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Hi-Fi PC Sound Guide

post #1 of 133
Sound Cards
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A high-end sound card can be beneficial for both enthusiasts and audiophiles alike who spend a lot of their listening time through a PC. Most likely, you are left wanting better sound quality. Those who are in the market for audiophile grade sound card are in luck as there are several manufacturers who make stunning products, which don't burn a whole in your pocket as deep as other source components. I will go over two products from two different manufacturers, Midiman M-Audio USA and Terratec Promedia, a German company. They come as PCI boards.


These cards do it all when it comes to Hi-Fi audio, from analog I/O (inputs and outputs) for stereo music playback and recording to digital I/O for home theater (transfer to your receiver/decoder/preamp AC3 [Dolby Digital 5.1] or DTS streams through non-audio mode streams) if you have a DVD drive and recording from digital sources. They all have bang-up converters (ADC, DAC) which all operate @ up to 24Bit/96kHz with automatic detection or set manually. The analog outs are independent from the digital outs, and they feature onboard digital mixing capabilities. The M-Audio cards support Macintosh Operating system, but the Terratec cards are Windows only. You really can't go wrong with any of these outstanding sound cards.

M-Audio DiO 2496 (was my first high end sound card)
Analog RCA out
Digital optical Toslink I/O
Digital coaxial I/O
http://www.midiman.com/products/m-audio/dio2496.php
MSRP $299.95

M-Audio Audiophile 2496
Analog RCA I/O
Digital coaxial I/O
MIDI I/O multi-track recording capability
http://www.midiman.com/products/m-audio/audiophile.php
MSRP $229.95

Terratec EWX 24/96
Based on EWS88 technology (my current sound card, EWS88 MT)
Analog RCA I/O
Digital optical Toslink I/O
http://www.terratec.net/products/nav_ewx2496.htm
MSRP $299.00

Terratec DMX 6Fire 2496 - Premium
Based on EWS88 technology
Comes with 5½" front rack module for I/Os (CD drive size unit)
Analog RCA I/O
Analog stereo 3.5mm I/O
Analog CD out
Analog AUX in
Analog mic/phono in
Analog headphone out (60mW) - yes, built in headphone amp guys!
Digital optical Toslink I/O
Digital coaxial I/O
MIDI I/O
Supports DirectSound 3D, Sensaura 3D/Macro FX, A3D 1.0/2.0 and EAX 1.0/2.0
Hardware VU meter
Internal 36bit resolution
http://www.terratec.net/products/6fire/nav_6fire.htm
MSRP $499.00


For you MiniDisc and DAT users, you're in for a wonderful treat. Although I know of no low-end cards that support non upsampled optical outputs (only inputs are selectable, most are preset to 48khz s/pdif output). There is however an excellent inexpensive professional sound card for Windows that can send a 44.1khz stream through toslink optical out, the M-Audio DiO 2448 (DiO 2496's little brother). You can record a digital signal directly from your CD-ROM drive even if you don't have an s/pdif connection (digital audio out - TTL) from your drive (to find out how, look below under Playback Software), or an external digital source (home CD deck). If you have a s/pdif connection from your CD-ROM drive or a home cd player, you can bypass any software thus recording is done entirely through hardware. The retail price of this is $149.95.
http://www.midiman.com/products/m-audio/dio2448.php
Another inexpensive high quality option (that does the same thing) is the Terratec DMX XFire 1024, which retails for $129.00 (and has built in 60mW headphone amp).
http://www.terratec.net/products/xfire/nav_xfire.htm

Both of the cards have great DACs and come with analog outputs. Some are weary about this due to internal noise by the nature of a computer environment, but I've had no problems with this. I connect my ASL MG Head DT directly to my sound card through the 24Bit/96kHz stereo PCM analog RCA output. I cannot stress enough of the importance of a good interconnect cable. I strongly suggest one with good shielding, preferably two layers.
*The DiO 2448 has no gaming 3d sound support, the XFire supports A3D 1.0, DS3D, and EAX 1.0/2.0



Multimedia Creation
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Sound cards are no longer for DOS sound synthesis to add to the gaming experience. They have moved on to music in outstanding quality. We now have the ability to copy CD albums, mix a compilation of different songs, and even archive many CDs through the use of MPEG Layer-3 (MP3) compression with a limited amount of space. Also through software, we are able to digitally restore analog sound by removing unwanted discrepancies or improvising lack or overemphasis of certain areas (equalizing).

