Help! I Can't tell my new $250 DAC from my $2 onboard sound card?

Hi all

Over the last few months I have spent a much needed and increasingly amount on hifi upgrades. Starting with 20+ year old gear. 2 speaker upgrades and a new amp later, I’ve now settled on roughly a $5500 setup with an audiolab 8300 amp and triangle quartet speakers. Really enjoying every upgrade and having a blast listening to music and hearing new facets in known music tracks.

So now I’ve turned to upgrading the dac. Today I stream online music from various sources and only a few flac files have been compared. I use a 2017 gaming Asus motherboard equipped with a Realtek 887 dac. Using a minijack-rca cable it feeds the amp. I’ve never experienced issues with noise or distortion, but I figured given much of what I have read and watched online, that an upgrade with an external power supply, external dac etc be worth it. Also the speaker upgrades and amp upgrade were very clearly audioable and rooted in wanting to spend more money, not due to deficiency.

I have just bought a $250 SMSL M300 dac. I wanted balanced output, external power and go above the $100 range DACs to ensure I was in a different league. I’ve installed Extra drivers on my windows provided on the smsl homepage and stream to it using the highest bit rate. Much higher than 44.1k I’m using XLR cables between dac and amp.

But I can’t discern the two audio sources!!!

Sometimes I believe one is better than the other. Sometimes I believe the other is better than the first. Sometimes I listen without knowing the source and really enjoying the hell out of the sound, only to be baffled when realising that it’s the internal sound card feeding the sound.

It takes roughly 5 seconds to switch between them and I’ve listened to a bunch of different music. The smsl slightly boost volume and I haven’t found the exact db to adjust with. See , I so much want to get an improved experience and given that bias I should have an easy time hearing the improved setup. only that I don’t. I can still return it but I’d rather ask advice here first.

What am I doing wrong . Do I need training and more experience with my existing setup before comparing it to the new DAC? After all it’s a new hobby and the last set of speakers are only a couple of weeks old.

Track recommendations to help discern the two are also much appreciated.

Many thanks.

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Generally, spend a week or two listening exclusively to one, getting very familiar with it with reference tracks, then switch and listen to those tracks to see if you notice differences, which may be subtle. I’m not sure the M300 (haven’t heard it) provides meaningful improvements over many of the $100 DACs, but should be over most onboard audio. The next more significant step up tends to be in the $600-$700 range with stuff like Bifrost 2, Ares II, Soekris 1321.


Check your settings in Windows.
Click on the speaker icon and right click and advanced settings somewhere you need to see the smsl that is used as output, I think it was in Control Panel, Sound and Output and on the right advanced settings.
There you must be able to select 24 or 32 bit in a separate window, as well as the sampling rate.
You set this once to maximum and it will do the rest by itself in the future.
And since you use online players like Amazon,Tidal,Deezer you have to be able to set the app in the app settings somewhere in the app settings.
This is important because you can guarantee the maximum bitrate and sampling in case the file can be played higher and when you prioritize the app in the output, Windows will know what to do.
The rest is done by Dac.

And if you still can check in this window the music on the right side comes from the right side when you move the slider down in Windows.
This way you make sure that there is no reverse polarization.

These are important settings to make in Windows and you should be able to see the difference better.


I agree with @FiCurious. I recommend unplugging your computer’s analog output entirely and listening exclusively to the M300 for 1-2 weeks. Then, switch back and see if you notice anything different, likely missing in this case.

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Read up on getting sound out of windows… the hi-fi sort, it can be tricky and then when you think you’ve got Windows set up, you realize that you have to set up the specific audio player you’re using to play using exclusive mode and if it’s higher resolution files, make sure it is switching when playing.

A lot to make sure of even before you get started. If you’re not noticing a difference something is wrong. Any decent quality DAC with a good power supply should sound leagues better than your M/B audio.


Lastly, I do NOT see what PAID streaming services or personally ripped CD’s you are using as your source. If you are using FREE sources and simple MP3 files there are limitations in the music files which will continue to hold your music back. I’m not saying you could hear the difference between a Cd, an MP3 or a hi-res file BUT yes, there is this aspect too. No free service provided any Hi-Res music that I know of and unless you are purchasing your downloaded music, well what exactly are you listening to in order to hear a difference. Sorry if i missed it in your post but i don’t think i read about your source material. good luck


Of course you can argue or discuss about source material.
I would start by looking at the Windows settings first or the software offered by the manufacturer where you can set something.
If everything is set up correctly and the drivers are up to date you can rule out a cause.
If you use Tidal,deezer,Amazon in the end, the spirits will argue anyway.
I can recommend Driverhub to keep the pc up to date.
It has fixed some soundtechnical problems with me when I bought the Singxer.
Although Windows was newly installed.

Best to listen to just one of the two for a long period (a week or two).

Like others have said, windows driver landscape is hell (there are 4 or 5 ways to get audio from your software to the DAC).

