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Audio Interface vs DAC: Do You Need Both?

Audio Interface vs DAC Do You Need Both_

You’re probably wondering, what is the difference between an audio interface vs DAC?

Well, don’t worry because you aren’t the only one who seems confused!

When it comes to the sound production business, a very common debacle is differentiating between an audio interface vs DAC.

These two tools may seem similar; however, they actually have numerous notable differences to take into consideration.

In this article, we will provide you with vital knowledge about audio interfaces and DACs!

This shall help us answer the final question, which is if you need both of these devices.

Table of Contents

What is an Audio Interface?

What is an Audio Interface-

A home recording studio’s foundation is an audio interface.

This piece of equipment will handle all you need to record your music.

Audio interfaces are part of a new category of audio devices with the ability to connect to your computer, instruments, and microphone.

  • These have a wider range of input types can be built into the unit due to its larger physical size and easier accessibility.
  • Thus, it allows the device to output a variety of audio signals and expand one’s input and outputs.

Audio interfaces, unlike dedicated Digital to Analog Converters, also include an Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADCs).

  • Analog-to-digital converters convert analog audio signals from microphones and musical instruments into digital audio signals and send them to the computer.
  • An audio interface is a device that converts the analog signal from microphones or other recording equipment into a digital signal that may be recorded by your computer.

Most audio interfaces include a headphone amplifier.

  • A headphone amp allows you to listen to audio playback from a computer using headphones connected directly to an audio interface.
  • Interestingly, a headphone amplifier is powerful enough to drive high impedance headphones.

To put it in simpler terms, audio interfaces get sound into and out of your computer.

An audio interface is required if you are looking for a better audio quality recording of your voice or any instrument and hear the results so that you can mix and master your recordings.

What is a DAC?

What is a DAC

This might be the first time you’re even hearing of the term DAC, but digital to analog converters are surprisingly present in many of our everyday devices!

Basically, every device capable of decoding and playing audio files has a DAC file to it!

A Digital to-Analog Converter, or DAC, is a device that converts the digital signal coming out of one’s computer and transforming it into an analog audio signal.

Any digital audio equipment should come with a built-in DAC preinstalled since the analog conversion is an important process.

However, you should consider acquiring an external DAC for the following reasons:

  • The issue is that most consumer-grade devices’ DACs are of lower audio quality and designed for consumer use: with earbuds, low-powered speakers, and so on.
    • This can cause the audio signal to distort and lead to an audible difference.
  • Thus, investing in a good quality DAC will allow you to produce accurate sound quality.
    • Without being surrounded by noise-producing equipment, dedicated DACs prevent noise in one’s audio signals.
    • The audio quality of one’s system can be improved with the help of dedicated DACs.
  • An external DAC paired with headphone amps gives you even better sound and more power!
    • Instead of a dedicated DAC, there are also DACs with built-in headphone amps.
    • Most DACs built into a headphone amplifier are high-fidelity DACs and will be a significant upgrade over what’s built into common devices.

Dedicated DACs help minimize noticeable noise or objectionable distortion.

Thus, an external DAC converts the audio signals, specifically the digital signal into an analog signal with no noise interference.

Differences of Audio Interface vs DAC

Differences of Audio Interface vs DAC

The distinction between the two is straightforward.

  • An audio interface converts analog signals to digital.
  • Meanwhile, a DAC converts digital back into analog for playback.

Listed below is a more in-depth comparison on an audio interface vs DAC.

  • An audio interface is a piece of equipment used to create music. A DAC, on the other hand, converts digital audio to analog audio.
    • Music fans, not producers, are the target audience for DACs. An audio interface, on the other hand, is ideally suited for music production.
  • An audio interfaces is a more versatile tool.
    • For example, an audio interface extremely low latency, multiple analog outputs, volume control, and USB outputs.
    • On the other hand, a DAC, simply provides output for headphones and loudspeakers.
  • Audio inputs on an audio interface allow you to connect microphones and other instruments.
    • A DAC, on the other hand, has no audio inputs.
  • Digital to audio converters are more expensive than audio interfaces.
  • Unlike an audio interface, a DAC is a considerably more passive device.
    • This is because, once set up, all you have to do to use a DAC is connect your audio device.
    • On the other hand, audio interfaces require a lot more active administration in order to be used to their full capacity.

