High resolution audio on a PC questions

I was thinking about getting into the high resolution audio fray using my PC. I was doing some research and found that it's recommended to buy some sort of USB DAC unit that supports high res audio. These range from less than 50 bucks to hundreds... I'm kind of not sure where to begin.

Can someone explain to me why I need a fancy external DAC, if most modern PCs are equipped with integrated audio chips adhering to the Intel High Definition Audio standard which supports sample rates of up to 192 kHz and 32 bit depth?

If I plug decent headphones into my PC's headphone jack (which is a current generation Mac Mini) and play 24/96 FLAC files using VLC, should I be able to hear an improvement over standard 16/44? If not, why not, and why is an external DAC better?

Also, I have an Onkyo TX-8255 audio receiver (it's completely analog). Would I hear an improvement if I ran the signal from my PC's headphone jack through the receiver? (it doesn't have a line out). Sorry if these are stupid questions.


Much of what you hear is not just about the DAC chip in the unit, but also the overall implementation of the architecture/design, which includes the quality of the power supply, the robustness in implementation of the analog output stage, the accuracy of the internal clock, and the isolation across components overall which prevent any interference in the signal which result in jitter and noise.

Digital signals are incredibly sensitive, so from the digital stage the quality of the power supply reduces ripples that induce noise. For the analog stage, they provide the quality current to match the robustness that aftermarket DACs need to provide the body, weight, texture and coherence that your PC won’t.

I’ve also posted on clocking in other threads, but better clocking allows the sample rate to be reproduced with the most amount of accuracy, similar to a photograph taken when the lens is completely in focus vs one where it is just the slightest bit out of focus.

PCs are inherently very noisy - not like white noise noisy but more like jitter (digital noise) which makes audio sound more brittle and fatiguing while being less coherent. 

Get a separate DAC. Then get a separate player.

You CAN NOT discern "high definition" on a PC, no one can, blindly.

Why not?

Noise friend.

Not especially the kind you hear, it just conflicts with the signal.

Try it, you will see.

Digital streamers and players were designed by souls that all started with PC sound. And then they found ways to make music playback breathtakingly better.

That said, you are free to be happy with $0 spend.


If you’re using a current gen Mac mini (i.e. M1 chip) then I think your sampling rate is locked to 48 kHz. No matter what file you play, it will always resample to that rate if you’re using the analog out. This would be the main reason to get an external DAC. It will automatically switch sample rates in addition to possibly giving you the ability to play other hi-res formats such as DSD.

Even if a motherboard adhered to the Intel HD Audio standard, some sampling rates won’t be supported. For example, the Realtek ALC1220-VB codec on my motherboard doesn’t support 88.2 or 176.4 kHz sampling rates (I need the latter for a protocol called DSD over PCM).

Will hi-res files sound better? It depends. Some of them can actually sound worse - particularly if you get a ’remastered’ version of an album first released in the 90’s or earlier. These newer versions simply crush the dynamic range which makes the music sound louder, not better. But this is the result of poor mastering, not anything to do with sampling rate or bit depth. Really, it's the engineering that makes the recording.

The good news is that you don’t need to spend a huge amount of money to get good sound. Companies such as JDS Labs and Topping produce gear that is reasonably priced and well engineered. For example, the Topping DX3 Pro+ is $199 and you get a DAC capable of nearly all hi-res formats plus a headphone amp. It also has RCA line outs to connect to your receiver if you wanted.

If you’d like to learn more about digital audio in general, I highly recommend the following links:


24/192 Music Downloads... and why they make no sense

Digital Show & Tell

The 8-bit vs 16-bit blind listening test