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In 2012, how "bad" are default laptop sound cards?

post #1 of 41
Thread Starter 

Forgive me if there is another thread on this, I searched long and hard but... yeah.

 

It may be a number of things, but I will just say that, I own the Fiio E17, an hp pavilion g6, and a pair of Denon d2000, and forreal I can't even tell a huge difference between using the Fiio E17, and being lazy or forgetting to use the E17 and putting the Denons straight into my laptop's headphone jack.

 

Couple that with a 2-star review that I read on Amazon for the Audioengine D1 that raises my suspicions - Amazon.com: 8bitg33k's review of Audioengine D1 Premium 24-Bit DAC

 

So, the main question here is -- just how bad are modern laptop soundcards ANYWAY?  I know there's been a lot of talk about how these soundcards are "thrown in at the last minute" or whatever but really, is there going to be any striking improvement in quality at say... the $300 price point and below for USB DACs.

 

Now, like I said I realize there could be a ton of variables at play,

  •  it could be about what type of files you listen to - I listen to V0's mainly and FLACs whenever possible, also 320kbps when neither V0 or FLAC can be had.  Hell, I don't even discern a difference between those three formats anyway.  Are my ears just not "trained" enough?  (No sarcasm either, fools.  lol)
  • Headphones like the Denons and everything below their tier just don't benefit much from the Fiio E17's services?  In which case I ask, what cases are DAC/amps like the Fiio E17 going to be useful?
  • Maybe it's all suggestive and the Fiio E17 is all I need, and going further up in the DAC/amp game is going to provide no additional satisfaction to me?  But at the same time, satisfaction is still being had without the E17.

 

So what is it?  In 2012, are these cheap entry level DACs no better than the laptop sound cards or am I just a raving lunatic?

post #2 of 41

From what i know, e17 is meant to use for portable sources such as your cellphone, ipod, and etc..

I heard e17 + laptop before, its increase the bass a bit but the sound quality was remain same. 

If you want to used e17 for laptop then you need to get e9 as well to improve sound quality.

For Audioengine D1, its depends on headphone, but i think it will sounds good with denon 2000

post #3 of 41

With your current setup, I think you're going from the computer's analog output into your amp.  If I've got that right, then you're not really removing the laptop soundcard; it's still in the loop.

 

Before I had an external DAC, I wasn't consciously aware of the low level noise coming from my computer's soundcard.  I think the brain somewhat filters it out, in a way.  But with the DAC I found that I could listen longer without fatigue.  So that's one thing to consider.

 

If the price range you mention, I'd certainly consider the AudioQuest Dragonfly.  Stereophile compared it to the $1000 Wavelength Proton DAC -- that I'm using now and which I love.  The reviewer, I think, liked the Dragonfly better.  Lot's of good choices out there, of course. 

post #4 of 41

regardless of reviews or the opinions of others here or elsewhere . . . . . above all, trust your ears!

 

If you can't hear a difference after careful listening then you don't need it ("it" being either: amp / DAC / sound card / cable / whatever).


Edited by NiceCans - 12/30/12 at 2:01pm
post #5 of 41
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by flatmap View Post

With your current setup, I think you're going from the computer's analog output into your amp.  If I've got that right, then you're not really removing the laptop soundcard; it's still in the loop.

 

I'm hooking up the Fiio E17 through USB, and it takes over my soundcard with its DAC (I have to select it in Windows) and then handles the amping.  At least, that's how I thought USB DAC/amp combos work??? Do I have have that right?  Haha.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by NiceCans View Post

regardless of reviews or the opinions of others here or elsewhere . . . . . above all, trust your ears!

 

If you can't hear a difference after careful listening then you don't need it ("it" being either: amp / DAC / sound card / cable / whatever).

 

And that's what I'm saying -- clearly I don't need it, but do any other feels the same way.  I mean, how much of it is a real difference, made by using different products and what makes this product's DAC better than the laptop soundcard.

 

That being said, flatmap you did mention the Dragonfly; and I've also been looking at the DACPort by Centrance and the Aune T1.  Also been reading about the O2/ODAC and the Schiit Modi/Magni stack. 

