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Better external dac+amp than Essence STX

post #1 of 54
Thread Starter 

Been scouring this forum - checked out the DAC v Soundcard threads - nothing conclusive. Always people pipe up and say that an external DAC and amp are demonstrably better than even the best of soundcards IE the Asus Xonar Essence STX or the Creative ZxR / Titanium HD. I accept that a DAC/AMP combo like this will cost more than one of these soundcards, but within reason which ones would you suggest to go that extra mile in quality? 

 

I'd like to output SPDIF from say a DX or D1 out to retain surround processing/DSP; can anybody please list the next step up for a DAC/AMP that is beyond the capabilities of any soundcard. Is it really worth it?

 

Many thanks for your replies. I'm going over all the options for what is the best within reason (Mid-Fi expectations - don't want to go totally ape).


Edited by SaLX - 9/27/13 at 4:57pm
post #2 of 54

Maybe something from Audio_GD

http://www.audio-gd.com/Pro/Headphoneamp/NFB1532/NFB15.32EN.htm

post #3 of 54
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by PurpleAngel View Post
 

Maybe something from Audio_GD

http://www.audio-gd.com/Pro/Headphoneamp/NFB1532/NFB15.32EN.htm

 

That's an extremely good price there PurpleAngle - $275 total inc shipping.. Add in a Asus DX for the DSP functions > SPDIF out and that's great value. So basically you're saying that you could pay an extra $150 and get a true SQ upgrade over the three high end soundcards I mentioned above?

 

http://www.head-fi.org/t/572385/review-audio-gd-nfb-7

 

In blind testing - would you notice a difference though?  (Using very good to great headphones)?

 

*Note* I'm in the UK, so the total plus shipping works out at 170 GBP (by comparison the STX is going for 140 GBP more or less - not bad at all).


Edited by SaLX - 9/27/13 at 7:31pm
post #4 of 54
Quote:
Originally Posted by SaLX View Post
 

 

That's an extremely good price there PurpleAngle - $275 total inc shipping.. Add in a Asus DX for the DSP functions > SPDIF out and that's great value. So basically you're saying that you could pay an extra $150 and get a true SQ upgrade over the three high end sound cards I mentioned above?

 

http://www.head-fi.org/t/572385/review-audio-gd-nfb-7

 

In blind testing - would you notice a difference though?  (Using very good to great headphones)?

 

*Note* I'm in the UK, so the total plus shipping works out at 170 GBP (by comparison the STX is going for 140 GBP more or less - not bad at all).

I'm just throwing out ideas, I'm fine with using my Essence STX for driving headphones on my PC.

Audio_GD seems to get a lot of positive feedback on Head-fi, and the Xonar DX uses the same audio processor (CMI8788) as the STX, so hooking an external DAC/Amp with the DX seems like a good gaming setup with good audio quality.

How much exactly of a difference in audio quality going external? can't say for sure.

post #5 of 54

What headphones do you have ? If you currently use the Xonar DX with no amplifier, then the best way to spend your money would be to get an EHP-O2 (or maybe the similarly priced Schiit Magni, although I do not have much information about that one), and better headphones if you do not already have very good ones. An external DAC would be an improvement if you have interference problems with the sound card (because it could fix them), but otherwise do not expect much from it.

post #6 of 54
Thread Starter 

Thank you both for your replies. The Audio_GD looks very interesting though it's a bit of a shot in the dark. I'm kind of guessing I'd have to spend significantly more to get a noticeable increase in sound quality over the best of soundcards.

