Audio interface vs DAC (Digital to Analog converter), Comparisons & Guides

Those who are sound engineers or are in the sound production business are sure familiar with the Audio Interface vs. DAC war that has persisted since technology blessed us with both critical devices in the music production world.

From the look of things, it doesn't seem easy to decide which audio component you need to make your music production journey easier. Now that you’re trying to purchase either of the two devices, you’ve taken to the internet to help you break the seeming tie between the two devices and be the deciding factor on which one would give you the result you seek.

Worry no more! If, until now, you’ve not found a shoulder to lean on as regards this clarification journey on the difference between a Digital to Analog Converter and an Audio Interface, you can lean on ours. Without further ado, let’s get into what these two audio machines can do and how they differ.

What is a DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter)

Think of the Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) as an interpreter. It’s the messiah that comes to our rescue when it comes to an understanding digital signals. I’m sure you’re wondering, ‘what does a DAC do?’ Here’s a cut to the chase answer: it is skilled at converting digital signals (or digital data, if you please) into analog signals for your listening pleasure.

Here’s a secret (that is not so much of a secret). DACs are an integral part of certain audio equipment. For example, audio equipment like CD players of your smartphone all has internal DACs. This internal DAC functions to convert digital sounds into analog sounds.

The gist is, when sound waves are recorded using a microphone, it becomes an analog wave. However, when stored on a PC or CD player, or Mobile Phone, it becomes a digital signal. Naturally, the human ear and brain are wired to understand analog signals.

Hence, you’ll need the help of a DAC first to translate the stored digital signal into an analog signal. It’s like a translator that makes it easy for a Spanish man to Communicate freely in his native dialect to an Italian man (Who doesn’t understand Spanish).

The translator, hence, goes back and forth between translating Spanish to Italian (for the Italian man to understand what the Spanish man says) and Italian to Spanish (for the Spanish man to understand what the Italian man says too).

You see, in the days of the old, there was no need for DACs. That’s because recordings were done via microphones.

Microphones produce analog signals. Hence, you didn’t need a translator to help you understand what had been recorded. However, for the sake of sound efficiency, engineers started to record these signals in digital form. Hence, the need for DAC arose.

On this note, people often ask the vital question; will a DAC improve my sound quality? Well, it would but not precisely in the way you expect it to. One truth about DACs is that they don't exactly make a lot of difference in audio quality that it converts.

The major role a DAC takes is the role of noise reduction. Here’s what I mean. If you have a noisy system, you’ll benefit from an external DAC. It would drastically reduce the intruding noise so you can enjoy the analog signal it generates from the conversion process.

Most external DACs rarely upgrade your analog sound significantly. You’ll need an audio interface to help improve the quality of your audio. However, if your DAC is the type that has the ability to distort or color audio quality, then you might notice a difference in the analog sound that’s been produced.

Even then, you probably won’t hear the difference between these types of DAC modes on your audio. The only time you’ll notice the difference is when you playback the audio via speakers and other sources that are high-end. Otherwise, an audio interface would be best for audio quality modification.

More so, although internal DACs exist, there is a subtle difference between external and internal DACs. Nevertheless, aside from noise reduction, any modification a DAC makes on your audio would be vague and almost unnoticeable.

Now, you might be wondering why you need an external DAC when your audio equipment (television, mobile phone, CD players, etc.) all have internal DACs. The simple answer is, you won’t get the kind of high-quality result you should get from an external DAC from an internal one.

So, you know how sound engineers do not use the internal audio input on their computers to record a song or other audio forms? But use a device like a USB microphone to do so for better sound quality? It is similar to a DAC.

An internal DAC would easily convert your digital signals to analog. However, you’d get a noticeable level of noise interference. On the other hand, an external DAC would give you a better result as it was designed to perform one function alone: convert digital signals to analog signals.

How DAC works?

It all begins from the recording stage. Let’s say you record a song with a microphone. You’ve generated an analog signal. But, to save this analog signal on PCs, record engineers deploy the use of Analog-to-Digital converters to convert analog signals to digital signals.

When that happens, they can easily store the sound (human voice, instrumentals, etc.) as digital signals.

Of course, you’d want to playback the digital data you just stored on your PA; DAC steps in to convert or decode the digital data into an analog sig to understand what has been recorded.

Lastly, the DAC transfers this decoded signal to an amp. The amp releases the song or music through air buds, speakers, earphones, etc.

A note of warning, these days, a DAC isn’t necessary. Thanks to technology, a lot of the audio devices produced today have solid DACs that drastically reduce electrical noise, allowing users to enjoy a pleasurable listening experience.

Hence, if your mobile device or audio equipment has a great built-in DAC, you do not need an external one. Of course, different types of DACs fit different situations. These other DACs also come in different sizes, from small to medium to big.

Pros of DACs

  • Its conversion circuits are faster in comparison with other forms of Digital-to-Analog devices.
  • There is a variety of DACs, making it possible for you to travel anywhere with them.
  • You’ll find it a lot easier to use DACs.

Cons

  • DACs spring problems like jitters, bitrate issues, offset errors, etc.

About Audio Interface?

If you ever need to record any instrument or song with human vocals to a computer, an audio interface comes in handy.

But that’s not all. It also ensures that you can playback the sound you record via speakers, headphones, etc.

One of the best things about an audio interface is that it comes with an efficient built-in DAC.

This DAC is responsible for converting the digital signal stored into your computer into analog signals.

Then, it makes it easy for you to playback your song through speakers, etc.

