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Will I see an improvement in SQ by upgrading to a USB DAC for my laptop's audio?

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 

Hey there lovely people of Head-Fi,

 

Like the title says, I am wondering if I should get myself a USB DAC for my laptop for general music listening. My budget is max $150.00 AUD (Australian Dollars).

Interestingly enough, I decided to use RMAA (Rightmark Audio Analyzer) to test my current onboard laptop sound, and these are the results:

 

Summary

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB
-0.01, -0.58
Good
Noise level, dB (A)
-72.8
Average
Dynamic range, dB (A)
72.7
Average
THD, %
0.0064
Very good
THD + Noise, dB (A)
-66.7
Average
IMD + Noise, %
0.065
Good
Stereo crosstalk, dB
-60.6
Average
IMD at 10 kHz, %
0.062
Good
General performance
 
Good
 


 

To me, those results seem rather decent for the IDT onboard audio. Also, I realize that RMAA and tests aren't everything, and ultimately it's your ears/brain interacting together which should have the final say. The only down side to that is that I can't readily audition DACs where I live, so unfortunately I have to heavily rely on published test results like RMAA. 

 

For instance, here is a link to the ASUS Xonar Essence STX (I used to have a desktop with the ST and a Fiio E9, but I moved to Australia and have to sell those -- but when I had them I really enjoyed music with the HD650. Seriously, I would listen to "Stairway to Heaven" by Zeppelin just to hear when the Rhodes started with the strumming; it was euphoric, seriously.), so using that as a frame of reference: http://rmaa.hege.li/Xonar_STX.htm

 

Here is the ODAC as well, but it goes into the Essence STX line-in, so I don't know if that constitutes as a good, valid test. Anyway here are the results from the same person as before: http://rmaa.hege.li/ODAC.htm

 

I'm only interested in 16/44.1K by the way.

 

Here is my current ITB (In the board) hardware:

HP DV6-6B02AX laptop with "Beats" IDT Audio (Using the default Windows 7 x64 drivers).

This laptop has 2 headphone outputs and 1 mic input, but I'm not sure if either of the two outs doubles as a line-out or anything. I have tried using either the first headphone output or the second one, and there isn't an audible difference for me. I listen to FLAC files (when I can) from Foobar2000 using the WASAPI output. I have the windows settings to 16/44.1K CD Quality audio, and I see no reason to go to anything above that honestly. For instance, a lot of USB DACs advertise that they are 24/96 or 24/192, etc. and I don't really need that level of quality since I am not recording music (yet, that may be in the future though). However, I am also not looking for an AD/DA or an Audio Interface (as it's known in the music production world). 

 

My head gear is primarily a swap between two headphones which are the Senn HD595 ( 50 ohm version with the "bass" mod) and the Senn HD650 (umodified). My amp is an AWA (Amalgamated Wireless Australasia) SA-03 1970's solid state stereo amplifier, from which I use the headphone out. I use the aux in on the amp from one of the laptop's stereo outputs. I'm find with how my setup sounds now, in fact I would probably only gain from maybe upgrading my amp, or maybe investing in an SACD player with SACD's, but those are two things that are out of my budget.

So here's where my question is:

 

There is a very, very, very slight noise sound if I run my HD595 directly into the headphone out from the laptop, but that's the only noise I can hear. It's not there when running the HD650 from the laptop's output.

 

Finally, my questions are:

Would it be a benefit to my ears by getting a USB DAC strictly from an audio sound quality perspective? If so, what are some good options for up to $150.00? There are other features in a USB DAC that I'd look for besides just SQ, however, such as the ASUS Xonar U3 for watching movies with Dolby Headphone or HRTF surround. I am not a gamer, and I strongly despise Creative products from my past experiences with them haha.

 

Thanks,

Michael

Edit: I updated with new RMAA data for my IDT onboard laptop audio using a loopback cable with the playback/recording test.


Edited by Lightstar385 - 3/27/13 at 2:05am
post #2 of 10

I got a CEentrance DAC usb dongle for my netbook and I quite like it. The whole point of getting an external sound card over the laptop one is for the DAC not the amplification. But yes you will get a cleaner sound with a better DAC but it won't offer a completely night and day difference unless you had your laptop hooked up to some full high end desktop DAC.

post #3 of 10
Thread Starter 

That's fine about a DAC not having an amp aspect to it, because I already have an integrated solid state amp as it is. I'm just looking for improving the sound quality from the weakest link in my setup chain which is the DAC. However, I am also looking for a solution that is below $150.00 AUD. With the CEentrance DAC, what headphones are you driving down the rest of your chain? What's the sound characteristics? What about the sound was cleaned up for you? Was there less noise, was there more detail in the sound, etc.? 

 

I'm asking these questions because my personal experience with DACs is very limited to older PCI sound cards and onboard sound cards haha. My amp is a 1970's AWA SA-03 Stereo Amplifier, and it's driving HD650s and HD595s (50ohm version with the bass mod). 

 

Edit: So I did some research about the DACport, but it doesn't look like what I'm looking for in a DAC. I want a DAC that has RCA L/R output to go into the aux inputs on my AWA which is acting my headphone amp. Thanks for the suggestion though. :) 


Edited by Lightstar385 - 3/27/13 at 5:33pm
post #4 of 10
Quote:
Originally Posted by Lightstar385 View Post

That's fine about a DAC not having an amp aspect to it, because I already have an integrated solid state amp as it is. I'm just looking for improving the sound quality from the weakest link in my setup chain which is the DAC. However, I am also looking for a solution that is below $150.00 AUD. With the CEentrance DAC, what headphones are you driving down the rest of your chain? What's the sound characteristics? What about the sound was cleaned up for you? Was there less noise, was there more detail in the sound, etc.? 

