I built a new PC last summer, and have been somewhat underwhelmed by the audio for some time. I haven't used a discrete sound card for a long time, because frankly until this latest build I hadn't felt the need to own one. My last PC used an ASUS ROG board, which came with it's own discrete sound card. The new board is a Gigabyte with a Realtek chip, and I've been less than impressed, despite it supposedly having a 600ohm front panel headphone amp. Generally I consider myself a fairly smart guy but digging around the past few days, I've managed to thoroughly confuse myself. So here I am, hat in hand to ask some questions/opinions of the forums.
My system currently consists of (if this at all matters):
Intel Core i7-4770k
Gigabyte GA-Z87X-UD4H Motherboard (Realtek ALC898)
MSI GTX-660 2GB Twin Frozr
8Gb Corsair Vengeance Pro RAM
Corsair H100i Cooler
Sennheiser HD595 Headphones
Uses: Anymore I mostly just use my PC for work, YouTube videos and gaming. I don't do a ton of gaming, but more as of late. As far as music, I don't find myself doing nearly as much critical listening as I used to, but still appreciate good audio. Any critical listening I would do would likely be on my home theater downstairs. I am in the need for a new microphone for gaming as well, and haven't been impressed with really any headsets so I've been considering ModMic for my cans, Blue Snowball or Soundblaster ZX and using the beam-forming mic it comes with.
Budget: Would prefer to keep things around $200 or less. The cheaper the better. If I can get a mic included or have leftover in said budget for a mic, even better but not a requirement.
Goals: I simply want my headphones to sound the way I know they can. Maybe it's time for some new cans as well, not sure. When I do listen to music, I want to be able to appreciate it and when I game I want to be able to pinpoint sounds. I don't think this requires any super special software to achieve as I've done fine with stereo for years. It's only as of late I've been less that impressed. That said, I've heard good things about Razer Surround.
Initially I started out leaning towards an O2-ODAC Combo because of all the positive feedback I've seen, and possibly doing a DIY kit version to save myself a few bucks. Then I found a local store has an older NuForce uDAC-2 on clearance for $50. I've seen only mixed reviews on this model, but I figured for $50 it may not be a bad option. Then I started learning back towards discrete sound cards. Specifically I've been looking at the Sound Blaster ZX. (I don't see the huge benefit of the ZXR for myself, at least not at the price). I've also looked at a few of the ASUS cards as well, but liked the idea of having a nice mic and control pod included with the SB. I've also seen some good things on Schiit (is this pronounced like I think it is? :) ) on the forums, and they seem to have great prices as well.
Will a USB DAC/Amp combo work fine for gaming as well as music listening and general PC use? Are there any major disadvantages here?
What benefits, if any, would a discrete Sound Card bring for me?
Any suggestions for either option for my budget, and why?
Would I benefit more from keeping my on-board audio and upgrading my headphones? Should I keep what I have and upgrade the source as I'm originally thinking? If new cans, any suggestions at or maybe a bit above my previously listed budget?
Thanks in advance!