Last Updated on December 4, 2022 by Norvan Martin
External Soundcards and DACs (Digital to Analog Converters) are devices used to convert digital signals to analog signals. However, while they have similar functions, there are differences and specific uses for both. In this article, we will explore DACs vs soundcards to help you determine the most suitable one for your needs.
DACs convert digital audio sampling into analog signals which are then passed to an amp. A sound card consists of a DAC and an amp. Without a sound card, you wouldn’t have sound and without a DAC, you wouldn’t have a sound card.
Which Is Better? Sourncards or DACs? Soundcards can pick up a considerable amount of noise in the sound signal. External DACs are however useful to avoid noise pollution or interference so you can get clean, high-quality audio. You may however not need an external DAC if your soundcard is high quality and optimized.
DAC vs. Soundcard, What’s the Difference?
What Is A DAC?
DACs translate digitally stored information from your device into analog signals. Once that is done, the signal travels to your amp and then to your speakers or headphones.
What Is A Soundcard?
Soundcards and other digital devices like smartphones and USB headphones rely on DACs to function as required.
From this, you can see that a DAC is a vital component of your home theater system.
Soundcards are designed to improve sound quality. It accepts analog sound and converts it to digital data. At the same time, it can receive digitized audio signals and convert them to analog signals that you can play on your computer’s speakers.
Types of Soundcards
Remember, there are many types of soundcards, and they serve different purposes. If you want to improve your sound quality, you should go for special ones designed for the professional audio market or the audiophile market.
These special soundcards come with heavily shielded outputs as well as analog circuitry that effectively reduce noise levels. They also accurately reproduce sound signals. Some of these cards come with additional features like multiple channels of input.
You can alternatively go for external USB soundcards to get noise-free audio output.
Internal Soundcards vs External DACs – Noise/Interference
Typically, DACs have the advantage over soundcards when it comes to noise. However, the fact is that the amount of noise your soundcard picks up is dependent on models and price points, and many of them are perfectly good enough.
As such, you may not need to spend extra money on an external DAC. If you are working with high-level audio devices for music production and recording, then you can use an audio interface. To learn more, check our guide on audio interface vs DAC.
Let’s explore this below:
An internal soundcard is fitted to the motherboard of a computer. In an internal soundcard, the digital signal is delivered to the DAC from the processor via PCI/PCIe.
Here, it is converted inside the case and sent to the rear IO ports.
The signal can pick up a lot of noise inside the computer. However, a good card will have shielding around the card and will take steps to properly isolate noise.
However, a to of noise can be picked up when you connect some soft or cable to the FRONT IO ports on the soundcard without any shielding.
If your internal soundcard sounds noisy, try getting sound from the rear IO ports instead.
External DACs plug in via USB or S/PDIF (could be copper cable or fiber-optic). This way, digital audio signals are transferred to the external DAC.
That means that the audio signal has spent no time inside the case as an analog signal. As such, there is little risk of noise being picked up within the signal.
However, regardless of that, DACs can still introduce noise and hissing from their own hardware.
Does a DAC Work As Sound Card?
Yes, as we’ve seen, the only work of a DAC is to take your digital information and convert it to an analog signal. After that, the signal travels to your amp and then your headphones or speakers, where you can hear the sound of your audio system is in the right working order.
Sound cards convert digital data to analog sound waves in the same manner and can help you produce dazzling sound. Of course, a sound card relies on its built-in DAC to convert digital signals into analog sound signals.
How Do I Bypass the Sound Card on My Computer?
Computers typically come with soundcards. If yours is not delivering the desired sound quality, you can bypass the sound card by plugging a DAC into your set-up.
DAC vs Soundcards For Gaming
We’ve seen that the sole purpose of DAC is to convert digital audio information to analog and allow you to listen to your favorite music. On the other hand, soundcards have varied uses.
Internal gaming cards have separate processors that are designed to generate sound. In other words, gaming cards take over the work of creating sound from your computer’s central processing unit (CPU). Other than that, these cards come with their specialized set of inputs and outputs with advanced shielding, which helps lower noise levels.
Gaming soundcards also typically have sound enhancement technologies that locate generated sound in 3D space. At the same time, they can equalize the sound to give you a better listening experience.