Before you can edit, compress, or burn any song[s], you have to first copy the source (CD) onto your hard drive into a format, which can be modified (16bit 44.1khz PCM wav file[s])
This process is called Digital Audio Extraction or "CD ripping". There are many options for this, but I've found Exact Audio Copy to be the best and quite convenient without sacrificing efficiency.
http://www.exactaudiocopy.de/eac6.html
*Keep in mind that uncompressed CD audio takes up quite a bit of hard drive space. A 60 second (1:00 minute) file will take up 10,584,044 bytes (10.0MB). Redbook CD is 74min. (750MB) of audio or 650MB data, so make sure you have at least 1GB (for leeway) left of hard drive space before you do any extraction.

If you are going to be mixing tracks from different albums, I suggest that you normalize each track to 98%, which EAC can do automatically do for you, check documentation.

Now onto copying CDs. EAC can either create an ISO image (copy) in the format of cue/bin or directly copy a CD. A cue sheet is an instruction list for what copy to burn. A bin is the copied image file of a CD that data is read from to create a copy of the original CD. The software that this format is used by is a CD burning software by Goldenhawk called CDRWIN.
http://www.goldenhawk.com/download.htm
* $39


Another useful feature built into EAC is the ability to run as a front end (GUI) for an external mp3 encoder such as LAME, which means you can go straight from CD to MP3 on the fly. I use LAME 3.89, but there is a newer version out.
http://www.mp3dev.org/mp3/
http://www.mp3-tech.org/software/encoders/lamewin32.exe - binary executable/dll
For best quality, select LAME MP3 Encoder, direct the location of lame.exe or lame_enc.dll, select 320kBit/s for Bit rate and High quality, then use this for Additional command line options:
-b320 -q0 -k -ms -S %s %d
This creates a full bandwidth 320kbps stereo mp3 file using highest quality algorithm resulting in around 4-5:1 compression. The -S hides encoding progress resulting in slightly quicker encoding time. %s & %d are parameters for LAME to recognize the files copied from EAC as source file and destination locations.
If you want to save some file space (but takes longer to encode), use the VBR(Variable Bit Rate) method:
-V0 -q0 -k -ms -S %s %d
The -V0 is the highest vbr quality setting generally resulting in an average bit rate of around 160-220kbps resulting in around 5-6:1 compression.
If you want to edit first then compress, you can use a different GUI front end for LAME called winLAME. EAC can do this as well, but I think that winLAME is better (although I don't use it, I run the command lines manually).
http://winlame.sourceforge.net/index.php?page=download
For more information on mp3 technology, head over to http://www.mp3-tech.org/ or http://www.r3mix.net.


If you would like to edit any songs before you burn or compress such as restoring old recordings or tweaks/filters/EQ, you will want to use professional recording software, I recommend Syntrillium Cool Edit 2000. You will most likely want to remove hiss/crackle&pop, or apply some EQ. Any EQ I use is only parametric equalizer, but you may find a graphic equalizer of better use. There are many other filters and plug-ins that CEP supports, like DSP and Direct-X effects, a good example would be voice removal. CEP supports multi-track recording, and input/output of mp3s (through Fraunhofer industry standard codecs) as well.
http://www.syntrillium.com/download/download.html?1
* $69

You can also create your own "burn in" CD by producing brown/pink/white noise and frequency sweeps using CEP and burning the wav loop with EAC. I recommend a 12minute loop consisting of 120 seconds of each of the following in order: brown noise, frequency range of your equipment (headphone or speakers) divided into 3 - in the case of Sennheiser HD600 12hz-39000hz so 12hz-13008hz, pink noise, 13008hz-26004hz, white noise, and 26004hz-39000hz. And maybe a 3-minute (180 seconds) low frequency sweep of 10hz-110hz.