 

I've got a Hifiman HE-400 on the way, should be here in a few days.  I've been thinking on pulling the trigger on the supposed "best" dac/amp combo out of those I've just mentioned, and if I don't hear a night and day difference from the E17, then you're right, the E17 is clearly all I need.

post #6 of 41
Quote:
Originally Posted by RMac  View Post

I'm hooking up the Fiio E17 through USB, and it takes over my soundcard with its DAC
(I have to select it in Windows) and then handles the amping.  At least,
that's how I thought USB DAC/amp combos work??? Do I have
that right?  Haha.

You've totally got it right.  I just didn't read your post carefully!

 

Since you already have new headphones on order, if it were me,

I think I'd hold off on DAC/AMP and just get used to

them first.  

 

Obviously the O2/ODAC and Schiit units are getting a lot of good

mention here... but not sure which amp will pair best with HE-400.

At least one thread... can't find it now, of course.... mentioned that

in the Schiit line, it was Asgard + Bifrost that were the best match

for Orthos, in his opinion.

post #7 of 41
This is a very good question, and one I've been wondering about. I've got a dinky little HP Mini 210 and once I disabled the Beats Audio driver it came with, I've found the audio quality from the built-in soundcard to be preferable to that from my Music Streamer outboard DAC. I'm sure I could find some other DAC that would be superior to my HP's built-in card, but for now I've found the HP's audio to at least be in the ballpark.
post #8 of 41

I once invested in a Soundblaster X-fi to "improve" on a realtek audio chipset included with my Asus motherboard. It was not much of an improvement, and in hindsight, I actually preferred the onboard solution to the new card. Mainly, the X-fi sounded about the same with its "enhancements" disabled. The enhancements really sound like crap through quality headphones or speakers. Most new laptops, especially more premium models, use very good sound solutions which do justice to better speaker setups. 

 

I advocate passing on most headphone DAC/Amp solutions, since many are not really an upgrade, in my opinion, whether under "real world" listening or on instrumented testing. At best, they match existing capabilities and at worst, they can be inferior. Even basic computer audio is set up these days for "HD" sources like DVD and Blu-Ray listening, and I have seen a lot of testing results suggesting excellent frequency response and S/N ratios. If there is a problem, it seems to be that many on board solutions are not set up to drive high impedance headphones or headphones requiring a lot of current. Many high end cards use opamps that are not optimized for "typical" 16-32 ohm headphones which are very common. Therefore, finding a good amp is apparently a good idea if you have invested in expensive phones that likely run at higher impedance or which expect more power.

 

I would say the same of many OEM car stereos vs. aftermarket solutions. Unless you are willing to buy great speakers, good amps, and a capable deck ($500 - $1,000 minimum probably), many newer OEM systems are getting to a point where they are hard to beat. This is especially true considering the added cost and complexity of a good installation (as many OEM systems are increasingly integrated into the cars decor and other electronics). You really should proceed with caution and a fat wallet if you really want to get to the next level. That said, a good pair of components, an 8 inch JL audio sub, and a deck with time alignment and a few other key features is bringing a lot of joy to me these days. But it is quite obvious that OEM speaker system makers are paying attention to frequency response, staging, and imaging. On occasion, they are coming with good power and higher quality drivers as well. But they are only as good as the auto manufacturer lets them be, as they are typically forced to work under major cost restraints. They also have to provide "mass appeal" to a range of potential listeners. The great advantage of the aftermarket will always be in allowing let you tailor the sound to a greater extent.

 

The same is true of computer audio. I have poured $300 into dedicated headphone amps and DACs at this point and find that it has been a good idea for my HE-400s, which like the extra power and can make use of the higher performance DAC. In my opinion, great performance should be possible for a lot less. But generally speaking, I wouldn't spend that much when using $200-$400 dollar phones (as I am!). It is almost always best to blow half or more of your budget on the speakers, and spend the rest on the power you need, and the features that make a difference. So much of audio is just fluff and BS these days.

 

Over many years of loving audio and experimenting with phones', home theater, and car audio, the lesson over and over has been that nothing changes the sound more than the speakers themselves. That is almost always where the majority of the money should go. I guess that means that modern electronics are typically highly capable and far from the "crap" that used to be out there.


