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USB Sound Card for Laptop - Help?

post #1 of 49
Thread Starter 

I have a pair of JVC HA-RX900 and an HP Probook 4530s. I am running Windows 8 64-bit and OS X Mountain Lion. I am tired of the crappy onboard audio and want to get something better. Being a non-gaming laptop, I mostly listen to music and watch the occasional movie or TV show. I do play a few non-intensive games like HL2 or Starcraft 2 from time-to-time but I am not worried about gaming performance over-all.

 

I've been looking at the Xonar U3 and X-Fi HD. Which one should I get? I can get the U3 for $45 and the X-FI HD for $80 at my local Microcenter. The UDAC-2 is there as well, but is $130, which I would like to avoid if it's not a much more noticeable increase in performance. I have HDMI out on this laptop, so I don't need the digital outputs, just looking for headphone use. Use on both Windows 8 and Mac would be a plus since I dual-boot, but it's not a requirement. I'm running an SSD, so booting between the two is easy/fast enough.

 

Any suggestions?

post #2 of 49

Personally I use a USB DAC and amp separately, but for your budget, Fiio E17 seems to be the most recommended one around as an all in one solution.

post #3 of 49
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by proton007 View Post

Personally I use a USB DAC and amp separately, but for your budget, Fiio E17 seems to be the most recommended one around as an all in one solution.


That E17 looks nice, but it sure is pricey. Is it a big improvement over the U3 or X-Fi HD? I would like to stay in the $50-80 price range if possible. I really liked the U3 but all I can find it compared to is the X-Fi Go, not the HD. Of course, if the Fiio dac/amp is leaps and bounds better than either, then I might save up a bit more cash for it. One thing I liked about the U3 is Dolby Headphone dsp, and a driver I can access via the laptop would be a plus. Of course, I do like that I can use the Fiio without the need for the laptop (like from my phone). How does the E17 compare to the U3 or X-Fi HD...or even the pricey as well UDAC-2?

post #4 of 49

Keep in mind the X-Fi HD USB has good software support for gaming audio, while the Xonar U3 has very limited support, and audiophile DACs like the Fiio E17 or uDAC-2 have zero support for gaming audio. Considering you play a Source based game, it's highly recommended you go with the X-Fi HD USB over all the previously mentioned alternatives. And if you plan on upgrading to hard to drive headphones, you can always get a portable headphone amp, but with your current setup that's not necessary.

post #5 of 49
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Roller View Post

Keep in mind the X-Fi HD USB has good software support for gaming audio, while the Xonar U3 has very limited support, and audiophile DACs like the Fiio E17 or uDAC-2 have zero support for gaming audio. Considering you play a Source based game, it's highly recommended you go with the X-Fi HD USB over all the previously mentioned alternatives. And if you plan on upgrading to hard to drive headphones, you can always get a portable headphone amp, but with your current setup that's not necessary.


Thanks for the input. While I do a little bit of light gaming, most of what I am concerned with is music and video performance. Gaming features are a nice perk, but they are not the center of what I am trying to achieve. I used to have an X-Fi Titanium Pro card in my gaming PC, but I sold my gaming PC in lieu of the laptop as I stopped gaming so much. Most of my gaming is done on an xbox360 or ps3 in front of my home theater setup now, and even then it is still light. The X-Fi had very good features for gaming, but currently I am not looking for a gaming card, just looking for something to get better sound quality to my headphones for music and movies on the go. Now if that still ends up being an X-Fi card, then that's fine with me, like I said the gaming aspect would still be a nice perk in case I decide to go with an external GPU and monitor/kb/mouse setup in the future.

 

Keeping that in mind, would you still recommend the X-Fi HD over the U3, UDAC-2 or E17?


Edited by c00lkatz - 11/8/12 at 12:03pm
post #6 of 49

The X-Fi HD USB is quite superior to the Xonar U3 USB dongle. The uDAC-2 has quite some issues that were discussed at length by a knowledgeable former forum member, and it's really only the E17 that poses a valid upgrade over the X-Fi HD USB. What you have to keep in mind is that the X-Fi HD USB has a quite capable DAC that just happens to have gaming support, but it can stand on its own from a music listening perspective alone. Also, just like gaming audio support, so does movie audio support lacks on audiophile DACs, so that might be something to keep in mind as well. And do note that you can always add an amp of your choice if such needs arise.

