Differences Between DAC and Headphone Amplifiers

When you’re looking at piecing together a listening setup for your home studio, media center, or gaming system, the different types of gear required can become overwhelming and confusing at times. Not too long ago, we took a walk through the world of DACs, how they work, and how to choose the best one for your needs. 

To gain a clearer understanding of what makes each piece of gear important, we can look at how they are used. We’ll try and keep things simple enough to be easily understandable for those new to the headphone world:

DACs – Digital to Analog Convertors

A DAC is used to upgrade/replace your computer or phone’s built-in conversion system. While today’s computers and phones generally have quite strong converters, some users may want to be able to hear better-quality audio with greater dynamic range and less compression and enjoy a more immersive experience.  

DACs are usually fairly portable and come in various sizes and styles, ranging from power, desktop-style models to pocket-sized units to use with your cell phone. The type of DAC you use is affected by various factors, including:

Are you using it for your computer or cell phone?

This will affect how portable you’ll need it to be. If you’re wanting to improve your gaming experience, you won’t necessarily need a very portable 

Do you need an amplifier built in?

Most DACs have built-in headphone amplifiers, eliminating the need for additional gear. However, some only function as converters. This is useful if you prefer to handle the amplification yourself or use it for powered speakers. 

Do you need a higher or lower impedance?

This is determined by the sensitivity of your headphone drivers. Look at your spec sheet to ensure impedances are matched between devices. Whether the DAC will be able to drive your headphones or not will depend on the impedance specifications. Make sure that any DAC you buy has enough juice for your headphones.

What kind of outputs do you need?

DACs will have a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) or ¼-inch TRS output for your headphones or earbuds. While you can get an adaptor for fairly cheap, it’s worth making sure you’re happy with how your headphones will connect to your DAC and ensuring that the DAC you buy can provide the quality you’re looking for.

Like most consumer products, there are different tiers of DACs; some are just able to drive the speakers, while others excel at what they do and can increase both your listening volume and the overall sound quality that you hear.

Technical Specifications

If you’re an audiophile or engineer, you’ll need to consider the sample rate and bit depth of the DAC to ensure you’re happy with the processing power, especially if you’re using one as the output for your DAW. 

See our full list of recommended USB DACs.

Headphone Amplifiers

Headphone amplifiers aren’t quite as complicated as DACs. Simply put, a headphone amplifier, as the name suggests, amplifies a low-level source signal to a signal powerful enough to drive your headphone’s speakers, though there is a little more to it. 

Choosing a headphone amp isn’t quite as intense as choosing a DAC, and they generally aren’t as expensive either, but there are still some things to consider:

What kind of input do I need?

Headphone amplifiers commonly accept TRS or XLR inputs, mono or stereo, though some are also RCA-compatible. This depends entirely on the outputs of your current setup and where you plan on using it, so make sure the headphone amplifier is compatible with the rest of your gear. Headphone amplifiers with multiple outputs sometimes allow for each channel to run its own mono or stereo input, allowing you to set up several auxiliary sends for monitoring purposes. 

How many outputs do I need?

For gamers or audiophiles, a single-output headphone amplifier should suffice. However, a multi-output option is best if you plan on sharing a gaming or listening experience with friends or perhaps work in the studio and plan on using it for monitoring purposes. These generally range between 4 and 12 channels; some have an input for each channel. 

Do I need any inline controls?

Some more professional headphone amplifiers have a small selection of controls per output channel. They can include basic, two or 3-band equalization for each output, decibel reduction pads, and a mono/stereo toggle switch, among other features. Again, this depends on your needs and intended uses. 

So which one do I need?

If you’re still stuck on deciding whether you need a DAC or a headphone amp, consider the following:

A DAC improves the sound quality that naturally comes from your phone or computer. These are for audiophiles looking to listen more critically to the elements of a mix, gamers, and film enthusiasts looking for a more immersive experience, or music producers/engineers wanting a portable setup where you can still obtain an accurate representation of your work without lugging an interface around. 

