Sound Cards vs Onboard Audio (Which Should You Use?)

Sound cards used to be a must for any computer user that wanted great quality audio. The audio landscape has since changed, with onboard audio improving drastically. For those looking for top-quality audio, dedicated DACs or audio interfaces are now the go-to options instead of sound cards.

If you’re using your computer casually, then dedicated audio hardware is no longer required. A good set of headphones or speakers are certainly more important.

However, if you use your computer for tasks such as music production or professional gaming/streaming, an audio interface or DAC are now the preferred options.

We discuss all these topics below.

Dedicated Sound Cards vs. Onboard Audio

Onboard audio boards cannot produce the audio quality that the dedicated sound card can. This is mainly because of space constraints.

In a computer motherboard, you have limited space to add a sound card. The dedicated sound card is a standalone unit and can offer more technology simply because it has a larger amount of space available. Motherboard manufacturers, especially for laptops, can only add limited features.

DAC vs. Audio Interfaces

DACs help you to listen to audio at high levels of quality. Audio interfaces generally allow you to both listen and record audio at high quality (e.g. using microphones or musical instruments)

DACs

The digital-to-analog converter takes data in a digital format and transforms it into the analog audio we need to hear the sound. The analog signal is sent to the amplifier. When we listen to an MP3 file on our computer, what we hear is the analog signal converted by the DAC and delivered by our headphones or speakers.

As already mentioned, the computer motherboard already includes a basic DAC. The same can be said for other devices, like your smartphone that uses the same technology to let you hear what the person you call says or to listen to music.

The sound that is produced is just good enough for us to interact with at a basic level. An external DAC is much more advanced and recommended for those that want the best possible audio.

Recommended DACs

1. FiiO E10K USB DAC and Headphone Amplifier

Highly affordable and portable

This digital-to-analog converter uses the PCM102 internal DAC capable of handling PCM files up to 96 kHz and a 24-bit sample rate. The unit’s selectable bass circuit and optimized low-pass filter create the noise floor needed to listen to perfect audio.

The FiiO E10K connects to the computer or laptop through micro USB, which is also used for power. This unit is highly recommended because of its quality, portability, and durability.

2. Sound BlasterX G6 Hi-Res 130 dB 32bit/384kHz Gaming DAC

Designed for gaming and virtual surround sound

This DAC is practically a full external USB sound card with extra technology included. It was designed for gaming, so it has some gaming-centric features, like sidetone volume control and Scout Mode, which enhance in-game voice communication. However, it is also perfect for home users that want to enjoy movies and music in a 7.1 virtual surround sound environment (with Dolby Digital).

Sound BlasterX G6 eliminates distortion and can be used for audio streaming at the highest detail level. At the same time, it can handle output to a wide range of devices, ranging from 8W in-ear monitors to 600W headphones.

Audio Interfaces

The audio interface generally can take audio in both directions (analog to digital and vice versa). It takes an analog signal (like from a microphone) and converts it into a digital signal needed by the PC to record and manipulate.

Most audio interfaces come with an included DAC because you need to play back what was recorded. These devices are designed for music production, so the DAC quality will usually be very high.

Simply put, the audio interface is capable of converting sound both from analog to digital and from digital to analog.

Audio interfaces range from highly affordable (single input) devices for personal use to high-end (multiple inputs) devices used in music recording studios.

Recommended Audio Interfaces

3. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

A very popular and affordable audio interface

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the third-generation model of the most popular audio interface for home users. It offers everything needed for aspiring musicians and producers to create their very own studio at home.

Scarlett 2i2 includes 2 mic preamps and Air - a technology used for recording vocals or miking up guitars. You can also plug in your bass or guitar, and the high-performance converts let you quickly record, play back, and mix with excellent audio quality. Also, the unit is highly portable.

4. Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo Heritage

High-quality professional audio interface

The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Duo Heritage is one of the top audio interfaces on the market at the moment. It’s designed for professional use and can record 10 channels at a time while playing back 6 channels at a time.

The audio interface includes 2 mic inputs, 2 line inputs, 1 instrument input, 4 line outputs, and the mandatory headphone out input. It works with both Windows and Mac OS, and ships with all the software you need to set it up.

Should I Get a DAC or an Audio Interface?

DACs are perfect when your main goal is to listen to music, or you need to hear pristine audio quality. This is why they are often mentioned for headphone use.

Audio interfaces are perfect when building home studios. You can use them with a DAW such as Garageband or Ableton Live.

Make sure you’ve got good headphones or speakers

Investing in a DAC or audio interface is not enough.

One such example is gaming. Audio is very important to some gamers. They need to hear audio cues, like footsteps in first-person shooter games. In this case, a DAC is a very good investment. However, the DAC alone does not deliver the audio you need in a professional gaming environment.

In this example, the headset/headphones you use are also important. If they are not good enough for what the DAC can offer, just a small improvement is noticed. The same can be said when you want to have a fully-immersive home theater experience. It would be impossible with the DAC alone. You would need top-of-the-line headphones or a home theater system for that.

Simply put, for most users, the headphones or audio speakers/monitors are much more important than the sound card or DAC.

Also, if you’re looking to build a great home studio, then the room’s acoustic treatment is also a significant factor when it comes to audio quality.

Summary

To sum up, for most computer users, the onboard audio that comes with the PC is more than enough. However, in certain circumstances, a dedicated sound card is needed to offer higher audio quality.

At the same time, devices like audio interfaces and DACs should be seriously considered by those very serious about audio quality, like musicians, producers, audiophiles, audio editors, DJs, and even professional gamers or streamers.

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