What Is A USB DAC Amp? – Should You Buy One?

What Is A USB DAC Amp? – Should You Buy One?

If you find yourself becoming a little bit confused by some of the terms used to describe different types of personal audio equipment – you’re not alone. There are so many confusing names and specifications that it can start to seem like an overwhelming task to try and sort through all of them. One of the most commonly-asked questions is “What is a USB DAC amp?”

If your palms are starting to sweat and you’re mentally preparing for a college-level electronics course, don’t worry. We’ll do our best to give you a quick crash course without all the unnecessary ultra-technical explanations that you might be used to reading and trying to comprehend.

Once you learn about the main functions and how they change the quality of audio you love listening to, you’ll realize that it wasn’t so complicated after all. (Plus you’ll be able to explain it to a friend in a way that most people can understand. We can’t all have a Master’s in electrical engineering.)

What Is A USB DAC Amp? – Should You Buy One?

Before we get into discussing whether or not you should consider buying one of these, you’ll want to know what exactly it is that they do. Most of us don’t like being hit with a wall of technical terms followed by the expectation that we make a decision on the spot. 

Has This Ever Happened To You?

You’ve probably had the experience of going to the doctor’s office or dentist because you’re experiencing some sort of discomfort. You explain what’s going on and they might’ve taken a few notes, asked a question or two, then left you sitting for 15-20 minutes.

As you wait, your left anxiously wondering if the doctor’s tests will confirm that article you read online last night. You’re hoping that your suspicion about that mole on your leg turning into cancer isn’t true. 

Technical Terms and More Technical Terms

When the doctor finally gets back, they sit down on their swivel chair and spin around to face you. Instead of explaining the fact that the mole on your leg is completely normal and benign – they start hurling terms at you that only an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) would understand. 

As your head starts to spin they go on for another minute or so and end with a question. You didn’t even have time to process the explanation so you have to ask for clarification. At this point, they either repeat the same exact spiel, or try their best to “dumb it down”. 

Maybe the second time it made a little more sense, but you’re still not exactly sure what just happened. You decide to take whatever suggestion it is that they offered in the form of a question – trusting that they know best so you should follow their advice. 

You get home and feel more comforted than before you went in, but still have a sense that there might be something wrong with that mole. On one hand, you’re satisfied, but on the other – confused.

Technical Terms Made Simple 

That might’ve seemed like a long, drawn out example but the truth is, we’ve all been there (and none of us enjoy that feeling). Our goal with this guide, is to avoid making you feel like you’re reading an electrical dictionary. Now that that’s out of the way and you know where we’re coming from, let’s get started. 

Technical Terms Made Simple - What Is A USB DAC Amp?

Converting Digital To Analog

To start off we’ll go over what “DAC” actually stands for. The literal translation is “digital-to-analog-converter”. Music files of any type that are stored on your laptop/other portable device need to be converted from a digital to an analog signal.

This includes file types such as FLAC, AIFF, MP3 and WAV. Any device that you’re playing music from (your phone, laptop, TV, or MP3 player) has an internal digital-to-analog-converter (otherwise you wouldn’t be able to hear any sound playing). 

Digital Files and How They Convert

The music file that you download from iTunes or another digital music store is compressed into a small digital file. The small digital file contains the data that makes up your favorite song. Without any sort of digital conversion mechanism, that digital file wouldn’t be worth downloading in the first place. 

Here’s a simplified breakdown of the conversion process:

  1. A DAC converts digital signals (MP3, etc.) into analog signals (a replication of the sounds recorded in the studio – guitar, vocals, etc.)
  2. An amp takes that signal and makes it stronger (think audio waves on steroids or Red Bull)
  3. Your headphones then use the resulting analog signal to produce the audio frequencies/sound waves that bring music to your ears

The frequency response of your headphones will also have an effect on how much stronger, clearer, and ultimately better your audio will sound. Headphones, DACs, amps, and the player of your choice all interact with each other to create the best sonic experience possible.

You could think of them as an electrical team where each member has a specific purpose. Each of them alone won’t perform at their best and they all have individual strengths and weaknesses. A football team without a quarterback or a basketball team without a center would be at a severe disadvantage. 

A pair of headphones by itself is pretty much useless. A pair of headphones with a device that has digital music stored on it is better. A pair of headphones + a device with music + a DAC/AMP = hi-resolution sonic bliss. 

Do Portable Players Have a Built-in DAC?

