Should I get a USB Sound Card or a DAC Amplifier? More ?'s inside.

Update: I swear when I keep switching between the front panel, and the back panel with the extension cord, the sound through my headphones seems more dynamic, less flat sounding when plugged into the back. Assuming this isn't a placebo effect, I'm wondering how much better the sound could be if I paid for a USB sound card or DAC amplifier.

I was thinking recently that perhaps I'm significantly lowering the audio quality I could be listening to by using the onboard sound.

I've a pair of Shure SRH440 headphones, and I've an ASUS P7P55D PRO LGA 1156 Intel P55 ATX Intel Motherboard, if that helps you narrow down the quality of the onboard sound.

For the most part I've been plugging my headphones into the front port on my COOLER MASTER HAF 922 RC-922M-KKN1-GP Black Steel + Plastic and Mesh Bezel ATX Mid Tower Computer Case. I was thinking that maybe the signal running from the case to the motherboard might somewhat degrade the signal. I've been testing it and I think if I plug my headphones directly into the port at the back of the tower into the motherboard rather than into the front port and through the tower's wiring, it might increase the sound quality. Haven't proven this to myself yet, still testing by plugging the headphones into each port while listening to the same few seconds of audio to see if I notice any difference.

I've been reading that it might be more important for the quality of the sound, to get a DAC amplifier, than to get a USB Sound Card, and that the DAC amplifier bypasses soundcards and onboard sound solutions anyway, so there would be no point in getting a sound card if I've that.

Should there be a considerable difference if I get one of these? I like to hear every detail when watching movies, listening to music, and playing games (basically anything I do I want the best sound if possible within a reasonable price range).

I don't know how much I should be thinking of spending for a reasonable upgrade.

Oh also, I just went and grabbed a headphone extension cord I've had in storage for probably 10 years or more (it could even be 20 years old or more afaik, I'm just going on when I found it and put it in storage). Could that degrade the quality of the signal significantly, if it's in good shape, just due to being old? It seems to not make much difference, but it's really quite old so I'm uncertain what others would say. I mostly need this cord if I've to start plugging my headphones into the back of the tower, hopefully without sacrificing any quality.
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  1. Update: I further affirm that using the extension cord with my headphones plugged into the back of the PC seems to produce more dynamic sound, instead of sounds seeming to be restrained from altering their volume or presence within the mix of sounds. It might be that there is some kind of electrical hum that's preventing silence in places where it should be noticeable, between the instruments that are currently audible, reducing the clarity of the overall sound.

    No forum insight for me so far. :-(

    If I should be looking elsewhere, please let me know.
  2. It appears you have golden ears, my friend.
  3. Does that mean there should be no difference in the sound plugging in to the front or back headphone input? It's subtle but somehow it just seems less enjoyable overall plugged in the way I was using it for months. Just never thought of trying the back input until two days ago. It always seemed off but I couldn't put my finger on it.

    I found random posts on some message boards that suggested that the extra distance the signal must travel could introduce lower quality sound of some sort. It kind of makes sense that plugging it directly into the motherboard would reduce such an effect.

    I'm still wondering if there should be any difference if I buy something to upgrade the sound. If someone who knows the answers reads the first post and cares to share, let me know. When I search I find a variety of answers. Some people seem to think that the difference between onboard and dedicated sound cards is quite clear, and worth investing in (though for some time now some people seem to have been saying that onboard is almost as good, if not just as good these days, I don't know how much you'd have to pay for it to be any better, if that's possible). Other people seem to think that you only need to upgrade from onboard if you are into serious recording of some kind, like music. Then I read that the DAC amplifiers are the only way to get the true potential out of decent headphones (I'd assume that's as opposed to what the onboard can produce, not sure how they compare to sound cards). I don't know much about the DAC amplifiers though, so I don't know if these guys are just trying to subtly advertise not so useful equipment, or if they have a valid point.
  4. The difference could be placebo, it could be simply cheap parts. Electrical signals travel at the speed of light.
  5. Updating your source is a good idea if you plan on upgrading your audio gear in the future. Your speakers/cans are the limiter factor, not the electronics, for typical commercial gear.
  6. Let me create a image for you. A typical $400 or so pair of stand mount speakers will produce about 5% THD in the midbass and below. So lower quality amp gear (0.1% THD) vs higher quality (0.01%) will have little to no effect here, because the speaker is responsible for 98% of the distortion in this system. A higher end (say $5000 and above) pair of standmount speakers may have THD as little as 0.3% to 0.5%.

