Whether you’re the type who likes clean, crisp sounds when listening to your favorite track or want great surround sound when playing games or watching videos or movies, the type of audio processing hardware you invest in matters.
Of course, sound cards are the ones responsible for facilitating the input and output of audio signals to and from your computer. A sound card comes in two flavors: an on-board sound card and a plug-in sound card. While they achieve the same goals, they are so much different from each other. And ultimately, the choice over which kind you’ll purchase depends on your audio requirements.
For instance, if you just like listening to music without so much need for the technicalities of sound, an on-board sound card might suffice for you. Motherboards often come with sound functionality but it can’t really produce sounds of the same quality as a dedicated sound card. So if you’re not too worried about the intricacies that come with audio, then sticking to on-board audio is good enough. In addition, you can make certain upgrades with a particular attention to the amplifier.
The other kind of sound card is the dedicated sound card or the one you can just plug in through a PCI or PCI-E slot. A major benefit of this kind of audio card is that it produces much better audio quality than on-board versions. Also, those who prefer less noise when listening to audio is better suited for a sound card that attaches to a slot.
The problematic thing about sound cards is that software drivers can be a hassle as time goes by. Also, it is mostly branded as an “all-in-one solution” and as such, it can be DAC, AMP or both.
DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and it’s responsible for converting digital data into analog format. Computers are digital systems and as such, they produce and manipulate sound in digital format. Audio in the real world is in analog format. So in order for sound to be properly transmitted from computer to an output device (speakers, headphones, etc.), it needs to be converted from digital to analog. This is what a DAC was made for.
DACs exist in most sound cards these days, and the technology has gotten more sophisticated over the years. Despite that being the case, there are audio lovers who still prefer to have an external DAC so the sound produced is completely safe from whatever noise is generated in the computer case.
You can think of a system unit as a noisy highway. There are lots of components at work, and as such, they produce a noise that can be heard through whatever output device a user has, be it headphones, earphones or speakers. This is why other audiophiles like to purchase an external DAC just so they can get rid of the noise problem.
Another good thing about an external DAC is that it requires no drivers and it allows a cleaner analog signal to be sent to the amplifier.
The Best DACs and Audio Cards
Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS – a great choice when you don’t want to spend too much money on a DAC. Or, you are just new to the DAC scene and would like to test out a cost-effective device. The DacMagic XS connects via USB and is portable. It doesn’t require any external battery to function and also features simple connections: a USB input and a 3.5mm output.
Audioquest DragonFly v1.2 – the original Audioquest Dragonfly was the first USB DAC component in the market, and it’s credited as the kickstarter of such devices. Since this is version 1.2, some little changes have been made for improvement. A bit more expensive than the DacMagic, DragonFly v1.2 offers transparency and detail resulting in a much smoother audio quality.
Arcam irDAC – this is an upgrade to the original Arcam rDAC. Changes to this model include modifications on the internal side which include a new power supply, a new Burr-Brown DAC and a new output stage.
Audiolab M-DAC – although a bit on the heavy side, the M-DAC has quite the power to it. It can produce high resolution audio through co-axial cables, and also features optical and USB inputs but just limited to 24/96 files.
Chord Chordette Qute EX – despite being similar in looks to its predecessor, the QuteHD, the Qute EX is a totally different machine. This model features a couple of internal changes (chipset, motherboard), specification improvement and enhanced sound quality.
ASUS Xonar Essence STX – ASUS has long been a top name in hardware, and they don’t disappoint with their sound card offering. With an SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) of 124 dB, background noise is almost completely eliminated. As such, all that can be heard is music or any other audio file being played.
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi – as one of the leading sound card producers in the world, Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi delivers. Although it has a lower SNR (112 dB) than ASUS’ Xonar Essence, it’s still quite the hardware for audio enthusiasts.
Auzentech Auzen X-Fi Forte – this model has a pretty decent SNR (112 dB) for output and a rather low input SNR (98 dB). The Forte is a PCI-E card, and even if it’s not the most impressive processor in the market but it serves as a decent upgrade from on-board audio.
HT Omega Striker 7.1 – although this processor is on the lower end of the sound card spectrum, those looking for an upgrade from on-board audio will find a decent device in this model.
M-Audio Delta Audiophile 192 – this audio processor works best with mostly analog audio. It pales in comparison to other sound cards in the market, but it’s quite helpful to those who mostly listen to analog audio.
Whether you’re a sound producer or an audiophile, having the right sound card does matter as it doesn’t just affect listening ability but also enriches sound quality.