 

All in all, the E17 is the higher quality device over the alternatives, purely from a SQ perspective. In terms of a balanced music/gaming/movies experience, the X-Fi HD USB is a better proposition.

post #7 of 49
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Roller View Post

The X-Fi HD USB is quite superior to the Xonar U3 USB dongle. The uDAC-2 has quite some issues that were discussed at length by a knowledgeable former forum member, and it's really only the E17 that poses a valid upgrade over the X-Fi HD USB. What you have to keep in mind is that the X-Fi HD USB has a quite capable DAC that just happens to have gaming support, but it can stand on its own from a music listening perspective alone. Also, just like gaming audio support, so does movie audio support lacks on audiophile DACs, so that might be something to keep in mind as well. And do note that you can always add an amp of your choice if such needs arise.

 

All in all, the E17 is the higher quality device over the alternatives, purely from a SQ perspective. In terms of a balanced music/gaming/movies experience, the X-Fi HD USB is a better proposition.


That is exactly the response/comparison I wanted. Thanks for your input. I will probably go with the X-Fi HD then. I really do like what the E17 has to offer, but I just can't see myself spending that much on it at this time (I've spent enough on this laptop as it is lol). Plus instant gratification is always a bonus (I can just go pick it up after work). Thanks for the help!

post #8 of 49

Glad to help. And do report back on how you find your setup to perform :)

post #9 of 49

PS Audio Digital Link III via USB gives great results.  For portable the iBasso D4 Mamba is great too.

post #10 of 49
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by feds27 View Post

PS Audio Digital Link III via USB gives great results.  For portable the iBasso D4 Mamba is great too.


Thanks for the input, but both are way more than I want to pay for this, especially for $60 headphones.

post #11 of 49

Just get a FiiO E7. They're ~$60 on amazon, and for what it is, it's a GREAT deal. I haven't stopped using mine since I got it.

post #12 of 49
Thread Starter 

Well I went to Microcenter and out of pure curiosity wound up with both the Asus Xonar U3 and the Creative X-FI HD USB. I brought my laptop and RX900's with me so I could test them out before I left the parking lot. I plugged in the Xonar U3 first and....no difference. Sounded just about identical to my onboard IDT w/ SRS streaming music from Google Music (what I mostly listen to). I went to plug in to the X-Fi HD and then...crap I forgot my 1/4" adapter for my headphones. Went ahead and drove home with both.

 

After getting home, I first tried plug-n-play with my Mac OS X install first. Crappy with the onboard, crappy with both DACs. I figured as much, as I haven't had good luck with audio quality on this hackintosh. I booted up Windows 8 and downloaded the latest drivers for both the Asus (easy to find) and the Creative (almost freakin' impossible!) along with the firmware updater for the Creative. I then installed the drivers for the Asus Xonar U3 and took a listen. Again, sounded the same. Installed the drivers for the X-Fi HD, updated the firmware, rebooted and had another listen. Once again not much different. I figured I needed a better source.

 

I fired up Fubar2000 and listened to some flac files via WASAPI on the X-Fi and ASIO on the onboard IDT and Xonar U3 (couldn't get ASIO to work with the X-Fi HD). I listened to the same files, back to back, switching between all 3 DACs. A couple songs I could tell just a SLIGHT difference in some of the background instruments, but that's about it. And I REALLY had to listen for it. Most songs sounded exactly the same. Certainly not worth the expense.

 

I then listened to Google Music again, and the quality was noticeably worse than flac as expected, but again no difference between the DACs. I played around with the equalizer and music features on all 3 DACs, switched between 2.0/2.1 speakers and headphone mode (made sure to select the 32~64 ohm option for the Xonar U3), and all 3 sounded the same.

 

I then decided to watch some streamed video from a few sources such as Free Online TV (or whatever it's called), and again listened flat with no equalization or filters and also played around with the filters/features on each DAC. None of them were worth a damn in my opinion and just made everything sound "fake" and not realistic at all. Standard stereo with my personal touch in equalization sounded the best no matter which DAC I listened to.

