Headphone amp/DAC + sound card for surround sound.

Discussion in 'Headphone Amps (full-size)' started by Kol12, Aug 14, 2017.
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  1. Kol12
    My motherboard sound has been acting up lately. I've always been quite keen on moving to a headphone amp/DAC and right now it appears as a must.

    I would like the best of both worlds gaming and music. My idea was that I could run an internal or external soundcard for my surround sound gaming purposes and have this hooked up to headphone amplifier. The idea being that the headphone amp/DAC would be much more respectable for music listening.

    I am looking at something like the Sound Blaster Audigy Rx, it has all of the gaming surround features I would like but it also has a dedicated headphone amp/DAC, so I wonder if it would be overkill/waste to hook this up to a separate HP amp to never use the HP amp on the Sound Blaster? Should I perhaps be looking for a sound card that has surround features but needs amplifying?
  2. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    If you just want hardware DSP for surround sound on the cheap, just get the Xonar U3, and then hook that up to a DAC or DAC-HPamp that has optical input. Like the Schiit Modi2 Uber (then pair it with the Schiit Vali2) or the AudioGD NFB-11.
  3. Kol12
    I could go something a little higher end than the U3, I was thinking something like the Sound Blaster Audigy Rx. It has a headphone amp integrated and might be a waste hooking it up to a DAC/HP amp but right now I need anything other than my onboard sound and I can't afford to buy both soundcard and HP amp at once. Is the main feature we look for in being able to hook into another HP amp/DAC the digital or Toslink connection? Does that bypass any DAC and headphone amp on the sound card?
  4. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    Exactly why I suggested spending only $30 for something that will get you hardware DSP. You won't "waste" features you don't need. Yes, it has a headphone output, but it's practically just a headphone driver chip like the kind you'd find on a Marantz CDP. Its power capacitors aren't even any better than what you'd see in a portable player like the Fiio X5.

    Using optical out bypasses the DAC, the DAC's output stage, and the headphone amplifier circuit. The chip that handles SPDIF is the same chip that does virtual surround.
  5. Kol12
    It looks like most hardware DSP have headphone amps integrated anyway, it's probably not a bad thing actually, if either the sound card or HP amp went belly up there'd be something to fall back too. I'm more concerned about getting quality DSP and a quality amp/DAC for music listening. Unfortunately the X3 isn't in stock at the store I'd like to buy from and I desperately need to get something this week. Edit: maybe not desperately but I would like to. Could something like the Asus Xonar DGX be an alternative? In terms of DSP/surround quality can you pay more for better quality DSP or does most of the price increase in these cards come from better DAC/HP amp componentry? I'm only looking for the sound card to provide the DSP but I would like semi decent quality DSP features...
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2017
  6. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    They all do. What I was doing was giving you the cheapest one, since you said you were thinking it might be a waste.

    Or just get the Sound Blaster AE5. It has a low output impedance unlike all other previous soundcards. If you use a headphone with high enough sensitivity and not too high impedance then it will work fine.

    What X3?

    You might as well wait and get the right stuff. Or at least the more likely right stuff.

    It's mostly the hardware. Including the RGB on the AE1. Except it's the internal soundcard with a low output impedance, and that's enough to make it worth the price.
  7. Kol12
    We don't have the Sound Blaster AE5 here in NZ, I meant the Asus Xonar X3. Here is our Sound Blaster stuff: https://pricespy.co.nz/category.php?m=s321454674&o=produkt_pris_inkmoms&rev=1#prodlista

    So once a digital output is taken from the soundcard to a DAC/HP amp it's not really a matter of sound quality anymore but quality of the soundcard's DSP that you will listen to... In choosing a soundcard then it is probably more about the DSP features you are looking for?

