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Is Audio Interface a DAC? (and Which One to Get?)

If you’re interested in upgrading the quality of your audio output from your computer, you may find that some people use an audio interface while others choose to use a DAC. But are they the same device? Is an audio interface the same as a DAC? If not, which should you pick?

Here’s a short summary of whether an audio interface is a DAC:

An audio interface has a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) built-in but also has an Analog to Digital Converter (ADC). In other words, an audio interface is not just a DAC but has other functions too. Because most real-world signals are analog, an audio interface makes converting between digital and analog signals both ways easily. A DAC on the other hand can only convert a digital signal to an analog signal, not the other way around.

For example, using an audio interface we can use the built-in ADC to record audio from a microphone, then play it back using the built-in DAC. But with a DAC, we can only play audio from a computer, not recording audio into it.

With that said, let’s take a more in-depth look at the differences between an audio interface and a DAC!

Audio Interface vs DAC

If you’re wondering about the main differences between an audio interface vs a DAC, here’s a table that may help you:

Audio InterfaceDigital to Analog Converter (DAC)
FunctionUsed for both recording and audio playback.Used only for audio playback.
Headphone AmpTypically has good gain and noise handling, except extremely cheap audio interfaces.Standalone DAC typically has better gain and noise handling than DAC chips in computers and phones.
Phantom PowerTypically has phantom power built-in.No phantom power supply, since it isn’t meant for recording audio.
PriceTypically more expensive than DACsTypically cheaper than audio interfaces.
MIDIMany audio interfaces support MIDI, using MIDI input and output connectors.Do not have MIDI support.
Bundled SoftwareMany audio interfaces come bundled with a starter version of a digital audio workstation (DAW) for music production.No music production software.
PowerTypically powered by USB, Thunderbolt, FireWire, PCIe connections.Typically powered by USB or battery.

How do ADC and DAC work?

To understand how ADCs and DACs work, we first have to understand the difference between analog and digital signals. An analog signal comes from a real-world sound, while a digital signal is made up of 1’s and 0’s. In other words, an analog signal is smooth and continuous, while a digital signal is made up of many small individual steps of values.

An Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) takes the smooth analog voltage, and turn it into a digital signal by sampling the individual values at different times. This makes it readable by electronic devices but also loses information in the process.

The sample rate sets the number of readings taken within a specified timeframe, so the higher the sample rate, the more accurate the digital signal is. Another term you may encounter a lot is bit depth, which is the accuracy of each value in the digital signal. The higher the bit depth, the more accurate each individual value is.

A Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) on the other hand takes the digital signal which has small “jumps” between each value and transforms it into a smooth, continuous analog signal by using the interpolation technique. By doing so, the output can be sent to speakers and headphones which need a smooth analog signal.

When to choose an audio interface?

If you need to record audio into the computer and also play it back, you should choose an audio interface. The most common usage is in the music recording and production industry, although it’s used in many more industries including the video production industry.

The advantages of choosing an audio interface over a DAC are:

  • Able to record audio and play it back
  • Record multiple instruments and microphones simultaneously
  • Connect multiple outputs (e.g. speakers, headphones)
  • Inputs can have preamps built-in
  • Usually have phantom power available
  • Can include MIDI inputs and outputs

So if you’re looking to get the above functionalities, choosing an audio interface is the route to go. Also, if you’re planning on producing music, I would almost always recommend getting an audio interface over a DAC.

When to choose a DAC?

Choose a standalone Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) if you simply want to have better noise handling than the built-in DAC in your computer or phone. Having a standalone DAC will reduce the background noise, and give you a much better audio quality than that of a cheap built-in DAC.

If you don’t need good recording capabilities, and you don’t see yourself needing to record audio in the near future, just get a DAC. It will give you great audio quality to listen to, while also saving you some bucks since standalone DACs are almost always cheaper than an audio interface of similar quality.

Another advantage standalone DAC has over an audio interface is that some of them can be powered by battery, but an audio interface typically can’t. This makes listening to quality audio on the go extremely convenient.

Upgrading from a DAC to an audio interface

If you’re thinking about recording audio and music in the future, but wondering if you can get a DAC first and upgrade to an audio interface later, I personally would advise against it.

That is because although generally, the price of a DAC is cheaper than that of an audio interface of similar quality, the difference is not enough to justify the hassle involved in my opinion. Nowadays, a decent quality audio interface starts from around $150. Therefore, if you get a DAC and later upgrade to an audio interface, you may be spending more than you have to.

Instead of getting a DAC for simple listening and upgrading to an audio interface later, I personally would recommend just getting an audio interface immediately. If you want to be portable, smartphones nowadays generally have a good enough quality anyway. Also, a USB audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is small enough to fit in your bag, so you can always connect it to your laptop should you need to listen to high-quality audio on the go. Simply turn on your laptop, connect the USB audio interface, connect your headphones and you’re all set!

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