    In that case, the lower quality amp gear starts to become a larger part of the sound quality equation, because speakers are now only about 60% of the distortion in the system, so upgrading the electronics is a good idea.

    With typical PC equipment with distortion figures in the 10% range, you can see doing something like upgrading a sound card will have a fairly minor overall effect. It's a good idea, sure...IF you plan on investing on better gear.
  7. Thanks for the above info, now I'm uncertain if there is any point in getting an amp or sound card. Some people seem to feel this pair of headphones is for audiophiles and that it's a waste not to have one or the other. I'm just not sure if it's true.

    I couldn't find info on the THD for this particular pair of headphones. From searching around it seems some people say an amp isn't necessary for this pair, while for the higher end model (the 840's), it makes a bigger difference. The main gain from what I was seeing for the 440's, with an amp, is that you can boost the bass further, as some people found it lacking in this pair (while others seem to feel that it faithfully reproduces the intended level of bass, rather than "enhancing" it from the neutral sound, like the more expensive version does [840's]).

    There is one thing though, if I were to say start recording a guitar being played, would it be best to get a DAC amp? From what I've been seeing, sound cards are likely to introduce noise in a recording, where the amp would not. I don't know if that means I'd hear the noise through the headphones while the guitar is being played, or only after playing back the recording. I also remember reading something about there being a delay in when you hear the sound as opposed to when you play a cord, where either a sound card or amp would make the sound be heard almost exactly after the cord is played.

    As I was reading through other forums, I was finding some people saying that amps would produce better sound than any sound card, so that might be something to consider. Some say that a sound card makes a big difference for gaming in particular. I'm not sure how an amp does for gaming. I imagine the rational for the sound card for gaming might have to do with the 3D positioning of the sound. Should I notice much difference in games with a good sound card/amp vs the onboard, and which of those two upgrades would be better?
  8. For best quality you would use a DAC/Headphone amplifier for listening purposes. There is no such thing as a USB soundcard. If the DAC had a USB input you could connect it that way (I would use either Optical or Coax SPIF digital audio out if you have them. A better soundcard would have lower jitter that would improve the sound quality but not to the same extent as the DAC w/ headphone amplifier. It would improve your recording quality alot as it performs the analog to digital conversion of your guitar.
  9. Hmm, I remember wanting to get a sound card for my laptop and people recommending USB sound cards, so I wouldn't have to deal with the noise/distortion that was really bad on it, so I don't know about USB sound cards not existing.

    Perhaps I should have said in the topic title, should I get a sound card (USB or PCI-E or PCI)?

    So even for games, you think when considering all things such as sound positioning (like being able to hear the distances of footsteps, in all directions) that the amp would be better? I think this motherboard might have Optical or Coax SPIF digital audio out connections, I'd have to make sure though. Does it make a considerable difference over USB? Update: looking on the details here (, it seems this motherboard has both inputs. Could you confirm that for me? They listed it as S/PDIF Out - 1 x Optical, 1 x Coaxial.

    The amp is preferred for recording over the sound card it seems, if I read that right.

    What price range should I be thinking of for an amp to suit this pair of headphones? I read that not all amps work best for specific headphones. I guess though I should also consider which amp would produce the best recording for the price, as well. I don't know if that depends on the guitar.

    Thank you for the input.

    Update: I was searching around to get a better understanding of jitter, and came across a part of a post here:

    "I also have large misgivings about any system going through (the never to be sufficiently damned) S/PDIF interface. This is so frought with peril that its almost impossible to get a really good clock out the other end. This makes me very suspicious of "jitter reduction boxes" that output S/PDIF, they STILL have to go over the interface. Yes if the "transport" is really bad they can help, but its never going to get really good.

