you are listening to since this will ensure that you will have the best listening experience. But if you are only able to acquire it in MP3 format, then it still shouldn’t be a big deal. 

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