Understanding Basic Terms of Audiophiles: What is a DAC and an AMP?

Gagan Jajoria
Understanding Basic Terms of Audiophiles: What is a DAC and an AMP?
Synonyms for "Tube"

Entering into the world of Hi-Res audio you get to hear several new terms that go right above your head. Terms such as IEMs, DAC, AMP, etc. are sometimes new even to seasoned technological enthusiasts as well. As soon as we start getting used to the term IEM(in-ear monitors) which simply means earphones that sit inside of our ears, we get DAC and AMP to understand. This is probably a little bigger topic and honestly, a little important as well. DAC and AMP directly affect the sound output in their own way, so let’s begin with our today’s topic of this guide. What are a DAC and an AMP? What’s their importance in an audio chain? and any other questions that you might have regarding the terms DAC and AMP? Get your knowledge earphones on, and begin on the journey of the audiophile world with us.

First of all, DAC and AMP are part of an audio chain connected mostly at the source point. In a high-resolution desktop audio chain, DAC and AMP play the most important role. We connect DAC to our source devices like PC, Laptops, Smartphones, and Tablets for the source signal. It decodes the signal and then forwards it to the amplifier. The amplifier as its name suggests amplifies the signal and prepares it for headphones. They both might look identical, but their function in an audio chain is entirely different. We will first begin with understanding the DAC and then we will move ahead to study the AMP part.

What is a DAC?

MOONDROP - Dawn Mini DAC & Amp

DAC is short for Digital-to-Analog Converter chip. As its name tells us, it’s a device that converts the digital audio signal into an analog audio signal. Since all our music is in the digital language (a combination of 0s and 1s), it needs to be converted into an analog signal to be forwarded to the AMP. DACs usually have a line-out and pre-amp function so that we can take the output to a headphone or power amplifier and prepare the signal to be delivered to our headphones. They take the digital signal from the source device, whether it be a streamer or a USB connection from a PC / Laptop, or even a CD/DVD player, and convert the provided digital signal into analog. The main purpose of using a DAC is to get smooth, crisp high-resolution audio signal decoding. A high-quality DAC will ensure we get cleaner output with a noise-free dark background. The standard DACs inside smartphones and other devices are usually not such clean and ruins the output. A high-end DAC also supports decoding for high-resolution audio signals supporting PCM, native DSD, and even MQA signals as well.

Now you might ask what is an analog signal? The analog signal is the sound signal in the form of waves, that we can actually hear using our Headphones and IEMs. There are two different types of DACs that are widely used in the market today, they are Portable and Desktop. As you might have guessed from their name, Portable refers to handy compact USB and Bluetooth DACs that one can use anywhere with their smartphones, laptops, and even PCs. Desktop DACs are static and are simply connected as a chain in a desktop setup. They can’t be moved much and are usually heavy.

A DAC usually has RCA and XLR line-out/pre-out options. They usually have fixed line-out but new-generation DACs come with a pre-amp function that allows you to adjust the output volume easily. The decoded signal is then processed by the amplifier and prepared for the headphone output.

Portable USB DAC:-

MOONDROP - Moonriver 2 Portable USB DAC & Amp

Portable USB DACs are simple, compact, handy devices that have all the limelight today. Some common examples of portable DACs would be the Lotoo Paw S1, Questyle M15, Jcally AP98, etc. They are designed to be used on the go simply with a smartphone and usually have a built-in AMP section as well. This helps you to listen to high-quality audio on the go with clear decoding using high-fidelity DAC and powerful amplification with built-in AMP circuitry.

Today, Portable USB DACs are widely used as they are easily available at different price brackets starting as low as 1,000 Rs and going as high as 19,999-29,999 Rs for flagship products.

Desktop DACs:-

Desktop DACs

When it comes to the Desktop audio chain, the very first product you need is a dedicated Desktop DAC. This helps you take signals from your desktop PC or laptop and prepares it for amplification. Desktop-grade DACs are usually better at decoding, as they come with a proper design consisting of heat sink and have got proper ventilation as well that keeps the chipset cool even after long hours of usage.

For output, Desktop DAC usually has an RCA output with Red and White cables for left and right channels. New-generation DACs also have balanced circuits with multiple DAC chips(each chip for each channel), and they also support XLR output for balanced amplifiers.

Why do we need a DAC in our Chain?

The reason is clear now, we need a DAC in our chain basically to help us decode high-resolution audio signals with full crispness and retrieve every single detail from the music. A better DAC will ensure a clear sound with better details, rich tone, crisp separation of instruments, and better clarity as well. A bad DAC might have background noise issues that would create an issue for Hi-Res audio enthusiasts.

Now that we have understood what is a DAC, let’s move ahead and we will understand the second important device in a desktop chain, the Amplifier.

What is an Amplifier?

GUSTARD - H16 Balanced Headphone Amplifier

An amplifier, as its name suggests is a device that amplifies (boosts/loudens/adds more volume) the sound signal. It can be a power amplifier for speaker systems or simple headphone amplifier for IEMs and Headphones. It has to be sufficiently powerful for your Headphones and IEMs to drive them properly. An amplifier basically takes the sound signal from the DAC and amplifies it preparing the sound signal for headphones. The main purpose here is to amplify the signal while keeping the distortion levels low and providing a powerful output with low background noise. Without an amplifier, it’s not possible to drive any kind of speaker whether it be a bookshelf or a small one in a headphone. There are both portable and desktop-grade headphone amplifiers. They usually have two or more gain levels that will ensure clear compatibility with low-power requiring IEMs and high-power requiring headphones.

If you might ask us then how can we hear the sound directly from our smartphones? The simple truth is that a smartphone, PC, or Laptop that has a 3.5mm headphone output has a built-in audio chipset that consists of AMP and DAC chips. They might not be high-res certified, but they are there converting sound signals and producing output.

Coming back to the topic at hand here, There are two different types of amplifiers that are widely used today in the industry, Solid-State, and Vacuum Tube-based amplifiers.

Solid-state Amplifiers:-

SMSL - SU-6 Desktop Mini Audio DAC

Simple transistor-based headphone amplifiers. These feature transistor circuits that convert the provided electrical signal into an audio wave. They are capable of delivering high-power amplification while running cool. Solid State amplifier achieves high-power amplification with lower distortion in the output signal.

Vacuum Tube Amplifiers:-

Little Dot - MKIII OTL Headphone Amplifier

Tube-based headphone amplifiers feature a Vacuum Tube that gives the output a rich, organic, smooth tonality. They are usually very smooth sounding and have a lovely presentation for vocals. Tube amps deliver impressive tonality, but they are more prone to distortion in the output signal. They have bulb-like tubes (that obviously don’t glow bright like a big bulb) that add a touch of warmth and smooth tone to the output signal.

Some Final Words:-

Both the DAC and AMP work in line with each other. We would like to add here the final output will depend on the quality of both the components in your chain. Based on your listening preferences, a high-quality DAC will ensure smooth, clean signal decoding and a good-quality headphone amplifier will ensure a high-power output with a pitch-dark noise-free background. We hope with this guide, we are able to clear your doubts regarding DAC and AMPs. If you still have any doubts or would like to connect with us, feel free to communicate with us through our website.


Synonyms for "Tube"