    There are a few DACs that actually do an extremely good job of cleaning up the clock from a S/PDIF interface, but they are very few and far between. These are the only ones I would consider using with S/PDIF. And even then the jitter from the recovered clock has a tendancy to make itself heard through mechanisms such as ground noise and supply contamination, it takes a lot of work to keep it out of the final result. "

    I'm not sure I understand, but they seem to have some qualms with this interface you're recommending. I don't know if it's generally considered better than the headphone input I'm using for plugging into an amp or sound card, even considering what they said. The post is a few years old though, things may have changed.
  10. Jitter is measured in picoseconds, or one-trillionth of a second. 99% of the guys on these online forums obsessing over jitter use crappy audio gear (speakers, amps) and focus too much on mystical properties of solid state electronic equipment. They'll talk about using $1000 jitter-reduction gear and run it on $200 speakers.
  11. Hmm, I think I need more opinions on my questions above. I don't know enough to either buy something to improve my listening experience with these headphones, or not.
  12. Well, after searching around the internet to see people's opinions of onboard vs dedicated sound solutions (mostly discussions that occurred during 2009-2010), it seems like it could make a big difference to at least get a sound card.

    How much should I expect to pay for a decent sound card, or for an amplifier for my headphones?

    I think I've only pci or usb slots left (no pci-e), because one of the pci-e slots is taken up by the graphics card which hangs over it, making it unusable, and the other has a wireless network card installed. I assume sound cards don't use the same pci-e lanes as GPU's (of which I've two more I believe).

    It sounds like headphone amplifiers may have higher sound quality, though I don't know if that is true for all things, like games. I do run into situations with my onboard sound where what I'm hearing is too quiet, and I can't make the volume any louder (I don't know if a sound card will solve this). I also find that the bass is lacking, and I don't think it's my headphones. Overall I feel the onboard sound seems kind of lifeless. It's gotten to the point where I don't even want to watch movies that I've been planning to, because I don't want to ruin the first time audio experience of it.

    I've nothing to compare it to at the moment other than what I remember an old sound card being like, years ago, but I'm having a hard time believing that on average people don't notice the difference between onboard and dedicated sound solutions, unless for some reason everything has started to sound bad, and only to me (meaning it sounds perfect for everyone except perhaps for crazy people like me). At this point all I can assume is that the majority of people use really bad speakers/headphones, and so cannot tell the difference, or they don't have that great of a set of ears (perhaps both). I guess they could also be using bad audio sources to test the differences too.

    Update: There seems to be some discussion of using alternate inputs to increase the sound quality using onboard audio.

    "...analog sound from motherboards is horrifying. Although some motherboards will have a digital output (SPDIF Coax or Optical) will output audio signal without any quality loss."

    This quote corresponds with what I was reading on another forum. They essentially said, from what I could tell, that the quality of a sound card is no better than onboard if you use these inputs, vs the green headphone input I'm currently using, which I'm assuming is analog.

    I believe I've both of those inputs, I just don't know that I've anything that will allow me to plug my headphones into them, they don't seem to fit as they are. If this will increase the audio quality, what do I need to get to be able to plug my headphones into them? I guess first I should know which one is better, Coaxial or Optical, and then ask what I need to plug into it.

    If the above is not true, and a sound card or an amplifier would be better, let me know. I'm guessing that the inputs I'm asking about won't increase the volume at all, so I might still need something else that will amplify the sound, as that is a limiting listening factor for some things at this point.

    I don't know if just changing the type of connection will increase the bass output, it seems the only time I can get decent bass is if I search for bass tests on Youtube, then I start to hear some of the potential, but it seems these headphones could be pushed much further, both in the maximum volume output, and levels of bass.

    Here's another quote in support of the other connection type, "You can use an optical cable for your on-board sound and it will play the same quality as the most expensive sound card if your using optical connection." Is this true? He goes on to say, "The only way you can hear a difference between mobo and soundcard is when you reach a certain decibal which is very high" does this mean that onboard will sound distorted at high volumes where dedicated will not?

    I then found this question, "What about an onboard Optical connection to the Logitech z-5500 speakers vs. analog connection with an x-fi?" The answer he got was "Little loss, but you might suffer from 'jitter' on digital side. That's why high performance cards have coaxial transformers. Also, sound has to become analog at some point, your "digital" speakers mean that it goes through the DAC on the speakers rather than your sound card. And I can assure you if you have a good sound card the analog output will be better." So he seemed to feel that the sound card would be better anyway, regardless of the type of connection used for the onboard, as long as the sound card was good.

    I was reading something about how if you plug into the coaxial/optical inputs on a sound card that you would lose certain features that you'd normally have with the analog input, I don't remember exactly what they were.

