High-quality sound on PCs from drop-in sound cards and external DACs is a weird subject. It’s not as necessary as it once was. In fact, nobody even thinks about it much anymore. There’s no song or game that you won’t be able to listen to because of underpowered gear.
Sound vs. Graphics Hardware
Your computer’s built-in sound is pretty good for most tasks. Contrast that with gaming, where if you want to play the newest AAA games at high frame rates, you need a graphics card. A CPU’s integrated graphics processor simply isn’t up to the challenge.
Nevertheless, some people still want better sound than a motherboard can offer. When that’s the case, it comes down to two primary choices: a sound card or an external DAC (digital-to-analog converter).
A quality listening experience needs a minimum of electrical interference, which is a problem because a PC motherboard is a hotbed of electrical activity. That’s why onboard motherboard audio has shielding to protect itself as best it can from the rest of the board.
A better alternative, however, is to move your audio delivery device (be it a sound card or external DAC) away from the source of all that interference.
What Is a DAC?
DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter. A DAC takes digital audio information and converts it to an analog signal. That signal then travels to an amplifier, and then to your speakers or headphones where you hear it.
A DAC is an essential component of any PC’s audio system. Motherboard audio has one, as do soundcards, smartphones, USB headphones, and other digital devices. You cannot get sound out of a PC or other digital device and into the human ear if there isn’t a DAC somewhere along the line to convert digital audio signals into analog.
Why You Might Want an External DAC
If you already have a DAC, why do you need another one? First, an external DAC is typically of higher quality than the DAC in your motherboard or USB headphones, offering better audio potential.
But we also have to go back to our original issue with the motherboard: All that electricity running through the board creates a high potential for what audiophiles call “noise,” which basically means interference that reduces the quality of the sound reproduction. If you have a good pair of headphones—or crank up the volume on an average pair during heavy computing loads—you can probably hear some of this interference. It sounds like a hiss or static.
Some interference or “noise” is inevitable since you’re dealing with electrical equipment, but reducing the noise as much as possible is key for a better listening experience.
That’s why many people favor an external DAC for their PC. It’s removed from all that electrical noise around the motherboard, thereby improving the audio quality. A sound card, by comparison, is raised just above the motherboard but is still inside the case, which some audio geeks think is just as bad.
Some people are so concerned about interference that they try to put their external DAC as far away as they can from their PC case. For most of us, however, simply putting it on the desk next to or above the PC is enough.
An external DAC is not a magical solution to your audio problems, however, and it’s good to understand what to expect. If we’re talking about gaming, an external DAC will help bring quieter sounds to the fore. In some cases, your positional audio may get better, making it easier to locate stealthy NPCs and other players.
If we’re talking about music, however, everything from the quality of the recording to the mastering by the engineer to the file size to the quality of your headphones comes into play.
Most external DACs connect to your PC via a USB cable and have a volume knob on the front as well as a jack for headphones and speakers. Many external DACs have just 3.5mm jacks, but some will also have 6.3mm. It really depends on the device. But, as always, you can pick up an adapter to work with either.
One great thing about an external DAC is that it’s not tied to one machine. So if you spend most of your time on a desktop PC but would like to improve your audio experience on a laptop, you can move it between devices.
What to Look for in an External DAC
First, your external DAC should have a built-in amplifier to make it more economical and to take up less space. Most options for PC do have an amplifier, but you will find high-end audio DACs that require a separate amplifier.
You may also see discussions about bit depths and sample rates for each DAC. We explain bit depths and sample rates in our explainer about all the various audio formats. Many DACs you find online will support 24- or 32-bit depths, while sample rates vary between 96 KHz to 768 KHz.
If you’re just looking for a DAC that improves your gaming experience and other listening, then something like the FiiO E10K is a good option. Someone looking for higher-end hardware might want to look at Schiit’s Modi DAC, which requires the purchase of a separate amplifier. Creative also produces external sound cards that some PC users may prefer.
One final consideration is your personal use case. If you’d also like to improve your listening experience on a mobile device, a portable DAC might be more to your liking. However, without a quality set of headphones, a portable external DAC/amp isn’t likely to do much for your listening experience on a phone.
As always, a good rule of thumb is to read consumer and professional reviews of the DAC you’re interested in to give you a sense of what to expect.
Is Your PC’s Audio Good Enough?
Whether or not your PC’s current audio situation is good enough is very subjective. There are no real numbers to show how much better a listening experience is with a given device. It either sounds better to you or it doesn’t.
If you’re unhappy with motherboard audio—or if you notice moments of background noise, like static during game loads or other CPU-intensive moments—then upgrading to an external DAC is worth considering.