Edited by MrMateoHead - 1/7/13 at 8:29pm
post #9 of 41

I was looking for a thread like this a few days back before I was able to test this for myself!

 

My friend purchased the Brainwavz HM-5 headphones as well as the Schiit Audio Modi (DAC) and Magni (Amp).  The DAC alone helped tremendously because his laptop is not that great and his speakers and soundcard are absolutely horrendous.  He just purchased his ASUS laptop a few months back.  In several threads, however, many of the owners of similar headphones suggested amping and that also had a disproportionate affect on how his headphones sounded.  

 

I purchased the same headphones as well as the Schiit Magni because I found tested rebrands for cheap and did not have enough money for the DAC.  As soon as I get them I will post my own impressions without the DAC.  

post #10 of 41
Quote:
Originally Posted by MegaBass18 View Post

I was looking for a thread like this a few days back before I was able to test this for myself!

 

My friend purchased the Brainwavz HM-5 headphones as well as the Schiit Audio Modi (DAC) and Magni (Amp).  The DAC alone helped tremendously because his laptop is not that great and his speakers and soundcard are absolutely horrendous.  He just purchased his ASUS laptop a few months back.  In several threads, however, many of the owners of similar headphones suggested amping and that also had a disproportionate affect on how his headphones sounded.  

 

I purchased the same headphones as well as the Schiit Magni because I found tested rebrands for cheap and did not have enough money for the DAC.  As soon as I get them I will post my own impressions without the DAC.  


As a general rule, I would assume that an amp is closer to a real "upgrade" than a DAC. A computer can have a great audio chipset, but a sub-par amp. Make sure you try your comp's "line out" before ponying up for a dedicated DAC. One of the only advantages has been that a lot of computers do 1Vrms out, max, whereas you can get 2Vs out of an external device. The added signal strength is nice, but not necassarily essential.

post #11 of 41

Headphone > Amp > DAC

 

From personal experience, my 5 year old laptop is a night and day difference when compared to the ODAC + O2.

The PC is recent, uses a VIA VT 2021 codec, and is much better than the laptop. 

 

You might notice a bigger difference with the HE-400, so stick with the E17 for now.

post #12 of 41
Thread Starter 

I guess there is a slight difference between the E17 and laptop, most noticeably is volume, not necessarily loss of any quality.  Switching back and forth between the two, let's just say that I wouldn't be mad if I didn't have the E17 haha.

 

I ordered the Schiit Magni + Modi stack on a whim, and I'm gonna see if that makes any difference over the E17.  I've decided that if I don't hear a difference then I'm good on source and amplifications.  Trusting my ears.

post #13 of 41
Onboard DACs, e.g. from Realtek, are pretty decent these days. They deliver fine 16 bit performance. There are two potential problems with them:
  • sometimes you can hear electronic noise coming from other electronics nearby; a USB DAC, or a better shielded soundcard, can fix that.
  • most of the time, the onboard headphone out has a very high output impedance (I measured my laptop's at 74Ω), which can lead to insufficient volume, wild frequency response variations with certain cans, and inexistant damping factor that can affect the quality of bass. The solution is to use a dedicated headphone amp with a very low output impedance (ideally near 0Ω).

Taking my laptop as an example, I would probably be perfectly happy with the onboard DAC and a decent headphone amp.
post #14 of 41
The dac in My Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook is really good, no hiss with sensitive iems and it is comparable to my Asus STX on main pc in how pure it sounds just abit behind. So not all laptops are that bad, but my Samsung is way better compared to some Mac's and the HP Envey i got before with beats... For my the only thing I use is an amp, E11 before and now C&C BH (better). This is just since I had a hard time telling an E7 apart from the E11 on my pc so I delivered the E7 back.
post #15 of 41

There should be a lot more difference between different onboard solutions than between different high-end audio gear (of the type that's trying to deliver the cleanest sound, not those trying to intentionally do things differently).  Trying to group onboard into one category in terms of audio quality would be a gross and incorrect oversimplification.

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