Amps & DACS

Amplifiers and DACS, while important, aren’t the end-all and be-all of audio like some audiophile snobs would have you believe. Are they important in a home studio? To an extent. If you have higher end headphones in your space, you’ll want one, sure.

I currently have 14-15 on my desk as we speak, and have demoed over 40 of them.

Though it’s nice to have a good one, The emphasis that people place on them is pretty silly.

The problem with the audiophile hobby is a sense of arrogant elitism. I talked about the hierarchy of importance in this video, and purchasing an Amp/DAC is a distant fourth.

That said, there are times when a good Amp/DAC can make a difference. The problem is that there are hundreds (if not thousands of them) on the market.

Shouldn’t that tell you something?

The FiiO K5 Pro is an extremely versatile Amp/DAC combo

Yes. There are differences between them. But they are so subtle and marginal. Most people who don’t have a bunch lying around will never know or even care. It’s sort of like shiny object syndrome. I’m afforded the luxury of being able to compare them all exhaustively for you, but my desire to want more has waned completely. I truly don’t really care about them like, at all anymore.

That said, a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) is important as it converts digital information (1’s and 0’s) into analog (and vice versa). The amp then amplifies the signal for you to hear. Related: The Best DAC Chip In Headphone Audio

In a microphone recording, your voice (analog) is converted to digital for you to further edit and modify later.

We discussed this in the “Choosing Your DAW” section, and it is important.

Even so…

In my opinion, Amps & DACS are mostly for snobby audiophile types who claim they can hear the grass growing in their backyard.

I’m a musician, writer, and artist. We folks tend to place more emphasis on the experience of listening to and making music rather than the gear used to achieve it. There’s a time and place for analytical listening, and surely I’m well familiar. I’ve been making beats and listening critically to music since 2007. I tend to do it by default as it’s sort of hard wired into me.

But for people to forget why they’re acquiring the gear int he first place (that is, to actually enjoy the music), is a huge oxymoron and perhaps the biggest contradiction that exists in this so called “hobby”, where people will actually attack you in a fit of rage for having an opinion contrary to theirs.

I just recently received a comment on my YouTube channel that most certainly encapsulates this concept quite well:

Sure, Amps and DACS provide different flavors of sound, use different DAC chips, and are all designed a bit differently.

But that doesn’t mean we should drop everything and throw money at companies every time they come out with a new product.

In reality, choosing an Amp/DAC comes down to 3 basic considerations:

  • What do you need it to do within your own space?

Do you need a bass boost and gain switch? Lots of power output? What kinds of inputs and outputs do you need? i.e. what do you want to connect it to or be capable of? The K5 Pro pictured above is extremely versatile, hence why I tend to recommend it a lot to people just starting out. I have one here and love it. It’s a jack of all trades and sounds really good with all of my headphones.

  • Output Impedance

Most of the sound discrepancies in Amps & DACS can be boiled down to the output impedance of the product in question. A higher number means you’re getting a warmer, gooier, tube-like sound. This type of amp works best with higher impedance headphones like the Sennheiser HD600. An example would be a Bottlehead Crack, or even your home theater receiver. Related: What is Output Impedance?

A lower number (close to zero) ensures the Amp delivers the same load across various headphone impedances. In simpler terms, it means that the Amp is going to sound almost completely clean and neutral – no coloration, exactly as the artist intended. You’ll hear each track as it was recorded, good or bad.

This is invaluable in a good setup. People will go back and forth on which provides a better listening experience, but that comes down to personal preference and/or your mood more than anything. For instance, sometimes I’m in the mood for a warmer type of sound. For that, I reach for the iFi hip-dac. If I’m feeling more neutral, something like a JDS ATOM, FiiO A3, NX4, etc. You get the idea.

  • Power Output

This is important because you’ll obviously want to ensure you purchase something that provides enough power for your headphones. There’s nothing worse than buying a bunch of stuff and then finding out you’re getting a weak, low volume signal. Most newcomers need help in this regard because they don’t yet know how much power their new headphone needs.

For an in-depth, detailed explanation: How to Choose a Headphone Amp [Definitive Guide]

Well, that’s enough about Amps & DACS for one day.

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