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Hotrodding the X-Fi: A Layman's Guide (No 56k)

post #1 of 2183
Thread Starter 
The X-Fi is without question the best gaming card, but the sound quality is average at best. As someone who is used to high end external DACs with discrete output, to me the sound quality of the X-Fi can be best described as "low-fi". But rest assured X-Fi owners, we can make it far better! I actually prefer the fully hotrodded X-Fi XtremeMusic over the Benchmark DAC1. Yes, that's what I just said =). It matches the dynamics and detail of the DAC1, but with a wider soundstage, less fatigue, and far more musicality it's not even comparable.

This guide works for sound cards in general and not only the X-Fi, but X-Fi is the most logical choice because of its versatility.

Tools needed:
Solder iron ($2) (I used Hakko 936 but any iron will work)
Solder wick (helps remove stock opamp)
Thin solder (only a little is needed)
LM4562 SOIC (free samples from National Semiconductor)
Blackgate 2200uF 16V (from www.partsconnexion.com or www.percyaudio.com)
ERS Paper (from Partsconnexion or Percy Audio)
X-Fi card (which ones? http://www.head-fi.org/forums/showpo...&postcount=122)

A sound card consists of a DSP, a DAC chip, and an analog output stage that consists of opamps. Opamps and capacitors are the two worst offenders of sound quality. With any soundcard you can change these opamps to far better ones, remove capacitors no longer needed due to the better opamp, and give it more power by increasing the size of the power supply filter capacitors on the sound card. The sound card also sits inside a computer which is full of EMI radiation that introduces noise and degrades sound quality (especially treble). That's why audiophiles use external DACs. But now you have better shielding technology so it's no longer an issue. You can put a silicon carbide/nickel board on the back of the card. Alternatively, there is this thing called ERS paper that is much easier to apply. Basically, you can do what this guy did:
http://www.head-fi.org/forums/showthread.php?t=141880

You should still mount the sound card as far away from the video card as you can. The lowest PCI slot should be used if possible. For music, use bit-matched playback in Audio Creation Mode.

Summary:
(1) Replace the stock JRC NJM4556 opamp with LM4562 SOIC
(2) Replace the sound card's power supply capacitors with larger ones that are at least several times the original value. Quality matters, especially specs like ripple current. Blackgates were chosen for this application, but Nichicon KG would also be an excellent choice due to its specs.
(3) Apply the ERS Paper onto the back of the sound card. You need a layer of insulating material between the sound card and the ERS paper since it's electrically conductive.


The mods make a HUGE difference. It's definately worth doing. And it's very easy to do especially with this guide. Takes less than an hour and doesn't cost much money. (Edit: Incorrectly labeled as the power filter capacitor, but regardless, change that cap!)

Specs
X-Fi XtremeMusic, Platinum, Fatal1ty FPS, and XtremeGamer uses a JRC NJM4556 opamp for the main channels and three ST4558 opamps for the surrounds. They utilize the CS4382 DAC, which we will prove is a very good DAC. The X-Fi Elite Pro uses the JRC NJM2114 opamp for the main, three JRC NJM2068 for the surrounds, and the even better CS4398 DAC, which is the same DAC used in the Lynx, E-MU 1820, Headroom MicroDAC, Musiland MD10, Zhaolu 2.5C and other high end DACs. As you can see, these are good DACs. With these mods, even the "lowly" XtremeMusic will blow them all out of the water.

Impressions of the stock X-Fi XtremeMusic is that it is muddy-sounding, has a plasticky tone that lacks weight, lacks bass impact due to loose-sounding boomy bass. Background is fairly quiet due to a good board layout. Midrange detail is good but not great, while dynamics and soundstage leave much to be desired. I also have a hard time making out the notes when several instruments are playing. There is also not much texture to the instruments. Better DACs have a resonant quality to them that mimicks real life sounds, and the X-Fi lacks it. Still, the X-Fi is better than the vast majority of comsumer sound cards like low-end M-Audios and the Audigy series. It is also better than any portable player I've heard, but that's not saying much.

Enter the National Semiconductor LM4562
The LM4562 is a new opamp specifically designed for audio application and that's why it's a league above all other opamps for audio. Pretty much everyone I know who has used this opamp has been amazed by it. At the time of this writing, it's a league above the best OPA and LT and AD opamps I've tried. It has a PSRR (power supply rejection ratio) and CMRR (common-mode rejection ratio) above 120dB, so it doesn't care about the poor quality power that computer sound cards get! This will give sound cards that use them an edge over all DACs except ones that use an expensive discrete analog output.

From http://www.national.com/pf/LM/LM4562.html:
To ensure that the most challenging loads are driven without compromise, the LM4562 has a high slew rate of ±20V/µs and an output current capability of ±26mA. Further, dynamic range is maximized by an output stage that drives 2k loads to within 1V of either power supply voltage and to within 1.4V when driving 600 loads.

