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Sound Card vs. External DAC

 You have a sweet setup for gaming, music and movies, but you noticed static coming through your speakers or headphones, or maybe it was a hiss or pops. Whatever the case, you started considering replacing your sound card and began the research – now you're unsure of what to get. An external sound card, or external digital to analogue converter (DAC), is tempting because it's so easy to use, but a dedicated sound card has benefits, too. When you're ready to upgrade your on-board sound card on your PC, laptop or notebook, you need to first determine your needs.

Enhanced Audio
The best sound cards can transform audio on your PC to your ear with clarity, richness and purity, if you get a high-quality one. A dedicated sound card takes some of the processing power away from your motherboard, which helps with overall performance of your PC, even if it's just a little bit. One of the benefits of installing a sound card in your PC is the software it includes. This specialized software includes features that you won't get with an external DAC that allows you to add effects, clean up messy audio and remove vocals from tracks for karaoke fun.

Shielding around an internal sound card and a high signal-to-noise ratio can help reduce some of the whirs, hisses and pops you can detect, but an external DAC is a better solution to this extra noise. Digital audio signals are sent directly to the DAC, so there's less chance of picking up noise from your computer the way analogue signals can.

Surround Sound
If the big selling point for you is surround sound for your speaker system or headphones, a dedicated sound card is your best bet. A high-quality sound card can effectively reproduce virtual surround sound for your headphones, and an external DAC cannot.

The biggest benefit of choosing a USB DAC is that it's portable. You can easily insert it into a laptop or notebook, plug in a good set of headphones and hear crystal-clear audio. Another benefit is that a DAC can help amp up the volume of your headphones, as long as the DAC you're looking at has a built-in headphone amp – which is often included in high-end sound cards.

Better Audio Quality
Whether you choose a high-quality sound card or an external DAC, you're likely going to notice a marked improvement in the audio from your PC. You can even choose both, along with an amplifier to get the best audio quality possible. The most important part here is that you make sure you buy quality gear – headphones or speakers – because you won't hear a difference if you're using subpar equipment. You're likely going to spend more money on an external DAC than a sound card, though.

Bottom line is that neither a dedicated sound card nor an external DAC is a better solution, because they're both viable solutions, depending on your needs. Once you've explored your options and set your budget, you can choose the component that solves your audio problem and then crank your music, movies or games up.