    I've even been reading things about how dedicated sound cards can still help in games. It seemed like they were saying, while a sound card might not increase your frames per second by much, you'll notice that there will be less random stutter/hitch, even though your fps never drops below 60.

    Overall I'm unsure if I should get an amp or a sound card, I've read that an equally priced amp is superior, but I don't know if that's true in all situations, like games.
  13. I'm starting to wonder if I should just opt for a sound card. It sounds like you can get some that have a proper amp built into them, and they shouldn't be any worse than a dedicated amp as far as the sound quality goes. I've read otherwise, but I can't be sure.

    The only concern at that point is what I'd have to do to be able to record a guitar, or other instrument. I'm guessing I'd have to buy something in addition to the sound card (or is there sound cards with inputs for instruments that aren't too expensive and are still good for movies/games/music?), though I'm not in a hurry to be able to record any instruments. It sounds like you can buy a sound card, and then later get an amp to boost the signal further if you want. If that's the case, does that mean I could just wait until I need an amp that I can plug a guitar into, and start recording? Would it still be making use of my sound card?

    The only real plus I'm seeing with an amp atm is a higher volume threshold, and the ability to adjust the volume with an analog knob, rather than digital adjustments through windows. I do also remember reading that upping the volume in windows too high can lead to distortion, where a proper amp of some kind would prevent that, though I'm starting to think that a sound card with a good amp built into it might prevent that kind of distortion on its own.
  14. Sounds in general are analog; having to convert the sound back and forth from its original state down to its last frequency without distortion requires lots of time and money. Sound card can manipulate the sound by varying the frequency responce to your liking. Amplifier alone does not enhance sound quality but increases sound level so what ever sound you have it increases to higher level even with distortion, amplifier with corrections and tone control improve sound quality. That’s why different DAC works better when pair with specific unit/s. So before you get too concern about what you read everywhere, you should ask yourself, how much would you be willing to pay for the quality you are after? Each person have a unique set of hearing; yours probably among the minority. A lot of people who wants sound quality don't just listen from computer. Are you listening to MP3s or other highly compressed materials? If you really want to compare what you’re missing, listening from your computer, do yourself a favour a get a CD player with headphone jack (even the one from Radio Shack or from the yard sale) and get ready for a rude awaking?

    What you are looking for:

    1 A professional sound card to do your sound mixing properly. If you are worried about clock and such then get a standalone unit. (A real mixer)
    2 An EAX capable sound card for your gaming experience and hopefully the same card will do better audio quality when watching Video which very different from producing EAX sounds when gaming.

    Since those cards are totally different from each other, you need to decide what your priority is. People I’ve meet who record their music use pro cards like the Apogee, M-Audio, E-mu Lynx ect. and others who games uses cards from Creative's, Azuntech, Asus and ect.

    Things you should know about sound recording on computers, a computer equip for gaming is not the best for audio mixing because you have to minimize the frequencies generated by the computer. Another one is compatibility issue. As you can see, Selecting what your really want is not easy and you’ll have to pay extra for the extra quality. As an example, would you spend more for the Shure SRH840 for that extra quality than your Shure SRH440? I have M-Audio Q-40 connected to Soundblaster Platinum EX and it sounds good. I also have my Stereo System to plug my headphones.

    As astrallite said, $1000 jitter-reduction gear and run it on $200 speakers. Is it worth it?
  15. When I studied the differences between the SRH440 and SRH840, I actually found that the SRH440's had characteristics in the sound that I liked better than the more expensive model. From the overall standpoint it seemed like the SRH440's were better, though that might just be my taste in sound. I ended up buying the higher quality earpads of the 840's to put on my 440's (better sound isolation and comfort).

    I've been using different audio sources, Blueray movies, FLAC audio, games, as well as varying quality MP3's to test with. This is all from the computer though, so I haven't had a chance to test the onboard sound vs a sound card, or a completely separate listening device from the computer. I probably should try a CD player, though aren't I at that point putting the CD audio quality my computer can produce up against the CD audio quality the stand alone player can produce? I'm wondering if it would be any different than just putting CD's into my PC's disc drive and listening from there.

    In the start of your post, were you saying that it doesn't matter if I use the analog input, or the coaxial/optical ones? It also sounds like the amp can only boost the volume, with some options for sound customization (and I personally want to hear what the original sound engineers intended, I don't want to "enhance" the sound by changing it from what they wanted me to hear).

