PC audio out USB to external DAC

I'm just getting into PC audio, my plan is to output audio from the PC via USB to an external DAC, which of course then feeds to a preamp. Do I need to add an external soundcard to act as computer to stereo interface? It seems like something would be needed, it can't be as simple as just plugging in a USB cable.
Thanks for any advice!
Plenty of threads on this subject; definitely get your sound off the computer via USB (do not use an internal soundcard) - your options are either an external conversion to SPDIF via a device like the Empirical Audio OffRamp, Hag USB, Waveterminal U24 (used), or other similar conversion device. Or you can get a DAC that accepts USB input (does the conversion internally) such as Apogee's MiniDac (USB version), Wavelength (various models), MHDT (available on eBay), or others. Your choices will depend on your budget, but in general the technology is very affordable when compared to state-of-the-art transport/players. Along with the archives here, you may want to check over on AudioAsylum there is a dedicated section for PC Audio that has quite a bit of useful input.

Thanks for your input. I have a Hagerman USB to SPDIF converter on the way. So I'll go from PC via USB to the USB/SPDIF converter, and then on to the external DAC. I guess I was wondering if you need some sort of program or additional hardware to direct the audio out the USB port (rather than the computer's speakers) to the USB/SPDIF converter. I asked Jim Hagerman the same question this AM and he told me that all you do is plug in the converter to a USB port and that's it. I'm looking forward to trying this out next week.
Regards, Mike
Mike - As far as software; I use iTunes because I like the interface. I'm a Mac user, but the software is available for PC as well. No special drivers are needed for the USB device itself, though some of these devices do have specific software to control the device itself. The HAG USB is one of the simplest devices of this sort. Plug-and-play. I have one here that a friend loaned to me to check out. I tried it out once and did not particularly like what I heard in comparison to my Waveterminal U24. That was a one-time, short term comparison, so take it FWIW. I'll give it a try again soon and give it some more extensive consideration. It certainly is one of the more affordable solutions, and should you not like it he does have a 30-day money back guarantee. I'll be curious to hear what you think, and what you're comparing it to.

I did leave out one other option open to you: WiFi. You can use a device like an Airport Express (new version just out), or a SlimDevices SqueezeBox to wirelessly broadcast from your computer to the device. In the case of the AE you have the option of getting a digital stream via a mini-toslink connection, or having the internal DAC do a poor job at converting the stream and feed that directly to your amp/preamp via an RCA Y-cord. The Toslink route to an external DAC works pretty well. Alternatively you can also get the information to the AE via an Ethernet cord. I don't know the options on the Squeezebox since I've never used one. Search the threads here and you'll get plenty of input on that subject. There are a few companies modifying the Squeezebox for better performance. There are other WiFi solutions as well.

Thanks for your thoughts on the HagUsb, I'll post my impressions of it later. I looked up the Waveterminal also, it looks like a quality converter with a lot of connectivity options. I may look into it at a later date. As this is my first foray into PC audio, I wanted to keep it as simple as possible.
Regarding WiFi, I recently tried out the Squeezebox 3. Sound from the squeezebox was not great, but my thinking was to connect it to the outboard DAC. I had lots of problems with the networking end of it that tech support was unable to resolve and I sent it back within the 2 week grace period. Many people rave about it, and they do offer a wired ethernet version. I'm sure my experience with it was not typical. Yup, the Airport express is another option I thought about (and the Sonos, which looks great), but my experience with the Squeezebox has kind of turned me off to the idea of WiFi for now.
I do have Itunes on my PC, I like it very much. I'm looking forward to listening to it and internet radio on my main stereo. I hear people saying that with properly done PC to stereo audio, you'll never listen to your CDP again. I have a Meridian 508.24 player that I like very much and I'm a bit sceptical of those claims. But there's no denying the convenience factor of having your entire music library, Itunes and internet radio at your fingertips.
Regards, Mike
Mike - Sounds like you've done your homework. My friends who have tried the Squeezebox route have been less than thrilled as well. I've tried the Airport Express and did like it as a digital stream through the mini-Toslink cable into my DAC. Waveterminal does it better though, but wired of course. Which DAC will you be using (or does the Meridian have a digital-in)? Should the HAG not make it for you there's plenty of alternatives. If budget is not a big consideration, I'd be looking at Empirical Audio's stuff to implement PC Audio. I had a Waveterminal Brick that I enjoyed very much. It is a USB-only DAC that uses a single 12AU7. It definitely had a very relaxed sound without a trace of digital harshness. I'd be curious to hear his much more expensive Cosecant DAC. I look forward to hearing your results with the HAG. With a Meridian 508 to compare to, it'll be very interesting to hear how things pan out for you. You probably know also that it is critical how you Rip your files to the hard drive; Preferably as WAV or in a lossless format, and make sure to have "error-correction" checked if using iTunes. If you rip music as compressed files I doubt you'll ever be happy with them if you are very discriminating.