    Would the Sound Blaster Audigy cards offer decent enough DSP features? The Asus Xonar DGX I mentioned is a similar price range...
  8. Kol12
    Another question I have is: when running a digital out from a PCIE soundcard is any noise interference the soundcard might have (being inside the computer) no longer an issue because it is purely the digital signal being sent to an external DAC/HP amplifier?
  9. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    It isn't available anywhere yet, it just came out on the website a few weeks ago. Probably still on its way to distributors.

    Xonar X3 is a complete system. Doesn't even look like you can use its external soundcard any other way - the cables are soldered on.

    Yes but even with the differences in feature sets you still get the basics - virtual surround, EQ, etc. Sometimes whatever they call each of those it barely makes a difference from one card to another, so depending on which models you're looking at, you're paying for a better headphone amp.

    As long as you're using it for digital output, then all you need to look for is whether it has the same SPDIF output as the input on your DAC and what DSP features are in there.

    That depends. If the noise is basically flaoting around inside the case getting picked up by the analogue circuit on the soundcard then yes, you won't hear it with digital output. But if it's travellng across the motherboard circuit sometimes even digital output won't remove it. No way to know really. This is why, on top of fan noise even at basically idle and no load other than a music player, I just separated my gaming rig and my reference music rig.
  10. Kol12
    Thanks for your answers, they are helpful. So I've just realised that the Firestone Audio DAC/amps I've been looking at only have rca inputs, so is it easy enough to take a toslink or SPDIF to RCA without any negative effect on sound quality, bandwidth etc?

    It's possible we have access to other DAC/HP amps in NZ but based on what's available here is there anything you'd recommend or anything not here you'd recommend? https://pricespy.co.nz/category.php?k=602

    I know the Creative Sound Blaster X7 has qualities of a good soundcard and good DAC/HP amp but it is a hefty one off purchase. So these are the cards I am considering buying, I took a screen shot to save some typing and they are all similarly priced. Is there any you would recommend, are any over the top (priced) simply for hardware DSP solution?

    Creative Sound Blaster cards:

    Asus Xonar cards:
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2017
  11. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    What do you man by RCA? If they're analogue RCA inputs then just use a decent DAC, same as going with a good DAC and headphone amp to work with the soundcard.

    If you mean RCA SPDIF, ie, 75ohm coaxial, I'd much rather just invest in a DAC(plus headphone amp) or DAC-HPamp that has an optical input than have to clutter the desk with an SPDIF optical to SPDIF coaxial converter.

    Or either way just use the analogue output from the soundcard to the analogue input of the amplifier, just double check with the sound card manufacturer if virtual surround will work out of the analogue L-R output. I've encountered an issue with an old external X-Fi before that didn't seem to have virtual surround with the line output.

    Oppo HA-1, but this one's heavy on the wallet. The others either work via USB or just have SPDIF coaxial like the iDSD. Or just get a Creative X7 since it has a soundcard DSP.

    You can also just use the Creative E5, also has built in DSP, then just get a headphone amp with more power as needed later on.

    If you'll really just use the soundcard just for its DSP and SPDIF output I'd go with the U3, but if you're only buying from that site above, finding a DAC-HPamp with optical input is a problem that can't be offset by the price of the U3.
  12. Kol12
    I meant the headphone amps I was looking at don't have digital inputs only rca in, so I was wondering if an optical or SPDIF to rca cable would transmit the digital DSP/surround from the sound card to the DAC/amp or whether it had to be a pure digital link between the two... I was thinking of more a toslink to rca cable if they exist as not a lot of sound cards have coaxial output...

    Oppo HA-1 - Too heavy on the wallet but thanks... :)

    If you are using the the soundcard purely for the DSP does that necessarily mean you have to get the cheapest card? Obviously the cards all have various DSP features and software and I would assume you would want to buy the sort of DSP qualities you are looking for... Obviously if you are planning to send the digital out from the soundcard to a separate DAC/HP amp then I can understand you don't need a card with the highest quality DAC and headphone amplifier etc, but perhaps other qualities are important for the digital signal you sending to the DAC, like DSP features, software control and I am not certain but maybe capacitors and other board components affect the digital signal being sent...

