Considering that within the same price range, differences in conversion quality seem to be minor or non-existent. Opting for the audio interface instead of a DAC appears to be a better deal as you gain plenty of options in a single unit.
Since the audio interface and DAC are pretty similar in many aspects, it can be tough to tell which one will fit better in your studio setup.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look into each product, and hopefully, by the end of it, you’ll have a clearer idea of which one to go for.
What’s an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is an all-in-one solution for most of your studio works. It is capable of doing a couple of things.
First of all, it acts as a sound card. This means that all the audio on your computer will pass through it. Next, it acts as an amplifier so you can power and turn up the volume of your passive monitor speakers and headphones.
Lastly, you can use an audio interface as a recording unit. Depending on the model, you can have many microphones or line inputs.
This will allow you to record vocals, guitars, mic up a drum kit, etc…
There are a couple of things that an audio interface improves in your audio chain. These three things are the most prominent features that make this device stand out compared to other audio gadgets.
We’ll discuss the additional benefits later in the article as well.
What Is a DAC?
DAC stands for digital to analog converter. The name is quite self-explanatory – this device converts your digital signal (computer files, CD’s or tape) to an analog audio signal. One so that the speakers can reproduce the digital audio information.
DAC is a vital device preinstalled in most of your audio gear without you probably even realizing it. However, its effect on your signal can be pretty drastic.
Although these converters are built into loads of audio devices, having a dedicated DAC that all of your audio can go through will always produce better results. They generally have a better build quality.
After your audio signals have been converted to a domain that your speakers can recognize (analog signal), DAC also acts as an amplifier and lets you turn up the volume of your audio source.
Usually, DAC has a headphone input as well.
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How Do Audio Interfaces Work?
An audio interface is mainly used for music production, recording, and mixing.
One of the great benefits of having an audio interface over a computer sound card is the audio reproduction quality.
Every component in the audio interface is of higher quality and built explicitly for preserving the most detail out of your audio signal. This means that you will have less noise, less latency, and significantly improved sound coming out of your speakers.
Needles to say, this is of immense value for anyone serious about producing music.
All of the audio files you have on your computer right now are in digital format. These 1’s and 0’s don’t mean a thing for your speakers – they need this digital information to be translated (converted) into a signal they can read and reproduce. This is what the USB audio interface essentially does for you.
These converters are also found in your integrated sound card. However, converters found in audio interfaces are of much better quality. But not only that, the audio interface will allow you to perform all of the regular studio tasks like recording and monitoring and also power your entire studio setup.
Depending on the model, you can have various additional benefits.
In its standard form, the audio interface comes with two inputs, two outputs, headphone input, phantom power, MIDI connections, and a direct monitoring feature.
More advanced models can have many more inputs (up to 24) and even built-in compressors and EQs. You can also expect to find two or more headphone inputs, additional audio output to connect your external gear, and connections for multiple studio monitors that work simultaneously.
How Does A DAC Work?
On the other hand, DAC is quite a simple device, but that’s precisely the product’s selling point. It essentially does two things – converts the digital signal to analog and amplifies it according to the users’ needs.
This simplicity of use is a perfect playground for developers to geek out on this stuff and bring that conversion to the highest possible level so that nothing gets lost in the translation of the signal.
There’s a heated debate in the audio community about whether an expensive DAC really makes a huge difference in sound.
In theory, a DAC built from high-quality components, made in a specific way mastered by craftsmen, will give you an increased dynamic range, clearer sound, and ultimately, greater appreciation and immersion of the music you’re listening to.
This means that having a dedicated DAC should give you a more detailed sound reproduction than in standard audio interfaces.
However, DAC lacks quite a lot of features an audio interface has.
DACs cannot record music, and this is probably a significant difference between the two.
However, it can maximize the quality of audio you’re playing through it. It can also help you control noise levels if you deal with such issues.
When To Go For The Audio Interface?
Going for the audio interface is really a no-brainer if you’re a musician looking at doing a lot of studio work. It will allow you to dive into various studio activities such as recording music in your bedroom with low latency and noise floor, monitoring your music on multiple devices (studio speakers and headphones), and enjoying excellent sound quality.
Also, audio interfaces will give you more bang for the buck. They are designed with versatility in mind. You essentially get all of the devices you would otherwise have to buy separately in a single unit. This can save you a lot of money without significantly sacrificing sound quality.
Considering how cheap they can get, getting an audio interface is a viable option, even if you’re not looking into recording music.
It can improve the sound of your favorite headphones, generally improve the sound quality of your whole audio system, and eliminate noise and crackles caused by using unbalanced connections.
When Shouldn’t You Go For Audio Interface?
If you’re looking for a single improvement in your audio setup, getting an audio interface can be a bit of an overkill. You may end up not using 90% of the possibilities it can offer.
