Benefits of a dedicated DAC?
Mar 10, 2013 at 6:51 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 7

roguegeek

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A little history first. My current set up on my gaming rig is as follows:
 
AKG K702  >  FiiO E09K QUGIR  >  Monoprice Premium RCA  >  Creative Labs SoundBlaster X-Fi Titanium HD
 
So I've been seeing some people running a dedicated external DAC from their PC and into their amp. This makes sense to me when you're running it off something like a laptop where the sound card is generally poor and not upgradable. It didn't quite make sense to me on a full PC with a great sound card (which I believe I have), so I did further reading. From what I understand, using an external DAC is better for several reasons. One being due to noise levels generated from the card itself being inside your enclosure.
 
I think I'm not really asking a specific question. More like looking for confirmation on what I've dug up so far.  Who better to go to than the Head-Fi community?
 
Actually, now that I think about it, I do have a couple questions. I bought the Ti HD for the CMSS-3D and better sound quality. If you do plug in a dedicated DAC to one of the Ti HD digital outs, is the CMSS-3D still pushed out from the card? Does installing a dedicated DAC only take the place of the DAC functionality of the sound card? Also, other than noise, what are the other benefits of an external DAC?
 
Mar 10, 2013 at 9:13 AM Post #2 of 7

obobskivich

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Honestly I think the majority of claims and espoused benefits of outboard hardware are greatly inflated. You *do* have a very good soundcard, and if you aren't hearing any sort of noise (with nothing playing, but everything still hooked up and powered on), that's about as good as you're going to get. There's a lot of chatter about the RFI/EMI bogeyman (and how he'll come and steal your dreams at night), but honestly unless the interference is so bad that it's always audible, it isn't doing a whole lot to "hurt" anything (and remember that the electrical engineers who work for Creative, Asus, Auzen, TI, Cirrus, etc are aware of these forces and phenomena). In some cases outboard devices are actually noisier than the PC soundcard, despite costing more. :frowning2:

An external D/A box will probably provide relatively minimal benefits for you, at least until you spend a considerable amount of money (and then you'll see more than "relatively minimal" but less than "night and day" differences, and by considerable I mean maybe half a grand or better, to start). Assuming that your PC is well put together, the PSU in there is also going to be very clean, and again, you'd have to pay to replicate that in an external solution (and yes, there are going to be external solutions with better PSUs, lower measured noise, and so on - they cost *a lot* though, and the bigger question you have to answer with those kinds of systems are: is there an appreciable benefit, relative to how much I've spent? And that's a question only you can answer, for your specific situation).

Regarding CMSS and digital output with X-Fi cards, from what I remember the *original* X-Fi hardware will actually not pass certain processing features out via digital (it isn't all-or-nothing, but iirc the CMSS Environment and EAX will not pass, but EQ and CMSS-Headphone will; could be mistaken on that (it's been a few years)), the second generation (like your Ti) should pass everything with no problems in theory. However since Windows Vista, soundcards aren't *supposed* to run multiple cloned outputs, so while the card would have conventionally sent out everything via digital and everything via analog previously (at least in stereo), with Vista and 7 (and so on) you will need to select "play stereo mix to digital output" to have that mirroring functionality. The X-Fi card that I had was not new enough to support that feature, but the SoundCore card I have now does. The things that it will *not* do with that feature enabled:

- Volume control
- Channel balance

(In general you probably have all of this set at 100% anyways, but in some situations you may need to adjust it, and then it's obnoxious when it doesn't work)

Things it will do that it won't do via analog:

- Allow you to run in "headphone mode" without hooking up to the headphone specific jack.

If you set Windows to acknowledge the digital output as the primary/active output device, everything works 100% (and with my X-Fi this was more or less the case as well, except for the EAX Environment stuff (I've never actually met someone who uses this feature)). The only reason this is a "big deal" is if you still need to pass an analog signal to some other device, like say desktop speakers that don't have their own D/A converter.

Overall I'm basically saying that I'm skeptical you'll hear much (if any) improvement here, unless you spend a ridiculous amount of money, or get something that does more than just DtoA (e.g. if you got something with tubes, or that does surround sound processing (which your soundcard also already does...)). But if you're curious about testing it out for yourself, I'd say there's plenty of decent options around $200-$400 that you could look at (and here's the thing, I'm not saying any of those boxes sound "bad" - I'm just skeptical they'll be any "better" than what you already have). Consider Pro-Ject, Firestone, Musical Fidelity, Arcam, Micromega, Teac, or Cambridge Audio.
 
Mar 10, 2013 at 9:35 AM Post #3 of 7

Pudu

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Yep, a stand alone DAC would be the last upgrade I'd make (and it was). Unless you are experiencing actual issues attributed to your soundcard I wouldn't worry about it. I used my STX for 4 years and thought it sounded fine.

And seriously - environment effects stuff - why oh why do they spend any time and money on this stuff. Has anyone ever used it?
 
Mar 10, 2013 at 12:33 PM Post #4 of 7

roguegeek

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Quote:
Quote:
 
Great feedback guys. Man, I'm really loving this community and it's because of thoughtful answers like that. I'm not experiencing any type unacceptable levels of interference at this time, so I'm not going to touch anything for now. I will probably update the cans and amp at some point. Would all of this continue to remain true when I upgrade later? Meaning if the new equipment does introduce levels of interference that I deem unacceptable, would the outboard DAC be something to check out?
 
Mar 10, 2013 at 3:58 PM Post #5 of 7

obobskivich

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Great feedback guys. Man, I'm really loving this community and it's because of thoughtful answers like that. I'm not experiencing any type unacceptable levels of interference at this time, so I'm not going to touch anything for now. I will probably update the cans and amp at some point. Would all of this continue to remain true when I upgrade later? Meaning if the new equipment does introduce levels of interference that I deem unacceptable, would the outboard DAC be something to check out?


I'm not sure how new cans would introduce more interference (I'm sure it's plausible, but nothing is coming to mind right now), but if a new amp causes problems, that's squarely on the amp (and it should be fired (out of a canon, into the sun)). So basically if the X-Fi is clean into a good amp, and clean into a garbage amp, the garbage amp will still sound like fud into your cans - and it's not the X-Fi's fault (and it doesn't matter if the X-Fi were rubbed with cheetah blood, it's still never going to catch up).
 
Mar 11, 2013 at 12:04 PM Post #7 of 7

roguegeek

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Quote:
i see no reason to upgrade from my xonar stx dac unless I went super high end with my headphones/amp ($2000+)

 
Quote:
I'm not sure how new cans would introduce more interference (I'm sure it's plausible, but nothing is coming to mind right now), but if a new amp causes problems, that's squarely on the amp (and it should be fired (out of a canon, into the sun)). So basically if the X-Fi is clean into a good amp, and clean into a garbage amp, the garbage amp will still sound like fud into your cans - and it's not the X-Fi's fault (and it doesn't matter if the X-Fi were rubbed with cheetah blood, it's still never going to catch up).

 
Right on. Looks like I wont be doing anything for the time being. Thanks. 
 

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