Can I Listen to FLAC Files Without a DAC



DACs are essential in any audiophile setup. These devices optimize your listening experience and can even influence how your headphones sound. But because of their higher asking price, some beginner audiophiles tend to skip DACs and tend to prioritize headphones or IEMs first. 

FLAC files like any other files can be stored on any device that you have. And regardless of the device you want to use a DAC on, you will hear improvements in the sound quality. Audiophiles prefer using a DAC for their devices to maximize the capabilities of their equipment and the file formats stored on their devices.

One question that is often asked by these beginner audiophiles is whether or not they need an audiophile-grade DAC in order to play and fully maximize FLAC files. In this article, we will be answering that question by going into detail on the relationship between DACs and FLAC files. We will also be discussing FLAC files in more detail to help beginners truly understand what this file format is and its advantages over standard MP3 files. 


Do I Need a DAC for FLAC Files?

What are FLAC Files

FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Codec) is often used by audiophiles. It is a lossless file format meaning it carries all information that was originally stored in the file’s original master; similar to WAV files. 

However, one key advantage of FLAC files is that they are smaller than WAV files. It uses an algorithm that manages to shrink its file size without losing any key information. This is similar to how game publishers offer smaller download/installer sizes without affecting the fidelity of the contents.  

Additionally, most music distributors are now utilizing FLAC files for distributing high-resolution music. These files typically have a higher sample rate than the ones distributed in CD Format. 

What is the Difference Between FLAC and MP3 

KBear Believe + Fiio M11

MP3 files are lossy files. As its name suggests, lossy files do not have the same audio fidelity as lossless files. They are able to retain key components to still make the song recognizable. However, depending on the conversion process, some lossy files can lose elements such as clarity which makes the listening experience less enjoyable. 

How much information is lost depends on what level of compression the MP3 has. MP3 files generally have three levels of compression; 320 KBPS, 256 KBPS, and 128 KBPS. 

320 KBPS files are generally very close to FLAC files. They do not have any obvious compromises and are still able to deliver a good listening experience.  There is noticeable quality loss when you step down to 256 KBPS but the sound is still acceptable. 

However, once you get to 128 KBPS, the degradation in sound becomes very obvious. 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. 

To give you a better visualization of the degradation of audio files, imagine watching a movie at its highest resolution. The visual experience is top-notch and every small detail can easily be seen. 

If you compress this file to make the file size smaller, the visual experience will be completely different. You will start to see pixelation and other artifacts in the image. You are still watching the same movie but the experience becomes less satisfying. 

Is FLAC Better Than MP3? 

Most audiophiles will tell you to choose FLAC over MP3. And while FLAC is technically superior to MP3, there are some reasons why you might want to go for MP3 files instead. 

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

Another thing to take note of is that 320 KBPS MP3 already sounds very good. Some would even argue that they are just as good sounding as FLAC files. This is often debated in different audiophile forums. Even when we test,  we have trouble telling the two apart in a blind test even when using higher-end gear. 

But if you plan on purchasing music, we highly recommend sticking with FLAC. It offers more complete information and is overall a better format for archiving files.  

Overall, FLAC files are technically superior to MP3. However, they are not always the most convenient or practical file format. 

Can I Listen to FLAC Files Without a DAC?

iFi Nano BL stacked with smartphone

Yes, you can still listen to FLAC files even without a DAC. Like any other file format, you can simply load FLAC files to your smartphone, laptop, PC, or MAC and listen to them using your preferred music player app. 

However, there are some FLAC files that have a sample rate above 48 kHz. These are called high-res certified FLAC files. If your sound card/onboard DAC cannot support these, they will automatically be downsampled to the highest sample rate supported by your sound card. 

To have a better visualization of what we mean, imagine a 1080P TV or monitor. If you try to play a 4K file, you will still be able to watch it. However, you won’t be getting as many pixels as you would in a proper 4K display. 

The same is true with audio. Without a proper DAC that supports these file formats, you will not be able to fully experience what they have to offer. 

How does a DAC Improve FLAC Playback 

wireless headphone and dacs

Every device that is capable of playing back audio already has a built-in DAC. This is because this component is responsible for converting digital audio/digital information to the sound that we can hear. However, not all DACs are made equally.

As we mentioned earlier, not all DACs are capable of playing high-resolution files. So if you wish to fully maximize the potential of your high-res FLAC files, then purchasing an audiophile-grade DAC is a must.

However, playing back high-res files isn’t the only benefit that you get with audiophile DACs. The overall sound quality of your setup is also improved. 

Having a dedicated DAC cleans up your audio signal. You will now get lesser noise since your audio source is now isolated from other electronic components. 

Additionally, the sound of your headphones can be affected by your DAC choice. Different DAC models have different DAC chips and DAC chip configurations. And these differences will produce their own unique sound signature. 

Purchasing a better DAC is just like buying a better television. You get more resolution and better enjoyment from the content you are consuming. 

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