One thing about the NJM4556 opamp is that it's a weird size longer than the usual SOIC opamp, but the card itself supports the smaller SOIC standard just fine. I cut off the NJM4556, desoldered the remains using a copper wick, and soldered on the LM4562. Make sure it's in the original orientation, which you can tell by the lettering.


Pretty small, but still easy enough to solder.


The NJM4556 has been removed. It's a terrible opamp and deserves to die.


Put the card back in and notice the massive transformation. There are too many improvements to describe for this one! If you use the surround sound, you can also replace those three with LM4562 as well. The M33078 is the input opamp, and that can also be replaced if you do recording.


Next up we will replace the power filter capacitor. The 470uF Jamicon that Creative uses has a record for failing and leaking brown crap. We will replace this with a 2200uF 16V Blackgate and hotglue it in place. Make sure the orientation is correct if using polar capacitors. Even if you're not a beleiver in changing power filter caps, the Blackgate has 1/5 of the ESR as other capacitors, excellent ripple current results, and is one of the only electrolytic capacitors that last nearly forever, as in dozens of lifetimes longer than other electrolytics. Nichicon KG would also be an excellent choice due to its specs. Anyway, the effect of this mod is tighter bass and greater warmth. I say that the choice of capacitor does matter. Take a listen before the next mod. This is essential because the next mod changes the sound signature and you may or may not like the change.


We will now shield the DAC chip, DSP chip, opamps, and the entire backside of the soundcard. There are many options, from Texas Instruments to ERS Paper. This is not snake oil. Shielding really makes a difference. I used ERS Paper, which is electrically conductive so you need an insulation layer between it and the sound card. This mod made the sound noticeably warmer and more analogue-sounding. The digital, hyper-detailed sound is now gone and some will miss it. You will notice it right away and would probably want to turn up the volume since now it is less fatiguing. Who would have thought that shielding makes such a big difference?

Update: After 20 hours, the sound has changed from the Blackgates burning in (previously it was too warm). Now I definately think that the shielding paper should be used. The LM4562 will eventually be renamed to the LME4986. Just giving you guys a heads up.

Other Mods:

Alternative opamps - There's a bunch, I've tried at least 40 different ones, some of them extremely esoteric, requiring its own special power supply. Some of them plain unstable. Out of all the "normal" opamps, I still recommend the LM4562.

The X-Fi uses Jamicon capacitors, which are known to either fail or deviate very significantly from their specs over time. A complete recap is not unreasonable. You can buy Panasonics from Digikey, or Nichicons from Percy Audio.

There are other mods but I don't have the schematics to the X-Fi so I don't know how to apply them. If others discover new mods I can add them to the list.

Short the 22uF caps near each opamp (there are 4 of them for each one). I definately recommend it as others beside myself also think that shorting improves the detail and realism, with no ill effects on the card. They seem to be decoupling caps, not coupling caps, and make the DAC more stable. Not needed though, it's perfectly stable without them.

Removing X-Fi muting transistors - Trodas did it and reported great results.
http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f46/ho...ml#post4470963

Discrete Output Mod - you bypass the opamps completely and use a discrete analog output stage, such as a Zapfilter MK2 or your own brew. Simply hook up the discrete output stage directly to the outputs of the DAC chip. Advanced mod, but I'd like to see someone try it. Discrete puts opamps to shame IMHO, plus you get balanced output as an option.

Passive Output Mod - like in the discrete mod, you bypass the opamps completely, and use either a transformer or a bandpass filter, and you have the option of getting balanced output. If using a transformer, use 1:1 ratio and 1.2k resistors across the outputs of the DAC chip to create a load. Alternatively, you can simply use a RC highpass filter. I used C=3.9uF and R=4k for a -3dB point of 10Hz. I didn't find a need to add a lowpass filter, but technically you should. I used a balanced Beta22 as my output buffer.

hardnrg's Worklog: Hard-modding the X-Fi for better sound
http://forums.overclockersclub.com/i...howtopic=71127

OCWorkbench's X-Fi Mod
http://www.ocworkbench.com/2007/arti...-Fi-Mod/g1.htm

More pictures by Nicker:
http://www.head-fi.org/forums/showpo...&postcount=297
post #2 of 2183
this is a good guide and I might try it w/ my x-fi, but I'm concerned about covering the entire back of the card... the x-fi's have been known to get pretty warm...
post #3 of 2183
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by soloz2 View Post
this is a good guide and I might try it w/ my x-fi, but I'm concerned about covering the entire back of the card... the x-fi's have been known to get pretty warm...
really? mine's don't seem to that warm at all... only slightly warmer than ambient. I'm quite sure that it's safe to cover the back.
post #4 of 2183
Noobie here

Would these mods have any impact if I'm using the digital out?
post #5 of 2183
Quote:
Originally Posted by Norman View Post
Noobie here

Would these mods have any impact if I'm using the digital out?
power supply cap and shielding might, opamp and shorting caps won't
post #6 of 2183
I have not personally had a problem with my x-fi, but I have heard of more then one person who has had serious problems because theirs overheated. I am not sure if I do not have that problem because I have a good card, or because I have about $400 invested into cooling my rig.