On the flip side, audio interfaces have what DACs lack. It can also be regarded as an Analog-to-Digital audio interface.

The reason is, and Audio interface performs Analog-to-Digital conversion with the A/D function that it has. This A/D function makes it possible for your computer to understand the analog sound being directly recorded into your computer.

Want to know to dig deeper in this field? Please read our article about what is an audio interface to learn more.

Pros of audio interface

  • It has a larger size that accommodates different types of inputs.
  • Audio interfaces produce high-quality audio. The audio you record with it comes out cleaner, clearer and purer.
  • You’ll find it easier to use and manage audio interfaces compared to other devices.
  • It plays the role of a DAC and Analog-to-Digital converter well.

Cons

  • Generally, because audio interfaces are specialized equipment that is very functional, they tend to be quite expensive.
  • Cheap audio interfaces won’t be as functional as high-end ones.

Audio interface vs. DAC

Now that you’ve come to know this equipment individual, here are some of the features that set them apart from each other.

Function:

The first DAC vs. Audio Interface difference that we notice is in their function. For instance, DAC only functions as a converter that changes digital signals to analog signals. Of course, it comes in different types and sizes. On the other hand, DAC is built-in with audio interfaces. In essence, an audio interface functions as a DAC along with other functions.

You can record your audio to your computer using an audio interface. Its ability to convert analog signals into audio signals makes recording anything (voice or instrument) into your computer an easy adventure. You can also record directly into your DAW.

All you just need to do is plug your microphone into the ports on the audio interface. Then, it also functions as a DAC. This way, it converts the digital signal that’s been recorded on your PC into analog sound so that you can play it back with the help of a speaker, studio monitor, etc.

Technically, an audio interface is a DAC and more. It performs a lot more function compared to the DAC, and it plays these other roles well. Unlike the DAC, audio interfaces also come with built-in preamps and headphone amps.

EFFECT ON AUDIO QUALITY:

When it comes to the result that these two audio equipment has on analog sounds, the difference is clear, and I’ll show you in a bit. You see, when DACs were invented, it was supposed to be a solution to the unbearable noise that accompanied analog signals.

Those born in the days of old can testify to the quality of analog audio that was created. While it wasn’t near perfect as it had a lot of noise interference, the DAC stepped in as the messiah. But all it ever did on analog signals was reduce the noise so that you can get a sound with a clear and sonic background.

Aside from reducing the noise that accompanied analog signals, DAC doesn’t impact analog signals further. Although we spoke about DACs that could color analog signals, they do so close to zero noticeable impact on the analog signal. In essence, you won’t notice the impact of the DAC unless you listen to it with speakers, etc.

On the other hand, audio interfaces make huge impacts on the sound quality of analog signals. After using the A/D feature of the audio interface to convert your recorded analog signal into digital and then re-convert it into analog using the built-in DAC on an audio interface, you’ll notice that the audio quality you’ll get not only be devoid of interference.

It would be crisp, clear, and clean such that your audience would enjoy listening to the sound. Also, with DACs, the audio quality you’ll get would still come with jitters and a little bit of noise unless you use high-fidelity DACs.

Then, you won’t experience the noise and jitters problem after converting a digital signal to analog. With audio interfaces, you won’t get any of that; jitters, noise, and other interference.

About any good audio interface would give you the result audio quality that you desire. So, to answer your bugging question, “does audio interface improve sound quality?”, yes, it does.

LATENCY:

Latency, in sound engineering, refers to a digital signal's processing and conversion time to analog. In essence, when the latency of your digital signal conversion to analog is right, the playback would be accurate, and you won’t hear any delay when you play it in real-time.

When you do the digital to analog conversion with an audio interface, you won’t experience latency issues. Hence, you’ll easily and quickly make any changes you want to make to the audio quality. However, when you convert the digital signal to analog with a dedicated DAC, you’ll notice that it comes with low latency.

There is a noticeable delay in its playback, which would definitely be an issue for recording engineers, DJs, podcasters, and other professional sound engineers. It would make editing the audio quality a lot slower than usual as they won’t quickly hear the changes they’ve made to the audio quality.

For example, let’s say you recorded an instrument chorus. You’d want to play it back to hear how it turned out. However, it would be a pain in the ass if the audio stalled for a while before responding to your request to play.

While you’ll experience low latency with DACs, you won’t experience it with audio interfaces. The reason is simple. All good audio interfaces, including the budget ones, come with the ultra-latency feature. This feature boosts the latency of your audio, making it accurate and responsive.

AUDIO INPUTS:

DACs do not come with audio inputs. If you’ve been following, you can already tell why. It was only designed to convert a digital signal to analog signals.

However, audio interfaces come with many inputs for microphones, instruments of your choice, etc. These input spots allow you to record your analog sound and then convert it into a digital signal for the computer to understand.

Related: Mixer vs Audio Interface

Verdict

Now, you should already have the answer to your question will DAC improve my sound? The short answer is no. Although DAC. It would reduce the noise interference in your audio quality, but that’s just all. It doesn’t do anything again.

Thanks to technology, the audio interface is the better and upgraded version of the DAC. You can do a lot of tricks with it on your analog audio. In fact, think of your audio interface and both an analog audio interface and a digital audio interface because it works to convert digital signals to analog and vice versa. Hopefully, with this Audio Interface vs. DAC comparison, we’ve helped you decide which of the two you should go for.

Clearly, you should go for the audio interface, especially if you want to, one day, become a great sound engineer, music producer, podcaster, or any other profession that requires you to produce great audio quality.

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