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Soundcard - v- DAC Please forgive my ignorance....

post #1 of 12
Thread Starter 

As the thread title states, please forgive my ignorance. I have been lurking in this part of the site for some time now and feel the only way to prevent myself screwing up is just to ask....

 

For those with time to kill, an intro...

 

I don't game. I watch the very occassional movie on my desktop. I listen to music....a lot, I have some great cans and about a dozen pairs of IEMs of various calibres (my favourites being my Westone UM2's with ACS custom sleeves) and do most of my listening on a Cowon S9 which has fantastic sound reproduction. I don't have the technical knowledge to know why the things I like generate a lovely, clear, precise sound. But I know they do and I love it. 

 

Increasingly I find myself working from home so have started to listen to my foobar library via my deskptop's onboard Realtek audio and the old Sony 2.1 (I think) SRS-D21 subwoofer and satelites. About a month ago I cracked. I can no longer cope with the tinitus-like whine that presumably the onboard audio (Asus P8P67 mobo) generates or the muffled, muddy noise of the Sony speakers.

 

So, I've been trying to find a solution to getting decent audio quality from my desktop, without spending a fortune (budget is probably a max. £150, though as with anything if there is significantly better quality available for a little extra investment then I'd go for it).

 

So, to my questions....

 

  • Is there a general consensus on the route to go here. PCI soundcard (like the Asus Xonar range) or some sort of desktop DAC?
  • If the better route is the desktop DAC route, does the audio output come via USB? Looking at something like the Fiio E9/E7 combo, this is right?
  • I am right in saying I don't need both a discrete soundcard and a DAC? I think a soundcard is just a DAC that connects via PCI rather than being n external.
  • I have my eye on something like the Edifier R1600T or the Aego M speakers. Would either of these be better suited to the discrete soundcard or the USB-fed DAC?
  • If I went for either of the two speaker systems above, would I need any other hardware? Would either of the speaker sets mentions need an DAC with a built in amp for example?

 

Thanks in advance to anyone who is able to offer me any advice. I suspect I know the answers. I suspect the solution that would suit me best would be the USB-fed DAC, as I don't want to have to control volume, etc on the PC but would prefer to use "knobs" on my desk.

 

LJ


Edited by LJ50 - 10/11/11 at 12:45pm
post #2 of 12

If you're NOT gaming, then there's much less incentive to get an internal sound card specifically...unless you want virtualized 7.1 surround over headphones for movies.

 

External DACs take their input via USB or S/PDIF (RCA/coaxial or Toslink/optical). If using the latter, the integrated audio codec shouldn't hinder audio quality at all, though S/PDIF inputs only tend to be found on more expensive DACs.

 

Sound cards have DACs, yes, but if you need gaming features (EAX) or surround sound over stereo headphones, they generally tend to offer those features far more often than external DACs do. I may consider a sound card -> S/PDIF -> DAC approach for this reason alone, but I am very much into gaming and you're not, so it's just redundant in your case.

 

On the other hand, certain top-shelf internal sound cards like the Xonar Essence STX are measured as being even better than external DACs in its price range (around US$200, don't know UK prices). It's not always a simple matter of "external DACs are all superior".

post #3 of 12
Quote:
Originally Posted by NamelessPFG View Post

If you're NOT gaming, then there's much less incentive to get an internal sound card specifically...unless you want virtualized 7.1 surround over headphones for movies.

 

External DACs take their input via USB or S/PDIF (RCA/coaxial or Toslink/optical). If using the latter, the integrated audio codec shouldn't hinder audio quality at all, though S/PDIF inputs only tend to be found on more expensive DACs.

 

Sound cards have DACs, yes, but if you need gaming features (EAX) or surround sound over stereo headphones, they generally tend to offer those features far more often than external DACs do. I may consider a sound card -> S/PDIF -> DAC approach for this reason alone, but I am very much into gaming and you're not, so it's just redundant in your case.

 

On the other hand, certain top-shelf internal sound cards like the Xonar Essence STX are measured as being even better than external DACs in its price range (around US$200, don't know UK prices). It's not always a simple matter of "external DACs are all superior".


Why it's pretty much impossible to get any companies to comment on their products (versus others)- if you look at the DAC setup on the Asus Xonar Essence STX (I have the PCI-E version) - it seems to outperform (on paper) pretty much any external DAC that is out on the market regardless of price point it seems. 

 

As for the argument of noise/electrical interference from within the chassis? I'm not sure. It's really up for debate. I would argue it's not a real issue with the Asus as the analog stage is encased in its own shielded portion. Asus claims this isolates the components from EM interference. Does it work? I'm not sure, it's much better than my previous on-board sound so I can't see it doing any harm at all.