The op-amps would not benefit you if you use the digital output, but the OP said doing all the mods makes the x-fi sound better then the Benchmark DAC1 so unless you are using a better DAC it might be worthwhile to make these changes
post #7 of 2183
Cotdt,

What amplifier are you using with your modded card?

Also, has anyone tried this mod with the breakout (large) one? I have an elite pro with all the goodness on the card, but the breakout box has the same opamps as the standard xfi line up. I never understood that. Have better opamps on the xfi elite pro and then the breakout box negates the benefit of having the elite pro.

So, either I do the mod on the breakout box. Or on the card itself and get a good headphone amp.

Either way, I assume that only one opamp needs to be replaced to achieve the mod if you are only using it for headphones (even with CMSS). Is that correct?
post #8 of 2183
Wow- I have the extremepro, and I"m looking foward to turning it into a beast DAC

So, I do recording, what op-amp would I replace that one with?(has anyone tried this?

Edit: Wait, does the op-amp affect the line out signal quality? Most of us would seem to use the line out and an external amp
post #9 of 2183
Quote:
Originally Posted by gates_2 View Post
Edit: Wait, does the op-amp affect the line out signal quality? Most of us would seem to use the line out and an external amp
Yes, it should change the sound some.

Anyone know of any mods like this for an audigy zs2?
post #10 of 2183
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by pheonix991 View Post
Anyone know of any mods like this for an audigy zs2?
Yes I've modded an Audigy 2 before and it would be exactly the same. Definately try it and tell us how it goes!
post #11 of 2183
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Liver View Post
Cotdt,

What amplifier are you using with your modded card?

Also, has anyone tried this mod with the breakout (large) one? I have an elite pro with all the goodness on the card, but the breakout box has the same opamps as the standard xfi line up. I never understood that. Have better opamps on the xfi elite pro and then the breakout box negates the benefit of having the elite pro.

So, either I do the mod on the breakout box. Or on the card itself and get a good headphone amp.

Either way, I assume that only one opamp needs to be replaced to achieve the mod if you are only using it for headphones (even with CMSS). Is that correct?
I'm using a Doge 6210 tube amp for my K701s, while my other headphones don't need any amp and are driven straight out of the X-Fi. I would just mod the card and use an amp (if you need an amp at all). The Elite Pro should be even better than the regular X-Fi because of the better DACs.
post #12 of 2183
cotdt. thanks. so do you still recommend only replacing one opamp for headphone use? I would think that would be the case.

If anyone is getting the mentioned blackgate cap and some ERS paper, let me know. Would like to buy some from you or tag alone on the buy. I bought some opamps from Digikey, so I can trade those as well if needed (should have them next week).
post #13 of 2183
Quote:
Originally Posted by Liver View Post
Also, has anyone tried this mod with the breakout (large) one? I have an elite pro with all the goodness on the card, but the breakout box has the same opamps as the standard xfi line up. I never understood that.
That doesn't make sense as the breakout box on the elite pro does not have analogue outs.
post #14 of 2183
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by videocrew View Post
power supply cap and shielding might, opamp and shorting caps won't
To add to that, for digital you want to do a different set of mods. This is taken from Empirical Audio's website for the E-MU but it applies to any sound card including the X-Fi:

Digital Sound Card Mods
===================================
This E-MU PCI card has several opportunities to improve the S/PDIF out, including reducing the output voltage (3X the spec), improving power delivery and precisely matching to 75 ohms. After the mod is installed, the S/PDIF output is 500mV peak-to-peak. The impedance is perfectly matched to 75 ohms and the risetime is an unprecedented 5 nsec, allowing use of very short S/PDIF cables. The manufacturer cannot design it this way because they would likely fail emissions testing. However, most audiophiles are expected to use high-quality S/PDIF cables, so the emissions should not be an issue.

S/PDIF mod Details:

1. Change pulse transformer
2. Impedance match to 75 ohms
3. Add power decoupling to decoder and driver chips
4. Improve digital coupling caps
5. Remove various filter components
post #15 of 2183
Quote:
Originally Posted by maarek99 View Post
That doesn't make sense as the breakout box on the elite pro does not have analogue outs.
it does. the headphone out.
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