As much as they’re great-sounding and affordable, it may be better to try and save up until you can buy a dedicated device for your specific needs instead of going for a multi-purpose device such as the audio interface.
For example, if you’re looking for a better amplifier only, getting an audio interface will probably be a bit too much, and you’ll end up paying more for features you’ll likely never use.
When To Go For a DAC?
DAC can be a wise investment if your sole focus is on improving the sound quality of your audio system and nothing else.
Since a DAC is a dedicated digital to analog converter, getting it as an upgrade for your music-playing setup will noticeably improve sound fidelity.
Besides music lovers and audiophiles, gamers can also benefit from having one to add immersion to your gaming experience. It will not only eliminate ground noise but will also improve the sound of your headphones, especially if they’re in the higher price range.
It makes little sense to plug those into an integrated motherboard sound card.
DAC can also be quite convenient if you travel a lot. Since they’re usually small and compact, they can be easily transported around. This means that you can enjoy the most incredible sound quality wherever you happen to be.
When Shouldn’t You Go For a DAC?
If you’re aiming at having many uses from a single device, DAC probably isn’t going to be your thing. Its use is quite limited and going for it solely for a better conversion quality probably isn’t the best financial decision you’ll make.
Additionally, having a DAC won’t necessarily mean a better digital to analog conversion. This is especially true for some of the affordable models. You may end up not improving the sound quality any more than you would with the audio interface for roughly the same price.
Are the Converters In Audio Interface the Same As In DAC?
There seem to be two directions in which the debate about this topic occurs. One side of the story says that converters don’t play any significant role in improving audio playback. The other side that swear by their five grand DAC adds the magic touch to whatever they play through it.
The whole truth seems to be in the grey area, as usual.
My take on this quite complicated and emotion-fueled debate is this. When it comes to affordable models of both products, the difference seems non-existent. On the higher end of the price spectrum, differences can get more defined.
Suppose we’re talking a $100-200 range of audio interfaces and DACs. In that case, I honestly can’t say I hear any difference in terms of sound quality. They both sound pretty good – you get an excellent, clean, noiseless signal that is probably enough for every major musical project.
Now, when things get really out of control when it comes to pricing (5 grand and above), there seems to be a difference in dynamic range and particularly the transient response of your tracks.
High-end DAC can give you a more immersive listening experience.
However, it wasn’t anything game-changing. I could take the quality of any $100 audio interface and be perfectly satisfied with the way music sounds on it.
Whether the gain justifies the cost is entirely up to your financial situation and your take on things.
For me, the bottom line is that affordable converters work fine. There seems to be very little (if any) difference in chips found in audio interfaces and DACs in that price range.
Can you use an audio interface as a DAC, or vice versa?
The audio interface can be used as a DAC, but not vice versa, as DAC doesn’t have recording capabilities.
What is the benefit of multiple audio inputs on an audio interface?
A great thing about multiple inputs is that you can record multiple sources simultaneously (like a drum kit) or record in stereo.
Do you need a USB DAC if you already have an audio interface?
Unless you opt for a device with a unique DAC chip that gives you a better signal, there seems to be no reason to buy a DAC if you already own an audio interface.
How to choose what output the audio interface should use?
To use the correct output, you either have to set the routing options in your DAW or options of your operating system.
How do you choose an audio interface for music production?
My best advice would be to look at your production style and needs. If you use a lot of MIDI and rarely rely on audio recording, a single audio input interface should be more than enough.
On the other hand, if you’re planning on recording drums, you may need to go for at least four inputs minimum. Mic preamps are usually of high quality, even in budget models.
Check out our Best Sound Cards For Music Production guide.
How good are the audio interfaces’ headphone amp and DAC?
They’re sufficiently suitable for any major musical production, even those found in the affordable line.
Do you need an audio interface for studio monitors?
If your monitors are passive, you’ll need an amplifier to power them up. An audio interface is a good choice as it can do plenty of other things besides powering your monitors.
Should I get an audio interface or external DAC if I game and make music on the side?
The audio interface seems to be a better option. It can give you a clear sound needed for gaming and allow you to record music.
Do you need a headphone amp if you have an audio interface?
An audio interface is sufficient for most headphones, even the high-impedance ones.
Would I see significant benefits from moving to audiophile-oriented products?
It’s tough to tell as many psychological factors are at play there. There is probably a minor difference in products designed for audiophiles, but it’s perhaps exaggerated.
An audio interface seems to be a better all-around device for music producers or your everyday audio activities.
Considering that there appears to be no difference between the two units in the budget price range, an audio interface is a clear winner here.
However, DAC still has its market value for people who want to maximize their listening experience. Its strengths usually become evident the further we go through the price range.
That’s the point where musicians might think about investing in one; otherwise, I don’t find it preferable to any audio interface.