When do you need a dedicated DAC?

Jeff G

Limp Gawd
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Nov 2, 2017
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I have two dedicated gaming PC's in the house, they are used strictly for gaming - no music, no movies, etc.
At what point would a dedicated external DAC make a noticeable difference?
Below are the MB specs listed on their websites, along with the headphones I'm using with them.
Would either system benefit from an external DAC, or would the difference for gaming be negligible?

Rig 1 MB specs (Using Sennheiser HD558):
- Creative® Sound Core 3D chip
- 2 x JRC NJM2114 and 1 x TI Burr Brown® OPA2134 operational amplifiers
- Support for Sound Blaster ZxRi
- High Definition Audio
- 2/5.1-channel
- Support for S/PDIF Out

Rig 2 MB specs (Using Sennheiser PC37X):
- 7.1 CH HD Audio with Content Protection (Realtek ALC1200 Audio Codec)
- Premium Blu-ray Audio support
- Supports Surge Protection
- ELNA Audio Caps
- PCB Isolate Shielding
- Individual PCB Layers for R/L Audio Channel
 

GotNoRice

[H]F Junkie
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Jul 11, 2001
Messages
9,776
That is a question with many variables.

There is really nothing special about an external DAC. It's simply a DAC that is located in an external enclosure. A Soundcard is a DAC located on an add-in card. Motherboard audio is a DAC located on the motherboard. It's the components and their implementation that matters the most.

The biggest benefit to an external DAC is isolation from electrical noise / interference due to being located away from the PC and using it's own independent power supply. If you currently have background noise while using your existing motherboard audio, then it could be a very nice upgrade moving to an external DAC. Using motherboard audio doesn't automatically mean that you will have background noise however. It all comes down to the implementation as well as the other components in your system. If you're not currently getting any background noise while using motherboard audio, then moving to an external DAC will be a much more meager upgrade (if at all).

There is also the question of what you are looking for from your sound solution. You asked if there would be a difference for gaming. Unless there is an obvious issue with sound quality (such as background electrical noise / interference), then the benefit of an external DAC, in regards to gaming, will be negligible. On the flip side, many soundcards and even some motherboard audio solutions (such as your motherboard that uses the Creative Sound Core 3D chip) have features which help process the audio. For example, the ability to use the 5.1 / 7.1 audio setting in a game and have that surround-sound information downmixed into 2 channel spacial surround-sound that retains significant positional audio information while using headphones, compared to simply using the stereo setting in game. Unfortunately it's difficult to give blanket advice in that regard, as features vary greatly and opinion is a huge factor. Trial and error is your best bet in that regard, unfortunately.

You also have some flexibility when using an external DAC in terms of how it's hooked up. Connecting to your external DAC via USB is what I would consider the most basic implementation. It creates a very basic USB audio output interface on your computer that allows you to send audio directly to your DAC, but is otherwise almost completely devoid of any advanced features (such as surround sound processing, etc). Alternatively, you could continue to use your motherboard audio, but connect the digital output (S/PDIF or Toslink) of your motherboard audio to the digital input on your DAC. That would allow you to potentially use any features on your motherboard audio that you like, while still using the DAC in the external DAC instead of the DAC in your motherboard audio. It's the best of both worlds IMO, assuming that your motherboard audio has features that you actually use. It's also possible, although somewhat more rare, to still get background electrical noise from your computer when using an external DAC that is connected via USB. That is because the USB cable is conductive and still allows for an electrical path from your computer to your DAC that interference can travel over. Using optical digital output from your motherboard audio to your DAC would preclude this possibility because optical cables are not conductive, using only pulses of light to send data.

One other very important variable, that really has nothing to do whatsoever with the DAC, is your headphone amplifier. You didn't specify if you are using any sort of external headphone amplifier or if you have your headphones plugged directly into your computer. If they are plugged directly into your computer, then you aren't just using your motherboard audio as a DAC, you're also using it's analog output as a headphone amplifier. Most external DACs don't come with a built-in headphone amplifier, and the analog outputs of the DAC will not be suitable to directly connect to headphones. You would need to buy an external DAC as well as an external headphone amplifier (even something like a receiver). What amplifier you use to power your headphones could easily have more impact on your sound than anything having to do with the DAC, and if you currently have your headphones merely plugged directly into your computer, there is a huge potential for improvement in that regard.
 

Jeff G

Limp Gawd
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Nov 2, 2017
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193
Currently I have headphones plugged directly to the motherboard for both setups. I see so many setups these days running external setups, made me wonder if there was a big step up in quality. It sounds like the amplifier might be the better thing to look at. Thanks for the very detailed reply, I will do some more reading on amps as the motherboard audio doesn’t have any noise or interference.
 

Spartacus09

[H]ard|Gawd
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I second what rice noted above additionally, you can get the best of both worlds with a combo dac/amp.
IMO for gaming unless you just have a really noisy environment or your mobo has crappy onboard audio theres not a real need for it.

If you do though, I recommend checking out schiit's fulla, its a solid combo dac+amp for gaming that gives you high quality output for the price.

That said, your biggest upgrade is not going to be in a amp/dac, but a high quality headset, which the dac/amp would only be needed if it is analog not a usb headset.
 

Jeff G

Limp Gawd
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Nov 2, 2017
Messages
193
I second what rice noted above additionally, you can get the best of both worlds with a combo dac/amp.
IMO for gaming unless you just have a really noisy environment or your mobo has crappy onboard audio theres not a real need for it.

If you do though, I recommend checking out schiit's fulla, its a solid combo dac+amp for gaming that gives you high quality output for the price.

That said, your biggest upgrade is not going to be in a amp/dac, but a high quality headset, which the dac/amp would only be needed if it is analog not a usb headset.

Both my headsets are analog (both Sennheiser, one HD558 and one PC37x). The z270 board seems to be a pretty high feature board, while the x570 board is more of a budget board. Both sound good to me now, but I've never heard a setup with an amp, dac, or amp/dac combo. I dont want to waste money on something that won't give me a noticeable upgrade, but if it will then I'll gladly take the plunge.
 

Jeff G

Limp Gawd
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Nov 2, 2017
Messages
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If you do though, I recommend checking out schiit's fulla, its a solid combo dac+amp for gaming that gives you high quality output for the price.
I just took a look at this on their site, I might take the plunge and try it either way. $99 seems like a pretty good value for a dac/amp that also supports the mic. I was expecting at least double that price from Schiit, but that seems like a pretty solid deal.
 
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Commander Shepard

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Apr 12, 2016
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I just took a look at this on their site, I might take the plunge and try it either way. $99 seems like a pretty good value for a dac/amp that also supports the mic. I was expecting at least double that price from Shiit, but that seems like a pretty solid deal.
I have the Schiit Fulla 3 for my laptop audio. It's a very capable little device that I'm using with a pair of Kanto YU4 speakers.

IMG_20200804_163511.jpg
 
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