Playback Software
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Now that you have all these goodies, what good are they if you can't use them? You need to play music! "Why can't I just use Windows Media Player", you ask? You can, but don't you want the best sound? The areas we need to cover are mp3 playback/management, plug-ins, and DVD-Audio in association with digital output (including CD transport).


The simplest and best sounding mp3 player that I've tried is the very first mp3 player, Fraunhofer WinPlay3.
http://www.iis.fhg.de/amm/download/index.html#1
This player is very minimalist thus very slim in functionality. You will want a playlist/mp3 manager, ID3 tag editor and front end for this player. I highly recommend Fliptech SufflePlay.
http://www.pinoyware.com/shuffleplay/index.shtml
* $10


Now for functionality built in and some unique experiences through plug-ins, Nullsoft Winamp is the way to go.
http://www.winamp.com/
The essential plug-in to get is the MAD decoder. This replaces the Nitrane decoding engine and can output 24 or 32bit resolution, which is more accurate and overall sounds much better than the default decoder. To use this, you have to disable the default Nullsoft MPEG Layer-3 decoder by deleting the dll in the plug-ins folder, or disassociating the file types through preferences. In order to use 24/32bit output, your sound card must first support it. Then you must set the Winamp output to waveOut and configure to 16kB max block-size and 4kB min block-size.
http://www.mars.org/home/rob/proj/mp...lugin/#install

Here is the interesting part, DSP plug-ins. Crossfeed is the essential goal for headphone listening. I only know of one plug-in strictly made for this purpose, which is the Speakers Simulator by Vladimir Kopjov. I came across it in the HeadWize projects library. This collapses the soundstage, but provides sound that is much easier on the ears. I recommend 60% crossfeed.
http://www.headwize.com/projects/kopjov_prj.htm
http://www.url.ru/~copah/SpeakersSimulator.htm - download here

A similar plug-in that has other neat goodies is one that accomplishes it through Room Simulation by offering stereo widening without artifacts or hiss. It actually makes it sound like you're listening to speakers! Absolutely incredible!!! This amazing plug-in is iZotope Ozone. The other bonuses are parametric valve equalizer, and tube amp emulator (solid state users and/or tube virgins might love this). It comes with many factory made presets offering enhancements, optimized for certain types of listening, restoration, and a whole lot of weird ones, you can also customize and save/automatically load your own presets. Just beautiful with Classical and Jazz, incredible soundstage.
http://www.izotope.com/products/ozone/ozonewinamp.html
http://www.winamp.com/plugins/detail...ponentId=79374 - download here
* $29


Digital audio transfer. Don't have an internal s/pdif connection from your CD/DVD-ROM drive to your sound card (besides, pc analog CD-AUX cables are lousy)? No problem. Want to send digital signal from DVD movie to your home theater receiver or hi-fidelity stereo/multi-channel DVD-Audio signal to your preamp/receiver/external DAC? No problem. All you have to do to use your drive as a transport for your sound card or external DAC is get the CD Reader plug-in for Winamp. This acts much like real-time digital audio extraction except it streams it instead of saving to a file.
http://www.url.ru/~copah/CDReader.htm
For DVD audio, all you need is AC3 and/or DTS (I prefer this to Dolby Digital, actually I love it! ) decoding capable DVD software player. You simply enable decoding in the software, and non-audio mode output through s/pdif optical or coaxial in your sound cards control software. I only watch/listen DVD on home theater system, but I would recommend CyerLink PowerDVD which is what my father uses on his Compaq. For those of you who have those new 6.1 receivers, this supports DTS ES 6.1.
http://www.gocyberlink.com/english/p....jsp?ProdId=28
* $74.95



Download Software
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You can obtain the software I have recommended by clicking on the links and downloading directly from the source.