I would argue to find drivers that work for you and are stable and then not touch them anymore until something breaks.

Try this here:


I dont have the golden ear got 4 out of 6.

Same result with 4 / 6 with only laptop motherboard and HD-6XX and nothing more in single try.
The pin-point of the test was “then 80.6 percent of quiz takers got 3/6 or less correct, that is a failure”. So hearing is not what it used to be or the gear used is just bad… and makes my MB + headphone combo look?

I have tried it again few times, there ain’t noticeable difference in the 2 songs that I could spot each and every time. Should be 6/6 every time with repeatable times but nope.
Don’t claim to be golden ears but kinda show’s that i don’t that ultra high audio quality. :smiley:
Might have to retake it when RME is fired up.

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Guess my gear sucks too, lol. My retest will have to be after cyber monday. Hopefully ill have a setup up to snuff which will reveal hi-res recordings from mp3.

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DACs with the same structure are known to have little to no difference.

DAC structure makes the biggest difference. DACs like Soekris’ are R2R which are very different from regular multi-bit DS modulators. That doesn’t mean one is better than another though.
DSD dacs (which are mostly softwares, actually) have different sound compared to the multi-bit ones, too. At least to my ears.

There’s no problem with your ears or gears. The difference in volume is -or should be- 6db since balance is +6db by design.

I remember taking the test about two years ago.

I did rather well and scored a 5/6 missing only the last one when I erroneously selected the 320kbps mp3.

For my listening I used the Schiit Magni 3 amp, Schiit Modi Multibit DAC and the Sennheiser HD 650 headphones.

Many thanks for all the replies! I read them with a voluptuous apatite. Rather than switching back and forth, I concentrated on just the new setup.

I can now safely say I can tell the difference between the DACs :wink:

Over the course of the better part of the week, the SMSL M300 DAC started to change its sound. I don’t understand the science behind why that should happen, but it did. Apparently, it is referred to as “burn in period”. It makes no sense … but it seems to work in my case. Nothing is mentioned in the manual either…

Anyhow… From the beginning, the external dac sounded louder than the sound card. Thus making comparison a bit tricky. Then I went down the path of adjusting bit rates, looking into WASAPI etc. Not sure it made much of difference.

But over the days, the louder sound seemed to reveal more and more detail. For some time I believed I could simulate the louder sound (and perhaps that would explain the more detailed sound) that by adjusting the equalizer. I’m no expert in equalizers and I only played around with it for a good half hour. The equalizer wasn’t making the sound clearer the way the external dac did. Perhaps its a shitty realtek equalizer software - but it is what I had at hand.

So better sound, clearer sound, more bass. I’m enjoying my purchase :slight_smile:

just give the hardware time to feel at home…

I felt the same doubt when I first tried comparing. My computer sound card is decent, without any obvious distortion or noise, so the dedicated DAC/amp didn’t necessarily sound any cleaner.

As I compared more, I realized that there was a lot of “depth” to music I missed with the soundcard. I dunno how to properly describe it, but the sound felt very sterile and flat. In comparison the DAC/amp made sound “pop-out” more. Things sounded lively and had a certain richness I can’t exactly put to words. I believe the bass and treble extension feel fuller through my external DAC/amp; possibly why music seems richer. I can’t tell much difference in mid-range frequencies, but the differences are noticeable in bass.

I guess a decent analogy for my impression would be a soundcard is looking through a clean window. A DAC/amp setup would be like looking at the same scene but without the window in the way. Not necessarily a clearer picture, but a more engaging one.

Edit: Also forgot too mention although not an obvious comparison with my laptop, I can easily tell my FiiO K5 Pro is better than my phone’s 3.5mm out. There’s notable issues at higher volumes and not much bass at all through my phone - it basically “fixes” the Porta Pro mid/upper-bass hump.

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your “non-descriptions” match my experiences. So impressive how I keep buying stuff and it just keeps sounding better and better! 3 months ago I had shit music in me ears, now I’m really rockin’

And the funny thing along that route was that after buying the first pair of tirangle speakers, I really enjoyed everything. Really odd that there was so many things yet to improve.

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This hobby is so subjective I don’t even know how to talk anymore lol. All I know is I have much lower tolerance for bad audio and bad audio equipment. Such a struggle not being able to enjoy some things I used to really like. But the bliss from hearing good recordings in detail… it’s a drug that holds my wallet hostage.

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What is your setup and what is the financial “damage”

It’s funny, I was just thinking about this today. To experiment, I listened to MacBook (Tidal) -> amp, then I listened to MacBook (Tidal) -> DAC -> amp, and I experience the exact same thing.

My analogy would be: using the computer sound card is like looking at a painting on the wall, using a dedicated DAC is like you’re in the scene of the painting.

And “depth” is literally one of the big differences. Dedicated DACs take advantage of higher bit depth files (files with more resolution) to convert 1s and 0s into more precise electrical signals that we hear through our headphones.