Similarities of Audio Interface vs DAC

Similarities of Audio Interface vs DAC

Both audio interfaces and DACs perform the same function in that they convert digital signals to analog signals for playback on various devices.

It is just that audio interfaces are intended for audio professionals, whereas DACs are intended for the general public.

This section further specifies and highlights their similarities:

  • DACs and audio interfaces convert digital audio to analog audio and vice versa.
  • Both an audio interface and DAC are excellent tools for producing high-quality music.
    • The heart of production will be your Audio Interface,
    • The brains of your playback will be your DAC.
    • They work together to create a fantastic production set-up.
  • A DAC and audio interface substantially improve the sound quality of you recording.
    • A DAC will improve the quality of your music and home entertainment system,
    • While a good audio interface will improve the sound of your records.

How Do They Work?

How Do They Work-

To gain a clearer grasp on its similarities and differences, let us break down how these two devices work.

Audio Interface

The audio interface’s job is to take an audio signal and translate it into your computer using an Analog to Digital Converter.

  • As stated earlier, these devices convert analog signals into their digital form! The digital data can then be saved, edited, and mixed on your computer.
  • The interface’s final function is to playback audio from the computer to your monitor speakers or studio monitor.

With a built-in Digital Analog Converter, it is done through a reverse conversion process known as a digital to analog conversion that converts digital signals back to an analog audio signal.

  • Microphone and instrument signals are converted by audio interfaces into a format that your computer and software can understand.
  • With multiple analog outputs, an audio interface has a built-in DAC so you don’t need an external DAC.

However, it is important to take precautions and avoid purchasing cheap audio interfaces as these are expected to have inferior quality DACs.

  • Audio interfaces must provide clean audio playback and high-quality audio at ultra-low latency—an important feature for livestreamers, DJs, music producers, and music lovers!

Audio from your computer is also routed through the interface to your headphones and studio monitors.

Interfaces are typically connected to computers via USB cables, though some use Thunderbolt, Firewire, or even Ethernet.


Digital sounds are stored in CDs, tapes, and files.

However, they are useless if not converted to analog sound to be able to interpret it. This is where our digital to analog converter comes in handy!

A digital to analog converter is able to translate binary digital signals to analog audio signals through converting digital signals from a device into analog signals.

Thus, it is a great way to provide an upgrade in one’s audio output!

When a computer records analog signals, it is usually displayed in the form of sound waves.

To convert the digital signal to an analog signal, the DAC must translate bits of the digital data into an analog signal at thousands of set times per second, also known as samples, creating a wave that intersects all of those points.

  • Some issues may arise here such as “Aliasing,” “Jitters,” “Narrow Dynamic Range,” and “Limited Bitrate.”
  • Thankfully, a high-quality digital-to-analog converter can help to resolve these audio issues.

Better Understanding the Purpose of DACs

Better Understanding the Purpose of DACs

Let’s discuss the technical specifications of these two devices to better understand them and determine why you might want to consider purchasing a DAC or an audio interface.

Bit Depth

The term “bit depth” simply refers to how much data is recorded in each sample.

Since every sample contains information, the more information within each sample means that there are more potential output values.

The greater the Bit Depth, the greater the dynamic range available.

  • Thus, low bit depth means that the volume of the track can’t be increased that much and the competing instruments are difficult to hear within the track, etc.

The recommended bit depth:

  • For casual listeners, 16-bit is perfectly adequate, especially given that CDs have always been in this format.
  • For high-end producers, 24-bits makes sense especially since it is ideal to be able to work with extremely quiet audio while also having the option of dramatically increasing the volume.


The amount of data transferred into audio is referred to as the bitrate, which is usually measured in “bits per second.”

Bitrate is a measure of speed in communications technology, particularly on the internet, where the rate of transfer indicates how quickly data can be downloaded.

