USB DAC vs Motherboard

DACs play a big part in the audiophile world. They are the heart of any great-sounding audiophile setup. However, they usually come at a high cost.

For those who are just getting into high-end audio, getting a standalone DAC may not be a very practical solution. And oftentimes, users ask, are there enough differences to justify the cost between an external DAC and onboard audio?

USB DACs or any type of external device always have superior audio and decoding capabilities compared to your motherboard’s onboard audio. This is because they are using a more advanced DAC chip compared to motherboard companies. Additionally, external devices will always isolate noise better than a motherboard that houses different components.

In this article, we will be talking more about the differences between your motherboard’s onboard soundcard and audiophile-grade external USB DACs.  We will also be discussing whether or not you need an external DAC for your desktop PC setup. Keep on reading to find out more about motherboard audio and external DACs.

History of Sound Cards

ASUS Strix SOAR 7.1 PCIE Gaming Sound Card, 90YB00J0-M1UA00 (7.1 PCIE Gaming Sound Card)
ASUS Strix SOAR Gaming Sound Card (Image: Amazon)

Before we talk more about DACs and sound cards, let us first learn more about their shared history. The Gooch Synthetic Woodwind, designed by Sherwin Gooch in 1972, is considered the first sound card. This was used on PLATO terminals (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations). 

The Apple II, on the other hand, used the first plug-in sound card in 1978. Since then, computers have started using sound cards. 

One of the first manufacturers of sound cards is the AdLib. This manufacturer is, however, no longer in business. Their sound cards were used on the IBM computers back then.

DACs on Sound Cards

Creative Sound Blaster AE-7 Hi-Res Internal PCIe Sound Card, Quad-Core Processor, 127dB DNR ESS SABRE-class 9018 DAC, Xamp Discrete Custom Bi-amp, Discrete 5.1/Virtual 7.1, Dolby, DTS Encoding (Black)
Creative Sound Blaster AE-7 Sound Card (Image: Amazon)

The DACs on our motherboard are found on sound cards. These sound cards are responsible for the sound production on our PCs. Other than DACs, they also contain another chip called the ADC or Analog-to-Digital Converter, which has the exact opposite function of DACs.

Some Sound cards replaced the DACs and ADCs to CODEC. This component has the same function as the two components. This is to put both DAC and ADC in a single chipset.

The Sound card is connected to the motherboard via ISA and PCI Interface. They also have other connections like MIDI, FireWire, and Digital Out for the surround sound and speakers.

The DAC chips found on our computers are not the best quality DACs found on outboard DACs. And for this reason, external DACs are necessary equipment for both audiophiles and professional producers. 

However, there are also manufacturers of high-quality sound cards. One of these companies is the Sound Blaster. But most audiophiles nowadays no longer consider replacing their sound cards.

Instead, they make choices purchasing DAC/Amp combo, standalone DACs, or getting a DAP. After all, they are upgrading to better devices, so why not consider getting something that can be used on different devices and not only on computers.

Different Types of DACs

USB DACs

EarMen Eagle High-Performance Portable USB DAC and Headphone Amp - PCM, DxD, and DSD
EarMen Eagle USB DAC (Image: Amazon)

The USB DACs are now commonly used the same way as dongles. Using OTG adapters, they are connected to your smartphones to complete your setup. 

They were originally made to use on laptops and computers. They are easier to carry when using your laptop and want to have a great sounding device with you. These USB DACs are also compatible with some full-sized headphones like the Sennheiser HD660S and Harmonicdyne Zeus.

Some of the popular USB DACs that most audiophiles have are the Earmen Eagle and Dragonfly DAC Series. What makes them interesting is that despite their small size, they can very much play high-resolution files on our sources. 

The compatibility of full-sized headphones is also a plus. However, most of them would not be able to give them the best performance. You can also use headphone amplifiers to help power the headphones with high impedance.

Some of these USB DACs have support for MQA files. This would benefit streaming apps such as Tidal. Spotify will soon have the support for this file type.

Desktop and Portable DAC

Sennheiser HD660 S with FX audio

These two types of DACs are the most common options for audiophiles and professional audio producers.

Desktop DACs, as the name itself says, are DACs used for desktops, as well as laptops.

On the other hand, portable DACs are used for portable devices such as smartphones.

Both desktop DACs and portable DACs have high-quality DAC chips installed in them. This is why they are one of the first upgrades considered by most audiophiles after the IEMs and Headphones. 

Most Desktop and portable DACs are combined together with headphone amplifiers. DAC/Amp combos are more capable of giving the best performance from full-sized headphones. You can also use standalone units if you prefer using two separate devices.

USB DAC vs. Motherboard 

Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus SABRE32-class Hi-res 32-bit/384 kHz PCIe Gaming Sound Card and DAC with Dolby Digital and DTS, Xamp Discrete Headphone Bi-amp, Up to 122dB SNR, RGB Lighting System
Creative Sound BlasterX Sound Card (Image: Amazon)

As we discussed earlier, both devices have a DAC installed in them. However, the main difference is the type and quality of DAC that they have. 

Since a motherboard houses different components, you cannot expect a manufacturer to install a high-end DAC chip on their product. Instead, manufacturers tend to put a DAC chip that can handle the basics but not necessarily meet the demands of audiophiles.

Most onboard DACs do not have the capability to natively play high-resolution files. It also cannot fully decode audiophile file formats such as DSD and MQA.

Additionally, motherboards typically do not have the cleanest sounding setup. Since it houses other components, it is prone to interference. You will most likely hear noises and hisses when using more sensitive IEMs or headphones.

Audiophile USB DACs, on the other hand, are clearly superior to motherboard audio. They pretty much have everything that an internal sound card does not. They have a high-quality DAC chip as well as support for high-resolution files. And, of course, they are free from interference.

Additionally, USB DACs can be readily paired with other audiophile equipment such as headphone amplifiers and tube headphone amplifiers. They basically tie the whole setup together.

Do I need to get a USB DAC for My Computer?

AudioQuest DragonFly Black v1.5 Plug-in USB DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp
AudioQuest DragonFly Black (Image: Amazon)

Of course, getting a USB DAC will still depend on your personal needs. If you primarily use your desktop PC for music listening, then it is highly recommended to get a USB DAC. It is also recommended to get a high-quality headphone amplifier and audiophile-grade headphones to complete your setup.

However, if you are just starting your audiophile journey and are currently using entry-level gear, then we advise saving up on headphones or IEMs first. While it is true that DACs play a large role in your audiophile setup, you won’t be able to fully utilize them if your headphones or IEMs are not up to par with the quality of your DAC.

Also, take note that some motherboard manufacturers have high-quality DACs. But they still won’t be able to par with external DACs. However, they can still sound decent and are certainly useable for non-critical listening.

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