 

Having picked up a Schiit Lyr and using HiFiMan HE-500 headphones via RCA from my Asus Xonar I can't complain. The sound quality is excellent. Can I compare it to stand-alone DAC's? Well- personally I haven't tried stand-alone DAC's so I can't comment. But what I can say is on paper the Texas Instruments DAC on the Xonar makes me wary of pretty much every dedicated DAC since they all seem to use a more basic DAC. Asus also follows the recommended/reference TI design for the DAC stage so I can't really see Asus screwing up in that regard.

 

For ultimate flexibility I would get a sound card and eventually run SPDIF to an external DAC. It is the most expensive option, but if you don't need balanced outputs I am finding it difficult to justify an external DAC at any range really. I have been eyeing the BiFrost because it looks pretty... but when you look up the DAC specs they do not stack up against the Asus. 

 

I'm sure there's a legitimate argument for how the DAC itself is designed (power, board layout, etc). It's a very muddy subject and I haven't seen anyone undertake an objective comparison of the Asus Xonar Essence STX against external DAC's of various price ranges/calibers. 

 

post #4 of 12
Thread Starter 

Thanks you both for your views. If I interpret them properly, you are saying that for my purposes - as a non-gamer - a discrete soundcard should provide a similar quality of sound to an external DAC? i.e. one nor the other is a clear winner. Particularly as I won't be using headphones very often with the desktop (if for no other reason that plugging into the back of the PC - which lives under my desk - would be a bloody nuisance!).

 

My temptation therefore is to stretch my budget a bit and go for the Xonar Essence STX and the Edifier R1600T bookshelf speakers. I presume the best way to set these up would be to have seperate outputs from the soundcard into each of the speakers? Or to have a single output into one speaker then the other as a "slave" (you'll have to forgive the doubtless incorrect terminology there. I suspect I should say active and passive?).

 

The other option I was considering was the Fiio E9/E7 combo then either the R1600T or another set of speakers. Again, the benefit I saw to this was having the volume control on the desk rather than having to mess around with adjusting volume via an application (as I switch the LCD monitor between desktop and laptop input).

 

Thanks again

LJ


Edited by LJ50 - 10/12/11 at 10:21am
post #5 of 12

Well the Edifier R1600T appears to be an active speaker (requires own power supply) so there won't be any issues driving the system with any kind of sound card. From what I could see from pictures of the back of the R1600T you have standard RCA (L/R) inputs and the Xonar Essence STX has analog RCA outputs so you don't need to do anything fancy. Just plug and play.

 

Both the Fiio E9/E7 are designed for headphone use they are very different from the Asus Xonar. Case in point:

 

The Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 DAC in the Asus Xonar Essence STX is rated at Po: 32-Ω stereo, VCC  = ±12 V, 1.5 watts(32Ω) / THD+N 0.001% - its' very beefy for a sound card. While I can't speak for the quality of the sound at 1.5 watt- many $1000+ amps won't have that kind of output.

 

The Wolfson WM8740 DAC in the Fiio E9 is rated at Po: 32-Ω stereo, 150mW(32Ω) with a 96KHz/24-bit decoder. The Asus has at its peak *ten* times the power output of the E9 and will decode 192KHz/24-bit.- The interesting thing to note is that the WM8740 is capable of 192kHz/24-bit but it was not incorporated in the Fiio.

 

It really depends on what you plan to do. If you planned on using passive speakers you would have required an external amp/receiver regardless but in your case a sound card is probably the best way to go. The maximum output on the Fiio leaves me a bit disappointed, but then again I have gone in the direction of planar magnetic headphones so lots of juice is always looked fondly upon (particularly with HiFiMan).

 

But I don't regret my Asus Xonar Essence STX purchase for a moment- I listen to tons of FLAC audio tracks so I was willing to spend the extra money on the best sound card available for my needs. Lack of a volume knob really wasn't one of my points to consider as I keep my volume at a fairly constant level and don't like fiddling.

post #6 of 12

150 quid for decent SQ is not very much so if i were you i put the green to the speakers/amp most and a reasonable sound card/DAC tongue_smile.gif Are u in the UK? If so fish out some used stuff from Gumtree perhaps? 

