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ASROCK Z97 E-ITX/AC Outperforms my Bifrost and Crack. HD 600

Discussion in 'Computer Audio' started by audiojun, Feb 11, 2015.
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  1. audiojun
    I am shocked I just don't know how it does but my little motherboard produces high quality audiophile sound. I now prefer a $135 motherboard over my $800+ bifrost & crack set up through an HD 600. Maybe it is that realtek alc 1150 combined with the TI NE5532 that makes it perform. I never expected my board to outperform that way. I just wanted a board that has decent audio but I never expected it to surpass my main rig. The NE5532 op amp seems to be made to drive high ohm headphones, it can output about 20volts wow.
     
    I used the Sennheiser HD 600 for all tests.
     
    Comparing 2 Headphone Amps NE5532 vs Bottlehead Crack Speedball
    ASROCK Z97E-ITX/AC Headphone Out vs ASROCK Z97 E-ITX/AC Lineout to Crack + Speedball
     
    Biggest difference I noticed is the motherboard has more details and a higher dynamic range. The motherboard specs say the headphone out is 110db SNR, while the crack is 95 db snr, my hearing test confirms the motherboard does indeed have a blacker background. The crack does offer tube sound (reverb) while the Asrock motherboard offers sound true to the music source. I went back and forth trying to equalize the listening levels best I could and playing through flacs. Yep as much as a love tubes I like my new motherboard sound even more I like the clarity it produces. ASROCK motherboard wins.
     
    Comparing 2 Dacs ALC 1150 vs Bifrost AKM4399
    ASROCK Z97E-ITX/AC line out to Crack + Speedball vs Optical in Bifrost Uber to Crack + Speedball.
     
    They are both very high detailed dacs it was really hard to hear the difference between them when I ran them both to the Crack, because to me they both sounded like the Crack. Through the specs the ALC 1150 has an impressive 115 db SNR line out, while the bifrost has a 106 db SNR. Through listening tests I cranked the volume to max and didn't play anything and tried to see which one sounded darker, through the line out I was able to hear some computer audio hiss but it was nothing major it seems to be caused from a usb port that my mouse was connected to. The Bifrost optical in is just superior in removing computer EMI.
     
    I played some Norah Jones flacs, the motherboard ALC 1150 seems to be equal to the bifrost in many ways, though its nothing compared to something such as my dad's PCM 1704 r2r dac inside his RX-V1 receiver. In the end I thought the ALC 1150 sounded more natural than the Bifrost. The Bifrost had an in your face type of sound while the ALC 1150 was more laid back.
     
    Its a tie, because I like the Asrock sound but didn't like motherboard lineout EMI hiss. But Asrock motherboard wins on low cost.
     
    Edit: Through the motherboard headphone out connected to the HD 600 is when my music sounds its best. I hear no emi hiss and the details and clarity is all there.
     
    Edit: 2/19/2016
     
    The Motherboard doesn't beat the Bifrost as a source though. The bottlehead Crack is more musical though. The ASROCK Z97E-ITX mighty fine motherboard for audiophiles it has S/PDIF outputs and it went toe to toe with my Xonar STX sound card so well that I returned my STX.
     
  2. plonter
    Some built in soundcards can sound not bad at all, but I'm having hard time believing your Asrock dac is technically superior to the bifrost. There is a chance you just like its sound better?
     
  3. MrRockliffe
    Sound was, is and will always continue to be subjective. More doesn't mean better; it depends entirely on your own preferences and no one else's.
     
  4. GreenBow
    I'm with you on this. My motherboard sound card rocked from the moment I put Grado 225i (with e drivers) on it. Games were brilliant and music was exceptional from literally my £80 motherboard.
     
    This is the shock. I bought a Meridian Explorer (external DAC) £150 and I am struggling to see the improvement.
     
    The motherboard sound chip is Realtek® ALC887. The board spec sheet also says, "Premium Japanese-made audio capacitors: Provide warm, natural and immersive sound with exceptional clarity and fidelity". It's true. Instruments and presentation had an almost identical warm sound that the ME is renowned for. I have done side by side listening and the timbres between the Realtek and the ME are the same. However my motherboard is Asus and they are making some serious audio cards at the moment. I think they transferred much over to their motherboards.
     
    The ME has the edge in that it doesn't let go quite so soon when the going gets tough. The audio sounds marginally weightier, so just vaguely more solid. To be honest the ME was a staggering disappointment. However this was mostly because the Realtek chip was so good. The timing was slightly better on the ME. Overall though the Realtek chip was slightly more exciting listen with music. I felt I didn't know what was coming next with albums I had heard many times. The Realtek is also more transparent.
     
    Where the ME was such a disappointment was this. Some buyers need it because their on-board sound is junk, say on a smartphone. I.E. they are forced to spend a vast amount on a DAC, for what is essentially not super hi-fi. Admittedly you can't expect top end audio from a gadget that costs £250 on launch and is now retailing at £150. However it's a disgrace when you think what they are selling you. They charge nearly as much for this as they charge for e.g. a £300 CD player by Marantz. On reflection you should expect the DAC to be about 1/3 the cost of the product of the CD player. Whereas I bet you would get more audio quality from the CD player. The DAC is basically a rip-off. It's a good job Audioquest's new Dragonfly is only £130.
     
  5. plonter
    I also built a new computer with Asus mobo , should get it soon :) , have the same realtek inside.  I will test it againt my schiit modi/magni uber stack.
     
  6. RonaldDumsfeld
    I have the same experience. Although I still use a USB interface because it is so useful in other ways.
     
