Music listening should be a new, fresh, and before anything else a personal experience, a moment in time that should feel unique, even though we’ve went seen and heard it tens of thousands of times. Some people value this kind of experience more than others (audiophiles) while others simply love the background noise and beats.
Regardless of which type you put yourself in, you probably want to get the most out of your music, without spending tons of money on Hi-fi stereo systems and audio-specific PC rigs. The easiest way to improve your music listening experience is to buy a better headset or headphones, but that’s only if you’re content with getting a small bump in terms of quality.
If you really want to step up the sound performance of your PC, tablet, phone, or whatever device you prefer listening to music through, you may want to consider using an amplifier, a DAC, or both. We’re here today to discuss do you need a DAC, an amp, both or neither, and in which cases, so let’s slowly dig in all the juicy details of this wonderful tech.
Do I Need a Headphone DAC, an Amp or Both?
Do You Need a DAC?
The shortest, and perhaps not the simplest of answers is that you already have it. All playback devices are outfitted with one, although its quality varies significantly from model to model.
Simply put, earphones, smartphones, laptops, and computers need this device to even read analog audio signals. It’s only after analog files become rendered and put through this sort of filter will they become what we perceive as digital sound.
That being said, the function of a DAC unit is rather simple and straightforward. They don’t alter analog files nor do they improve them in any way. However, a poor-quality DAC can certainly ruin an otherwise properly written analog file in several ways.
The physical faults and flaws of a basic DAC unit, such as bad filtering or inadequate shielding, badly designed construction, and in most cases as far as older units are of concern, power supply issues can lead to a series of problems.
If you’re hearing a noise and it’s obvious that it shouldn’t be there, such as humming or buzzing sounds, the chances are that your DAC isn’t doing something right.
Furthermore, if you’ve noticed that using a different form of a playback device helped you notice more details in the audio (whether it’s in songs, games, movies, and such), again, the DAC of such a device is probably soaking more power than it should be.
These are just some of the most typical cases where you may want to consider buying a better DAC, especially if you’re starting out a career in any branch of the music industry (producer, audio engineer, mixer, musician, and such). Of course, there’s a huge ‘but’, which will probably ease your mind a bit.
Most up-to-date devices feature well-built DAC units. The competition in the headphone, headset, IEM is high and even some of the cheapest earbuds in the budget price range are fitted with a fully functional DAC.
In short words, you should buy a new, proper digital-to-analog converter if you want to ensure that all of your playback devices function as they’re supposed to, reliably and dependably.
Do You Need an Amp?
Phones, laptops, PCs, tablets, and other playback devices are not just supplied with their own DAC units, but amplifiers as well, although the functionalities of the latter are far more apparent. Most sonic signals that our phones, PCs, and laptops read are too weak to be heard unamplified.
If we perceive DAC units as means to correct the quality issues in the sonic performance of any playback device, it would be safe to say that amps are meant to correct the ‘quantity’ issue. In vaguer terms, amplifiers are supposed to regulate the amount of electricity in electric devices, allowing for smoother operation at all decibel levels.
You may have noticed that there’s a bit of distortion in your songs when you crank up the volume on your headphones while there was none when you played it through your speakers. Distortion, clipping, and fluctuating frequencies are all too common in devices that aren’t electrically ‘stable’ in terms of power output, consumption, impedance, and resistance.
In simpler words, if some of your playback devices act strange at varying levels of volume, you should definitely buy an amp. Dedicated amplifiers are available for all sorts of devices, from headphones, over musical instruments, to PC and laptop setups, obviously at dramatically different price point categories. Suffice it to say, even a budget amp will be able to correct most of the aforementioned problems.
When Should You Use Both a DAC + Amp?
It’s not too hard to imagine a situation where a playback device is supplied with both a poorly designed DAC and a low-quality amp. In fact, even though this scenario seems more problematic than having one good-one bad in either fashion, it actually hides a blessing in disguise.
Mediocre DAC units and unexemplary amplifiers are basically a standard, so most people get accustomed to low-quality audio performance fairly quickly and naturally.
Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s easier to develop a habit of listening to bad-quality music at low volumes than the other way around. The opposite, of course, is just as true. Being able to recognize these shortcomings in a low-quality DAC/Amp comes easier if the other is functioning as intended.
Overall, if you’ve noticed that you can’t get anything from your headphones, speakers, or PC music-wise, buying a proper DAC-amp combo will not only improve your experience but will also save you a bit of money.
Digital-to-analog converters with built-in amplifiers are widely available, but it would be a bit of overkill money-wise to invest in such a device if either of the two components in your PC/laptop/headphones is decent.
Senior editor for Ultimate-Guitar, passionate about good music and quality gear. Bassist. King Crimson fan. Travel enthusiast. Compulsive buyer of Bose headphones and old Fender amps.