* I would like to let everyone know that some of the software is not freeware; they are demos.


Notes
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All prices are listed in US dollars. Retail prices seem high, but don't let them discourage you, most of these products can be purchased online for much cheaper. One place carries many high-end sound cards & audio software and has excellent prices with free shipping for orders over $100. http://www.digitalaudioworks.com/


I apologize for crudeness, this is my first time writing a guide, and have no experience with detailed reviews. I just hope that many of you will find this helpful.


For more information, specific detailed instructions, and/or comments/questions, feel free to send me a private message or e-mail and I will get back to you as soon as I can.
post #2 of 133
Thread Starter 

Hi-Fi PC Sound Guide

Wow. Thanks for the research Audio&Me.

Are these audiophile soundcards also for general use? Will they also handle games?
post #3 of 133
Great post Audio&Me.

Just a few things to add about audio compression;
Mp3's days are becoming numbered as the king of lossy audio compression. Actually at least on my computer mp3 is already practically defunct. Many people are choosing higher quality codecs like Ogg Vorbis (http://www.vorbis.com), MPC ( http://www.uni-jena.de/~pfk/mpp/), and AAC. Although these codecs are still in development the sound quality of all of them is already far superior to mp3 at equivalent bitrates. Personally I prefer MPC (the current quality leader for >160kbps), but Vorbis has a great future and with portable player support on the way it will probably take over where mp3 left off.

There are also lossless forms of audio compression available. Lossless compression will get you about 50% size reduction from wav. Monkey's Audio (http://www.monkeysaudio.com) has the best compression so far but this may change in the future. Other alternatives are LPAC, FLAC, and WavPack to mention a few.

Most of the codecs I have discussed have Winamp and/or XMMS plugins so decoding the files is easy. If anyone is interested in finding out more about a specific codec the following site is a very good source of information: http://www.hydrogenaudio.org
post #4 of 133
mbriant - all of the cards are good for general use. They support DirectSound. However, only the Terratec DMX cards have 3D sound API support for games.

Tes - I also figure the mp3 format is becoming obsolete considering the new high fidelity format standards 20/24bit 96/192khz. (SACD, DVD-A). We'll need higher quality algorithms with better compression to store all this massive data. But it's good enough for now...

Lossless compression would be good for solid state or hard drive based portable players.
post #5 of 133
I just saw an ad in Stereophile for "digiphase" stereo workstation. www.digiphase.com
post #6 of 133
Quote:
Originally posted by Audio&Me
We'll need higher quality algorithms with better compression to store all this massive data. But it's good enough for now...
Why not start now, you can get used to the new tools available and be ahead of the game when the new formats you mentioned become popular.

BTW, the new lossy audio codecs encode current 16bit/44.1 kHz audio CDs excellently as well. You don't need to go to extreme bitrates with MP3 to get decent quality. If you really want quality, try encoding a song with the MPC encoder (mppenc) using the "--insane" preset. This mode will produce files with bitrates around 256kbps. It encodes faster than LAME, about twice as fast on my cpu, and leads too a higher quality result as well. Plus mpc files decode at a mad rate of like 90x on my PIII 866, which also means it needs less cpu resources to playback than mp3s. I strongly advise you to check out some of the codecs in my first post above, not just mpc.

But if your main aim is for portable use, then I completely understand why you still stick with mp3.
post #7 of 133
Compression is not a priority for me. I plan on getting a 100+GB external hard drive anyway. Highest quality MPC sounds better than full bandwidth 320kbps MP3 encoded with LAME??? Fast decoding would be great, but what about sound quality? Lol, mp3 is not a concern to me for portable use, was just a thought. I make copies of my CDs for portable use.
Thanks for the heads up Tes.
post #8 of 133
If you're impressed by high bitrates, try MPC "--insane --nmt 16 --tmn 32" the resulting files will have an average bitrate from 320 to 360kbps+. But believe me, it is not necessary for most cases.

