Is the Scarlett 2i2 a DAC (Digital-to-Analog-Converter)?

If you’re new to music production and more specifically recording, which is just one aspect, some of the technology can be confusing. For instance, some people don’t differentiate between a headphone amplifier, audio interface, and a soundcard, even though they can often be used all in one device.

One example would be the aforementioned audio interface which actually has a digital to analog converter and headphone amplifier built right into it. Really, an audio interface is just a sound card with other extra features for recording. We’ll use the Scarlett 2i2 as an example and I’ll put it to you briefly.

Simply put, the Scarlett 2i2 does act as a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) as well as its inverse, the analog-to-digital converter. The Scarlett 2i2 converts digital information to analog and outputs the sound through the outputs. This is how monitoring and direct monitoring is made possible.

Some of the terms recording engineers and other people use in music production can get confusing. For instance, an audio interface and a sound card are almost the same things. It’s just that the audio interface is a device that is not only a soundcard but also a headphone amplifier as well because most of them have the ability to drive headphones. Let’s talk a bit more about this in the sections below.

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The Scarlett 2i2 As A Digital-to-Analog-Converter (DAC)

As a digital to analog converter, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (on Amazon) works great for the price.

From experience, I can say the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 works great not only as an analog to digital converter but also in the inverse: as a digital to analog converter. If you’re wondering what the difference is, no worries because it’s not difficult to understand.

DAC versus ADC – What’s the Difference?

In simple terms, an ADC is an analog to digital converter. This is the soundcard part of the audio interface that turns your guitar, bass guitar or microphone signal into a signal that the computer can understand.

I’ve said this before in my guide to audio interfaces, but an audio interface functions essentially as a translation device for computers.

Whenever you plug your guitar into the Scarlett 2i2 connected to your DAW, you’re sending the analog sound into the Scarlett, and then the Scarlett turns it into digital information that the computer can use. This is its role as an analog to digital converter (ADC).

ADC to DAC - is The Scarlett A DAC
A very useful infographic depicting how an analog to digital converter and a digital to analog converter actually work. I got this great image here on Wikimedia Commons.

When acting as a digital to analog converter (DAC), on the other hand, the audio interface takes digital information from the computer and outputs it as analog signals, either through the speaker outputs on the back of the device or via the headphone output at the front.

DAC - Is the Scarlett 2i2 a Digital to Analog Converter
The DAC, in this case, the Scarlett 2i2, takes digital information from the computer and turns it into analog information.
The speakers take that analog info and output it as sound waves, ie, the music you’re listening to.

Explained another way, the computer uses digital or binary information (1s and 0s). Obviously, this isn’t analog sound because a series of 1s and 0s are not sound waves we can hear with our ears. This information needs to be translated to sound waves which we can actually interpret as sound. This is what the digital-to-analog converter does for us.

Truthfully, there is a lot more to talk about when it comes to this topic, however, I’m not an audio engineer. If you want to see an in-depth scientific analysis of how the Scarlett 2i2 functions, a guy on this forum did a great analysis.

In his data, he said that as a DAC, the Scarlett 2i2 was “pretty good!” considering the price. It doesn’t compare to a higher-end audio interface, he argues, but considering the Scarlett 2i2’s status as a budget device for beginners in recording and monitoring, it does a solid job.

Does the Scarlett 2i2 Work As A Headphone Amplifier?

This is a proper headphone amplifier – it’s called the Fiio e10k (on Amazon)

As I’ve discussed before in this article on the very subject, as a headphone amplifier, the Scarlett 2i2 works just fine, but this comes with a big “however.” It really depends on the impedance level of your headphones.

For example, Focusrite says right on their support page that the Scarlett 2i2 doesn’t have enough power to drive headphones that are 200 ohms and above. So if you’re using Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pros (250 ohms), the Scarlett can drive them, but perhaps not as loud as you’d like.

Personally, I find the Scarlett 2i2 has just enough power to drive the DT 990 Pros to my liking, but this isn’t necessarily the case for every single person out there. For example, this one YouTube commenter said the exact same thing, and a lot of people agreed.

Here’s what this user had to say about using 250 ohms headphones with the Scarlett 2i2

So let’s say you’re the type of person who does like to listen to your music just a bit louder, what should you get instead? I would argue for you to grab a pair of the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pros (80 ohms- on Amazon) because then the Scarlett 2i2 will have the ability to drive them much harder.

Looking back on it, I would’ve done the same thing, however, the 250 ohms version works well enough that it doesn’t quite necessitate that I go out and buy yet another pair of DT 990 Pros. That would be a superfluous purchase, for sure.

Important Things to Note About the Scarlett 2i2’s DAC

1) The Scarlett 2i2 Works Great As A Digital-to-Analog Converter

While the Scarlett 2i2 may not be good enough for the most astute audiophiles out there, most people agree that it’s a great device that does what it’s supposed to for the price.

I can’t say anything bad about it and I’ve had mine for over two years at this point. As a matter of fact, really the only area where I believe it needs to improve is as a headphone amplifier. I wish it were capable of driving headphones with an impedance of 250 ohms. Other than that, I don’t have anything bad to say about it.

Gear Mentioned

1) Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (on Amazon)

2) Fiio e10k (on Amazon)

3) Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pros (80 ohms – on Amazon)