You can use a device like an Airport Express (new version just out),

Jax, I see the new Extreme (which does not have a digital out) is supposed to start shipping next month but haven't seen anything about a new Express. Did I miss something?
Jax, I see the new Extreme (which does not have a digital out) is supposed to start shipping next month but haven't seen anything about a new Express. Did I miss something?

Nope, you didn't miss anything...I did! My bad, I scanned that email from Apple quickly and didn't read the details. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Check out the CEC DA53 DAC which has a USB connector and does the job quite well.
I've been reading some great things about the Waveterminal,I may have to pick one up for a head to head comparison with the HagUSB. The Meridian unfortunately does not have a digital input, that would make things too easy! I have a Bel Canto DAC2, with full mods done by Empirical Audio. I recently bought this dac to use with the Squeezebox, which of course I no longer have. Yes, Steve's gear there at EA looks like the ideal equipment for audiophile PC audio, if you can swing the cost. BTW, when I got the modded Bel Canto DAC2, I connected to the digital coax out on my Meridian 508.24 to hear if there was an improvement over the stock Meridian. While the Bel Canto sounded good, the Meridian clearly sounded better without it. In all fairness, I was using a new (not yet broken-in) Blue Dragon coax interconnect from Moon Audio, so my initial impressions my not be accurate. I'm looking forward to seeing how the DAC2 does with the digital input from my PC. Thanks for your thoughts on ripping audio files, I am currently using Itunes in the Apple Lossless format. I can't say that I'm pleased with the way the Itunes compresses the songs that you purchase from them though.
Regards, Mike
I'd like to post my first ever Audiogon post as a reply to this thread.

Just to add to the discussion and share my Computer Digital Audio or CDA :oP setup (I'm not big on the PC Audio term, seems...cheap computer-y).

In a nutshell, I have a Mac Mini with a MiniStack 250 GB, will most likely upgrade to a 400 or 500 GB one day.

I had a Xitel USB to Optical out converter I had from an early MiniDisc portable.

The Xitel goes out to an input of a Denon DVD-5000 which as AL 24 Bit Processing or up-processing which upgrades so to speak, the audio thats fed into its Coaxial or Optical input.

The Denon DVD-5000 serves not only as a DVD/CD/HDCD player but also as a great DAC.

Then out to my reciever/amp.

Very simple and the move from the built in audio analog output on the mini to Xitel USB>DVD-5000 was significant and a great upgrade. Sound quality is fantastic.

I use a Menu Item for Mac OS X named SoundSource which allows me to select on the fly either the built in mini audio out or the Xitel which shows up nicely in Sound Preferences panel.

A very simple and great setup which I'm enjoying very much.

And to add to the experience, of course, I use the latest iTunes, but also YouTunes for track and cover display and a few other things to turn my Apple LCD display into a Jukebox/server! I use Menushade to hide the Mac OS Menu bar at top and Backlight 2 for some crazy background screensaver action!

AND a Griffin Technology Powermate USB volume control knob which looks hi-fi and glows a cool ice blue at the bottom of it and controls iTunes volume, track queing, ejecting, etc.

I rip at Apple Lossless. Occassionally an AAC at 320 but I'm phasing out my use MP3s, I want the highest quality. HD storage is increasing and I just dont see the need for it anymore as I also want the highest on my iPod and really listen to a few albums at a time.

Just my setup which I enjoy very much. With a few clicks from browing the internet, I can turn my Mac mini into a Jukebox.

Want screenshots?! Thanks for reading!