And yes a codec that uses a finely tuned psymodel for encoding can get better quality results with lower bitrates. MP3's so called "sweet spot" (where quality to bitrate is maximum) is 128kbps, which doesn't sound all that good. Any higher you go is at the sacrifice of getting less of an increase in quality for the increased bitrate. On the other hand MPC's sweet spot is around 160-170kbps and going higher that that will also give higher quality at the expense of the bitrate.

MPC is designed as a "true" VBR codec. Which means it has no CBR modes. It calculates the number of bits to use based upon the actual sound that is being encoded. Some frames can go up over 380kbps in the mode I mentioned above if it is required to encode properly. It does not waste bitrate by encoding silence or passages with unnecessarily high bitrates like the 320 kbps CBR mode in LAME you mentioned.

As you may have guessed I am very interested in audio encoding.

Audio&Me, you seem to be strongly attached to MP3 but I will get through to you sooner or later.

Edit: And MPC is a full bandwidth encoder if you did not already know.
post #9 of 133
It's not that I'm attached to it, it's just so damn convenient. I just need something that will match the original redbook CD quality as close as possible with the least degration in fidelity. When using any source that's more revealing than dual 1bit DACs, CDs burned from MP3s sound horrible (even the full bandwidth 320kbps ones), there are all kinds of distortions and loss of dynamics (especially the low end). As long as I get 2:1 or better compression, I'm willing to go beyond the sweetspot.

I like to keep things simple, CD plays at a constant data rate, CBR encodes at a constant bitrate, that's my reasoning.

I have to get some new albums (jazz ), I'll give this MPC thing a try. Does it have a constant bitrate trigger instead of relying on human hearing algorithms? I'm not a very trusting person of artificial computer stuff.
post #10 of 133
Great, since you’re used to high bitrates try encoding with the extremely high quality switches ("--insane --nmt 16 --tmn 32"). The MPC codec does not have a constant bitrate setting but using the above settings the variable bitrate will almost never drop below 320kbps. In fact I just encoded the Miles Davis album "Kind Of Blue" with these settings and during parts of Miles' trumpet solos the bitrate went up to about 400kbps. On average the bitrate of the songs on that album are encoded at around 350kbps. So they will not take up much more space that your current mp3s.

If you don't trust human hearing algorithms then switch from MP3 right away because the algorithms used by LAME at 320 CBR are worse than MPC's updated approaches.

You see, even at a constant bitrate the encoder is still using methods to lower the bitrate of the music that depend upon models of human hearing.

Jazz is good stuff; actually Jazz and Classical music are the main reasons I was not happy with the quality of MP3. It just seems to perform poorly with the instruments used in these genres.

If you want some tips on encoding with MPC don't hesitate to ask. BTW, you can set up EAC to use MPC using the external compression option.
post #11 of 133
That's just what I wanted to hear. MP3 kills the soundstage and imaging on many jazz/classical songs.

Oops, I totally forgot about the --athonly and --noath triggers. LAME uses either ATH or Psy-model for masking. Either way, they produce unnatural sounding mp3s. (bump in mid high frequencies and upper bass, hi-hats definately don't sound right)
I haven't tried the newer version of LAME which supposedly has improved psychoacoustics... using GPSYCHO noise shaping?

Are there different MPC encoders, or only one standard?
So using the options that you've provided, this will get me the highest possible sound quality in a compressed format? That simple huh?
post #12 of 133
There is only one MPC encoder currently in development you can get it here: http://www.uni-jena.de/~pfk/mpp/#encoder-binaries

You'll also probably want to pick up the latest version of the Winamp plugin: http://www.uni-jena.de/~pfk/mpp/#plugins

The address above is Frank Klemm's site. He optimized the original code written by Andree Buschmann. And now they are working together to further develop the codec (mainly in terms of ease of use). Although the codec is still being developed most of the informed people I have seen discussing the state of the codec agree that it is pretty much done as far as quality is concerned. There is a new version that is going to be released sometime but it is only supposed to tune the codec to use less bitrate with certain types of encoded music.

