A lot of music media these days is stored digitally, so devices like DACs (digital to analog converters) and sound cards are necessary to convert the digital music signals to analog for us to hear. So if DACs and sound cards essentially perform the same function, what’s the difference between them, and which one is the better option?
A DAC is a better option if you have high regard for sound quality, but it needs to be connected to an amplifier to produce sound. Sound cards save space since you can install them internally and have built-in amplifiers, but they tend to pick up a lot of noise that compromises sound quality.
If you’re torn between getting a DAC or a sound card, this article will explain the differences, including the pros and cons of each one, to help you decide which is best for you.
DAC vs. Sound Card: The Better Choice
We can call it a day by saying an audiophile is better off with a DAC due to sound quality, while a gamer should go with a sound card for its hardware and software technologies.
However, it’s best to explore further the differences between a DAC and a sound card to decide which of them best suits your needs.
What Is a DAC?
A DAC is what allows us to hear digitally stored music. Any audio device that plays CDs, MP3s, or streams music uses a built-in DAC to convert digital sound signals to analog ones before sending that processed signal to an amplifier for us to hear.
Even sound cards have internal DACs, but to prevent any confusion, you can bypass the sound card and use an external DAC with an amplifier to improve sound quality.
Why Do I Need an External DAC if I Can Already Play Digital Music?
You need an external DAC to filter out unwanted noise, even if you can already play digital music. External DACs usually function much better than internal ones due to their superior quality and external placement.
Playing high-fidelity audio isn’t exactly a computer’s primary function. So, in that regard, the manufacturers may forgo using a high-quality DAC chip for their sound cards.
Noisy hardware, such as the motherboard and CPU, surrounds the onboard DAC on your sound card. Hence, the internal DAC can pick up more electronic noise, resulting in unwanted sounds when playing music.
An external DAC can process audio signals with greater precision. The difference might be negligible to the average ear, but it will be like night and day to an audiophile.
The Benefits of Using an External DAC
If you’re still on the fence about purchasing an external DAC, especially given the fact that your audio device or computer already has one that’s built-in, knowing the benefits might convince you to take the leap.
They are incredibly versatile and will give your sound a lot more depth.
DACs Are User Friendly
DACs are extremely easy to install and use. Since a DAC is an external peripheral, it doesn’t require any drivers, so you can use it right after plugging it in.
Sound cards aren’t as easy to connect, and some of them will need software to install. This will make your life a whole lot easier when trying to amplify your sound.
DACs Are Versatile
An external DAC will give you multiple options in terms of connectivity. You can connect a DAC to your mobile phone via Bluetooth, your computer through a USB port, or your speakers using an RCA cable.
This sets it apart from a sound card, which usually just has a 3.5mm jack for its input and output.
DACs Provide Superior Sound Quality
An external DAC will give you better sound quality since your computer’s components cannot interrupt its audio signal. Using an external DAC will provide a cleaner sound with no distortion.
DACs may still pick up electronic noise from their internal components, but a high-quality one will have better shielding to prevent this from happening.
DACs Can Cope With Higher Bitrates
The bitrate of digital media also has a massive impact on how it sounds. Generally speaking, a higher bitrate translates to better sound because the DAC has more information to process, allowing you to hear the finer details of the recording.
To put things into perspective, an audio CD has a bitrate of 1,411 kilobits per second (Kbps), and an MP3’s bitrate typically ranges from 96 to 320 Kbps. In contrast, streaming services like Spotify have a bitrate between 96 to 160 Kbps.
Playing music with high bitrates can dramatically improve sound quality, but only if you have the proper hardware to support it.
Some internal DAC chips may struggle to play music with high bitrates, making it necessary to connect an external DAC that can.
The difference between a media file with a high and low bitrate may also be negligible if you play them using mass-market headphones or speakers.
The Disadvantages of Using an External DAC
Despite the benefits of using an external DAC, they have their share of drawbacks.
Here are some disadvantages of using an external DAC:
DACs Generally Cost More
Unlike a sound card, a DAC needs an amplifier to produce sound. Some DACs have built-in amps, but the ones that deliver good sound quality are more expensive.
You can also opt to purchase a DAC and amplifier separately, which will cost significantly more.
DACs Take Up More Space
An external DAC will occupy more space on your desk than an internal sound card, mainly if you use a separate amplifier.
If this is something you prioritize, for example, if you only have a small desk space, a sound card might be a better option for you.
But there are, in fact, also multiple DAC/Amp combos that are very portable and don’t take up a lot of space.
Take a look at the DragonFly from Audioquest for example.
Here are some of the best DAC/amp combos right now
What Is a Sound Card?
A sound card is an expansion card that slots into your computer to produce sound and allows the use of audio equipment for multimedia. Sound cards have built-in DACs that convert the digital audio signal to an analog format and an amplifier that enlarges the sound signals to make them audible.
The main difference between a sound card and an external DAC is that a sound card has a sound processor, which enables enhancements such as surround sound as well as music and gaming effects.
The Benefits of Using a Sound Card
A sound card may not deliver the same sound quality as an external DAC, but will still do a good enough job that many people will find it satisfactory. Aside from providing acceptable sound quality, they also offer benefits that a DAC can’t offer.