 

stv - Planning on getting a Fidelio X1, Sony MA500, K702 (or variants) or even a Denon D7000 if I can prise it out of my uncle's hands. Don't have a soundcard as yet though. But I'm surprised people say to get a very cheap DAC/Soundcard (DX) and then externally amplify it with quality amps like the O2 etc - surely though, the superior source components on the STX say must count for something?

post #7 of 54
I would not call the DX "a very cheap" sound card. The DAC in it is quite good. I would describe it as a step below the DAC in the STX, but not a big one. And you might factor into your evaluation that with the DX, one is not paying for headphone amp capability.
post #8 of 54
Quote:
Originally Posted by SaLX View Post
 

Thank you both for your replies. The Audio_GD looks very interesting though it's a bit of a shot in the dark. I'm kind of guessing I'd have to spend significantly more to get a noticeable increase in sound quality over the best of sound cards.

 

stv - Planning on getting a Fidelio X1, Sony MA500, K702 (or variants) or even a Denon D7000 if I can prise it out of my uncle's hands. Don't have a sound card as yet though. But I'm surprised people say to get a very cheap DAC/Soundcard (DX) and then externally amplify it with quality amps like the O2 etc - surely though, the superior source components on the STX say must count for something?

The STX has features that someone may or may not take advantage of, like S/PDIF coaxial & replaceable op-amps, which I'm assuming most STX owners do not take advantage off.

I've always assumed the STX's PCM1792A DAC chip was a great DAC chip, but I do not see it being used in external DACs (at least that I know of), maybe the STX's PCM1792A DAC chip is overkill?

The Audio-GD has DACs that cost somewhat more then the STX, but I can't find any that use the PCM1792A DAC chip. (Audio_GD has a $2200 DAC with the PCM1704DAC chip, but that's $2200)

 

As the STX's headphone amplifier is on the inside of the computer case, it has to deal with the possibility of electrical noise interference and might have to make sacrifices in the design to block interference.

Where as an external amplifier is less burdened for be effected by electrical noise.

The STX's headphone output is 10-Ohm, which is fine for use with a lot of headphones.

Where as the Schiit Magni has an output impedance of less then 1-Ohm, which is an advantage for those higher priced headphone that are in the 12-Ohm to 40-Ohm range.

 

Asus come out with the Xonar DX/D1 after the STX, needing something to catch more market share (from Creative Labs?) and need to lower the price for doing so.

But they need to give people a reason for buying the DX/D1 over other sound cards, so I think they really tried to get the audio quality as good as possible on the DX/D1.

post #9 of 54
Thread Starter 

Gents - if I can pin this down please (sticking with the soundcard solution). From what I've gleaned - within an affordable price point and going for a midrange Xonar DX/D1 or equivalent plus a good amp like a LittleDot, O2 or Magni;  would these produce a superior sound over the STX?


Edited by SaLX - 9/28/13 at 9:28pm
post #10 of 54
I used to own the STX. I thought the Little Dot I+ was a little bit better headphone amp. The O2 as well. The Magni and O2 are often described as sounding equivalent to people who have heard both, so I'd go with it over the O2.

Do you use the DSP surround sound processing already? Do you want it for gaming?
post #11 of 54
Thread Starter 

yes Cel, the surround DSP is a must for me.. otherwise it would be a clear cut decision.

post #12 of 54
Quote:
Originally Posted by SaLX View Post
 

Gents - if I can pin this down please (sticking with the sound card solution). From what I've gleaned - within an affordable price point and going for a midrange Xonar DX/D1 or equivalent plus a good amp like a LittleDot, O2 or Magni;  would these produce a superior sound over the STX?

Depending on the headphones (like low Ohm headphones) the O2 or Magni would be preferred for driving them over the STX's amplifier.

If you spent enough, you could get better audio quality then the Essence STX.

But with the O2 and Magni, to me your still in the same ballpark as the STX's headphone amplifier.

post #13 of 54
No. Wrong. I used a Bravo Ocean which was a night and day improvement over STX internal amp. Stx is comparable to fiio amps
I have no doubt in my mind that o2 and magni should be better than bravo ocean, though I have not heard magni or o2. Stx amp is over rated. The dac is good though.
post #14 of 54
Quote:
Originally Posted by SaLX View Post
stv - Planning on getting a Fidelio X1, Sony MA500, K702 (or variants) or even a Denon D7000 if I can prise it out of my uncle's hands. Don't have a soundcard as yet though. But I'm surprised people say to get a very cheap DAC/Soundcard (DX) and then externally amplify it with quality amps like the O2 etc - surely though, the superior source components on the STX say must count for something?

