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What is an external DAC and do you need one for a PC?



An external DAC with silver chassis and round LCD screen.
iFi Audio

High-quality sound on PCs from drop-in sound cards and external DACs is a strange topic. It’s not as necessary as it once was. In fact, no one thinks about it much anymore. There is no song or game that you cannot listen to due to lack of powerful equipment.

Sound versus graphics hardware

Your computer̵

7;s built-in sound is pretty good for most tasks. Compare that to gaming, where you need a graphics card if you want to play the latest AAA games at high frame rates. A CPU’s integrated graphics processor is simply not up to the challenge.

Still, some people still want better sound than a motherboard can provide. Then it comes down to two primary choices: a sound card or an external DAC (digital-to-analog converter).

A high-quality listening experience requires a minimum of electrical interference, which is a problem as a PC’s motherboard is a hotbed of electrical activity. That’s why motherboard has built-in audio shielding to best protect itself from the rest of the board.

A better alternative, however, is to keep your audio output device (be it a sound card or external DAC) away from the source of all that interference.

RELATED: Do you need a special sound card for your PC?

What is a DAC?

DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter. A DAC takes digital audio information and converts it into an analog signal. That signal then goes to an amplifier and then to your speakers or headphones where you hear it.

A DAC is an essential part of any PC’s audio system. Motherboard audio has one, as do sound cards, smartphones, USB headphones and other digital devices. You cannot get sound from a PC or other digital device into the human ear if there is no DAC somewhere along the line to convert digital audio signals to analog.

Why you might want an external DAC

A small black external DAC with large volume knob.
The FiiO E10K FiiO

If you already have a DAC, why do you need one more? First, an external DAC is typically higher quality than the DAC in your motherboard or USB headphones, which offers better audio potential.

But we also have to go back to our original problem 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 turn the volume up to an average pair during heavy computing – you can probably hear some of this interference. It sounds like a hissing or static sound.

Some interference or “noise” is unavoidable as you are dealing with electrical equipment, but reducing the noise as much as possible is essential for a better listening experience.

Hence, many people prefer an external DAC for their PC. It has been removed from all that electrical noise around the motherboard, improving audio quality. In comparison, a sound card sits just above the motherboard, but is still in the case, which is just as bad according to some audio geeks.

Some people are so concerned about interference that they try to keep their external DAC as far away from their PC case as possible. However, for most of us, placing it on the desk next to or above the PC is enough.

However, an external DAC is not a magical solution to your audio problems and it is good to understand what to expect. When we talk about gaming, an external DAC will help bring out quieter sounds. In some cases, your positional audio can get better, making it easier to locate unobtrusive NPCs and other players.

However, when we talk about music, 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 rocker on the front and a jack for headphones and speakers. Many external DACs only have 3.5mm jacks, but some also have 6.3mm. It really depends on the device. But as always, you can buy an adapter to work with.

A big advantage of an external DAC is that it is not linked to one machine. So if you spend most of your time on a desktop PC, but want to improve your audio experience on a laptop, you can move it between devices.

What to look for in an external DAC

A portable aqua marine DAC that rests on a smartphone.
iFi’s portable hip-dac iFi Audio

First, your external DAC must have a built-in amplifier to make it more economical and 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 explanation of all the different audio formats. Many DACs you can find online support 24- or 32-bit depths, while the sample rates vary between 96 KHz and 768 KHz.

RELATED: What are the differences between MP3, FLAC and other audio formats?

If you’re just looking for a DAC that improves your gaming experience and other listening enjoyment, then something like the FiiO E10K is a good option. Someone looking for high-quality hardware might want to check out Schiit’s Modi DAC, which requires purchasing a separate amplifier. Creative also produces external sound cards that some PC users prefer.

A final consideration is your personal usage situation. If you also want to improve your listening experience on a mobile device, a portable DAC may be more for you. Without good quality headphones, a portable external DAC / amplifier probably won’t do much for your listening experience on a phone.

As always, it’s a good rule of thumb to read consumer and professional user reviews of the DAC you’re interested in to give you an idea of ​​what to expect.

RELATED: What are the differences between MP3, FLAC and other audio formats?

Is the sound from your PC good enough?

Whether or not your PC’s current audio situation is good enough is highly subjective. There are no real numbers that show how much better a listening experience is with a particular device. It sounds better to you or not.

If you’re not happy with the motherboard’s audio – or if you notice moments of background noise like static while loading games or other CPU intensive moments – then upgrading to an external DAC is worth considering.




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