Do I Need A DAC for PC Gaming?

An esports player winning a game

Do I Need A DAC for PC Gaming?

PC Gaming and Esports have exploded in the past 10 years. And with its rise also came the boom of the gaming peripheral and gaming hardware market. Today, there are all sorts of products that PC gamers can purchase to get a better experience. 

These include graphics cards, gaming laptops, gaming headsets, gaming mice, and many more. But one component that PC gamers often overlook is their sound card. This component is already included in most motherboards and laptops, so consumers often wonder whether or not this component is worth upgrading. 

Unlike upgrading your graphics card or CPU, the decision to upgrade the sound card is a lot more difficult. After all, most manufacturers have long stopped releasing new external sound cards. They have managed to make this component small and efficient, which is why it is mostly included with motherboards. 

There are still some companies, such as Sound Blaster, that still manufacture sound cards. However, this market is mostly a niche market these days. 

However, there is a device that is similar to sound cards that are mostly seen in audiophile circles and professional music studios.

This device is called the DAC or Digital-to-Analog Converter. It has several advantages with sound cards, but its core functionality is mostly the same. 

If these concepts confuse you, then you have come to the right place. In this article, we will be differentiating DACs from sound cards. And of course, we will help you decide whether or upgrading your sound device will help you win more games.  

What does a DAC Do?

FX Audio DAC X6 (Image: Stephen Menor/WIE)

A DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) can be found on almost any electronic device that can play sound. DAC in its name itself explains that it converts a digital signal into an analog signal. The sounds that we hear from our devices are the converted analog signal. 

There are devices that were used back in the days that did not need a DAC to produce sound. Some of these are the turntables and reel to reel tapes, and turntables have needles that create electrical analog signals while the reel to reel tapes store analog signals.

To produce better sound quality, you need to purchase an outboard Digital-to-Analog Converter. These DACs are especially needed by music producers and audiophiles who need to hear more details, a better sound stage, and better dynamics on the sound of music. 

When it comes to audiophile-grade DACs, they usually come in different variants. The most common one includes the standalone DAC, and the other is the DAC/Amp combo

Standalone DACs must connect to a standalone amplifier in order for headphones to work. DAC/Amp combos, on the other hand, have both an amplifier circuit and a DAC chip built inside.

For the purpose of our comparison, we will mostly be talking about DAC/Amp combos. 

There are USB Type-C or lightning portable DAC/AMP like the DDHiFi TC35B, which are also referred to as dongles. These are the DAC/AMP that is used for mobile phones. 

tc35b 3.5mm
DD HiFi TC35B and KB Ear Diamond (Image: Stephen Menor/ WIE)

The DAC/AMP that is usually used in PCs is called an external desktop DAC/AMP. There are also portable external DAC/AMP, such as the iFi Nano iDSD Black Label.

What is a Sound Card?

A sound card is an internal component that can be found on most modern motherboards. The sound card is an all-in-one-solutions that contains components responsible for the sound production on your device. Sound cards usually have software that allows you to customize EQ settings and virtual surround sound.

Sound Cards also convert digital signals into an analog signal. This is simply because a sound card has a microchip inside, which is a DAC.  There are also other components that make up a  sound card, such as the ADC (analog-to-digital converter), input and output connections, and an ISA or PCI interface for the connection to the motherboard.

More ports are available on the sound compared to a physical DAC. Since they are inside your computer, electrical interference can affect sound processing.

Because of this, people tend to look for an external DAC/AMP for a cleaner analog signal. 

Gamer girl playing Esports game

Sound cards are very useful; they are used for video games, watching videos, listening to music, etc. The port where we plug our microphone, headphones, etc., is part of the sound card. Without it, we would not be able to plug our listening devices directly into our computers.

Sound cards are traditionally replaceable. However, manufacturers have strayed away from releasing dedicated sound cards since the internal sound card is often enough for the casual user. 

Is a Sound Card a DAC?

Since sound cards and DACs do the same thing, is a sound card a DAC? The answer to that is yes. As we mentioned earlier, any digital device that is capable of reproducing sound has an internal DAC inside. And since this is the function of sound cards, then they are basically also DACs. 