 

I'm asking these questions because my personal experience with DACs is very limited to older PCI sound cards and onboard sound cards haha. My amp is a 1970's AWA SA-03 Stereo Amplifier, and it's driving HD650s and HD595s (50ohm version with the bass mod). 

 

Edit: So I did some research about the DACport, but it doesn't look like what I'm looking for in a DAC. I want a DAC that has RCA L/R output to go into the aux inputs on my AWA which is acting my headphone amp. Thanks for the suggestion though. :)

Yes, cleaner background noise (actually almost a completely black background), tad bit more on detail extraction. I use the DACport act as filter and double DAC it connecting to few other desktop DAC's I have, since my netbook does not have any digital/optical out ports. Other than that I use a $300 RCA to 3.5mm cable made out of gold and silver. Connecting to L and R from the DAC to my netbook. Yes I'am an audiophool as most of us are on this site. 


Edited by DefQon - 3/27/13 at 5:42pm
post #5 of 10
Thread Starter 

After doing a bit more searching around on eBay, I found a Topping D20 which is right in my price range. I noticed there aren't a lot of reviews about it here on Head-Fi, but I did see that headphonia.com did a review on this DAC.

It's here: http://www.headfonia.com/affordable-digital-to-analog-conversion-topping-d2-and-d20/2/

 

Here's the conclusion about the D20 alone:

 

"Reality sucks. A number of good, well tested, popular DACs have just lost an arm wrestling contest with a new $149 DAC from Topping. Sucks, assuming you own those other DACs. I hope a lot of you are still on the Fiio E10 cause if that’s the case I can recommend you this new giant slayer DAC from Topping. Then you would love me instead of hating me for writing this review. Despite the numerous wins on the comparisons, I do feel that the sound signature is a bit too laid back, too relaxed for me. I want more aggression, more snap, more punch in my music and so I’d probably go for something else for my personal use. The Matrix M-Stage still woo me better for its powerful bass impact and unless I really need those S/PDIF connections, I would gladly opt for the Dacport or the MS2+ as they give me a simpler set up and takes less space on my desk."

 

 

The HD650's are already laid back, and I'm not sure pairing them with a DAC that is also laid back with its sound signature is the best idea. However, this particular DAC has everything I need from an input/output perspective. It has USB in, RCA out (both inputs and outputs I require), as well as it can do other forms of output and input if the need arises for me. So function wise it seems that this DAC nails it. Sound wise remains to be seen if I can find more reviews. Also, from the price perspective at $129.00 USD shipped (which is a bit more AUD) it fits my budget of $150.00 with some spare left over for cables or anything else I might need. Also, the Topping D20 uses its own power supply, so that means that the USB signal should be cleaner than a DAC that gets its power from the USB port. 

 

I don't know if you personally have any experience with this DAC, but it's right in my price range as seen here:

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Topping-D20-24Bit-96kHz-High-Speed-DAC-Multi-Function-USB-Optical-Coaxial-Decode-/200818739974?pt=UK_AudioTVElectronics_HomeAudioHiFi_Amplifiers&hash=item2ec1bacb06

 

I'll keep searching around though, but this is definitely part of my list.

post #6 of 10

If you're going for one those desktop sized DAC's I can recommend the Aune and SMSL lines for on the cheap.

post #7 of 10
Both JDS Labs and Epiphany Acoustics will ship and ODAC to Australia (EA calls it the E-DAC). I feel the ODAC had a little bit better SQ than the line out on my Xonar STX. While I don't think you should count on that, I would think you could count on the ODAC providing at least a similar level of SQ to the Xonar ST that you had.
post #8 of 10
Thread Starter 

Awesome thanks guys, this is giving me more room to see where I can find deals. I've done a bit of searching around on the ODAC, and it is a really hot item here on Head-Fi for sure, but (in light of the name of the DAC) I'm trying to get as much of an objective view of where people are coming from as I can. It's really awesome, though, that you've had experience with both the ODAC and the Xonar STX. I'll also check out the SMSL and Aune stuff. Some of the comments I've read about with regards to the SMSL stuff, from here on Head-Fi if I remember right, was that they go belly up rather easily. That said, I haven't discluded them completely from my list of DACs to decide on. 

 

Thanks for the input so far though, it's been really helpful. :)

 

Edit: After quite a bit of diligent searching around Head-Fi, and a few other places, I have landed my sights on the Aune T1. Thanks for the suggestion to look into Aune. I can get the T1 on eBay for about $143.00 AUD shipped from China. After reading reviews about it from a few sources, that sounds like a steal for what you get. I would like to note that I'm looking at the T1 as a DAC only, and will most likely not use the headphone amp portion of the unit. So far the T1 is right at the top of my list based on the criteria, and it's tube driven to boot. Maybe that will color the sound too much, maybe it won't; either way it's an awesome deal for its price just like the Topping D20, and even the ODAC (though I can't find any outside of the UK site for the price range I want -- Noisymotel.com sells them for a bit of a premium, and I'm not willing to overpay for something just because it's locally in Australia. Btw, Ozzies get ripped off on electronics haha.)


Edited by Lightstar385 - 3/28/13 at 4:55am
post #9 of 10

T1 is a good choice, I like it more than the ODAC which is favourably preferred to the Modi.

post #10 of 10
Thread Starter 

Alright I have finally settled on it. I am going to get an Aune T1 (but I still need to wait an see if an eBayer sells the Australian plug for it) with the basic 6N11 tube. I feel that the Aune T1 is the best bet for my price range. Thanks for the all help you two have provided, it definitely helped me narrow things down to the T1. 

 

Cheers,

Michael

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