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Strong power supply + PCI soundcard vs External USB DAC

Discussion in 'Computer Audio' started by FunkeXMix, Jul 15, 2018.
  1. FunkeXMix
    Hi all,

    Read this recently and it got me thinking:

    1) I have heard it mentioned across the net before, but I don't remember there being any clear answer. Can a high grade power supply + soundcard beat for example a Marantz HD DAC1 or other high cost DACs. Windows and soundcard sound enhancements off.

    2) How about those compact DACs like Cyrus Soundkey, HiFime Sabre 9018 vs high grade power supply + soundcard
  2. FunkeXMix
    Having a preout/preamp with a volume knob on the DAC also seems pretty important to good computer audio. Lowering volume in Windows removes a lot of detail in music, that part has never been good in software computer audio. Should be on max volume and then lower with DAC volume knob.
  3. rpger9756
    Rule 1: You need shielding around your sound card and PSU if you want good quality out of your PCI-E DAC.
    Rule 2: You need to minimize the amount of spinning media in your chassis as much as possible
    Rule 3: You need a high-power, high-efficiency power supply with extremely fat rails.

    Problem 1: Your computer runs on oscillators. Every computer does. That's what a "clock speed" is, measured in "GHz or MHz" are. The rate at which the oscillator is oscillating. Generally speaking, your hearing is in the Hz and KHz range, so you you don't have to worry, but your DAC and CPU (and a GPU in a gaming rig) will be producing high-frequency signals that your computer transforms into (comparatively) low-frequency analog oscillations to power your speaker. If you were to stick a highly sensitive Oscilloscope's probes near your CPU cooler and PSU, and any case fan you're running, you'd pick up a lot of low-intensity EMI. It's subtle, but detectable. If you've ever seen high-end audio components, you'll notice that there is just a ton of SPACE between each component. You go..."why don't they just move that **** closer, man? then it'd be smaller!" And the answer is that they're trying to minimize the amount of EMI that influences the signal as it traverses the circuit and reduce as much noise distortion as possible (and leaving only the component distortion behind to "color" the music as they "voice" it.) In your computer, you'll notice there isn't a whole lot of space between components, even in an E-ATX implementation. As a result, you get shells of EMI influence all throughout the circuit, causing a "dirtying" of the sound. In MOST all cases, your headphones or computer speakers aren't sensitive or won't have low-enough clarity to matter, or the application is not such that it's necessary TO have low distortion, especially if you're utilizing compressed audio as your source. This wouldn't be TOO big a problem, but the DAC output is a relatively microscopic amount of wattage as it comes out of the chip. That means it needs to be magnified by a preamplification circuit, and then sent through another magnification step vis a vis your power amplifier to actually send enough current through the electromagnets that power the loudspeakers in your headphones or computer speakers. So, if you're seeking a highly transparent and resolving system with minimal distortion so that your analog recordings can produce the most accurate wave forms possible, it will be quite challenging to get the "black background" necessary for the extreme detail in uncompressed sources (like DSD) to come through without it being "lost" to the playback circuit's inherent flaws.

    Problem 2: As stated, you're constantly trying to achieve a "black background" for your recordings to play against. In Stereo, you'll drop a 10 gauge wire from your breaker to a transform-isolated power supply (or re-generator) and push it through low-THD analog amplifier and high-sensitivity speakers with huge power bandwidths. This is all in an effort to get your signal to pass through the "center" of the band and avoid the "edges" of the power and capacitance limits to avoid "ragged" waveforms. Your computer power supply is NOT formatted in the same way. Shielding and isolation are minimal, because the PSU fan (not a gigantic heat spreader) is a part of the system cooling flow, and your processing circuits are all digital. They are 1's and 0's that are mostly immune to low-intensity noise on the power circuit (jitter's influence on pulse code modulation not withstanding, but that is a WHOLE different animal.) BUT, your sound card, whether integrated or PCI-E, is pulling power directly FROM that high-noise power circuit to generate the base current that the waveform is being shaped from. And, factoring that most of your sound card's pre-amp and amplification will come from ICs and opamps, not transformers and discrete circuit components, you are, again, not setting yourself up for clean reproduction with minimal induced distortion. Which, as I stated, for YouTube and Pandora, isn't that big deal, but trying to power a high-impedance headphone playing DSD or near-analog source material can start to influence the characteristics of your sound profile.

