DAC vs Preamp (Differences Explained Simply)

Disclosure: We may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. Read our full affiliate disclosure here.
  • Learn the difference between a DAC and preamp
  • Which one should you use?
  • Find out if you can use a DAC as a preamp
  • Also, check out our post on the difference between an audio interface and a preamp

The world of audio is awash with all sorts of fancy equipment. When you first start diving into the world of audio, it can be somewhat confusing to know what does what job.

A lot of newbies (and, to be honest, more experienced audiophiles) often get confused by the difference between a DAC and a preamp.

While both DAC and preamps do completely different jobs, you can often see them included on the same part of the audio chain.

So, what is the difference between a DAC and a preamp?

  • A DAC converts a digital signal into an analog signal that can be played through your power amp or speakers.
  • A preamp pumps up the weak audio signals into something that can actually be detected by the audio output device.

They both do completely different jobs, and in many cases, you may actually need to use them alongside each other.

Let’s dive into more detail.

What Is A DAC?

DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter. So, this is one of those pieces of audio equipment that pretty much does what it says on the tin. You feed in the digital signal, and out pops an analog signal.

Many pieces of popular audio equipment are producing digital signals nowadays. Your phone, your laptop, many A/V receivers, etc.

The problem is that a lot of audio equipment that allows us to hear these sounds can’t process digital signals. Speakers, for one.

This means that the audio output or audio processing equipment needs to have that sound signal converted into analog before they receive it. That’s what the DAC does.

While there are standalone DACs out there (and something which many audiophiles prefer), many of the devices that work at producing digital audio signals will have a DAC built into them.

In fact, look at your phone right now. Look at your computer. There is a DAC in each of those devices. It may not necessarily be the greatest DAC in the world, but it is a DAC nonetheless.

If there weren’t a DAC in your phone or computer, you wouldn’t be able to listen to your favorite podcasts, music, or funny YouTube videos.

What Is A Preamp?

So, that neatly brings us to the preamp part. What is a preamp? Well, this is another piece of audio equipment that has a self-explanatory name, although perhaps not as self-explanatory as a DAC does.

The preamp is a small device that goes between the audio signal and the amp (although it can also go before other pieces of audio equipment too). When a piece of audio equipment processes a signal or even outputs an original signal, that signal isn’t all that strong.

If you fed that signal straight into an amp, you would barely get a whisper out the other end. This is where the preamp comes in.

The job of the preamp is to boost the audio signal up. As a weak audio signal is fed through the preamp, the preamp will process it. The output of a preamp will output a far, far stronger signal than what went in.

This signal is then fed into the amp or another audio processing device.

Almost every single audio set-up will use a preamp, whether you know it or not. In some cases, the preamp can be built into the audio equipment, but in most cases, it will be a separate audio device, at least if you are aiming for the best audio signal imaginable.

What Is The Difference Between a DAC and a Preamp?

Now that you know what a DAC and a preamp are, it leads us to the big question; DAC vs preamp, what’s the difference? Well, by now, you should already know the difference, but let’s try and drum that point home a little bit more.

Their Jobs

The difference between each audio lies in the job that they do. In most audio set-ups, you will actually need both. A DAC cannot replace a preamp, and a preamp certainly cannot replace a DAC.

Although that is putting to one side the idea that some audio manufacturers have created combined devices that do both jobs but even then, the chipset or software will be different as they will be processing audio in different ways.

You just don’t know that you really have two audio devices combined into one.

A DAC is all about converting digital audio signals into analog signals. If you are not producing digital audio signals, you don’t need a DAC. Although to be fair, most audio equipment nowadays is outputting digitally.

The only piece of audio equipment that a person would use nowadays that outputs an analog signal would be vinyl. You wouldn’t need a preamp for that (CDs are digital, and all CD players include a DAC).

A preamp, however, will almost always need to exist. It pumps up the signal, ready for you to hear. It will only be able to pump up an analog signal, though. This means that (in most cases) there will need to be a DAC before it is in the audio chain. 

A DAC Cannot Boost a Weakened Audio Signal

Well, this isn’t exactly true, but it isn’t the job of a DAC, so you can’t rely on it.

Unlike a preamp, a DAC does not boost the signal that is fed in. The only job of a DAC is to convert a digital signal into analog audio. In most cases, the sound that a DAC outputs is going to be pretty weak.

The only audio device that can boost a weakened audio signal would be that preamp.

A DAC Cannot Feed Audio Directly Into An Amp (In Most Cases)

There are a few exceptions to this rule, which we will come to shortly.

However, for the most part, a DAC does connect directly to your amp. As we said, a DAC wouldn’t be boosting the audio signal; it is just converting it into something that your analog equipment can make sense of.

You may hear a faint sound coming from your speakers if you connected a DAC to the amp, but it certainly isn’t going to be loud, and you may not even understand what is going on.

A preamp does feed audio directly into the amp. In fact, it is pretty much the job of a preamp. As we said, most audio equipment is pretty self-descriptive. 

A Preamp Cannot Convert Digital Audio

You cannot feed a digital audio signal into a preamp. The preamp won’t know how to deal with it. If you fed a digital signal into a preamp, the preamp is just being hit with a series of 1’s and 0’s (these numbers are the building block of any digital signal).

It doesn’t know how to process those 1’s and 0’s. This means that unless the preamp has a DAC built into it (which is sometimes the case), it doesn’t know what to do.

The result? The preamp has no signal to send to your amp, which means that the amp is sending no audio to your speakers or headphones.

If you want a signal to come from your preamp, then you need to be feeding analog audio into it.

Can You Use a DAC As a Preamp?

Sometimes, but we wouldn’t really recommend it.

As we have said numerous times, a DAC’s primary goal is to convert a digital signal to an audio signal.

However, DACs are pretty cool devices nowadays. A lot of them have extra controls on them, and this can include volume controls or power-boosting functions.

If your DAC is able to output a loud enough audio signal, then yes, it can be fed directly into the amp or speakers. There would be no need for a preamp.

However, here is the caveat, if you use a DAC as a preamp or an amp, then the volume will be nowhere near the same level.

You may even have less control over the actual sounds that you hear (no level adjustment, etc.), which doesn’t really sit well with most people.

So, while some DACs can be used as a preamp, you probably don’t want to go down that route. Not if you love listening to music.

Wrapping Up

DACs and preamps do two completely different jobs, even if they have been combined into a single device on some audio setups. A DAC converts digital signals, and a preamp strengthens them.

The two work together to ensure that you have the greatest audio experience imaginable. We suggest investing well in both devices as they will both impact the quality of the sound that you hear. 

Before you go, check out our guide to the 9 Best Preamps For Shure SM7B!