Using an external DAC to empower your workstationWritten on October 29, 2021 by Chad Warmenhoven
What is a DAC
DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter. A DAC takes digital audio information and converts it to an analog signal. That signal then travels to an amplifier, and then to your speakers or headphones where you hear it.
A DAC is an essential component of any PC’s audio system. Motherboard audio has one, as do soundcards, smartphones, USB headphones, and other digital devices. You cannot get sound out of a PC or other digital device and into the human ear if there isn’t a DAC somewhere along the line to convert digital audio signals into analog.
An external DAC refers to a device outside the system that provides the same analog to digital conversion (at potentially higher quality) and will be the focus of this article.
Why do I need one?
If you already have a 'DAC', why do you need another one? First, an external DAC is typically of higher quality than the DAC in your motherboard or USB headphones, offering better audio potential.
But we also have to go back to our original issue 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 crank up the volume on an average pair during heavy computing loads - you can probably hear some of this interference. It sounds like a hiss or static.
Some interference or “noise” is inevitable since you’re dealing with electrical equipment, but reducing the noise as much as possible is key for a better listening experience.
That’s why Puget prefers to use an external DAC. It’s removed from all that electrical noise around the motherboard, thereby improving the audio quality. An external DAC should also have a dedicated power source, instead of using the motherboard (USB) for power as that can also cause noise.
Ground loops are among the most common causes of interference noise when using powered monitor speakers. This is because powered monitors often utilize a “safety ground” in their power cable, and since desktop computers also use a safety ground, a “ground loop” is liable to occur once these devices are connected to each other. Check out this article for additional guidance
DACs come in all shapes and sizes and offer varying levels of input options and functionality, so you’ll need to think about how you want to use it, not to mention the budget you have set aside.
Compact USB DACs offer portability and convenience at a reasonable price. They vary from USB sticks that connect to a laptop, to more modern USB-C cable DACs that could also connect to a phone or mobile device.
More often than not, they are able to use power directly from the computer (via USB) but this will often reproduce the same "noise" we're trying to avoid in the first place. Instead, pick a DAC that has the ability to provide its own power from a wall plug.
They largely keep connections simple, with just a headphone input, yet can offer a significant number of options for output including optical.
Some people are so concerned about interference that they try to put their external DAC as far away as they can from their PC case. For most of us, however, simply putting it on the desk next to or above the PC is enough.
Will it solve all my woes?
An external DAC is not a magical solution to your audio problems, however, and it’s good to understand what to expect. If we’re talking about gaming, an external DAC will help bring quieter sounds to the fore. In some cases, your positional audio may get better, making it easier to locate stealthy NPCs and other players.
If we’re talking about music or voice, however, everything such as the quality of the recording, the mastering by the audio engineer, the file size, even the quality of your headphones/speakers comes into play.
Do I need one?
Here are the two main conditions that would necessitate the addition of an external DAC to your system:
1) Noise floor problems (i.e. background hiss)
2) Sound quality issues related to the digital to analog conversion
The first is pretty easy to detect. If you can hear a hiss during the quiet sections of your music, or if your playback is disrupted by noise, you need an external DAC. We've had noise problems that originate from everything from fan noise to hard drives spinning to changes on our computer screen (CPU activity).
This is usually most noticeable with high quality audio equipment.
Your computer’s built-in sound is pretty good for most tasks. Contrast that with gaming, where if you want to play the newest AAA games at high frame rates, you need a graphics card. A CPU’s integrated graphics processor simply isn’t up to the challenge.
Nevertheless, some people still want better sound than a motherboard can offer. When that’s the case, it comes down to two primary choices: a sound card or an external DAC (digital-to-analog converter).
Puget Systems no longer carries internal sound cards for a variety of reasons, but it's primarily because there are better options. External DACs are significantly more reliable, easier to work with, and equally capable to internal sound cards.
A PC motherboard is a hotbed of electrical activity. That’s why onboard motherboard audio has shielding to protect itself as best it can from the rest of the board, but sometimes this isn't enough.
A better alternative, however, is to move your audio delivery device away from the source of all that interference. Using an external DAC achieves this very effectively.
Basic Troubleshooting first
If you are hearing noise, there is very little you can do to eliminate it. But that doesn't mean there isn't anything. Here are a few things you can try, not necessarily solutions but diagnostic steps to identify the cause of the noise:
- Turn off nearby phones. Or at the very least put them in "Airplane Mode" or similar to turn off the cell antenna. If you need WiFi, you can turn that back on after you switch to Airplane Mode.
- Shut down any unnecessary programs. Don't forget to check the Task Manager for any programs you might have missed that are running in the background.
- If you have more than one output or input, try switching to different ones.
- Check the quality of your cables and connections - noise can come from damaged wires as well.
- Try a different audio source. It could be that the recording you are hearing has a high noise floor.
- Check your settings for different processing modes. If you have the option of different playback programs, try downloading a different one in case your program is adding distortion or noise.
Another super useful diagnostic step is testing with LacenyMon, check out this article for details: Audio Latency Diagnostics
Should I get one?
That is entirely up to you. If you feel like your sound quality leaves a bit to be desired, an external DAC will likely satisfy you. If you are using extremely high quality audio components (speakers/receivers/controllers), then an external DAC might be the only option for you. If you’re unhappy with motherboard audio or if you notice moments of background noise, like static during game loads or other CPU-intensive moments then upgrading to an external DAC is worth considering.
There are a LOT of options to choose from so it can be challenging. Some of the ones we have qualified for our hardware are listed in our Puget Recommended Peripherals page
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