A very flexible solution is a USB-DAC as almost any computer (including smart phones) has USB.

Basically a USB DAC is a external sound card..
If you use a laptop this is the way to go if you want to improve on the onboard audio.

Asynchronous USB Audio Class 2 DAC

USB Audio class 1 is limited to 24 bits/ 96 kHz maximum.

This is what fits into USB Full Speed mode so 12 MHz (USB 1).

To play higher sample rates the High Speed mode (USB 2, 480 MHz) is needed.


From mid-2010 on both OSX and Linux supports USB audio class 2 natively.

If the DAC is USB audio class 2 compliant it will play up to 32/384 on these systems without the need to install additional drivers.

In April 2017, an update of Win10 finally brought native mode drivers.

You need to install a third party Class 2 Audio driver at the PC side if you use older versions of Win.


A couple of models

24 bit Asynchronous USB Class 1 Audio DACs

USB Audio Class 1 is limited to 24 bits audio with a maximum sample rate of 96 kHz.

All major operating systems (Win, OSX and Linux) do have native mode USB Audio class 1 drivers.

A couple of models.

24 bit Adaptive mode USB Class One Audio DACs

The problem with adaptive mode is indeed the DAC has to adapt its speed to the data rate as send by the PC.
A bit like SPDIF.
Before 2010 adaptive mode was common. From 2010 on, asynchronous mode took over.

A couple of models.

16 bit USB

Today you can buy a 24 bit USB DAC at an affordable price.
No reason to limit you to 16 bit anymore.

16 bit USB DACs can be found here. Most of them are out of production.

Vendor specific

Some companies don’t use USB audio in isochronous transfer mode.
They implement their own solution using bulk mode transfer.
Bulk mode is asynchronous by design.

As it is bulk mode,

In case of isochronous mode it is exactly the reverse.

As long as the DAC is the only one connected to an internal hub, bandwidth is in general not the problem using USB high speed mode.


Inherent to a vendor specific solution is that he either supports your OS or not.
The advantage of USB audio is that it is natively supported by Win, OSX and Linux.
However in case of USB audio class 2 on Win you need a third party driver too.

Anyway this solution does audio over the USB without using the USB audio of the operating system.



More technical information about USB audio can be found here.