    So, long story short, you'll probably never get really good reference quality out of a sound card, but there ARE steps you can take to minimize system distortion on your playback and if your ears aren't fully tuned or you're not doing really critical "listening" or you're playing lower-quality source material where you're not trying to surface extremely subtle detail that may or may not be below the threshold of perception, then your sound card is probably fine. But if you ARE trying to really dig into a piece and surface as much information contained within your track to your playback equipment, you'll have a hard time really reproducing the "edge" as it gets lost to the circuit's noise.
    FunkeXMix likes this.
  4. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    If your problem to begin with is that you're not getting 750mW of high current performance into a low sensitivity headphone, or that you can't sustain a 250mW output into a 300ohm headphone, and the soundcard was never designed to deliver that much power in the first place, then upgrading the power supply to a high end 1500W BeQuiet! or FSP unit isn't going to help it get more power to beat, say, an AudioGD NFB-28 or Burson Conductor and such.

    Past amplifier performance, yes, it's entirely possible if not otherwise common enough that the DAC and preamp stage are just as clean. The real problem with computer sources though is that even if you're using a bunch of high quality components you can still end up with either physical noise like coil whine or even some electronic noise that you can't easily trace. And it's hard to find reviews with the exact some components used other than for frame rates, benchmark scores, and temps (and even then that's the same CPU+Cooler and GPU; not the same motherboard, same GPU cooler, etc), so you can still end up with a system or even a workstation for media editing that has a noise issue that isn't related to the cooling system (that you can easily work with on custom PCs), which is also why some just prefer getting noisy AF when loaded, unfixable Cupertino machines (sure, you can't use BeQuiet! or EKWB to shut it up, but GE can - just crank up your A/C so it works off a lower ambient, and your video render will be done before it trips the threshold for those tiny blowers that are barely larger than a gaming laptop's let alone a reference...er, "Founder's Edition" graphics card).

    Those DACs work off USB power so current and even voltage performance isn't going to match a DAC-HPamp with a giant power supply surrounded by fat power caps, but it still depends on what soundcard and how much power you need. Something like a Dragonfly or Schiit Fulla2 still use USB power but can still produce around 1000mW, and a that point AFAIK the only soundcard that can really compete.

    In terms of DAC performance, it depends on whether their amplified headphone outputs can function as well as a dedicated line out, while some soundcards have separate amplified outputs for headphones and a line output. In such a case I'd bet more on the soundcard.
  5. FunkeXMix
    All good stuff, just gotta jive in on the noise issue you brought up. Neither my 2008 motherboard nor my new one has any noise. Getting an external DAC to eliminate noise as I remember was a popular selling point in the past, but it seems dated now. There are discussions on this on the web. All motherboards that boast about the HIFI aspect should be 100% safe, especially the ones talking about eliminating noise and shielding. But this is in regards to integrated solutions. Can't speak for PCI soundcards.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2018
  6. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    Bottomline though - build the PC based on other specs first, like all other performance parameters (VRM and power stage, your preferred CPU, the right chipset and enough PCI-E lanes, etc) and treat good audio performance as a bonus rather than the goal, since there's still that possibility that you could encounter later.
    FunkeXMix likes this.
  7. PurpleAngel Contributor
    It might help to know what your end gool is?
    For better audio quality (depending on budget), I would not try to make any improvement using a "better" power supply or sound card.
    Going external (optical/coaxial/USB) is just better as your not going to get any electrical noise that might be generated inside the computer case.
    There might not be any fully noticeable noise, using an internal sound card, it might be very low level noise, just going external just eliminates any noise.

    When is comes to SB-Z (Sound Blaster Z) vs Marantz HD DAC1, they offer different features from each other.
    So picking one over the other really comes down to which features you need, not so much about sound quality.
  8. PurpleAngel Contributor
    You do realize that when a product (like a motherboard) is advertized, sometimes the marketing department might overstate how "perfect" their product is.
    But I'm sure newer motherboards generate less electrical noise, then the older motherboards.

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