I'm planning to upgrade the audio on my PC (my mobo currently has integrated Realtek ALC892 which doesn't sound that good) and am wondering if I would be a better idea to get a sound card (PCIE or PCIEx1, since my board doesnt support regular PCI) or a DAC unit that connects to the digital (optical or coaxial) outputs on my motherboard.

My budget is around $50, and I use analog headphones. I'm also wondering if using the digital outs on the motherboard will produce bad quality even with a good DAC since my onboard audio chip is not very good quality.


Digital signal is digital signal. You might not have much in the way of processing options provided by hardware on a cheap sound card, but digital output shouldn't be any different from any quality level as long as it produces the signal reliably. That said, you may be able to get a sound card with a good DAC in it cheaper than a stand alone DAC since a sound card can leverage the hardware in the computer, but there are also other concerns like ensuring good power isolation for a sound card based DAC, so using an optical signal to an external DAC may provide better isolation.

Either choice should be viable, it really just depends on what quality hardware you can find the best deal on.

  • What do you mean by "good power isolation"? You can't really supply special power to a sound card since the power just either comes from the PSU or motherboard. – d.free May 13 '13 at 22:04
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    @Anonymous: that's the problem. Power supplies tend to introduce all kinds of nasty noise phenomena into a circuit; a sound card needs to mitigate this by well-designed decoupling, buffering of the supply rails etc.. A digital optical connection on the other hand is a perfect Galvanic isolation "for free", and as said the transmission itself is practically lossless (there's a thing called jitter, but this is usually not much of an issue). – leftaroundabout May 13 '13 at 22:53
  • @Anonymous - I don't know the electronics side of it enough to tell you exactly how, but high end gear isolates the power from the noise in the computer. Most likely through the use of capacitors and voltage regulating circuitry and using a separate, decoupled bus. The most obvious example of this is listening to whether you can hear a distortion in the audio when the computer is thinking and the hard drives are turning. Good isolation will prevent this and also help avoid issues from grounding levels being thrown off by processing. – AJ Henderson May 13 '13 at 23:14
  • I don't think that I will be able to buy any "high end gear" with $50, so I guess I'll just find a sound card instead that performs OK(external DACs don't seem to be very cheap) – d.free May 14 '13 at 1:17
  • For $50 you aren't going to be able to get much. Your best bet might actually be to get a bluetooth headphone adapter. They generally have pretty decent DACs in them and are in the $50 price range. You might also be able to find an older pro-audio card for the $50 price range. I picked up a Creative Professional 0404 back in the day for $40 on clearance when it was being closed out. (Normally a $200 card at the time.) – AJ Henderson May 14 '13 at 3:51

I'd keep it simple and just get a basic USB audio interface. There are a few out there for $50 which I'm sure would be an improvement. Maybe look at the Alesis Core 1 which is about to be released for that exact price.

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