iFi Journal

What’s a DAC or DAC AMP? How to get the best from your expensive new headphones

What's a DAC?

Choosing a new set of headphones can be lengthy process due to huge range available nowadays, but once you own them, getting the best from them can be another bridge to cross. Simply plugging them into your smartphone or laptop isn’t going to let them achieve their best potential and that’s why iFi audio produces a range of award-winning DACs and DAC AMPs… Huh…

What’s a DAC and what’s a DAC AMP?

A DAC is a Digital to Analogue Converter and a DAC AMP also includes and amplifier.

Confused? Bear with us… It’s 2020 and for a long time now, audio has been recorded, stored and delivered digitally (streamed or on CD) — as a series of ones and zeros, but our ears can’t make and sense of those so they need to be converted to an analogue signal that we can listen to, and that’s done by a DAC!!! The DAC converts the ones and zeros and sends them through an amplifier to your headphones or speakers.

You probably already own several DACs without even knowing it, in your smartphone, digital TV or radio and even your car may have one built in — but not all DACs are created equally.

The problem is that built-in DACs are usually optimised for lowest cost, smallest size and lowest power consumption. They are usually called CODECs (Coder – DECoder) and combine everything on one chip. Some contain the Analogue to Digital Converter (ADC) for your microphone, the Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC) and an amplifier to drive your headphones. As you can appreciate, all this crammed into one piece of silicone means sound quality is usually left wanting.

Bypass the typical audio tech used in phones and laptops

The Cirrus Logic CS42L73, a common device used in smartphones, falls woefully short of offering even CD quality, especially if directly feeding headphones. It has very little power and a lot of distortion. It just scrapes by for CD quality when putting out a line signal into an external headphone amplifier. The SoundMax AD1882 High Definition Audio Codec found in many laptops is barely any better. It too fails miserably when driving headphones and barely approaches CD quality via its line output.

So, even if you have a killer pair of headphones, you probably still get relatively unimpressive sound from your computer or MP3 player. That’s what an external iFi DAC/Amp combo can do for you.  Routing your audio through an iFi DAC will bypass the lame sound CODEC built in and do two things:

  1. Improve the quality of the sound
  2. Boost the quality so you don’t have to turn the volume up so loud

The iFi audio xDSD — real high-definition sound for your headphones

You don’t need to be a golden eared audiophile to notice a difference either. You will notice a huge difference in sound volume, and a solid difference in quality, especially in the bass. The bass coming out of computer sound cards usually sounds like a bass drum playing from a tiny speaker directly into your ear. The bass coming out of a DAC sounds like a tiny, actual bass drum pumping beats into your ear.

It’s hard to explain without resorting to buzzwords, but after you listen to your headphones on such a ‘gizmo’, going back will just make everything sound flat and uninteresting.

Note that you can only get the full benefit of a DAC/AMP combo with your desktop or laptop computer or smartphone/tablet via USB. With most laptops it will be plug/play, smartphones and tablets may need adapters such as the Apple Camera Kit cable or other adapters. Make sure to check compatibility before you buy. If you have any questions, please email us or ask a question on our Facebook page.

iFi audio hip-dac

Entry-Level Portable


For the mobile music listener to enjoy from Smart device via USB.

ZEN DAC — DAC/headphone amplifier

Entry-Level Home


For home-based listening. Just connect to your computer, tablet or phone. Can be enjoyed through headphones or active speakers.

xDSD by iFi audio

Pro Portable


Our multi-award winning portable DACamp that handles the very highest resolution streams available.

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