Overall, you can use soundcards designed for gaming to eliminate noise from your audio output. They also guarantee you better sound quality than most soundcards. It’s important to note that gaming soundcards come with DACs like their other counterparts.
Who Are Soundcards and DACs For?
Soundcards For Gaming and Gamers
Soundcards are generally marketed to gamers. Gamers aren’t necessarily looking for the highest-quality audio.
They want sound with strong effects and an immersive audio experience. Soundcards offer multiple options to play audio, multiple connections, and the ability to push multiple effects.
DACs For Audiophiles
DACs are often marketed to audiophiles. This is because audiophiles are very particular about sound quality. External DACs help to reduce noise in the sound signal.
Soundcards vs DACs Pricing
External DACs are generally more expensive than soundcards. This is because DACs are marketed to audiophiles who are likely to pay more.
For example, most gamers won’t be willing to pay more than say $100 for a soundcard. However, many audiophiles will easily purchase a DAC for $300 even if they believe it will make a tiny difference in sound quality.
Do You Need An Amp With a DAC?
Yes, it would be best if you had an amp with a DAC. You can also use an external DAC. A Digital-to-Analog converter will convert the digital signals to analog waveforms.
The converted waveform will be too weak for your sound source to receive them. So, you need an amp that can boost the signals to optimal levels.
Are Soundcard and DAC the Same?
No, if you are still asking whether a soundcard and DAC are the same, please note that they are not. You might have noticed that both of them convert digital signals to analog waveforms. In the real sense, soundcards rely on built-in DACs to do this. So, they complement each other but aren’t the same? Yes.
You can get any sound stored in your digital devices if you don’t have a DAC. If you have a soundcard without a built-in DAC, the same applies.
Soundcard or a DAC, Which is Better for You?
Now that soundcards have DACs, this question may appear a little bit difficult to answer. Either of them will be able to convert your digital signals into analog information that you can hear. If your primary concern is to improve sound quality, a DAC will serve you well. Remember, you can find many of them that are cheaper than soundcards.
However, it’s important to note that an external DAC will require some space on your desk. So, if you can create enough space, it’s likely the best choice.
If you don’t have space on your desk or in the listening room to accommodate your DAC, you should consider opting for a quality soundcard. Some internal soundcards like the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX come with either 7.1 or 5.1 sound variety. That’s good enough for a majority of homeowners and won’t require additional space.
If you don’t require a dedicated card, you can opt for a small ‘external’ sound car. This is the best option if your PC supports USB or headphone connections.
A soundcard can also be a better option if you want many ports for sound recording or listening to your favorite content. If this is your goal, you should go for higher-end cards. Other than digital inputs and output ports for listening to music and sound recording, they come with many others for gaming.
Do You Need DAC or Soundcard for Streaming?
A DAC is a must-have if you want to stream your music, but a soundcard is optional. If you don’t have any of these, your amp won’t have converted audio signals to amplify.
Most people who want the best gaming experience go for soundcards. You can use them if you’re going to get fully immersed in the world of your entertainers. If you don’t, it won’t hurt. Only audiophiles might notice the difference in sound quality.
If you don’t focus much on the soundtrack, you might still go for a soundcard due to its technical benefits. Since dedicated soundcards reduce CPU usage, it frees the device up for other essential tasks. This can help to add value to the quality you receive. Moreover, it can extend the life of your CPU.
Don’t forget that you must have the correct audio files and a high-quality amplifier if you want to use these dedicated soundcards to stream your regular music. Otherwise, it might not be the best option since it won’t produce perfect sound at its peak level.
Soundcards contain DACs and provide outstanding sound quality. DAC helps to make analog signals possible and gives us crisp and clear sound. So, DACs do the most crucial work, and you can consider buying external DACs since they are more potent than internal ones. However, we shouldn’t forget that soundcards can help you produce the most dazzling sound ever. So, you need a DAC but can opt for a soundcard depending on your budget and listening needs.
Norvan Martin is the founder of BoomSpeaker.com. He is a professional Electronics Engineer and is passionate about home theater systems and AV electronics. BoomSpeaker was created as an online hub to share his knowledge and experiences as it relates to home theaters and home audio electronics.