 

I then fired up a DVD of Transformers for a better quality video/movie file, and again I noticed just some subtle differences in background sounds on the U3 and X-Fi, but nothing to write home about and I had to REALLY listen for it.

 

I wanted to make sure I wasn't crazy, so I ran a couple of the DVD and FLAC tests blind with a friend of mine, and he could barely tell a subtle difference as well.

 

One thing I did notice was how much louder the X-Fi HD and Xonar U3 got over the onboard IDT, which was to be expected. But honestly volume was never an issue with the onboard, I would never turn either DAC up that high.

 

All in all, I tried music lossless and lossy with and without ASIO/WASAPI, and I tried lower quality streamed video along with a very sound intensive DVD, and no matter the settings, everything sounded the same to me (and I've been playing with them for about 6 hours now). At that point, I didn't even bother with games, because I game on my computer only a small fraction of the time (which wouldn't be worth the extra cost even if it did make a difference, in my situation). Really I barely listen to FLAC or watch DVD's. Most everything is via internet for me when it comes to the laptop. Anything "high quality" I usually run through my home theater setup anyway.

 

Now I'm not saying that there would be no difference for others. Obviously with different headphones or switching from lower quality onboard audio might make a much larger difference, but in the case of the Probook 4530s using easy-to-drive JVC HA-RX900 headphones, you might as well save your money. I will be taking both the Xonar U3 and X-Fi HD USB back to Microcenter tomorrow, and just stick with the onboard IDT w/ SRS (which is why I like to buy locally from retail stores, along with instant gratification lol).


Edited by c00lkatz - 11/11/12 at 12:02am
post #13 of 49

It seems you can't listen to any difference with your current setup, so perhaps it would be a tremendous money saver if you opted out of this hobby, otherwise you will just end up with unnecessary frustration.

 

Do note I'm not being sarcastic or anything of the sort, I'm being quite sincere. Some people simply don't find audible enough improvements and/or are perfectly fine with their onboard audio chips' playback quality, so do keep using it and save a lot of money on the process.

post #14 of 49
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Roller View Post

It seems you can't listen to any difference with your current setup, so perhaps it would be a tremendous money saver if you opted out of this hobby, otherwise you will just end up with unnecessary frustration.

 

Do note I'm not being sarcastic or anything of the sort, I'm being quite sincere. Some people simply don't find audible enough improvements and/or are perfectly fine with their onboard audio chips' playback quality, so do keep using it and save a lot of money on the process.


Yeah, I'm wondering if this onboard DAC is just unusually good? I mean in other forms of audio such as car audio and home theater, I can tell the difference between speakers, receivers, amps, etc. so I know my ear is sensitive enough for the hobby. I'm wondering if it's just the RX900's that don't benefit from amplification since they get loud enough already, along with a better than average onboard DAC? The onboard IDT itself with the SRS Premium Surround options is actually quite tweakable, and I've found it also supports 24-bit/192KHz playback. I'm almost tempted to get a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-A700 or AD700 or a pair of Sennheiser HD518 just to test that theory out (all at Microcenter but $$$). I mean the RX900's were my first and only pair of non-absolute-crap-ten-dollar headphones. I don't know at this point. I mean if I have to throw in another $100+ for a pair of headphones, I'm probably just going to forget about it until later.

post #15 of 49

SRS itself is a set of software enhancement features, not directly related to audio performance. Amplification shouldn't play a big part with a set of HA-RX900, and while onboard audio chips have improved over time, they're still the bottom of the chain, below entry DACs and soundcards. Theorizing your onboard audio chip is better than the average chip, it would explain why there isn't significant differences between it and a Xonar U3, but that doesn't explain the same differences between it and a X-Fi HD USB. Also, output format support isn't that meaningful if the core components are of low quality, which on onboard audio chips, always are.

 

If you plan on upgrading headphones later on, it might be better to do a bigger jump in order for you to have an easier time perceiving a difference in SQ, but do think it through. While headphone audio isn't as expensive as speaker audio, it can also be quite expensive, so make sure it's worth spending money on it or if an above cheap setup is enough for you.

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