Sound Cards Have Sound Processors
Since sound cards have built-in sound processors, they can enhance and customize sounds through equalization. Equalizers allow users to control specific sound frequencies for a more pleasant listening experience.
Sound cards also work with surround sound technology such as Dolby Atmos and THX to deliver more realism, particularly for gaming.
Sound Cards Are More Affordable
A sound card is an all-in-one device which means you don’t have to buy an amplifier, DAC, and sound processor separately. You can expect to pay much less for a good quality sound card than a decent DAC and amplifier combo.
If you’re on a budget, you might be better off with a sound card.
Sound Cards Don’t Occupy As Much Space
Most sound cards connect to a computer’s motherboard through a PCI or PCIe card slot, taking up less space on your desk than a DAC and amplifier.
There are also external sound cards, but they will take up less space. If you have a small desk environment and you don’t want a crowded desk, a sound card may be for you.
The Disadvantages of Using a Sound Card
Compared to a DAC, it looks like a sound card has everything you could need at a fraction of the price. So, why are people still willing to spend more money on a DAC?
Sound Cards Are Prone to Noise and Distortion
Sound cards have come a long way and have made drastic improvements in sound quality.
However, compared to external DACs, sound cards are still more susceptible to electronic noise and distortion due to interference from surrounding components like your computer’s GPU, CPU, and fans.
How Much a Sound Card and External DAC Cost
We now know that sound cards are generally less expensive than DACs. So how much should you be willing to pay for each device?
The Price of Sound Cards
You can buy a sound card for less than twenty dollars, while others will cost you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
All sound cards essentially perform the same function, so you might be wondering why the price range is so huge. Think of it like automobiles; they’re all designed to get you from point A to point B, but some will cost significantly more due to their features and specifications.
In the case of sound cards, prices will vary according to the following:
- Channel support: If you want to experience surround sound while gaming or watching movies, you need a sound card to support a 5.1 or 7.2 channel speaker set-up.
- Software features: The software is critical in optimizing your sound card’s performance since it will give you access to features like virtual surround sound and multi-band equalizers.
- Bitrate and bit depth: Sound cards generally become more expensive depending on their bitrates and bit-depths. The bitrate is how many samples of an analog signal there are, while bit depth is the amount of information each one contains. So, the higher these numbers are, the closer the sound reproduction will be to the original recording.
- Signal to noise ratio: A sound card’s signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) is measured in decibels (dB) and signifies how loud the sound you want to hear is over the noise. The higher the SNR, the less noise you’ll hear. Average sound cards have an SNR of 80-90dB, while higher-end ones have an SNR of 124dB.
Bitrate, bit depth, and the signal-to-noise ratio depend on the quality of the DAC chip in the sound card and, therefore, has a significant impact on the price.
Here are three sound cards at different price brackets to give you a better idea of what you can get for your money:
Padarsey PCIe Sound Card
The Padarsey PCIe sound card (available at amazon.com) is an entry-level sound card with a 5.1 channel audio card so that you can turn your PC into a home theater system.
It has a bitrate of 44.1kHz/16-bit. It is excellent value for money and won’t take up much space on your desk.
ASUS Xonar SE
The Asus Xonar SE sound card (available at amazon.com) supports 5.1 channel audio and has a higher bitrate of 192kHz/24-bit. It also has an SNR of 116dB, which will give you a clear and detailed sound output.
It has a simple installation procedure and a simple user interface. It is also ideal for gamers.
Creative Sound BlasterX
The Creative Sound BlasterX (available at amazon.com) supports Dolby Digital and DTS with its 7.1 channel configuration.
The internal DAC of this sound card can deliver 384kHz/32-bit with an SNR of 122dB for superior sound quality. It has a headphone amp and is the perfect addition for avid gamers.
The Price of DACs
If you think the price range of sound cards is vast, you’ll be surprised by how much the prices of DACs can vary. An entry-level DAC can cost less than $30, while high-end DACs can cost well over $100,000. Yes, you read that right.
Similar to sound cards, the prices of DACs go up with better features and specifications. More expensive DACs with higher bitrates, bit depths, and SNR will undoubtedly have better sound output.
Aside from better sound quality, you can also expect more connectivity options such as USB, coaxial, and optical inputs.
Another reason the price range between an entry-level and a high-end DAC is so huge is because DACs appeal to audiophiles willing to spend more for the slightest gains in sound quality. Given the premium that people pay for DACs, high-end ones will also be made of more expensive materials.
However, buying an expensive DAC will not always translate to a noticeable improvement in sound quality.
The difference will be negligible if you use run-of-the-mill speakers or ordinary amplifiers. Hence, you’ll also need top-line audio equipment to go with an expensive DAC.
Generally speaking, DACs provide better sound output compared to sound cards. However, despite sound cards being more prone to electronic noise, their internal DAC chips have vastly improved.
Many audiophiles will insist that the sound quality you get from an external DAC is unparalleled.
However, a good DAC isn’t cheap and you’ll also have to spend more on other audio components like high-end speakers and amplifiers to truly appreciate the difference a DAC offers.
A sound card also has something DACs don’t have, which is a sound processor that gives you features like special effects, equalization, and surround sound.