    From what I've been reading EAX is not going to be implemented much in the future, so it may not matter if I get a card that has that feature. I also ran into a program called Alchemy that's supposed to enable EAX on Vista/W7, but I don't know if that only works for sound cards that normally support EAX, or if this would enable the feature for all sound cards. If it does enable it for all sound cards (even it it's a type of emulation, though an accurate one), maybe I should opt for a sound card that's better for music/movies. In the end I'm not too concerned about EAX if it's not going to be used much in the future.

    I'd probably be the most concerned in the end about the overall listening experience, and my ability to plug in an instrument, and get a good recording quality out of it.
  16. Quote:
    I've been using different audio sources, Blueray movies, FLAC audio, games, as well as varying quality MP3's to test with. This is all from the computer though, so I haven't had a chance to test the onboard sound vs a sound card, or a completely separate listening device from the computer. I probably should try a CD player, though aren't I at that point putting the CD audio quality my computer can produce up against the CD audio quality the stand alone player can produce? I'm wondering if it would be any different than just putting CD's into my PC's disc drive and listening from there.
    Sound coming from PC for speaker out port is totally different from sound coming from CD player using headphone port. PC speaker ports are design for amplified speakers so dynamic range is different. If you want to connect a headphone jack then get a soundcard with proper headphone port. Check the headphone port on the cards below.

    Your best bet is probably the E-mu 1616M or the E-MU 1820M but I'm not sure if the 1820 is still available.That of course if you find a better alternative. But make note to call E-mu though to confirm if the optical SPDI/F is the only SPDIF that's capable of multichannel, like for watching DVD movies with 5.1 DTS or 5.1 DD signal.

    In the start of your post, were you saying that it doesn't matter if I use the analog input, or the coaxial/optical ones? It also sounds like the amp can only boost the volume, with some options for sound customization (and I personally want to hear what the original sound engineers intended, I don't want to "enhance" the sound by changing it from what they wanted me to hear).
    E-mu can do that but headphone DAC Amp can do it better for headphones.
  17. astrallite said:
    The difference could be placebo, it could be simply cheap parts. Electrical signals travel at the speed of light.

    First off... electrical signals do not move at the speed of light over copper. anything the current travels over provides resistance, slowing down the signal. thats why they came out with fiber optical cable.... which is the speed of light. the signal doesnt actually travel over wires, it is reflected inside a mirrored tube. as for the difference between a dedicated and integrated sound card the main point is the cpu. the onboard processes through the cpu on the mobo. a dedicated processes through that sound cards cpu taking the pressure off your mobo cpu. if you have a dedicated sc that has the same specs as your onboard there would be no difference in sound quality (as an example). as for the difference in ports, that is because when you plug your headphones into the front panel is has to travel over a copper running from the soundcard to the front panel then to your headphones. when you plug it directly into the sound card you eliminate a slight bit of resistance. it should be negligible, however if you have really good hearing or your are really anal and noticed every little thing (like me) then im sure its annoying.

    Final point... if your onboard sound card is decent then just plug into the back because whether you use the ob or ded w/ the front panel you will still get resistance. Only worry about buying a dedicated if you want more features that your onboard does not provide or if you need the extra processing from your cpu.
  18. There is so much nonsense in this thread i am flabbergasted. for the seventh time explained electric signals do not move at the speed of light not even close. If you want great sound buy an external DAC converter and a headphone amp or just conect it to your hifi system. Even the best soundcards available are not going to hang with a high end dac convertor. If you spent less than 150 dollars on your headphones chances are non of these options will even matter. If you are budget minded and dont want to spend more than 500 dollars go with pro-ject's product line. I have a cambridge DAC with a Pro-Ject Head Box S and use sennheisser HD595 headphones (cheap but amazing) but mostly just port the DAC straight into my stereo. It all depends on how much money you want to throw at it and how tuned your ears are to high quality sound. If you have never heard a 5000+ stereo or used 200+ headphones chances are a 150-200 soundcard is going to blow your mind. There is a sound card that combo's with a set of sennheisser headphones out there "ASUS Xonar Xense Premium" but for 400 you can spend another 100 buy what i just mention have more versitility/expand-ability and much superior sound quality. And as far as the emu unit that is overpriced junk for people who want a recording studio that fits in their pocket.
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