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Gaming - Onboard vs Soundcard vs USB DAC

Discussion in 'Computer Audio' started by Zebedee101, May 9, 2018.
  1. Zebedee101
    Hi all,

    I'm looking for the best gaming experience I can but have been left confused by the mountains of opinions wherever I look. I bought my headphones as the reviews stated that the soundstage was large and great for positional gaming audio.

    Headphones - Audio Technica ATH-AD900 - 35 ohms

    I used a soundcard (Asus Xonar DX) with all the virtual surround stuff for a number of years but have been recently convinced that stereo with no other "enhancements" is actually the best way to go for gaming, especially with decent stereo headphones.

    So without the need for all the enhancements I decided to try the onboard (Realtek ALC892) and can't honestly tell the difference between the two, other than the soundcard is substantially louder (better amp?). I need to turn the volume very high in Windows to drive the headphones at reasonable levels. Does this really matter? I'd argue no. I hear no background noise or hiss as some people find.

    But it has left me with questions as to whether I can improve on either of these options. If the onboard shows no signs of sound degradation will I get any benefit (other than volume) from a USB DAC? Some people claim they get better sound quality and a wider soundstage using a decent DAC but is this because the headphones they use are harder to drive and see benefit from a stronger amp? Something like DragonFly for example. What is it doing that the onboard isn't and how would it benefit my headphones (low impedance - 35 ohms)?

    I have a DAP (iBasso DX90) than can also be used as a USB DAC. Is this an option to improve sound quality and soundstage?

    Sorry lots of questions but I'm very lost! Cheers, Z
  2. Drty LilBits
    I cannot speak to much on DAC/Amps yet as my experience is new and limited. But I can say int the short time I've been gaming on PC that using an DAC/AMP really improved the audio for me. I never messed with any onboard audio settings too much other than to change my mic settings. I personally use the Mayflower ARC because it is more geared towards gamers and I needed something to plug my mic into as well. That is the best advice I think I can give right now with my limited knowledge. I am sure that a more experienced Head-Fier will respond shortly to better help you if I did not.
  3. BrightCandle
    For gaming surround sound processing for binaural sound is worth having, but not all implementations are equal. The Xonar uses Dolby Headphone, which while better than Razors free software it is the worst of the bunch in terms of actual positional awareness. The Soundblaster Z with SBX Pro and 5.1 does a better job but sounds hollow. The Sennheiser GSX 1000 is the best I have heard as it has similar positional capabilities to soundblaster but less disruption of the sound and doesn't overdo the high frequencies and cut out the lows. So in terms of hardware there is a clear progression of cost up to the top solution, where the GSX is both expensive and an external DAC/AMP. As an amp it is actually a bit weak and you are better off double amping it to utilise processing it provides.

    However now we have Hesuvi and Equalizer APO if you don't mind a bit of setup for some free software and that has a mode for just about every one of the solutions out there so you can give yourself a Sennheiser GSX 1000 basically for free over your chosen DAC/AMP. You can initially try just out of the onboard sound since the headphones are relatively easy to drive and you'll likely have a decent experience like that. Or you can get the O2 or the Arc etc although for gaming the benefits of genuinely high end audio kit diminishes pretty rapidly because it is regularly playing back a highly compressed mp3 anyway. If you don't fancy messing about with those pieces of software and what a simple solution on any AMP/DAC then spartial sound card does a decent job and is quite similar to the soundblaster Z SBX Pro in being hollow sounding but with good positional cues.

    So nowadays I recommend do what you want amp/dac wise and use Equalizer API and Hesuvi, sounds basically the same to my ears to the real hardware. I am even considering dumping the real thing on ebay and using my Modi and Magni stack in place of it with the software.
  4. RPGWiZaRD
    Realtek is getting pretty decent these days, well ALC1150 and 1220 especially as they feature reasonably strong onboard amps. Electrical noise has always been perhaps the biggest issue with onboard but with the latest ALC1220 that seems also sorted out as it's a design spec I believe to use a separate layer for the audio alone (well at least ASRock does this but I think others also) and as a result there's no noise.

