The extent of internal energy deposition using three different plasma-based ionization mass spectrometry (MS) methods, atmospheric pressure chemical ionization (APCI), direct analysis in real time (DART), and active capillary dielectric barrier discharge ionization (DBDI), was investigated using benzylammonium ‘thermometer’ ions. Ions formed by DBDI were activated significantly less than those that were formed by DART and APCI under these conditions. Thermal ion activation by DART can be reduced slightly by positioning the DART source further from the capillary entrance to the MS and reducing the heat that is applied to metastable atoms exiting the DART source. For example, the average ion internal energy distribution decreased by less than 10 % (166.9 ± 0.3 to 152.2 ± 1.0 kJ mol−1) when the distance between the DART source and the MS was increased by 250 % (10 to 25 mm). By lowering the DART temperature from 350 to 150°C, the internal energy distributions of the thermometer ions decreased by ~15 % (169.93 ± 0.83 to 150.21 ± 0.52 kJ mol−1). Positioning the DART source nozzle more than 25 mm from the entrance to the MS and decreasing the DART temperature further resulted in a significant decrease in ion signal. Thus, varying the major DART ion source parameters had minimal impact on the ‘softness’ of the DART ion source under these conditions. Overall, these data indicate that DBDI can be a significantly ‘softer’ ion source than two of the most widely used plasma-based ion sources that are commercially available.