Well it is possible to go to even higher bitrates but it evolves experimenting because I have not personally had any experience going past the last setting I discussed. You can disable the Mid/Side-stereo setting by adding "--ms 0" which will cause both channels to be encoded separately. You can also step up the "--nmt xx" and "--tmn xx" settings replacing the "xx" with higher numbers all the way up to 99! So if you are completely crazy, or just curious, try this: "--insane --nmt 99 --tmn 99 --ms 0"
The resulting .mpc file will have an average bitrate around 750kbps! You may even be able to go higher but don't ask me how because I don't know. And this bitrate is already getting extremely close to lossless compression bitrates ~(700 - 1000kbps).

Have fun experimenting.
post #13 of 133
Kewlness. =P
Thanks for info.

Wholey crap! 742kpbs average bitrate. Encoded 13.1MB wav into 6.91MB mpc, I'm cool with that. I can't tell the difference between this and the original. ::high five Tes::

MPEGPlus? This is pretty much MPEG2 isnt it?

1441.2kpbs PCM vs 742.3kbps MPC, that's 1.942:1 bitrate ratio. 13,794,524bytes wav vs 7,254,764bytes mpc, that's 1.901:1 compression ratio. Is this a lossless format?

In the plugin configuration, what the hell is the ReplayGain stuff? HeadRoom?
post #14 of 133
Glad you like the quality.

MPC is based on the same subband encoding technology used in MP2 but it has been extensively enhanced (don't know all the little details). The advantage of this method of encoding is that it doesn't suffer from time smearing, also called pre-echo, which to me is one of the most annoying qualities of MP3.

I don't think that a ~750 kbps MPC file is lossless but it certainly appears to be very close to the original. You might want to try stepping down to the first values I gave you for the nmt and tmn settings and see if you still can't tell the difference between the original (most likely you won't be able to differentiate the two and you will also save some HD space).

Replay gain incorporates a method of playback that tries to prevent clipping by scanning through the encoded material to find parts that are over specific peak values. The appropriate level of attenuation is calculated and then this information is appended to the file. The information is then read by the player (in this case the Winamp plugin), if the player is set to read replay gain, an applied at playback. The actual encoded material remains intact. I personally don't use replay gain, as it tends to reduce the sound level of some music too much and also increase the level of other music too much. The replay gain calculation tool for MPC is still under development though and will improve over time. For more information on replay gain try the replay gain site: http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~djmro.../contents.html

The headroom slider also acts to control clipping, and the 'K' part of the "K214" tick marks underneath the slider stand for the "K-System". I don't know the specifics but you can read up here: http://www.digido.com/integrated.html

I just set the "Mode" option to 'ReplayGain off | clipProtect album based' and set the headroom slider to 0. This should provide for nice playback quality.

If you are wondering about the dither/noise shaping setting, info about that can be found here: http://www.uni-jena.de/~pfk/mpp/dither.html

Whew, that should keep you busy for a while.

Also check out the hydrogenaudio forum if you have not already: http://www.hydrogenaudio.org/ Many codec developers make appearances there, even the original MPC coder (under the name Buschel). The site is run by Dibrom, a LAME developer. Most of what I know about audio codecs originates from that site. The people there can probably answer any more detailed questions you may have.

I need to get studying now, got midterms next week. But music is always a great study tool for me.
post #15 of 133
Time smearing, so that's what it's called, that bugs the hell out of me about mp3s. The 16 32 trigger gave me 319kbps average on the same song @ 2.97MB. It sounded better than 320kbps MP3, but I could still tell it apart from the original, not by much though, this is excellent. You've converted me with ease. =) I'm still going to use the 99 trigger though.
But what bothers me is that this won't be a free format soon, mp+ having to pay royalties, blah.
As storage gets larger and connections get faster, I wonder what compression for 24bit/96khz stereo will be like.

That's the setting I had it on anyway. When it comes to features I don't know about, I just leave it off.
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