Tip #5: Add an Outboard Digital-to-Analog Converter
Whether you use speakers or headphones, the digital audio stored in your computer still has to be converted to analog format to generate the soundwaves that hit your ears. That conversion is handled by a little piece of technology called a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which does exactly what its name states. Unfortunately, the DACs used in most computer are average, at best, which means you get fairly muddled sound with limited dynamic range.
If you want better audio clarity with lower lows and higher highs, you need to supplant the DAC found inside your computer with an outboard one with better specs. It’s easy enough to do; most outboard DACs connect to your computer via USB, and feature their own audio and headphone outputs. Just connect the DAC to your PC via USB, then connect your speakers or headphones to the DAC outputs. It’s really one of the easiest and lowest-cost ways to dramatically improve the audio quality of your computer for music playback.
You can find decent outboard DACs for well under $200. More expensive DACs (you can spend up to $750 or so, if you want) feature 192KHz/24-bit upsampling, which converts standard audio into something that approaches SACD-quality sound, and additional filtering. Even the most basic outboard DACs will bypass your PC’s internal DAC and improve the sound quality of your computer’s music.
Where can you find these outboard DAC devices? Probably not at Best Buy, but definitely at Fry’s and online at Crutchfields and Amazon. Make sure you get a unit with a USB connection (not all DACs are designed for computer use) and the appropriate output connectors for your system. If you plan on downloading high definition files from HDtracks or iTrax, go with a unit with 192/24 upsampling; otherwise, a non-upsampling DAC will do the job – and give you much improved sound from your computer.