By Zurv 14 Comments
People will deck out thier PC with the latest and greatest but can over look sound (which, in all fairness, people might not care that much about)
It might be worth taking a look at your DAC - Digital-to-analog converter.
As the name suggests, this converts the digital audio/sound/etc on your PC to the analog that comes out of your headset/speaker/etc. This plays a HUGE part in the quality of audio you'll get from your PC. Clearly the source matters too. Crap in/Crap out now matter what the DAC is :)
Most (all?) built in sound cards don't have the greatest DACs (not shocking) and same the goes for USB headsets. Of course having a "bad" DAC" doesn't mean it sounds bad (very subjective) but i does mean the audio can be different from the source. ie, one can get DACs that will give you "bit perfect" with the source. I'd suggest that closer you get to the source the "better".
Another problem with the onboard stuff is you can pickup noise from the motherboard. The real impact is after the DAC converts it to analog. It is the same way that when getting cables for digital stuff (network, hdmi, sub, interconnects, coax, etc) unless you get pure crap it doesn't really matter what you use. But for analog stuff - you want good cables. They are much more sensitive (and with no error correction). So the onboard card might be good for digital out, but not the best for analog out.
What options do I have?
sound cards with good DACs. There doesn't seem to be many. Maybe M-audio or HT Omega. But they are PCI. When looking at cards check to see what DAC they have. Sound blaster cards aren't known for good DACs (still better than the onboard stuff though)
Stand Alone DAC. These can be VERY costly - when one enters the world of the audiophile - budgets go out the window. But hey, we are gaming so getting a 4k DAC would be.. crazy :) (I also think at some point it becomes a bit of the emperors new clothes with audiophile gear). You can find good untis for the cost of a sound card. $100-$200-ish. These Units are greats. You can connect via optial or coax out or USB. You can do "bit perfect" with these.
I'd suggest something like the HRT Music streamer II (USB only) http://www.highresolutiontechnologies.com/products/. It might also be worth looking at the Asus box Xonar Essence One ( http://www.asus.com/Multimedia/Audio_Cards/Xonar_Essence_One/) - there are some great reviews for the HRT, but i've never seen a audiophile review of the asus. There are clearly a ton more of these - research :) sites like Head-fi.com or avsforum.com are good places to start.
HDMI out: It is great. You can convert whatever you playing to bit perfect PCM steams out to a receiver. Of course you'll want that receiver to have a good DAC too. If you spent a few grand on it - it most likely does. If it only costs a few $100 having a stand alone DAC might be better. So PC -> DAC -> receiver. A Home Theater PC (HTPC) -> HDMI -> receiver -> sourrond sound is pretty sweet :)
What about an AMP?
well yes, you need an amp. These are also one of those items that can be very costly. But you can also get good powered speakers. Or if part of a HTPC setup your receiver should have a good amp in it. I don't really have any suggestions. They all seem crazy costly - even the "cheap ones" - but do check where you get the advice from. A gaming or techsite might not be the best. I like to hunt around audiophile sites and look for what they think are good and cheap.
I read a post a few days ago that i found very useful about AMP vs Digital scaling. http://www.head-fi.org/t/527095/new-audiolab-dac/255#post_8033649
[quote]This DAC's built-in volume control attenuates the signal in the digital domain by scaling the digital signal. Full volume (i.e. zero dB) should retain full resolution. The more you attenuate the signal the more resolution is lost. Small amounts are OK, but a point is reached where the signal will become noticeably distorted. This is due to the reduced "bit resolution" by the digital scaling. This DAC uses an internal resolution of 32 bits, so attenuating by -48dB would reduce it to about 24 bits, but every -6dB loses another bit (approximately)of resolution and also drives the analog output closer to the noise floor.
The worst case scenario would be using heaps of digital attenuation to counter an excess of gain in, say, the amplifier. The signal would first be attenuated (and distorted) too much at the DAC outputs, then all that noise and distortion would be magnified by the high-gain amplifier. This shows up the importance of correct matching of components in the audio chain, as well as matching signal levels for best performance.
If you are using this DAC as a "one-box solution" for headphone listening (i.e. DAC and amp) and you have particularly sensitive headphones, then you may find that you have to use too much digital attenuation all the time.
As I understand it, you can configure this DAC to operate at full output levels (like a normal DAC) without using it's digital attenuator. This could then be fed into a normal amplifier which has an analogue attenuator (volume control) that may give a more balanced solution (YMMV). It is good that you have the option to use it either way, so you can discover what works best for you. [/quote]
ie, you want to control the volume via the AMP and not the DAC or the digital source (your PC)
I personally went the AMP route (drank some of the audiophile coolaid) but i just read of review of speakers and they look pretty good and because they powered speakers you don't have to worry about an AMP. (i also like cnet's Steve guttenberg's reivews) http://www.head-fi.org/t/589057/emotiva-pro-airmotiv4-loudspeakers-review
What about mutliplayer gaming? Mic?
*shrug* :) i normally just break out a good usb headset with a mic built in :) I'm sure there are better options. Maybe a one ear usb headset with a mic that won't pick up the speakers?
At the end of the day the best option for me was USB DAC -> AMP -> speakers/nice headphones and the HTPC has a nice receiver.
Anyone else go for the stand alone DAC? suggestions? pointers?
blah blah.. no one is reading this anyway :) But if you do, input is welcome. Sound is crazy subjective and all the verbs used to discribe equipment on audiophile sites are not very quantifiable either. "fruity, warm, etc... " =D Getting a good DAC is key if you do care about good audio.