A few decades ago, owning a PC was considered a luxury while laptops were only available in select few countries across the globe. People resorted to headphones for music, reel tapes to record songs, and consoles to game. Nowadays, we have all of these neatly packed and wrapped in various formats.
A sound card enables a device to produce sound via connected speakers. Every soundcard also has a DAC chip and a small built-in amp. Built-in soundcards often have a very basic DAC. We’ll take a look at scenarios where a high-quality DAC/Amp is worth the extra investment, and others where a sound card will suffice.
Every headphone set, every tablet, smartphone, and obviously every laptop and PC feature built-in digital-to-analog converter chips, integrated amplifiers, and various drivers that cast a long shadow over their outdated counterparts.
However, the technology advanced to the point where these seemingly perfect devices always leave a bit of room for improvement, which essentially translates to the fact that everything is upgradeable performance-wise.
Today we’re going to talk about the importance of DAC units and sound cards, as well as their relationship, so let’s get straight to it.
The Role of a Soundcard
Believe it or not, the first couple of generations of computers didn’t produce any kind of sound apart from the buzzing of electricity. Not only did these PCs not have any kind of a sound card (even in the most primitive form), but you couldn’t listen to music whatsoever due to the fact that older audio formats were too ‘heavy’ memory-wise for older memory banks.
It wasn’t long until computers eventually reached the quantum leap, offering passageways for gaming, music, movies, and pretty much everything we enjoy today, albeit on a significantly lower scale.
The sound card enables the device it is integrated into to produce sounds via connected speakers. This also means that every soundcard has a DAC chip, as well as a small built-in amp, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to read and render sonic signals, much less play them at an audible level.
The question we aim to answer is whether or not these built-in features of soundcards are sufficiently strong and versatile – do you need a DAC if you already have a soundcard that features one?
Built-in (factory) Soundcards Call for a Better DAC
There are countless hardware manufacturers, both small and gigantic, so making a list of quality factory soundcards that are featured in pre-built PC and laptop rigs would take weeks, if not months. The moment such a list becomes compiled, a couple of thousand new models will emerge on the market.
That being said, the thread that connects all built-in soundcards, regardless of whether they’re integrated into PCs or laptops, is the fact that they’re designed with functionality in mind as opposed to top-tier performance. They’re not meant to satisfy the needs of audiophiles, music producers, or hardcore gamers, but they would without failing get the job done.
Functionality aside, built-in soundcards feature very basic, vaguely dependable DAC chips that can’t handle anything besides reproducing audio files with a very narrow frequency range and an unimpressive sample rate.
This is the prime example of a situation when buying a DAC on top of a soundcard is more than warranted. Regardless of whether you want to record music (which built-in soundcards immensely struggle with) or listen to your favorite bands and artists; you’ll need a proper digital-to-analog converter to do so.
USB Soundcards Address Certain Audio Problems, But They Can’t Come Close to Dedicated DAC Units
The main purpose of a USB soundcard is to provide a compact, portable way of reproducing sound from USB-compliant devices. The main benefit of these cards is the fact that they can be used with a wider range of devices, meaning that they’re not limited to PCs and laptops exclusively.
However, their DAC conversion capabilities are not exemplary per se. If you want a stabler, more dependable, and better sonic performance from your PC you’ll need a DAC unit to compensate for tiny flaws of USB soundcards.
Gaming Cards Could be Slightly Improved with a Better DAC
Gaming cards are considered formidable upgrades in terms of PC/laptop performance, even if they’re not dedicated audio cards. For instance, GPUs (graphic cards) also feature built-in DAC chips, but they are also compatible with proprietary apps that can be used to fine-tune your in-game sounds.
Obviously, the versatility of gaming cards as far as improving the functionality of your PC’s audio performance in all fields is fairly limited. More precisely speaking, you will be able to get phenomenal sounds while you’re gaming, but that’s as far as it goes.
This is another scenario where a proper DAC unit could make a huge difference. However, gamers who spend most of their time playing games without listening to music, much less recording their own or binge-watching movies may not need this type of upgrade.
Recording Cards Typically Feature Superb DAC Chips
Recording cards are designed to deliver exemplary sonic quality across all sonic aspects of the device they’re plugged into. They are supplied with tremendous-quality DAC chips that are remarkably customizable, fitted with robust and reliable shielding, and fully analog circuitry.
First and foremost, dedicated recording cards are substantially more reliable than built-in and gaming cards in terms of overall sound quality, but they also offer far more consistent performance.
Obviously, you won’t need a dedicated DAC if you already have a recording card. However, if you’re thinking of buying either one of the two, you’ll notice that recording cards are generally far more expensive, mainly due to the fact that they already double as a digital-to-analog converter among other things.
Buying a Boutique DAC Unit to Boost your Soundcard – is it worth the cash?
So far, we’ve split bits and pieces of the final answer to whether or not you’ll need a DAC on top of a soundcard into groups, categorized by types of soundcards. Universally speaking, buying a boutique DAC will always yield better performance.
Top-tier DAC models, such as Sound BlasterX’s G6 or Drop’s THX are unparalleled in terms of sound quality. However, the problem is that they cost a couple of hundred dollars, whereas decent recording cards are available at more approachable price tags. Buying a boutique DAC is mainly recommended for studio engineers, mixers, and producers.
Senior editor for Ultimate-Guitar, passionate about good music and quality gear. Bassist. King Crimson fan. Travel enthusiast. Compulsive buyer of Bose headphones and old Fender amps.