This metric is also commonly used to describe audio and video quality; higher rates indicate higher quality:

  • The standard bit rate for audio is between 100 and 160 kbps, with higher quality recordings reaching 320 kbps.
  • External DACs use better chips for data conversion. These can provide improved functionality, higher bitrates, and higher accuracy.

Sample Rate

This is the number of times per second that a sound is ‘sampled’ to generate a digital signal.

  • The wider the frequency range of sounds that can be recorded and processed, the higher the sample rate.
  • The standard sample rate is 44.1kHz, which allows for the recording of sounds up to about 22 kHz.
  • Sampling at higher rates (88.2/96kHz) allows the filters used in digital audio to be well outside the human hearing range.
    • This helps in improving the audio quality. So, when deciding on an audio interface, this is one method of comparison.

Dynamic Range

In music production, dynamic range is the difference in volume between the quietest and loudest point of an instrument or part of a song in its most basic form.

  • As a result, songs with a wide dynamic range will have a larger gap between the loudest and quietest sounds than songs with more consistent sound quality.

The noise floor is the lowest range of this value.

  • It is the amount of noise that a piece of equipment naturally produces.

Meanwhile, sounds that exceed the dynamic range of a piece of equipment become uncomfortably loud, a phenomenon known as distortion.

Every piece of gear has some level of noise that should be taken into account during the mixing process.

Getting an external DAC or an audio interface are able to aid in this problem.

Do You Need Both of Them?

Do You Need Both of Them-

After comparing its similarities and differences, the question that prevails is whether you need both of them or would having just one suffice.

Considering everything that was said earlier, it is evident that you do not need both of them.

This is because most audio interfaces already have a DAC built into them that have great sound quality already.

Thus, you must consider which among the two would be more suitable for oneself.

To answer this question, let us further break this down and consider the following:

You should get an audio interface if…

  • You plan on recording audio or producing music.
    • If you want to record music, audio interfaces are essential as they allow you to record straight to your DAW via XLR inputs, MIDI, and TRS inputs.
      • Some audio interfaces even have two combo XLR inputs for plugging in microphones, instruments, a built-in DAC , and preamps.
    • An audio interface provides the music producer with more tools and features in comparison to a DAC.
      • An example of this is a volume control that allows us to adjust the volume level.
    • Given the lower cost and convenience of audio interfaces, they are an obvious choice if recording music is your goal.
  • You are a professional audio engineer:
    • As previously mentioned, audio interfaces have become the standard device for professionals to playback audio.
    • Professional audio engineers ensure that the audio we listen to is of the highest possible quality.
    • Audio engineers playback audio from their computers through audio interfaces as they mix and master songs, movie soundtracks, and more.

You should get a DAC if…

  • You plan to only listen to music:
    • When it comes to sound quality, a DAC is the way to go.
    • Digital to analog converters help improve the audio quality when you play it back on your smartphone, headphone, and computer, but not much more.
    • Having said that, if you’re not looking for production tools, the extra features of an audio interface are more likely to get in your way.
    • DACs are straightforward devices that are ideal for listeners. Thus, it is more portable and convenient than an audio interface.
  • Your PC, smartphone, or home audio system is introducing noise and you want to get rid of it.
    • As stated earlier, an external DAC converts the digital output into an analog signal with less noise interference.


There are many distinctions between an audio interface and a digital-to-audio converter because they are intended to serve different functions.

It can get really confusing really easily.

But once you know the difference, you will be able to see how they work hand-in-hand to give you the best audio quality possible!

Through understanding the purpose and how these devices work, you can now apply your newfound knowledge into selecting an audio interface or DAC that suits your needs.

We hope this article helped equip you with vital knowledge about external converters to help ease your decision process!

About the author


After becoming obsessed with the beats that were the soundtrack to his youth, Nick became a student of hip hop, digging for vinyl records, looking for the perfect break. Before he got his hands on an MPC sampler, he would mash these records, beats, and breaks into mixtapes and live DJ sets.