DAC vs. Sound Card: Which is Better?

DAC vs. Sound Card

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The discussion about sound cards has returned due to the DAC’s rising popularity. This makes DAC vs. sound card a hot topic right now, especially in many audio forums.

While both devices convert digital information to analog signals, they differ in many ways that can affect your choice.

If you highly value sound quality, a DAC is an excellent choice, but it requires an amplifier connection to generate sound.

Since they can be installed inside and have built-in amps, sound cards are space-saving, but they also tend to pick up a significant amount of noise that degrades the sound quality.

In this post, I’ll compare DAC and sound cards in terms of their pros and cons. Based on my experience with them, we’ll also find out if one is superior to the other.

What is a Sound Card?

A sound card transforms a digital signal into an analog signal within the processor. It distributes the high-end power to the wiring while remaining connected to the motherboard.

Because of how sound cards work, the sound you hear is much more precise than it was. The sound differs depending on whether you are listening through speakers or headphones.

Fosi Audio K5 Pro Gaming Amp DAC - DAC vs. Sound Card
Fosi Audio K5 Pro Gaming Amp DAC | Make Life Click

PCI or PCI-e slots can be used to connect to this. A sound card typically includes an AMP and other technology pieces, such as a DAC. All of these come together to create fantastic audio.

However, modern PCs are very productive and already equipped with integrated sound cards. It implies that the onboard audio is essential.

Why You Need a Sound Card

A sound card can save your life if you have an outdated CD, DVD, or computer. Paired with high-quality speakers, the sound card may perform at its max, giving you the best sound possible.

Sound cards can also provide amazing feedback and superb audio definition with good headphones and the most recent PCs.

What Is a DAC?

A Digital-to-Analog Converter or DAC, for short, converts digital audio streams into an analog sound signal that can be played through different audio devices.

Music that has been digitally stored can be played thanks to DACs. Any audio player of CDs, MP3s, or online music has a built-in DAC to transform digital sound impulses into analog ones before delivering the processed signal to an amp so we can hear it.

Even sound cards have built-in DACs. To avoid confusion, you can optimize sound quality by bypassing the sound card and using an external DAC.

Why You Need a DAC

You can highly benefit from using an external DAC if your computer’s built-in sound card produces a lot of background sound and operates at a muffled and muddy volume.

An external DAC can significantly enhance your audio setup if you use prefer using headsets and you like to record music and sounds using your computer.

FiiO A3 Headphone Amp with iPhone XR and beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro headphones on table together
FiiO A3 Headphone Amp DAC | Make Life Click

Pros of Using a Sound Card

Although a sound card won’t provide the same audio quality as an external DAC, it will still perform well enough for most people to be content with it. 

Sound cards offer advantages that a DAC cannot, in addition to providing adequate sound quality.

Sound Processing

Audio processors are incorporated into sound card designs. The sound cards use these processors to refine the audio before it’s sent to the DAC. 

Sound equalization, also known as EQ, is the most frequent sound processor found in sound cards and is used to adjust a sound’s frequency range for optimal listening.

Gamers and audiophiles can significantly benefit from sound equalizers, mainly if they use headphones.

You’ll be able to hear frequencies with the correct equalizer setting that’ll let you change the sound to have a more delicate or overt effect. You’ll undoubtedly have the best audio experience by using the proper EQ.

Affordability

As a single unit, a sound card eliminates the need for separate purchases of an amp, a DAC, and an audio processor.

A good sound card will cost you significantly less than an adequate DAC and amp set. A sound card is a great option if you’re on a tight budget.

Cons of Using a Sound Card

The biggest problem with sound cards is that they need more innovation. Its technology has largely remained the same as time passed, and each version only provides slight improvements in terms of efficiency and audio quality.

The signal interference or distortion of sound cards is another flaw that repels customers.

Although the signal interference is much less with the latest generation of sound cards, you’ll still hear distortion with sound cards compared to if you’re using an external DAC and amp set-up.

Pros of Using a DAC

Knowing the advantages can convince you to get an external DAC if you’re still questioning its viability, especially if your sound device or system already has one built-in.

External DACs are highly versatile and can add much more depth to the sound.

FiiO KA1 Headphone Amp DAC multi-platform support
FiiO KA1 Headphone Amp DAC | Make Life Click

Convenience

DACs are frequently standalone, external devices that link to computers via USB. Most of them are plug-and-play devices, so they don’t need companion software which makes them easy to use. 

Because of this, audiophiles and gamers consider DACs as a better option.

Superior Sound Quality

Because your computer’s parts cannot interfere with its audio signal, an external DAC will provide you with higher sound quality. When an external DAC is used, a clearer, distortion-free sound will be produced.

Versatility

The majority of DACs include numerous connection options, which makes them practical for a variety of activities. For instance, a single DAC can be linked to a speaker using RCA out, a system via USB, and a cellphone using Bluetooth.

Many DACs can simultaneously meet all of your audio needs because of their adaptability, which is a feature that sound cards cannot offer.

Cons of Using a DAC

A separate device’s performance is absent in DAC and amp combinations because they’re a single unit that houses both the DAC and the amplifier. 

To counteract this, people end up spending a lot of money on high-end DAC and amplifier combos.

And as we progress up the ladder, the prices keep rising without significantly improving audio quality. So it’s safe to say that DAC and amp combinations are a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Ultrasone Panther DAC angled view
Ultrasone Panther DAC | Ultrasone
Creative Sound Blaster X AE-5
Creative Sound Blaster X AE-5 Sound Card | Creative

DAC vs. Sound Card: Which is Ultimately the Better Choice?

The sound output of DACs is generally superior to that of sound cards. 

According to many audiophiles, the audio quality you achieve with an external DAC is unmatched. To fully enjoy the benefits of a high-quality DAC, you’d need to spend more on additional audio equipment, such as premium speakers and amplifiers.

So if you want superior sound quality and budget is not much of a concern, then a DAC is obviously the better choice over a sound card. 

But if you’re on a tighter budget, then a sound card can work perfectly well for you. Plus it can give you capabilities like EQ, surround sound, and special effects that DACs do not offer.

A passion for writing and ongoing research projects gives Catherine an incredibly broad knowledge of all things. She has authored an incredible number of articles and can be found in the wilderness when not attached to technology or listening to podcasts.


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