    On that basis would a card like the Soundblaster Z be overkill for pairing with a DAC/HP amp? It has some of the best gaming DSP features compared to lower SB cards but also (from what I've read) has a decent DAC and HP amp that may be wasteful bypassing with a separate DAC/amp? If the DSP features are good enough I would happy to eventually bypass to a more premium DAC/amp and at least I would have a decent soundcard until a premium DAC/Hp amp was viable? Thoughts?

    Cards below the Soundblaster Z don't appear to have quite the same level of DSP features and some of the lower priced ones are external which might look odd paired to a DAC/amp... Another option was the SB Audigy RX but from what I have read use quite old tech. Another option is something like Asus Strix Soar but most people still prefer Soundblaster...
  13. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    First off, optical is SPDIF, the other being RCA 75ohm coaxial.

    Second, there is no such thing as an SPDIF to RCA analogue cable. It needs to have a DAC chip at least somewhere in that path to change it back to analogue, plus an SPDIF receiver chip to receive the signal and hand it over to the DAC. It's not like USB receiver chips like the PCM270x series that have a 16bit/44.1khz DAC built in.

    You're going to have a to use a DAC anyway, so you might as well get a good DAC or a DAC-HPamp. Or just get a soundcard with a decent analog FL-FR line output (ie one of the speaker outputs, the other two being RL-RR and Center-Sub) so you can hook up a 3.5mm to RCA cable.

    No, you do not absolutely have to use the cheapest card. But the reason I'm going for the cheapest card is because the DSP features don't really differ much. You can look into the Xonar U3 and compare its DSP features vs the Strix Soar and they'd have basically the same features, and in my case I only really use virtual surround and related tuning like room size simulator settings for it. The Soar uses a newer virtual surround program but isolate everything else on each, ie, use SPDIF optical output, and it's hard to tell the difference. You might as well spend the price difference on the DAC and HPamp or DAC-HPamp.

    Well if you're so convinced they're better and can pony up the dough for the soundcard plus a DAC-HPamp or DAC and HPamp, then no problem. I'm just going for the cheaper cards so you can redirect the funds to the downstream components. Otherwise, just use the 3.5mm analogue FL-FR output on the SBZ or whatever card direct to an amp instead of trying to look for things that don't exist (like a cable that works as a DAC) or getting a cheap DAC. Just double check to make sure that headphone virtual surround audio can be sent out of that port.

  14. Kol12
    So does that mean you would have to run a SPDIF cable (from sound card) to a SPDIF/RCA adapter that has a DAC in it before it could go to the RCA inputs on a DAC/Amp? Can you please explain FL-FR meaning?

    I can see what you mean about the DSP features being roughly quite similar over a range of low to high priced cards. What I'm thinking now is that a DAC/Amp is going to be substantially priced probably no matter what I aim for so if I got a mid ranged soundcard at least I would have some decent sound until a DAC/Amp became viable. Obviously if I was going soundcard I would be looking to a high end one but I think I would be happy with a midrange card in the meantime... All of the cards below the Sound Blaster Z are quite odd, mostly the Audigy's. There is the X-Fi Xtreme Gamer but I don't know too much about it.

    I appreciate your thoughts on putting more resources to the DAC/Amp but as mentioned I may end up using the soundcard for some time before I am able to look at the DAC/Amp, I guess the DAC/Amp is like the icing on the cake, but probably more, you know what I mean! Are there any mid range cards you'd recommend? I've seen a lot of preference to the SoundBlaster cards over the Xonars...
  15. Kol12
    Oh yes another issue. My Z97 board has 2x PCI 1x slots (the short two slot) but both are directly above and below the GPU. There is no way it's going in the slot beneath the GPU but above I'm not sure. Could heat or sound interference be an issue with the sound card so close the GPU? There aren't many options...
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