DACs were the standard device that was required to improve the sound quality of a home theatre system or a computer. Now times have changed, and there is a new category of audio devices known as the audio interface.
A lot of newbies find it confusing which device to go for. And the most common question they ask is: can audio interfaces replace DAC?
Short answer, yes. An audio interface can replace a DAC. All audio interfaces have analog outputs, and these outputs have a Digital to Analog Converter built into them. Another advantage audio interfaces have over dedicated DACs is they are designed to playback audio at ultra-low latency. This is an essential feature for music producers, DJs, and gamers.
If you were looking for a straightforward answer, I think that pretty summarizes the entire article. However, I recommend you stick around and read the entire article because I will answer all of your tiny little questions on DACs and audio interfaces in general.
To know which device is good for you, I think it’s important to know what a DAC and audio interface are and what makes them unique. So we will talk about them in this article. And then later in the article, we will talk about the reasons to choose Audio Interface over DACs, and when to consider DACs over audio interfaces. Let’s get into it.
What is a DAC?
The full form of DAC is Digital-to-Analog Converter. And just as the name depicts, a DAC is a device that takes a digital audio signal, decodes it, and converts into an analog signal.
Every device capable of decoding and playing audio files has a DAC built into it. That should give you a wider perspective on what a DAC is. This means your computer, smartphone, gaming consoles, CD players, and anything you can think of that can play audio has a built-in Digital-to-Analog converter.
Not long after DVDs and CD players came on the scene, some high-end audio manufacturers decided to make external DACs. In fact, the first generation of external DACs was made in the mid-90s. And these devices helped solve a lot of problems back then that we’ll get into in a moment.
Back in the days, external DACs were connected to devices such as DVD and CD players and music streamers via SPD/IF connections. Let’s say you connect a DAC to a CD Player; here is how it will work.
The CD player will read the digital audio signal from the CD. However, instead of forwarding the digital audio signal to the CD Player’s built-in DAC, it will send the information out through a Toslink or coaxial cable to an external DAC.
The external DAC will then receive the digital audio signal, convert it into an analog audio signal, and then send it out through the analog audio output ports to a speaker amp. These ports could either be an RCA or ¼” stereo output ports.
As I mentioned earlier, these external DACs were extremely useful and were a holy grail for audiophiles. DACs were useful for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, built-in DACs in entertainment systems and computers performed poorly. The manufacturers just didn’t put enough time and effort into making the built-in DACs because there are so many other components to focus on.
For this reason, the analog audio signals obtained after a built-in DAC converts the digital signal had a lot of jitters. Jittering is when there is a delay in conversion in some areas of the digital signal, and thereby causing the audio signal to distort.
Distortion of any form in audio playback is undesirable. It reduces the audio signal’s sound quality, and it is very noticeable if you pay attention.
External DAC manufacturers solved this problem by building DACs, which are much faster at processing and converting digital audio signals into analog audio signals without jittering.
Another reason why external DACs became popular is that it reduces the noise floor. Now, let me explain.
Built-in DACs are usually on the device’s motherboard, which has other components installed on it as well. When the system is operating, all of these components generate noise in the form of crackling sound, pops, and hisses.
The noise gets picked up by the DAC, and it feeds into the audio signal. Certainly, we don’t want any noise in our audio signals.
External DACs don’t have this problem at all. That’s because they are not surrounded by “noise-making” electronic components.
In essence, external DACs convert digital audio signals into analog audio signals with no jitter and noise.
Now that you’ve got a base foundation on DACs, let’s take a look at audio interfaces.
What is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is a device made to act as a bridge between a computer and microphones, musical instruments, and speakers. It allows you to send audio signals from microphones and musical instruments to a computer, and it also receives audio signals from the computer for playback purposes.
Built into audio interfaces are Digital-to-Analog Converters (DACs), which receive a digital audio signal from a computer and convert it into an analog audio signal. The analog audio signal is then out of the audio interface through analog audio outputs, commonly a ¼” TRS stereo output.
Unlike dedicated DACs, audio interfaces also have Analog-to-Digital Converters (ADCs), which convert analog audio signals from microphones and musical instruments into digital audio signals, and then send it to the computer.
Most audio interfaces also have a headphone amp built into it. This means you can connect a headphone directly to an audio interface and listen to audio playback from a computer. And these headphone amps are powerful enough they can drive high impedance headphones.
Think of an audio interface as an upgrade to the external DAC. It has the functionality of a dedicated DAC, that is Digital-to-Analog conversion, with even more functionality such as the Analog-to-Digital conversion, as well as built-in preamps and headphone amps.
Audio interfaces have now become the standard tool for recording professional music, podcasts, voice-overs, and many more. DJs and gigging musicians use audio interfaces to playback tracks from their computer during live performances. Due to the increase in popularity of twitch game streaming, avid gamers use audio interfaces in their streaming sessions to communicate with their audience and to listen to audio playback.
I will talk about the reasons why professional audio engineers, musicians, podcasters, and more are choosing audio interfaces over a DAC in a moment. But first, let me answer a controversial question.
Do DACs sound better than audio interfaces?
Short answer no. DACs don’t sound better than audio interfaces. Audio interfaces sound just as good, if not better than DACs. Here is why.
Audio interfaces are made with the professional audio engineer in mind. That’s because audio interfaces have become the standard device for playing back audio for professionals, as I mentioned earlier. These professional audio engineers are the people who make sure the audio we listen to is of the best quality possible.
Audio engineers playback audio from their computers through audio interfaces as they mix and master songs, movie soundtracks, and more.