However, this does not automatically mean that built-in sound cards are as good as modern external DACs. Like most mass-produced products, internal sound cards have basic specifications. It does not feature advanced functionalities since manufacturers are trying to save costs. 

This means that most sound cards are not capable of fully decoding high-resolution audio files. Additionally, they are easily susceptible to electronic noises coming from other components inside your machine. 

Is an External DAC Better Than a Sound Card?

Of course, not all external DACs will be better than your onboard sound card. But if we are talking about audiophile quality DACs and DAC/Amp combos, then most of them will surely be better than onboard sound cards. 

They solve a lot of major issues with onboard sound cards. Since they are found outside of your machine, they will not be as susceptible to electronic noise.

Additionally, the more specialized components such as the better DAC chip will help in reproducing a cleaner and better sound. 

And if we are talking about DAC/Amp combos, most of these will have better amplification compared to your onboard sound card.

High-impedance and hard-to-drive headphones such as the Sennheiser HD650 or the Sennheiser HD660S will most likely not work well with your onboard sound card. 

Sennheiser HD660S (Image: Stephen Menor/WIE)

And, of course, buying an external DAC or DAC/Amp will give you a dedicated volume knob. This helps with easy on-the-fly volume adjustments while gaming. 

Another perk that you get with external DACs and DAC/Amps is their ability to play high-resolution files. This will help you achieve a better listening experience, especially if you own high-quality headphones. And speaking of high-quality headphones, you also get access to different balanced headphone outputs such as XLR and 4.4mm Pentaconn outputs. 

Reasons Not to Purchase an External DAC

Of course, there may also be reasons not to buy or to postpone buying an external DAC. Most of the benefits of these high-quality sources will be nullified if the headphones or gaming headset that you are using isn’t great. If they do not have the ability to resolve high-fidelity audio, then the sound quality of your DAC wouldn’t matter. 

If you are using basic earbuds or entry-level gaming headsets, we suggest upgrading them first. Also, as much as possible, we suggest buying DAC/Amps and headphones that are in a similar tier. Otherwise, you may not be getting each component’s maximum potential. 

If your DAC or DAC/Amp is more expensive than your headphones, then you won’t be getting the most out of them. And if your headphones are better than your DAC/Amp, then you will feel that your headphones are being held back by your source. 

PC player playing esports games

Another reason to skip external DAC/Amps is if you are using wireless headphones or gaming headsets. Wireless headsets have their own DACs in them.

This means that they will bypass whatever source you have. And unless you plan on using them in wired mode, it won’t matter whether you have an external sound card or an expensive external DAC. 

Does a DAC Replace a Sound Card?

Since your external DAC bypasses the internal sound card, it essentially replaces it. All audio will now be processed by your DAC or DAC/Amp, which can then be outputted via speakers or headphones. However, depending on your setup, your built-in sound card may still have a use. 

If you are not using a DAC/Amp that is specifically designed for gaming, then you will most likely not have a microphone input. This can be a big problem, especially when using wired gaming headsets that use 3.5mm for their microphone input. 

If this is the case, then you should not worry. You can still plug your microphone in the 3.5mm jack of your PC or laptop but still utilize your DAC or DAC/Amp for audio output.

Of course, it will be better to purchase a DAC/Amp with a microphone input to make the setup cleaner. 

External DAC vs. Sound Card (Pros/Con)

External DAC 

Pros:

  • Physical volume control
  • Clean sound production
  • Supports different headphone outputs such as 4.4mm and XLR balanced output 
  • Supports higher bitrates and native MQA decoding (depends on the DAC model)

Cons:

  • Cable management
  • External DAC takes up physical space in your space
  • Higher-end units may be very expensive

Sound Card 

Pros:

  • Convenient
  • Cheaper
  • Usually has more ports
  • No cables

Cons:

  • Electrical interference
  • No support for high-resolution files and streaming formats such as MQA
  • Inferior Sound Quality
  • Not enough amplification for high-impedance headphones 
  • No physical volume control

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