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

You can always keep the DX3+ for a spare for when your more expensive stuff breaks.

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.

Probably not simply because the signal out of the headphone jack is analog processed by much less quality internal dac of PC. You need to use the USB to get the digital signal out connect to external dac as already mentioned then receiver/amp. The difference in SQ could be night and day.

Here's a simple explanation:

DAC is the acronym for "Digital to Analog Converter"  -- in short, it takes the digital signal from the CD or music file and converts it into an analog signal that can be amplified and played through your speakers -- in other words, an analog signal just like you'd get from a radio tuner, phonograph or tape deck.  

Now ask yourself, do all tuners, phono setups and tape decks sound exactly the same? To most who are serious about their hi-fi setup, the answer is no. That's why you have forums like this where people discuss things in their search for the gear that best suits their preferences within their budget. 

This is a really deep rabbit hole.

First, I believe that @yage is correct. Macs don't play nice with high bit rate music. I think there might be a workaround, but I am not sure. Windows and Linux will pass high res on with no issue depending on how you implement it.


It is difficult to get really good signal out of any computer.


My suggestion is to buy or build a dedicated server, you can get an i5 NUC for a reasonable price. I suggest running Debian Linux (no I am not a Linux fanboy). it is both easy to use and easy to install, it will not feel alien to you at all. You can install Debian Server and take the option for a desktop interface so you don't have to screw around with the command window. This is a huge help when dealing with setting up the networking (which is easy on the desktop).

Better is to run Daphile (which is about as good as it gets), but Daphile is headless and must be set up via the command window from a remote computer. The Daphile instructions make it pretty easy to do.

Alternately get a Windows PC, and run audiophile optimizer and fidelizer (this is a pretty good set up, not as good as Debian).

You don't need anything powerful, i5 is more than enough.


There are a ton of options for getting the digital signal out, generally speaking Ethernet will be the best, wifi might be the next best, and USB will be the worst unless you spend a bunch of money on a fancy USB board.


A good option is the USBridge from Allo which will convert Ethernet to USB. This bridge and others like it use a Raspberry Pi, and contain the software for the user interface which you operate from a phone or tablet. I prefer Volumio.


Find a decent USB DAC and you are good to go.

You can also get a streaming DAC, many of the lower priced entry level DACs have streaming built in and will be able to fetch your music off your server. 


If you have an old Mini (never use a laptop), or Windows machine laying around this will be relatively inexpensive and such a massive upgrade you will wonder why you hesitated about upgrading in the first place.

I started down this rabbit hole running Daphile on an old PC, and an Allo DigiOne connected to the digital input on my old NAD AVR. One thing led to another and after years of upgrading I am using an i9 SonicTransporter server running HQPlayer and Roon, a Sonore Optical Rendu and a Holo May KTE DAC. So beware, it can get really expensive.