A headphone amplifier is for when you want to use headphones to listen to a source that is transmitting a signal below the listenable threshold or wants to split the signal between multiple listeners. 

As mentioned earlier, some DACs have their own built-in amplifiers, while others require an external headphone amplifier- this is an important feature to look out for, and again, it entirely depends on your needs. 

See our full list of recommended headphone amps.

DAC & Headphone Amplifier Suggestions

For audiophiles, gamers, or musicians on the move, if you’re looking for a DAC to use with your laptop that doesn’t take too much space and has its own built-in headphone amplifier, check out the AudioQuest Dragon Fly. This DAC is around the size of a USB flash drive and sounds incredible. However, it only accepts a 1/8-hnc (3.5mm) cable, so some professional headphones may not be supported.

If you want a DAC with a built-in headphone amplifier you can use with your cell phone or tablet, take a look at the Helm Audio Bolt, which connects using a USB-C cable and has a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) output.  

If you want a DAC to use with your computer and aren’t fussed about size, the Audioengine D1 model is a great-sounding DAC that isn’t too expensive either, with its own built-in headphone amplifier and versatile connectivity options. 

If you already have a headphone amp and only need a DAC for conversion purposes, the Soundavo HP-DAC1 functions as an incredible preamp with a wide range of connectivity options.

As for headphone amplifiers, if you just want something to use for yourself that’s affordable, the Douk Audio U3 Mini is a really impressive little unit that has a single ¼-inch TRS output. 

If you’re after a small headphone amp that can amplify a source signal and split it to a few outputs, the Mackie HM-Series is a model I’ve owned for quite some time, and it works incredibly well. At under $40.00, it also offers great value for money. 

For more professional applications, the Behringer Powerplay is a classic model used by many studios and live venues. The Powerplay has 8 separate outputs and two stereo inputs, allowing all 8 users to hear one of two independent mixes. 

To conclude, you should take these suggestions lightly and see them as a way to start your journey into purchasing your first DAC or headphone amplifier. But we do recommend digging deeper to pair your specific headphone model with the DAC or amplifier that works best with it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a DAC or headphone amplifier?

If you have a pair of headphones with high impedance, you will need a headphone amplifier or DAC to drive them. Most modern electronic source devices can easily drive up to around 100 Ohms. Anything greater, and we recommend investing in either a DAC or headphone amp to get the most out of your speakers.

Can a DAC improve sound quality?

DACs are able to increase the performance of your headphones by what is subjectively small amounts. To critical listeners and audio fanatics, these small increases in performance will feel substantial, but to the regular consumer, they may not even notice a difference, especially if their headphones aren’t able to utilize the buff from the DAC.

Is it worth getting a tube amp?

Tube amps are typically more expensive than regular headphone amps, and for many, it will not be an expense they can justify. However, a tube amp does have a lot of benefits. This style of amplifier will typically also let you EQ your headphones directly from the amp without the use of EQ software on your source device. In general, if you’re asking this question – we’d recommend sticking with traditional amps for now. Think of tube amps as a long-term goal once the rest of the gear is feeling bottlenecked.

How do I know the sensitivity of my headphones?

Check your manual, packing, or online information about the impedance of your headphones. This is a measurement that is shown in Ohms. This value typically varies from between 30 to 600 Ohms on most modern open-back headphone models.

What happens if I use a high-impedance headphone without a DAC or amplifier?

If you attempt to drive high-impedance headphones (over 200 Ohms) from a regular PC port you’re bound to encounter problems. You may find that the headphones are extremely soft, or they may behave erratically with volume changes occurring at random. Running a high-impedance headphone with not provide you with an accurate representation of what the headphones can do.

Matthew Cox - Author
Written by
Matthew Cox

Matthew is an audio engineering graduate with a strong passion for post-production, recording engineering, and audio technology. Matthew is also an experienced musician with over a decade of experience in recording, touring, and performing. Matthew enjoys studying the inner workings of audio equipment and acoustics theory.

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