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External DAC vs Sound Card: Which Performs Best?

Wondering whether you should stick with a sound card or if an external DAC would benefit your system? We can help!

There is no shortage of options for audiophiles to exhaust when working toward achieving the best possible sound within your PC. Once you jump into the abyss of options you will find online, you might come across something called a digital to analog converter, more commonly referred to as a DAC.

This will likely be the result of reading somewhere that you do not have the right equipment and you now have to go out and blow your cash on some strange entity you are completely unfamiliar with.

But you already have a sound card with your computer, so what is all this DAC nonsense about? Is it a necessity? A novelty? Another piece of random computer equipment that only the true experts of the world will really sense a difference with?

This guide will tell you everything you need to know to help you determine whether a standard sound card works for you or if an external DAC is truly the way to go.

Note that we also have an entire guide to help people determine whether or not a sound card is even worth it for their needs.

What is an External DAC?

A DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) converts a digital audio signal into an analog one which allows it to play the sound over your headphones and speakers. The existence of DACS came about because most the sound being emitted from most computers was weak. This all began years ago when the computer first became a viable place to play music on.

But you might be thinking “I have a sound card already that does that though.”, and you’d be right, the problem with your installed sound card though is that it likely doesn’t give out the best quality. The existence of DACS came about because most the sound being emitted from most computers was weak.

This all began years ago when the computer first became a viable place to play music on. Computers were not initially designed to do this sort of thing and the quality of the sound was borderline unlistenable in the early days. This was due to a poorly made DAC.

The DAC is part of why an external DAC needs to exist these days. The internal ones are often not as capable of providing the sound quality that most people want.

If you can remember back to the ages of early personal computers, you may recall playing a song on it, or maybe a videogame? The sound quality was muddy and, while no one knew any better at the time, listening to music on a system like that would be physical torture by today’s standards.

In the years following, the tech wizards that create these super machines figured out the best way to get an ideal audio experience through your computer.

When is an External DAC needed?

Have you ever listened to a song on one device and then listened on another immediately after and you hear not only different parts of the song that were muddled before, but just a different level of clarity that changes the listening experience? That is why you would need a DAC.

If your built-in sound card just has a ton of background noise and runs things at a muddy and muzzled tone, you might be someone who could find use in an external DAC.

If you are an audio editor or if you use your system for recording music and instruments, then an external DAC could be a definite upgrade to your system, especially if you are using headphones.

In terms of how much this might be costing you, it generally isn’t the priciest thing you’ll be adding to your computer. A quick online search will show you options from $60-$200+ with the cheaper ones offering far less audio quality than the more expensive models.

Is an External DAC Worth It?

The vast majority of PC will find that a DAC won’t be the most pressing upgrade for their needs. Unless you are absolutely seeking an elite listening experience on your PC, the internal sound cards will be totally fine for your music listening needs. However, if you’re a true audiophile, a DAC is something you’ll likely benefit greatly from.

There is always the option to upgrade your sound card before you go and pay for an external DAC, so make sure you do your research before going out and buying the shiny new thing all your music-crazed friends have been talking about.

It is likely that you can get that same quality with a few do it yourself fixes or a small-scale upgrade with your sound card.

How does DAC work?

Whenever you play music on anything, a compression wave is formed. When done on a computer, this is called waveform. Within each wave is a cresting point as well as a valley point. These are called cycles and the number of cycles there are in one second is called a frequency. If a frequency is higher, the note is higher too.

An external DAC comes into play by taking digital samples that make up a stored reading which then transforms back into a nice continuous analog signal. For that to happen, it translates the data bits from digital files into an analog electrical signal at 1000 times per second. Following this, the unit then outputs a wave that connects all those points.

Does an External DAC Give You Instant Audio Excellence?

The purchase of an external DAC does not just automatically mean your sound system is going to be amazing as there a few things needed for the optimal experience. For example, you cannot just run a terribly recorded song through it and expect it to sound good. It can only make good recordings sound better. If it was bad to begin with, it will be bad with an external DAC.

Ideally, you will want to download music that is better than CD quality, and luckily for you, there are plenty of sites that allow you to download songs of this caliber.

Lastly, you need a source to use the external DAC with. This means either you will be strictly using headphones, or you will have to purchase yet another item in an external amplifier to power passive speakers with.

How Do I Detect Audio Issues within My PC?

There isn’t really a way to figure out whether or not you need an external DAC or not. It is all based on your hearing and whether you like what you hear or you don’t.

For example, if you hear a background hissing noise during songs where there is very soft instruments being played, then it is likely you could benefit from an external DAC. Sound in sound cards can be affected by a ton of different things and everything from your fan noise to your hard drives heating up can have an effect on the sound you are hearing.

If the sound card you have is not good quality, then a lot of these external noises will factor in to the actual music that comes out of your speaker or headphones.

Can I Improve Sound Card Performance If I Don’t Want a DAC?

As a PC owner, you have likely already experienced the expensive, yet somewhat addicting process of upgrading and you’d prefer not to drop major coin on sound. If this is the case, then you need to look for some options for improoving the sound as it is.

When it comes to playing music on computers, you should only be doing so while running as few programs as possible. The thought process here is the more processes your computer is running, the hotter it gets and the hotter it gets, the more the fan spins and the more the fan spins, the more background noise gets fed into your music listening experience.

In addition to minimizing the programs you are running; you should also check the task manager for any programs that you are unaware of that might be activated on the start up of most PCS.

If you are using headphones, try switching the outputs, as it is possible that you have a better-quality output on your system that you were unaware of. So make sure you try any you might find. You can also try out a different song, as some songs might naturally be less compatible with your system than others.

Are Sound Cards Upgradeable?

It is very easy to upgrade a sound card within most systems. This is why you should definitely pause before immediately rushing to buy a DAC. If your issue is simply the sound card, an upgrade can give you an equal or better experience than an external DAC would give you for likely lesser the price.

Sound cards vary wildly and you can get better cards than the one you are dealing with anywhere from $150 all the way up to $3000. Only the professionals need the latter, so there is never a need for that unless you are embarking on a professional audio editing career.

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