 

Tannoy Mercury M2 35 quid < --seems to be a bargain!

http://www.gumtree.com/p/for-sale/tannoy-speakers-cherry/89175063

'97 review lol

http://www.gramophone.net/Issue/Page/August%201997/118/744805/Tannoy+Mercury+M2#header-logo

 

 

Quote:
With this Mercury M2, Tannoy has brought to the market an easily driven loudspeaker with good power handling and a standard of overall performance that puts many other loudspeakers in this budget price category to shame c Specification Type rear porid reflex Drive units 165mm woofer; 25mm tweeter Frequency response 48Hz-2OkHz ±3dB Sensitivity 88dB for 283V into 8 ohms

 

 

These seem to be highly regarded budget stereo amps in UK : Pioneer A109 110 quid

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pioneer-A-109-40w-Amplifier-Black/dp/B00005OOJF/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1318461336&sr=8-2

 

IIRC your mobo has optical audio out so maybe the Fiio D3 DAC?

http://www.amazon.co.uk/FiiO-Coaxial-Optical-Audio-Converter/dp/B0053VKP8S/ref=sr_1_9?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1318461480&sr=1-9


Edited by trog - 10/12/11 at 4:23pm
post #7 of 12
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the replies all. I think things are becoming a bit clearer for me.

 

I think I am settling on the external DAC, primarily because I have a few specific desireables:

  • Ability to easily have two sources for the speakers, optical (S/PDIF) from the PC and line in from iPad/Cowon S9 [this is the least important factor]
  • Two outputs, speakers and headphones (Superlux HD668's at the moment, others in the future...). As my PC is under the desk, mucking around plugging headphones in and out or a PCI soundcard at the back just seems daft.
  • "Knobs" for volume adjustment. Because my monitors are switched between PC and laptop, changing the volumes using software isn't practical.

 

So, now I'm after a good, budget external DAC which leads me then to the second thing now under consideration. Had I simply had my head turned by the Edifier R1600T praise on here. Should I go for a DAC/Amp and grab some passive speakers? I recognise that this would likely blow my suggeted £150 budget out the water.

 

Or, go for something like the Topping D2 / iBasso D2 to act as an amp for the headphones and stick with the active Edifier speakers?

 

 

 

 


Edited by LJ50 - 10/15/11 at 2:47pm
post #8 of 12

Well that depends if u are willing to dip in the used market i guess L3000.gif

post #9 of 12

The Fiio E9 isn't a dac, it doesn't have one. The E7 has the Dac with that limitation.  The Fiio E9 has a slot where you can slot in the E7 turning the combo into a usb dac amp. But since your using speakers and may not use headphones. Then it moot point getting a headphone amp, unless your planning on grabbing headphones in the future.

 

The STX isn't the only good choice, for speaker usage, the X-FI HD PCIe is another good choice, both uses audiophile grade components on the card and both have op-amp sockets that you can swap out the op-amps in. If you want external, I suggested a Audiotrak Prodigy Cube usb to a friend a month of go and he enjoying it alot with his AKG 240 MKIIs and speakers. the cube does have a op-amp socket as well.

 

 


Edited by genclaymore - 10/16/11 at 12:57am
post #10 of 12
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by trog View Post

Well that depends if u are willing to dip in the used market i guess L3000.gif



I would be, yes. Have trawled the FS forums on here, but suspect that - naturally given the subject - the kit on sale from here is a bit more high end than my needs/budget.

 

post #11 of 12
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by genclaymore View Post

The Fiio E9 isn't a dac, it doesn't have one. The E7 has the Dac with that limitation.  The Fiio E9 has a slot where you can slot in the E7 turning the combo into a usb dac amp. But since your using speakers and may not use headphones. Then it moot point getting a headphone amp, unless your planning on grabbing headphones in the future.

 

The STX isn't the only good choice, for speaker usage, the X-FI HD PCIe is another good choice, both uses audiophile grade components on the card and both have op-amp sockets that you can swap out the op-amps in. If you want external, I suggested a Audiotrak Prodigy Cube usb to a friend a month of go and he enjoying it alot with his AKG 240 MKIIs and speakers. the cube does have a op-amp socket as well.

 

 


Sorry, I did mentiont he E9/E7 combo. I would be using speakers in the main, but also headphones (albeit less regularly).

 

I am really keen to go the external route, just for convenience and hardware volume adjustment.

 

post #12 of 12
Thread Starter 

Done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and the input received on this thread has been a real eye-opener.

 

My current thinking is:

  • Maverick Audio TubeMagic D1: Has the optical input for the PC, volume knob, front facing line-in for couple with Cowon S9/iPad, front facing headphone socket and obviously a built in headphone amp.
  • The powered, Edifier R1600TII speakers or the Audioengine A2's.

 

This seems to me to offer a reasonable upgrade path to a full-blown amp and passive speakers in the future. With the Edifiers, It does stretch my initial budget, but not terribly far. The D1 is around £150 delivered and the Edifier's are £68 delivered. The A2's are around twice the price of the Edifiers, at ~£130 so that is more of a stretch but obviously if the quality boost is worth it then I'd do it.

 

Unless anyone tells me I have made a glaring error !?


Edited by LJ50 - 10/16/11 at 10:50am
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