    Various mobo manufacturers use obviously different onboard amps and capacitor configs so there's a slight variety to the sound. I've tried for example some ASUS ALC1150 onboard config and the sound was like super bassy (can you imagine more bassy than a ZxR? It was...) + overly smooth in the highs but my current ASRock board with Texas NE5532 amps sound suprisingly great, it's a very detailed and crisp sound that pairs perfect with my slightly warmish headphones with some of the tightest and punchiest bass I've heard so far from a soundcard. Onboard sound is a bit of a luck of a draw, I don't trust so much into the capabilities of whoever designs the onboard audio part of the motherboard, I'm sure it's not so much effort put into so I imagine it varies quite a bit from one manufacturer to another how it sounds, at least ASrock that has been using pretty much the same amp config since ALC1150 was first introduced I can give thumbs up for as I really enjoy how it sounds.
    Last edited: May 10, 2018
  5. BrightCandle
    I played with Hesuvi, Equalizer APO and voicemeter/virtual cable quite a bit yesterday. The main issue that I can't solve is that the Windows volume controller no longer controls volume and I can't make the DAC accept 7.1 channels for processing to 2.0 so I have to use a virtual cable/virtual input from virtual cable/voicemeter. Neither allows volume adjustment as it degrades the quality of the sound and it is making virtual cables and not a virtual sound device. So if you are willing to deal with the switching speakers/headphones and doing volume all externally of windows then it sounds remarkably similar to a Sennheiser GSX 1000 and it even automatically detects stereo and will avoid upmixing it or processing it at all. The advantage of these 3 pieces of software is they work over anything, but it isn't without its hassles especially since it was a bit flaky. I went back to my hardware GSX 1000 in the end, it sounds just a tad better and is a lot less hassle.
  6. smallcaps
  7. Funkyd04
    I've gone down this exact route, and this is my experience

    I have multiple computers in my house and two aftermarket, medium grade sound cards to choose from. Each computer as a standard grade mobo. Never had issues with sound on any of them (onboard sound & PCI soundcards). No hiss, no distortion, no problems. I decided to go down the route of a better gaming experience due to my immersion in sim racing. I tried a magni/modi combo, i tried the sound cards, onboard sound, and another Zorloo USB dac.

    After testing with high quality and high bitrate music on each, i settleled on the Magni/Modi combo, but acknoledged that it wasn't much better and did not provide much of a bang for your buck. I also tried a handful of different headphones for gaming, HD650 included. At some point i decided to upgrade my system and noticed that my motherboard was holding me back. It was a standard grade board and did not provide any overclocking features. So i got up, spent a solid chunk of change on a good mobo ($300) and decided to test out the audio again. After testing the onboard audio on the Asus ROG Maximus X, I ditched the Magni/Modi combo. Its REALLY GOOD. Just as clear as the Magni/Modi yet not as bright.

    Granted, the headphones i was pushing weren't anything top notch, and i'm sure if i got something in the 1k range of headphones, the Magni/modi combo would start to shine through, but the onboard audio of this board is designed to be the best of the best of what's available on motherboards. It even has a high gain/high voltage mode in case your cans need more power.

    So yeah, the board is a solid $200 more expensive than what you can find on the lower end of the spectrum, but remember that a magni/modi costs just as much, slightly more actually. Plus you get all the features of a high end motherboard, such as overclocking ram/cpu/mobo, High speed LAN, high speed wifi, you name it. Just from this motherboard switch, my system is a solid 3x better in literally EVERY aspect, even though the hardware didn't change.

    I say go with a high end mobo. Its a larger bang for your buck.

    Here is how i'd rank the sound i've tried.

    Magni/Modi >= Asus ROG Maximus X mobo > Zorloo USB Dac > PCI sound cards > StD grade mobo

    The super high end sound cards likely can approach the Maximus X motherboard sound, but at what cost? Get the better mobo!

    FYI, my Zorloo usb dac is for sale. $50 shipped.
  8. Funkyd04
    Forgot to mention, the PCI sound cards i've tried are the asus Xonar, Sound blaster, and one other i can't remember
  9. PurpleAngel Contributor
    The Asus Xonar DX makes a nice DAC (CS4398 DAC chip), but it's headphone jack is more like a line-output jack, that also pretends to be a headphone jack.
    Because of the DX's headphone jack having a 100-Ohm output impedance, it's not the best way to drive (send voltage) headphones.
    A FiiO A3 headphone amplifier ($60) with it's really low output impedance ( >1-Ohm) headphone jack, is better for driving 35-Ohm headphones, hopefully improving audio detail.
    Maybe spend $100 for a simple desktop headphone amplifier, like the O2 (Objective 2) or Schiit Magni.

    So I say as long as your using the Xonar DX, disable the on-board audio in the BIOS.
    Try the Unified Xonar Drivers.
    And daisy chain a solid state headphone amplifier (O2 or Magni) from the Xonar DX's headphone (line-output) jack.

    Also the O2 and Magni are good budget options for driving headphones, up to 250-Ohms, that you may buy in the future.

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