Wireless headphones are conveniently-designed devices that allow the listener to enjoy audio without the need for cables. For the headphones to successfully operate, they must use a DAC.
Do wireless headphones have their DAC?
To convert digital audio signals into audible analog waveforms, wireless headphones need an inbuilt DAC (digital-to-analog converter). The same is true for wired headphones.
There are several reasons that the question surrounding wireless headphones having their DAC arises.
Firstly, a DAC is a minuscule device that is installed into the inner components of the headphones and is therefore not visible. Also, the DAC is combined in one unit with the headphone amp, which works in harmony to enable the listener to hear audio through the device. In this guide, we’ll explore the topic of DACs in wireless headphones.
Wireless Headphones & DACs
All wireless headphones have their DAC installed with a headphone amp. These two devices are integral for playing any audio through the headphones, regardless of whether they use a wired connection or a wireless connection like Bluetooth.
Although DACs are also available as external, standalone devices, wireless headphones almost always have inbuilt versions. These, in the majority of cases, cannot be removed or replaced by another DAC. Some audiophiles would consider this to be a negative aspect of using wireless headphones.
Using a standalone DAC can cause noticeable improvements in audio quality, but this is usually only the case when using outboard equipment. Concerning wireless headphones, it’s more important that the DAC is constantly connected so that they can instantly be used for listening to music or other audio.
The DAC that is built into wireless headphones is grouped with the headphone amplifier.
Although these two essential devices perform different functions, they are interdependent with one another. Without a headphone amp, the DAC in the wireless headphones would be rendered useless, and vice versa.
Check out my article on expensive headphones here!
Why DACs Are Important In Wireless Headphones
You might be wondering, why is it so important that wireless headphones have their DAC? The simple answer to that question is that without the DAC, they would be incapable of producing sound.
DAC stands for digital-to-analog-converter. As the name suggests, the primary function of the device is to convert the digital audio signal into an analog waveform.
Wireless headphones are incapable of playing a digital signal and therefore rely on this conversion process to successfully play audio.
When an audio signal is in its digital form, it appears as a series of 0s and 1s. Any playback device, whether it be wireless headphones, wired headphones, studio monitors, Bluetooth speakers, or a smartphone, cannot play audio when it is in this format. A DAC is therefore required to transform the signal into an audio device.
For convenience, most playback devices combine the DAC with the headphone amp. Not only does this save space and avoid the device being overly bulky, but it also allows the manufacturer to secure the DAC in place so that it can’t get damaged or dislodged.
- Even standalone DACs can’t be used successfully without an accompanying preamp.
This is because once the DAC has made the required conversion from digital to analog, the signal is too weak to be received by wireless headphones, or any other playback device.
The headphone amp then takes over and boosts the signal to an optimal level so that the wireless headphones can receive it. The signal started as 0s and 1s, was converted by the DAC to an analog waveform, and then amplified by the headphone amp so that the audio can be played through the wireless headphones.
Here is a breakdown of the functions of a DAC in wireless headphones, and the headphone amp.
|Built into wireless headphones||Yes||Yes|
|Converts digital signal to an analog waveform||Yes||No|
|Amplifies the signal to an optimal level||No||Yes|
|Can be used as an external device||Yes||Yes|
External DAC vs. Integrated DAC
One of the most frequently debated topics in the subject of headphones and audio quality is whether using an external DAC is worth it.
It’s common knowledge that a good quality preamp or headphone amp will improve the audio quality, but DACs have a less noticeable impact in this area.
All wireless headphones have their DAC installed, otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to convert the digital signal into a playable analog waveform. However, the quality of pre-installed DACs is likely to be significantly lower than the high-end external devices that are available.
Due to the subjectivity of audio quality, there are many varying opinions on whether purchasing an external DAC to go with your wireless headphones is necessary. Some argue that good quality, standalone DAC will promote better tone and clarity due to the faster, more efficient conversion process from digital to analog.
Others state that they can hear no difference between a standalone DAC and the one that is built into wireless headphones. Indeed, the only way to make a clear judgment on whether an external device would improve the performance of wireless headphones is to conduct your experiment and compare them against the inbuilt DAC.
One undeniable advantage that using an external unit offers in comparison to sticking with the wireless headphone’s own DAC is the onboard controls. Standalone DACs, like preamps and headphone amps, generally feature gain controls and sometimes house other adjustable parameters such as EQ or compression.
There are also many combination devices available, which perform the functions of the DAC, preamp, and headphone amp simultaneously. These units are great for mixing audio in headphones. They are less suitable for everyday listening in wireless headphones, as they commonly require a power supply.
This video is very useful for gaining a better understanding of the relationship between wireless headphones and DACs.
DAC & Sound Quality
Removing the DAC from wireless headphones is impossible, and would offer no benefits. Although the inbuilt converter may not be built to the high standard of a standalone DAC, the headphone manufacturer must ensure that it is adequately capable.
It may seem logical that using an external DAC with wireless headphones would improve the sound quality compared to their own, pre-installed converter. However, the improvements are likely to be so subtle that it’s probably not worth the hassle.
With modern advancements in audio technology, wireless headphones have become increasingly popular. They afford the listener more mobility, and conveniently remove the need for cables or wires.
Take a look at these wireless headphones I use here on Amazon
Bluetooth is the most common connectivity method used for listening to audio in wireless headphones. The audio quality that can be transmitted via Bluetooth is of such high quality that it comes very close to the conventional, wired variety of headphones.
In the early days of headphones, it was necessary to rely on bulky outboard gear to improve sound quality.
Headphone amps, preamps, and DACs were all required to ensure that sound could be played through the headphones, and wireless technology was a mere futuristic aspiration.
Nowadays, wireless headphones are very common and affordable devices. They include a headphone amp and a DAC, all stored within the device. Many people don’t even realize that their wireless headphones contain these vital listening devices because they are hidden away so discreetly.
Check out my article on calibrated headphones here.
Bit Rate & Bit Depth
Two of the main factors that impact the performance of the inbuilt DAC in wireless headphones are the bit rate and bit depth of the audio file you listen to.
These qualities affect the dynamic range of the audio, and consequently, the capabilities of the DAC to convert the signal from digital to analog.
To simplify, each song or other audio file that you play through your wireless headphones is made up of information. The bit rate correlates to the amount of information that can be stored within the audio file.
- Wav and FLAC files are considered to be the premium quality. Smaller audio files, such as MP3, are compressed to save space. This compression results in a decrease in dynamic range, and detail.
If an audio file has a limited bit rate, its quality will be diminished by the time it has been converted by the DAC and played through the wireless headphones.
Different audio file types have varying bit rates and bit depths. The higher these values are, the better the quality will be after the digital to analog conversion has been performed.
Do you lose sound quality with wireless headphones?
Generally speaking, wireless headphones have inferior audio quality in comparison to wired headphones. However, this also depends on the price range of the individual devices.
Do audio interfaces have their DAC?
Yes, all audio interfaces include their own DAC. Unlike wireless headphones, though, audio interfaces can also convert the signal from analog-to-digital so that the audio can be recorded through microphones or other devices.
Can you use a DAC without an amp?
No, it is not possible to use a DAC without an amp. Likewise, an amp will be rendered useless without a DAC. This is because the converted signal is too weak to be received by headphones or speakers, and therefore it requires amplification to become audible.