The short answer is yes. Unfortunately, the built-in converters that most phones/laptops already have inside them, are made of cheap materials for mass production. While they do successfully convert the signal, they don’t do the best job at it

Here are the 3 main types of DAC combos:

  1. Built-in DAC (laptop, smartphone, TV, etc.)
  2. Built-in amp (some headphones, phones, portable players)
  3. DAC/AMP combination (designated external USB/non-USB device)

Let’s take a closer look at some real-life examples to help give you a better understanding. 

What’s The Best Combination For Optimum Results?

The DAC/AMP combination is the best mix for most people since it not only converts the audio signal, but also gives it more life and power. This type of combo instantaneously performs the step-by-step simplified breakdown of the process we went over above. 

Examples of External USB DAC/Amp Combos

The AudioQuest Dragonfly Red is an example of a USB DAC amp that can be plugged directly into your laptop, smartphone, or other compatible music player. It looks almost exactly like your average USB flash drive. 

The main difference is that it’s not used to store files on – it’s used to enhance the quality of your audio. You know where the USB end goes. At the bottom, you can see the 3.5 mm port where you’d put your headphones. 

Another popular DAC/AMP combo device is the model seen below. The Creative Sound Blaster E5 can be plugged in via micro USB or the standard headphone port. Although the E5 will plug-in via USB and the standard 3.5 mm headphone port – not all headphone amps give you that option.

The main difference between these two models are size, connectivity, and performance. The AudioQuest Dragonfly Red is more compact than the E5 – but both are fully portable. 

Both devices contain high quality digital-to-analog-conversion technology and an amp. Both will also elevate the level of sound quality that blasts out of your headphones.  

What If My Device Already Has a Built-in DAC?

If you know for a fact that your device has a high quality, digital-to-analog-converter built-in, you may or may not need an external DAC amp.

Try to remember the last time you purchased a new phone, downloaded your music streaming service of choice, and found your favorite playlist or song to start jamming out to. Did the sound quality live up to your expectations or not?

The Relationship Between Your Headphones and An Amp

Chances are, you’re looking for more and that’s why you find yourself reading this, right now. You most likely already own a decent pair of headphones. If you don’t have a solid go-to pair, that would be the best place to start.

Here’s our headphone buying guide that will help you decide what to look for, and which style/type would work best for you. What’s the bottom line? Using a quality pair of headphones with an iPhone or the new Samsung Galaxy won’t cut it if you want to listen to hi-resolution audio.

If you paired a $500 headphone with an expensive smartphone, it will sound better than using a pair of $25 headphones – but even the high-end headphone can only do so much on it’s own

Granted, some streaming services do offer hi-resolution audio quality, which is definitely a step up, but not the final solution. 

If you’ve ever used a portable headphone amp, you’ll know that when you attach an external headphone amp or DAC – you immediately notice that the audio sounds ten times better compared to just plugging your headphones straight into the jack. 

How Much Better Will My Music Sound?

Ask anyone with experience about how much of a difference adding a DAC amp to your personal setup will make and they’ll all say the same thing. “It makes a world of difference”, “I’ll never go back to my old setup”, “Mind-blowing” (and other feedback to that effect).

Without question, your music will instantly sound better and play at louder volumes. If you’ve made it this far, your next question might be, “Which one should I get?”. 

Both of the models that we used as examples earlier, have received extremely positive feedback. As far as which one is better, the Dragonfly Red is more highly-rated overall. If you like the look, size, and design of the Creative Sound Blaster E5, it’s also definitely worth taking a closer look at here

How Did We Do? - What Is A USB DAC Amp?

How Did We Do? – Was It As Complicated As You Thought It Might Be?

Are you still stuck and confused, wondering “What is a USB DAC amp?” or does it make a lot more sense now? Hopefully the information here was easy to follow and helped you understand the terminology. 

What do you think? Will you be adding one of these awesome devices to your personal audio setup? Does it seem like an easy way to upgrade your sound quality without having to drop $1000 for some overpriced headphones?

Let us know if you have anymore questions, need some clarification, or just want to add your two cents in the comment section below!

Hopefully you enjoyed your time here and were able to soak up the knowledge and add it to the filing cabinet in your brain for later. (You can always bookmark this page to revisit later if you think you might forget.)

Also, if you know anyone else who could benefit from checking this out, share it with your friends and/or followers on your social media! Thanks for stopping by, we hope to see you here again! 

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