The increasing popularity of DAC/amp combos has reignited the sound card debate. These days soundcard vs DAC/amp combo is a topic gaining heat and it is being discussed extensively in many audio forums.
In this article, we are going to evaluate this topic based on facts with a touch of our two sense and provide the answer to a popular question of whether one is better than the other. Before we proceed to a concrete answer though let us analyze the benefits and drawbacks of each of the audio solutions.
What Is a DAC/Amp Combo?
A DAC/amp combo is a single enclosure that boasts both the DAC and the Amp. The advancement in modern technology has allowed for better circuits and hardware, therefore, making a high-quality combo DAC/amp possible.
Benefits of DAC/Amp Combo
The first and foremost benefit of a DAC/Amp Combo is its convenience. A DAC/Amp combo is a single external unit that normally connects via the USB to a computer. Most require little to no drivers making them plug and play. This is very convenient for someone just getting into the DAC/Amp scene.
Another benefit of a DAC/Amp is its versatility. Most DAC/amps combos have vast connectivity options making them eligible for many different tasks. For example, a single DAC/Amp can be connected to a computer via USB, a mobile phone via Bluetooth, and to a speaker via the Rca out. This flexibility makes some DAC/Amps a one-stop solution for all your audio needs something which the sound card cannot offer.
One more crucial benefit of the DAC/Amp combo solution is the lack of any distortion or interruptions in the audio. Since the internal of DAC/Amps do not share the same space with other hardware components of the computer so there is no interference in the audio signal.
Drawbacks of DAC/Amp Combo
Being a single unit with both the DAC and the amp the DAC/Amp combos lack the performance which a separate unit can provide. To negate this people have to buy high-end DAC/Amps combos which are expensive. The more we move up the ladder without a drastic improvement in sound quality the price keeps hiking. So it will be safe to say that DAC/Amp combo is a jack of all trades but master of none.
What Is a Sound Card?
A sound card is a PCI-E expansion card just like a GPU but it is used for a different purpose. The sound card in a computer processes the audio signal and turns it into something audible for the human ear. It also has a DAC and amp like the combos but where it differs from the latter is with the inclusion of an audio processor.
Benefits of a Sound Card
The sound card has an audio processor built into the unit. This audio processor allows the manufacturer to implement any processing of the audio before it is passed onto the DAC. The most common processing you will find is the different EQ settings that alter the frequencies to change the sound somewhat. This feature is really beneficial when you have a headphone that is lacking in a certain area. With the right EQ, the sound can be rounded off to provide a better experience.
Another benefit of the sound card is the value to money proposition associated with it. The good quality sound cards are not as expensive as DAC/Amp combos and we also see regular discounts on many more popular ones. These are also good deals in the used markets to be hunted down and usually, you can find an older top-of-the-line expensive sound card for fraction of the price.
Drawbacks of a Sound Card
The main drawback is the lack of innovation in the field. As time has progressed the technology carried forward is more or less the same. With each iteration of sound cards, we see incremental improvement in performance and sound quality not enough to warrant a next-generation purchase.
Another drawback of the sound card that pushes the consumer away is the signal interference or distortion. While newer generation sound cards have somewhat resolved this issue and now the signal interference is minimal but still you are more likely to experience a distortion in the sound card than an external DAC/Amp solution.
Best DAC Amp Combo for Every Budget
Best PC Speakers Under $100
What Does a Headphone Amp Do
What Does a DAC Do for Headphones
What is a DAC/Amp and Do I Need a DAC or Amp
Amp vs DAC: How Are They Different?
Soundcard vs DAC/Amp: Which Is Better and Worth Purchasing?
We know that at the start of the article we mentioned how we will provide a definitive answer to this question but frankly, it depends on the consumer. Yes, it is true that in terms of technical specifications and sound an external DAC/Amp combo solution is better because it not only provides a much cleaner sound but can also drive more demanding headphones. But we still cannot deny the use of a sound card is a relevant situation so at the end of the day the choice is yours to make. If you have a certain task that requires a sound card then there is no way around it but if you just want to upgrade your audio experience then get an external DAC/Amp combo.