 

A DAC does not need to be expensive these days to sound excellent. Components (DAC chip, op amps, etc.) with very good specs are available for as low as $1 or even less, and these cards are manufactured in large quantities, making their production much more cost-efficient than that of "boutique" audiophile products. The frequently recommended ODAC (comparable measured performance to the Xonar cards) could probably cost less than $50 if it was mass-produced in China like the sound cards are. With the STX, you pay extra price for the headphone amplifier you will not even use, and also for marketing reasons ("high end" products usually have a higher profit margin, while budget ones are sold almost cheaper than it costs to manufacture them, because they are used mainly to gain market share from the competitors). According to my tests, the DAC on the STX has some (minor) advantages in certain aspects (particularly SNR/dynamic range, but the DX is already more than good enough for CD quality audio), but it is surprisingly also worse in others (for example, it clips inter-sample peaks at maximum volume, while the DX does not). The most significant difference is that the PCM1792A (STX) has a different digital reconstruction filter with a linear phase response, while the CS4398 (DX) is minimum(-ish) phase; some people think this can make an audible difference (although there is no general consensus on which one is better), but under controlled conditions most simply cannot tell them apart. Also, the STX has an EMI shield over the analog output section, which might make a useful differences in some computers (it does not in mine, but I do not have a high end GPU to produce a large amount of EMI). Maybe it is less sensitive to the quality of the power supply in the PC as well, but that is purely a guess, rather than something of which I have actual evidence.

 

To summarize, if you already have the DX, and do not experience any interference issues at all (high pitched noise, buzz, or other artifacts audible when no sound is playing, especially under system activity, such as moving the mouse, scrolling, playing a game, etc.), then sticking with your current card and buying an external amplifier would make sense. Otherwise, an external DAC with optical S/PDIF input would solve the problem, and you would still be able to use the DSP features of the sound card. Of course, it is still possible that a DAC upgrade would give the impression of a subjective improvement, but note that is surprisingly difficult to make a reliable subjective comparison without issues unrelated to real sound quality (for example, slight level mismatches, or the listener being biased in favor of one of the products).

 

Regarding amplifiers, if you do not have galvanic isolation from the ground of the PC (that is, you are using something other than an external DAC with S/PDIF or isolated USB input), I recommend a non-grounded amplifier like the O2 or the Magni. I think the Little Dot amplifiers are grounded, and that is a frequent source of interference problems in PC based setups. But if you really want a tube amplifier, then get the Little Dot, try it, and buy an external DAC if necessary.

 

By the way, "techboy" is very biased against the STX amplifier (it looks like a lot of his posts are bashing it in one-line comments, and when questioned on it, he tends to disappear), so you can safely ignore his advice. Regardless, the STX is not what I recommend anyway, unless, like me, you have some high-ish impedance but not extremely hard to drive headphones it is best suited to driving, and want to keep the setup simple.

post #15 of 54
Quote:
Originally Posted by cel4145 View Post

The Magni and O2 are often described as sounding equivalent to people who have heard both, so I'd go with it over the O2.

 

One thing I find somewhat worrying about the Magni is that some people reported radio interference with it (and by that I mean it can basically turn into a radio receiver), and that depends on the output cable, that is, the "radio reception" often only appears when using a headphone extension cord. This could indicate a lack of adequate RF filtering, or even stability issues (because of the problem being triggered by changes to the headphone cable, which presents a capacitive load in the RF range). However, I do not have the Magni to test this, so I do not want to discourage anyone from buying what might be a great product at an affordable price, but I thought this curious - even if probably rare - issue could be worth mentioning.


Edited by stv014 - 9/29/13 at 2:25am
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