    This is a good source of info on the subject.
     
    http://stephan.win31.de/music.htm#onboard
     
    Seems like motherboard has been getting a lot better without many people noticing. Yet....
     
  7. GreenBow

    That link is a good read, going by what I read. I intend to read it all. I had two goes at it already. It covers aspects that mean stuff. Like the fact that the audio has to get from the mb to the front panel headphone header. I sometimes wonder if this is the only place my PC DAC is losing out to the external DAC. As you know audio loses quality as it travels along mediocre quality cabling. Somehow I doubt that my PC case manufacturer used hi-fi grade cable there. You never know though.
     
    My Meridian Explorer is just marginally better overall though so I intend keeping it. Not a £150 upgrade though. Would have been a disaster at £250 as it was when released. The other alternative was the Dragonfly v 1.2. It's reviewed as the better DAC. However I chose the softer sound of the ME. Softer audio quality is generally considered easier to listen to for long listening.
     
    The strength of the ME is where I said I can see the motherboard DAC letting go. For example when I fire up Skyrim there's a kind of thuddy boomy sound on drums. The mb DAC let out a little crackle there. The ME holds it better, not perfect but better. That translated across to more regular music, makes the mb DAC sounding vaguely thinner. It's difficult to detect in side by side listening because it really is that close. However the mb DAC sounds ever so slightly coarse in comparison. The ME has better S/N ratio.
     
    What it means though is either spend the minimum of £100 on audio upgrade, or keep to the mb DAC. Not to be left out the equation though is that a USB powered DAC is ultra-portable.
     
  8. prot
     
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/high-end-pc-audio,3733.html
    $2 Realtek vs. $2000 Benchmark DAC ... the results may surprise some people
     
    Your results are also not particularly surprinsing ...  110SNR vs. 95 SNR should be quite easily audible with a good pair of HPs
     
  9. plonter
    I would say that it's harder to differentiate between dacs than amps. I still believe that external dedicated dacs should be better than the motherboard built in ones but the latter could be also nice.  But I really don't think that the built in amp is even close in performance to a dedicated (mid level and above) head amp with a professional design and dedicated power supply..audiophile grade parts etc'.  especially when we are talking on a demanding headphones like the senns HD800,HD600.
     
  10. plonter
    Listening right now to: Foobar (Wasapi event mode) --> Wyrd --> Modi 2 uber  -->  Audioquest Evergreen 0.6M rca to 3.5 --> Headroom ultra micro amp --> HD800 ... I am totally blown away! no way any PC built in hardware can give this much juice and fidelity.
    And we're talking on Low to Mid-Fi setup here...
     
  11. RPGWiZaRD
    I actually happen to own the same setup, just different ASRock motherboard but it's the ALC1150 + TI NE5532 combo and I'm also sharing the opinion you have, somehow this setup just sounds bloody good. I have both a SoundBlaster ZxR and Xonar Essence STX II and they are sitting on my bookshelf right now.

    Especially what I like about the onboard is how well it handles 5.1/7.1 virtual surround processing when listening through headphones, it has a more open and belieavable out of your head experience than the other soundcards for sure. I prefer using either 5.1 or 7.1 speakers (sounds slightly bit different and I'm obviously talking about also when listening to stereo material) and then just checking the "full range speaker" options "front and right speakers" and "surround speakers" to get the ideal soundstaging. It's probably just a software processing thing but yea, I like how Realtek (drivers?) are able to turn even stereo material into a very believable pseudo 5.1 experience inside your headphones.

    It has a very analytical detailed sound to it with superb bass response, tight but punchy and well controlled (ZxR sounds bloated in comparison, STX II is fairly close, just slightly weaker, the ASrock setup sits somewhere in-between in presence/power to the bass). The highs are really detailed and mids are rather neutral, perhaps slightly bit analytical lacking very slight amount of warmth compared to the other soundcards but pairs nicely with slightly bit warmer sounding headphones in particular. Likewise this source won't pair well with headphones such as AKG K70x, HD800, Beyers, Ultrasones etc and the like in sound signature as it will show no mercy to the output of the highs. :)

    For gamers there's always the Sound Blaster X-Fi MB3 solution you can buy cheaply that gives you the processing of the Z-series cards and believe me it works really well, I've considered starting an own thread for that with my configs but haven't had the time to do it yet due to how busy my hobby (music promotion) is keeping me.
     
  12. GreenBow
    That's what I thought about mine. The onboard sounded more out of the head. My DAC purchase was more of a sideways upgrade. Slightly more solid overall. Fractionally more accurate.
     
    Realtek® ALC887. Asus H97.
     
  13. plonter
    My realtek ALC887 (Asus H97M-E mobo) actually sounds nice with the ATH-M50 ,because it underpowers them,which reduce the bass response and balances them.
     
  14. Headphile32
    My ASRock motherboard with the ALC1150 + TI NE5532 drives my Sennheiser HD580 and A900X headphones perfectly with no noise. I think the quality of the cable shielding going to the HD outputs on the front matters very much. I agree with audiojun the clarity and details plus bass textures and instrument separation are really great along with the soundstage.
     
  15. jologskyblues
     
    I have a similar observation with my Asrock Z68 Extreme3 Gen3 motherboard onboard Realtek ALC 892 audio codec chip used with the ATH-M50X and my desktop audio system with KEF LS50 loudspeakers.
     
    The ALC892 implementation on this board sounds neutral, balanced, smooth yet detailed. I wouldn't underestimate onboard sound these days just because they're cheap.
     
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