Audio Interface vs DAC Differences

Introduction

A Digital to Analog converter (DAC) is a device that takes a digital input (the binary form of input which is understood by computers) and converts it into an analog signal which is then transmitted through your speakers. On the other hand, every audio interface has a DAC. Essentially, the difference is that an audio interface is a DAC with added capability and functionality. A DAC is mainly for sound improvements whereas the use case for an Audio interface is mainly music production.

DACs are a crucial part of any device that supplies an audio output. They are also present in your phone/computer’s built-in soundcard, but they are generally not of high quality. You could certainly replace a DAC with an audio interface. Generally speaking, Audio interfaces are cheaper than DACs, plus they allow for analog inputs, volume control and have a lower latency. This makes Audio interfaces superior to DACs in most applications. However, in certain cases, DACs could be a better choice. For example, you could use them to passively improve your home’s sound system.

What is an Audio Interface?

An audio interface is at the center of all audio processing. Any signal or digital information has to go through your audio interface. Audio Interfaces are used in professional recording studios to record music. They are also used for podcasting, streaming and in live music.

Fundamentally, any device you own like a smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc. has a stock-sound card which can convert digital signals into analog audio. However, the majority of these sound cards are very basic. They have very limited capabilities and can’t handle several signals at once.

This is why you need an audio interface. With an audio interface, you can actively monitor your recordings since it allows you to export audio files to your software. An audio interface also has an ADC (Analog-to-digital converter). This means you can convert your audio signal to a digital one so you could process it on your PC.

What is a DAC?

DACs are the most essential tool in transmitting digital audio. Without DACs, we would not be able to output audio from any electric machine. DACs transform the data’s form from a binary state to analog audio in the form of varying wave frequencies.

Every time you play a music track or an audio file, a DAC circuit has to convert the file’s signal form. For instance, when you hit play on an audio track on your mobile phone or laptop, the audio file which is stored in the form of binary code goes through your DAC. The DAC then converts this code into an analog output that you can hear through speakers.

You need an analog converter because computers can’t store analog data. Computers can only recognize 2 states: the ON state and the OFF state (often represented as 1s and 0s). Essentially, this binary code is the language that computers ‘understand’. The sounds we hear, on the other hand, are a sequence of varying frequencies. This makes it impossible for a computer to store audio files in their analog form. And since speakers can take an analog input only, you’ll need a DAC to convert the digital data into an analog form.

Differences between an Audio Interface and a DAC

Both DACs and audio interfaces are tools meant to improve your audio quality. Even though an audio interface contains a DAC, there are many notable differences between the two. Most of these differences lie in their drives and functions. A DAC has only one job which is to convert data forms. On the contrary, an audio interface is a multi-purpose tool. You can use it for monitoring audio files, controlling volume levels, and converting data forms.

The main differences between an audio interface and a DAC are presented in the table below

DACAudio Interface
Most DACs have relatively high latency. Latency is the time it takes for an audio signal to be converted into an analog one. In audio conversion, latency is often measured in ms. To put it into perspective, a 10ms difference in latency is considered to be a HUGE difference.While some audio interfaces also have latency issues, especially the ones that contain cheap DACs, most high-end audio interfaces don’t suffer from high latencies and generally outperform DACs in the same price range.
A DAC has no audio inputs. It only has a single input that takes a digital signal. This means there are no sockets for you to plug in a keyboard, microphone, guitar or any audio device. A DAC could have both a coaxial and optical audio input. Yet, you still have to choose one as your source.Audio interfaces have several audio inputs. These inputs allow for the addition of guitars, drums, and mics. The number of inputs on an audio interface depends on the quality and brand of the interface. But you can find as many as 16 inputs on a single interface!
A DAC only has outputs for speakers or wired-headphones. DACs could have XLA and RCA type outputs. Yet, only high-end interfaces allow you to output both of them at the same time. Basic DACs only take a single digital input and transmit it to a single speaker output.Audio interfaces have several outputs. These outputs are also of different types. For example, basic audio interfaces contain headphones, monitor and line outputs. Each of these outputs has a specific use-case. You could also find ADAT, MIDI, and PDIF outputs in decent audio interfaces.
DACs mainly have a single stereo output. Even though you could have several outputs, the audio signal will be the same for all of them. Essentially, you can only convert one audio signal at a timeAudio interfaces have several types of analog outputs and each of these outputs could be assigned a separate input. This means you can have different audio signals play simultaneously through the different outputs of your audio interface.
DACs don’t have volume control knobs. In fact, there aren’t many controls on a DAC except for source selection controls on high-end DACs. Basic DACs don’t even have a single control. The signal from your DAC simply passes on to the output jack.Audio interfaces do have volume control knobs. Mainly, audio interfaces have control knobs for the main outputs like the speakers and headphones jacks. They might also have an overall volume control knob. Decent audio interfaces also have other control options like gain control knobs and preamp toggle buttons. These controls depend on the type and quality of the interface.
DACs are relatively more expensive than audio interfaces. While there are DACs that go for 5$ each, they won’t provide any noticeable improvement in audio quality. Good DACs will set you back at least 80$ or so. Professional ones could reach the thousand dollar margin.You can find very affordable Audio interfaces with decent features. Since the market for audio interfaces is very competitive, manufacturers are constantly producing high-quality products at very competitive prices. You could land yourself a decent audio interface for around 60$. At the 150$ margin, you’re already looking at medium-range interfaces. Even then, professional audio interfaces will cost a couple thousand dollars.
A DAC is very passive in the way it offers audio improvement.  Since there are very few controls (if any) on DACs, you’ll only ever need to manage your DAC during the setup process.Audio interfaces require a more active management than DACs. Depending on the use-case, you might constantly have to switch input and output jacks. Accordingly, you’ll also have to control the different knobs and toggles on your interface.

Choosing The Right one For Your Needs

To conclude the debate on DACs vs. audio interfaces, there isn’t one conclusive answer. It completely depends on what you hope to achieve.

Both DACs and Audio interfaces are tools meant for high-end music production. Regardless of your choice, it’s still an upgrade from your current stock components. Generally speaking, if you’re looking for passive low-maintenance sound improvements, go for a DAC. Otherwise, for music production purposes, go for an audio interface. If you have extra budget to spare, then a DAC-Audio interface setup will settle the debate. Your DAC will be at the heart of improving your sound system, while your interface enhances the sound of your recordings.

Final Words

Keep in mind that an audio interface is in fact a DAC. A “DAC” is a consumer-oriented term, while an “interface” is a term targeted towards music producers. An interface does have extra inputs and outputs along with added controls compared to a DAC. High-end audio interfaces also have several DACs within the same unit. Usually, the channels labeled as “mains out” are backed by the best DAC, while the other outputs are backed by the DACs of lesser quality.

In all, if you’re in the market for a DAC/Audio interface, you should be deciding on a device based on its price, I/O capability, and its features.  The most important factor in choosing between the two is the use-case. In my opinion, a good audio interface can definitely replace the need for a DAC, especially if your audio already sounds good with an audio interface only.