For this reason, audio interface manufacturers make sure the built-in DACs in audio interfaces are of top quality. These DACs can convert multiple digital audio files from a computer into analog audio signals and play them back simultaneously without any jittering or noise.
There are some external DAC that are advertised as high-fidelity (or HiFi). This means they can convert digital audio signals with higher sample rates and bit depths. If all that seems confusing to you, it means these external DACs advertised as HiFi can convert very high quality digital audio signals without jittering or noise.
And that is true. Some external DACs have technologies that allow them to play high-quality audio signals smoothly. Some of these DACs can play audio with a sample rate of 32bit/768kHz. If you know a little digital audio, then you know that audio with this sample rate is very high-resolution audio.
So, technically, high fidelity DACs should sound better than audio interfaces.
However, as humans, our ears can only perceive audio frequencies between 20Hz and 20kHz. This means having a piece of gear that can play audio frequencies as high as 768kHz simply isn’t necessary. That’s because you won’t be able to hear all the audio signals above 20kHz.
Also, most audio signals we listen to on our computers, smartphones, streaming platforms, and the internet have a standard sample rate of 44.1kHz. So purchasing an expensive high-fidelity DAC to play audio with 44.1kHz just isn’t worth it.
Most audio interfaces can play audio with a sample rate of up to 192kHz. This means it can play standard audio files without any issues and is an excellent sample rate for editing, mixing, and mastering audio.
In my opinion, high-fidelity DACs are expensive and over-engineered pieces of gear, and we will never be able to appreciate their true abilities.
Reasons to Choose an Audio Interface over a DAC
Here are some advantages an audio interface has over a DAC
1. Low Latency
External DACs are designed for audiophiles who simply want to enjoy the best quality audio possible from their devices. The main focus of manufacturers is to make sure their converters deliver the best Digital-to-Analog conversion.
Most DACs have a latency issue. For those who don’t know what latency is, it is the time taken for a digital audio signal to be processed and converted to an analog audio signal. This means the playback of the analog audio signal in your speakers will be delayed by some milliseconds.
This is not an issue for most consumers because they won’t notice the delay. However, for professional audio engineers, musicians, gamers, podcasters, DJs, and the like, latency is a huge issue. That’s because you want to hear changes you make to audio in real-time as you perform or play.
For instance, as a musician recording vocals into a computer, you want to instantly hear a playback of your voice as you perform. It becomes quite challenging to perform when your voice delays, and it’s noticeable.
Most audio interfaces available today, even the budget options, have ultra-low latency. The time it takes to convert digital to analog audio signals is so fast, you won’t notice any delay — unless you pay very close attention.
Even if you are a music producer who doesn’t record vocals with a microphone yet, I will still recommend you go with an audio interface. That’s because a DAC will give you some latency while you record MIDI, mix, and master your songs.
2. It has audio inputs
One feature that increases the value of audio interfaces over DACs is, audio interfaces have audio inputs; DACs don’t. You can plug a microphone, guitar, digital keyboard, or any audio device into an audio interface’s input. And it will send that signal in a digital form to the computer.
DACs have only one job, to convert digital audio signals to analog audio signals. Audio interfaces, on the other hand, not only does that but also converts analog signals to digital signals for the computer.
This makes the audio interface a more versatile device suitable for a lot of people.
3. Audio interfaces can have multiple analog outputs
DACs usually have one stereo analog output. Some audio interfaces have multiple analog outputs. This means you can route different audio signals playing simultaneously through the different outputs on an audio interface.
Why is this a big deal? There are so many use cases for having multiple analog outputs on an audio device.
For instance, musicians performing with backing tracks can route the tracks through one stereo output on the audio interface to Front of House. And then route the click track through a different output so they can listen to it and play along. I have a similar setup with my band, and we use the Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 (Amazon). This audio interface has two stereo outputs (or four mono outputs)
You can also use the multiple analog outputs on audio interfaces to create separate monitor mixers for musicians performing. DJs can also find this helpful by playing their main performance through one stereo output while queuing up the next track using a different output.
At the end of the day, it’s a tool in your arsenal, and you can decide to use it however you want.
4. Volume Control
Most DACs don’t have a volume control knob. They simply convert audio signals from digital to analog; that’s it. It then passes on the signal to an amp. This means, if the amp has no volume control, you will be stuck with one volume level.
On the other hand, audio interfaces have volume control knobs for the headphone jack and the main outputs.
5. Audio Interfaces are Cheaper
The audio interface space is very competitive, and in every competitive space, the buyer is always the winner. Why do I say this?
Audio interface manufacturers keep making high-quality devices with more features at an affordable price. There are lots of budget audio interfaces out there. Regardless of the prices, budget audio interfaces have excellent DACs that convert digital to analog audio with no jitter or noise.
When to Choose DAC over an Audio Interface
It seems I’ve been more biased towards audio interfaces over DACs. That’s simply because audio interfaces are the better option.
However, the only time I’ll choose DAC over an audio interface is if I want to improve my home entertainment system’s sound.
A well built DAC like the Schiit Modi 3 (on Amazon) is an excellent DAC for home theatre systems. Latency will not be noticeable in entertainment and home theatre systems, and I wouldn’t need the microphone inputs and all the fancy features audio interfaces provide.
Audio interfaces are basically DACs with more features and capabilities. So, yes, you can replace a DAC with an audio interface.
Audio interfaces have low latency, has analog audio inputs, volume control, and are relatively cheaper than DACs.