Do I Need a DAC for Music Streaming (Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Amazon Music)?

Music streaming is arguably the most popular way of listening to music in today’s world. This concept has single-handedly revolutionized and made it easier to access song libraries. Songs and albums from different countries and artists can now be easily accessed in the palm of our hands.   And with how good headphones and earbuds have become, now is arguably the best time to listen to music. Some users might be wondering if it is possible to further increase the sound quality of music streaming with the use of DACs. 

When streaming music, the benefit of using a DAC/Amp will depend on your streaming service, the device you use, your headphones/IEM, and personal audio preferences. While you don’t necessarily need a DAC for streaming, you may get much better audio sound with the use of a DAC. Below we’ll go into more detail about each service, file setting and hardware considerations that affect streaming quality to help you decide whether or not to buy a DAC/Amp for streaming.

Do I Need a DAC to Stream Music?

For those who haven’t heard of that term before, DACs or digital to analog converters are devices that process sound from the device. They convert machine language into the audible sound that is produced by speakers or headphones. DACs already exist inside modern devices such as smartphones and laptops, but external solutions are also available. 

In this article, we will be discussing whether these external solutions will improve our listening experience. We will also be talking about different music services and how DACs can affect them. 

iFi Nano iDSD Black Label with BGVP VG4 (Image: Stephen Menor/ WIE)

Does the Streaming Platform Matter?

Choosing the right streaming platform is very important. This is because the music selection and the streaming quality will be different with each streaming service. The key difference between each streaming service is compression. 

Due to how large audio files can get, music streaming services needed a way to distribute the music to listeners efficiently. After all, the last thing that you would want is high data consumption during music streaming. The result that they came up with is compressing the files to be small enough for distribution. 

All the necessary details in the song are still kept intact. However, compressing these files still takes away some data, which may be noticeable when using higher-end gear. These files are called lossy files. 

Popular streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube Music only offer lossy streaming. This means that the quality of the music would be significantly lower as compared to listening to a physical CD. 

There are, of course, streaming services that offer lossless streaming. Popular options include Tidal, Deezer, Qobuz, and Amazon Music HD. Additionally, Tidal offers a file format called MQA or Master Quality Authenticated. We will be discussing this in more detail below.

With that said, we urge listeners to choose their preferred music streaming service based on their music library. Using a streaming service that offers the best sound quality will be useless if the songs that you want to listen to are not there. Most streaming services offer a Free Trial, so we suggest trying them out first before subscribing. 

Will a DAC Improve the Streaming Sound Quality?

Having a high-quality DAC will most certainly improve the sound quality of streaming services. Most users stream music from their smartphones, laptops, and PCs. And while those devices do have an internal DAC, they aren’t the best tools for the job.

However, if you use an external DAC or DAC/Amp, then the sound quality will be a lot better. You will have cleaner-sounding audio that will help you discern the details that were previously hidden in your songs. 

Additionally, if you pair your DAC with a dedicated headphone amplifier or if you use a DAC/Amp combo, you will be able to drive your headphones better.

High-impedance headphones such as the Sennheiser HD660S  and the Sennheiser HD800s will start sounding more open and detailed.

Sennheiser HD660s with iFi Nano BL and FX Audio DAC X6 (Image: Stephen Menor/WIE)

But with that said, the quality of your hardware will not change the data that the streaming service gives you. Since audio files can get very large, music streaming services tend to compress the files that you are streaming. And as a result, some information is lost. 

Of course, these kinds of information are not essential. The song that you will be hearing will still have complete information. However, some details are lost. 

And since most music streaming services do not offer special integration with external audio devices, the full potential of DAC/Amps are not fully utilized. Lossy streaming services such as Spotify will still cap at 320 KBPS MP3. 

Which DAC/Amp is Best Suited for My Streaming Device 

When it comes to DACs and DAC/Amps, they come in different flavors. When we are talking about DAC/Amp combos, there are desktop DAC/Amps, portable DAC/Amps, dongle-sized DAC/Amps, and many more. 

Additionally, you can get standalone DACs and Amps. There are lots of differences between these models. Some offer higher amplification, while others offer better decoding. 

But for streaming, the best DAC/Amp to get will depend on your streaming device, headphones/IEM, and your needs. If you are mostly getting a DAC/Amp for your desktop setup, then we highly recommend getting desktop DAC/Amps or standalone DACs and Amps.

ddhifi tc25b
DD HiFi TC35B (Image: Stephen Menor/WIE)

If you are mostly using it with your smartphone, we highly recommend dongle-sized DAC/Amps. And if you want a device that can work in both scenarios, we highly suggest getting a portable DAC/Amp. Just make sure that the DAC/Amp you will be purchasing can adequately power your headphones

If you are using streaming services that support MQA, such as Tidal, make sure that the DAC/Amp that you choose can fully decode MQA. 

Downloaded Files vs. Online Streaming 

If you are wondering whether there are differences between the sound quality of streaming services and local files, then the answer is yes. However, the key concept that we should understand here is that the difference lies in the file type used. 

As mentioned earlier, different streaming services offer different kinds of quality in the files that they distribute. Lossy streaming services typically only offer MP3 files, while lossless streaming services are able to offer FLAC files and MQA files. 

If your locally downloaded files have a lossy format, then the streaming service that offers lossless file formats will certainly sound better. And if you are comparing lossy formats, then both the downloaded file and the one offered in the streaming service will sound the same. 

Does Spotify Settings Matter When I use a DAC?

Regardless of whether or not you are using a DAC/Amp, the audio settings in Spotify matter a lot. This is because the streaming quality will determine what kind of compression you will be getting in your files. 

The very high setting represents 320 KBPS MP3, while the low setting represents 128 KBPS MP3. Spotify currently doesn’t offer higher resolution files. However, this may change once Spotify Hi-Fi is released. 

You can try out the difference yourself. In our case, we can easily determine if the streaming quality is below 320 KBPS since details are missing and the clarity of the mix is also lost. 

Having a DAC or DAC/Amp will not bypass the limitations of Spotify, even if you are using the highest settings available. But as we mentioned earlier, the presentation of music will be better with a DAC or DAC/Amp since the components processing your music is superior to your internal audio components. 

What About Tidal?

iFi Nano BL and FX Audio DAC X6 (Image: Stephen Menor/WIE)

The same concept also applies to tidal. However, Tidal doesn’t max out at 320 KBPS MP3. Tidal is able to offer lossless audio files in the form of FLAC files which is roughly the equivalent of CD-quality audio. Additionally, if you subscribe to their Hi-Fi tier, you get access to their master quality streaming which streams MQA files.

Without going into too much detail, MQA aims to allow you to stream high-resolution audio files without consuming too much data. They aim to be efficient with their compression without sacrificing quality. 

However, take note that MQA will not work if you are not utilizing a DAC or DAC/Amp that is able to decode this file format. If you are not using any external DACs or DAC/Amps, you will still be able to select the master quality option on Tidal. However, you will not be getting the full quality of the music you are streaming.

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