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How good are audio interfaces' headphone amp and DAC?

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#1
I'm looking to add mic-in and headphone-out capability to my computer desktop 2-channel system. After some research, audio interface seems to deliver what I want.

Its mic-in part should have very good audio quality, but what about its headphone-amp and DAC part, how do they compare to similarly priced DAC/headphone amp?

I know for audio interface, I'm paying for a lot of things I dont need. But for under $200, I can get a pretty decent one and the more expensive ones seems to only add more input/output. I have no way of knowing whethe the DAC and headphone amp there are actually better.

From what I have researched, I should be able to skip the interface DAC and use my current DAC in my main computer listening system. But I hope it will be a solid upgrade to my laptop internal DAC when I'm in the office. Schiit Modi 3 level at the very least for a sub-$200 audio interface (Focusrite scarlett/Motu M2)?
 

dfuller

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#2
It really depends how much you want to spend. Most cheap audio interfaces have pretty abysmal headphone amps - lots of distortion and channel crosstalk, high output impedance, not much power.

I'd say for the $200ish price point your best bet is a Motu M2, as they seem to have actually designed something all-around decent at the price point. Avoid the Scarletts like the plague if you want something for headphones as their distortion and especially crosstalk figures are flat out bad. Not "oh, they're not as good as a discrete head amp", I mean "crosstalk only 40dB down".

As far as D/A, most of the time it's fine if nothing special. If you want really really good D/A in an interface, it's a bit more expensive.
 
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Thread Starter #3
It really depends how much you want to spend. Most cheap audio interfaces have pretty abysmal headphone amps - lots of distortion and channel crosstalk, high output impedance, not much power.

I'd say for the $200ish price point your best bet is a Motu M2, as they seem to have actually designed something all-around decent at the price point. Avoid the Scarletts like the plague if you want something for headphones as their distortion and especially crosstalk figures are flat out bad. Not "oh, they're not as good as a discrete head amp", I mean "crosstalk only 40dB down".

As far as D/A, most of the time it's fine if nothing special. If you want really really good D/A in an interface, it's a bit more expensive.
Thanks. Yeah according to this video,
the M2 has the best headphone amp. I just wasn't sure how good it is compared to 'normal' headphone amps. Or, how good of a headphone it can serve before bottlenecking the overall performance, a 200-dollar headphone? Assuming the M2 can provide sufficient power, we're only talking about sound quality.
 

Blumlein 88

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#4
Yeah, I'd agree most low priced interfaces don't have great headphone output. Some sound fine, just not enough power behind them unless the headphone is a very easy load. In the lower price bracket the M2 is probably the one to get. I wouldn't worry about the DACs as much. Most are pretty good. You might end up wanting to add a headphone amp depending upon which phones you have.

So I'd suggest getting an M2. If it works for your phones good. If not adding a $99 JDS Atom headphone amp would fix the headphone issue.

Amir reviewed it here getting very good results:
https://www.audiosciencereview.com/...ents-of-new-jds-labs-atom-headphone-amp.5262/
 
OP
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Thread Starter #5
Yeah, I'd agree most low priced interfaces don't have great headphone output. Some sound fine, just not enough power behind them unless the headphone is a very easy load. In the lower price bracket the M2 is probably the one to get. I wouldn't worry about the DACs as much. Most are pretty good. You might end up wanting to add a headphone amp depending upon which phones you have.

So I'd suggest getting an M2. If it works for your phones good. If not adding a $99 JDS Atom headphone amp would fix the headphone issue.

Amir reviewed it here getting very good results:
https://www.audiosciencereview.com/...ents-of-new-jds-labs-atom-headphone-amp.5262/
Thanks. I'm not a headphone person and just wanted to get a general idea what to expect.

The other type of DAC that have mic-in and headphone-out is what they call 'gaming DAC', including some Schiit/Creative/Mayflower models. Not sure how good those are...
 

maverickronin

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#6
The other type of DAC that have mic-in and headphone-out is what they call 'gaming DAC', including some Schiit/Creative/Mayflower models. Not sure how good those are...
I would stay away from Creative because of their drivers. They're never well behaved.
 
OP
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Thread Starter #7
According to this guy from 2:55
the M2 has pretty good headphone out and line out for studio monitors.

He also said around 50 sec that deciding factor of good recording/playback sound quality is the mic and headphone rather than the interface. The M2 is looking tempting.

from 2:16 better outputs with the M2 even than the Apollo Twin X
 
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OP
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Thread Starter #9
Too bad so many interfaces <$200 are only USB powered... you can't use a smartphone as a source.
You mean cannot use a phone as power source? Given the size of most interfaces, they are most used in a desktop setup and that sounds reasonable to me.
 

vert

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#10
You mean cannot use a phone as power source? Given the size of most interfaces, they are most used in a desktop setup and that sounds reasonable to me.
I'd like to have an interface in my "music corner" where I don't have a desktop and don't like to drag my laptop, so need an interface that can be powered from the outlet.
 

somebodyelse

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#11
I'd like to have an interface in my "music corner" where I don't have a desktop and don't like to drag my laptop, so need an interface that can be powered from the outlet.
You can use a powered hub or a Y cable.
 

somebodyelse

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#13
Do those work well? I've often wondered because there are two different USB roles here, transmitting data (via the smartphone) and providing power (via the outlet).
A powered hub is the proper way to do it, and can fully comply with USB specs. A Y cable is a hacky approach that often works, but violates standards. Technically you could make a compliant powered hub in a y-cable format, but it would cost more so most people wouldn't buy it.
 
OP
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Thread Starter #14
Yes, that will work. Many interfaces officially support iOS (and maybe Android too?), so a powered hub is the right way to do it.
 
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Thread Starter #16
This guy felt the M2 headphone amp sounds worse than the 400-dollar Monoprice THX AAA 887 Amp, possibly because of lack of power. In the meantime, he praised the its DAC and happily replaced SMSL-SU8 with the M2. So that's a nice head-to-head comprison with dedicated amp/dac.
 
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#17
For what it's worth (not much, I guess), i couldn't hear a single difference between my M-Audio Mtrack 2x2 USB-C's headphone out and the Dragonfly Black, both powering a (ridiculously easy to drive) AKG K371.
 

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