USB DAC



USB DAC – one of the most important components in computer audio system / computer audio playback! A standard DAC will take in SPDIF, AES/EBU, & I2S data and convert it into analog music signal.

Digital Audio Out

To learn more about computer audio, check out the link below!

Computer Audio

To learn more about DAC (digital to analog converter), check out the link below!

DAC – digital to analog converter

One can be simple (or lazy!) on computer audio playback and just use the computer as a standalone player, with the audio source coming from the audio jack since a computer usually already contains the DAC to decode digital sources internally. Of course, the sound will not be optimal and there’s nothing to “play” with that.

Playing of computer audio starts with a basic upgrading of having a dedicated audiophile soundcard (audiophile soundcard), and move on to having the whole chain optimized “audiophillically” (this is a new term DIY-audio-guide.com invented, LOL!).

Asus Xonar Essense

Asus Xonar Essense Soundcard

It is amazing how computer soundcard has evolved. I still remember my Soundblaster 16 (16-bit CD quality audio playback) that I got in 1980’s for my 386DX40 computer with 2Wrms output from the soundcard alone! It was darn good already when everyone else were just using Soundblaster, or PC speaker. My audiophile behavior started to shine while I was just 17 years old! Sorry for the side track, let’s get back to topic!

It goes from the computer hardware (HDD, motherboard, PSU, memory, internal cables & etc), to the playback software, music / CD ripper, external USB cable, USB / SPDIF converter , DAC until the whole HIFI system itself. All components are dealt with individually.


There is quite a number of Windows based playback software:

  • iTunes
  • J.River Media Center
  • MediaMonkey
  • eLyric
  • Windows Media Player / Windows Media Center
  • Foobar2000, plenty of free plug-ins

Computer Audio Playback Software

The computer will generate digital audio data at the USB port (since this is about USB DAC) and it will treat the DAC as the external soundcard replacing the standard PC soundcard as the decoder. Of course, if you want to connect to the external DAC using I2S or AES/EBU, you can do so, but that will require a dedicated soundcard to have all those digital output interfaces.

Where do audio files / sources come from? There is plenty of digital music, with more and more high resolution 24-bit/192kHz (standard CD resolution is only 16-bit/44.1kHz) for sale now online, for example:

  • Chesky Records
  • High Definition Tape Transfers
  • Blue Coast Records
  • 2L
  • Reference Recordings
  • HDtracks
  • Linn

Also, users can use Exact Audio Copy to rip the current CD albums they have into digital copy. Exact Audio Copy is the current mostly used and favorite software for now.

With an audio enabled computer available, readiness of digital music sources, coupled with playback software mentioned above, and mated with DAC, one is ready to embark on a computer audio playback journey!

We have talked about the front end part of USB DAC audio system where we looked at the USB playback sources. We shall look deeper into USB DAC, more on the hardware topic in the next article. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, check out a list of commonly available DAC now in the market.

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Ken 7/4/2011

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