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Which sub 100euro sound card?

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August 11, 2010 8:39:13 PM

So I know nothing of sound cards at all. All I know is I want one after comparing my alc889 onboard chip to a 20year old phillips CD player. The CD player was noticable better. It was high end at the time, but still it was much much better than my onboard sound.

So I need a sound card. I live in belgium so preferably a german brand but as far as I know there are none. My budget is anywhere below 100 really. I can spend more but I doubt it'll be worth it. I game quite a bit but I prefer it being specilised in music. The auzentech x-raider 7.1 appeals to me. So which would be a good choice?

btw: I'd be pairing it with a 20year old very high end 2.0 system and possibly in the future a sennheiser hd595.

More about : 100euro sound card

August 11, 2010 8:58:23 PM

Do you need PCI or PCIe?? The AuzenTech x-raider is, I believe, a PCI card. I have an AuzenTech Bravura 7.1 (PCIe) and I fracking love it. I immediatly noticed a sound quality improvement over motherboard audio.
Unfortunately I'm not too knowledgeable on PCI sound cards tho. Considering you have an X58 mobo in your sig, then I'm guessing you want PCIe...
Asus Xonar (D2X?) is good (I forget which is which, DX and D2X. One is expensive)
AuzenTech Bravura, Forte, Prelude are all good
HT Omega Striker is good
Creative XFi Titanium is pretty good.

Make sure you check out the jacks they support, as they all have some different options. Some only have mini jacks, some have full size headphone jack, some have optical/component output etc.
August 11, 2010 9:04:55 PM

Get Creative XiFi any series which fits your budget. Don't think of any other cards.
Related resources
August 11, 2010 9:11:06 PM

Um... sooo many cards use Creative XFi, including most, if not all, of the ones I mentioned. Creative propietary cards, however, have been bashed for shitty shitty drivers and incompatibility, although I hear they're fine now.
August 11, 2010 9:13:22 PM

Never faced problem in my life, nor my friends, nor my relatives, nor anyone i can frikin recall.

Creative FTW!
August 11, 2010 9:28:53 PM

mmm intresting. Well according to my mobo specs I have 1 pci slot and 2 pci-e X1 slots available. I can also use a pci-e X16 slot. So I'm no limited there.

The question is which sound card will push a 400euro box to it's limits or a sennheiser 595hd to it's limits? anyone have a clue?
August 11, 2010 10:13:00 PM

Well the speakers are powered right?? Then you just need good signal-to-noise. Honestly, look up the AuzenTech Forte, it's a really good card. Or Asus Xonar DX. IMO those are the best two for what you want.

Creative XFi Titanium is a little cheaper I wouldn't get that, but if you really want to follow Fetal's advice they have their Fatality line which might be good...
August 12, 2010 1:55:38 AM

Auzentech and Asus make the best cards in that price range (assuming you're aiming for audio quality). Both of those manufacturer's cards will offer superior Noise levels and probably more importantly lower THD (how much the component changes the sound from how it's supposed to sound). However, There's a couple of caveats: {Make sure you have either good studio/Professional headphones or decent/good home theater speakers (not pc sets from logitech, etc). Without those, it'll be impossible to tell the difference.} Missed the part about what you were listening on.

Finally, I'm questioning whether the alc889 actually is inferior here. That's a pretty good onboard DAC, if you're noticing a difference between it and your CD player, there are a couple of things you could try (for free) before adding a soundcard. First, when comparing sound quality, it's of the utmost importance to keep the same volume level. If your CD player was louder than your PC even a little (especially only a little), then it will almost always sound better unless it's horrendously worse. Second, if this is not the case, maybe the issue lies in artifacts from the windows mixer. Try using a player such as Foobar/Winamp and using WASAPI (Vista/7) or ASIO (XP) as your output. This will make the only difference between your CD player and your computer the Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC), of which the alc889 is rather close to discreet cards in. In the VAST majority of cases, an alc889 will provide audio quality that is impossible to differentiate from a high end card. If there is a difference, it will be very minute at best.

Also, just for reference, I'm assuming you tried playing lossless music from your PC?
August 12, 2010 2:13:47 AM

If your speakers have RCA connectivity options then the best pc sound card available today is the Asus Xonar Essence STX (ST in case you want the PCI model).. It also features a 6.3mm headphone amp out which can adequately drive any professional headphone out there with upto 600 ohms of input impedance.. If your speakers sport a regular 3.5mm input connector then i'd recommend getting the Asus Xonar DX..
August 12, 2010 10:39:56 AM

scotu said:
Auzentech and Asus make the best cards in that price range (assuming you're aiming for audio quality). Both of those manufacturer's cards will offer superior Noise levels and probably more importantly lower THD (how much the component changes the sound from how it's supposed to sound). However, There's a couple of caveats: {Make sure you have either good studio/Professional headphones or decent/good home theater speakers (not pc sets from logitech, etc). Without those, it'll be impossible to tell the difference.} Missed the part about what you were listening on.

Finally, I'm questioning whether the alc889 actually is inferior here. That's a pretty good onboard DAC, if you're noticing a difference between it and your CD player, there are a couple of things you could try (for free) before adding a soundcard. First, when comparing sound quality, it's of the utmost importance to keep the same volume level. If your CD player was louder than your PC even a little (especially only a little), then it will almost always sound better unless it's horrendously worse. Second, if this is not the case, maybe the issue lies in artifacts from the windows mixer. Try using a player such as Foobar/Winamp and using WASAPI (Vista/7) or ASIO (XP) as your output. This will make the only difference between your CD player and your computer the Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC), of which the alc889 is rather close to discreet cards in. In the VAST majority of cases, an alc889 will provide audio quality that is impossible to differentiate from a high end card. If there is a difference, it will be very minute at best.

Also, just for reference, I'm assuming you tried playing lossless music from your PC?


Ok I'm lost. First of all thank you very much for the long and informative reply :D  and then let me explain my methodoly and hopefully answer most of your questions.

First of all I have a 20year old 3.0 system. I got it from my dad and it used to be very very high end. My dad has a 1year old 2.0 epos system with these boxes

http://www.epos-acoustics.com/products/m12i.php

it costed a little over 1200euros(with amp and cables) when we bought it. My system was similarly good and still performs amazing(I can't tell the difference between the two really). The reason he didn't want mine is because the middle frequency speaker died in one of the two boxes. And we couldn't find any replacements. So he gave it to me. And as compensation I added a relativly high end box to put next two the box which I took the middle speaker out. So that's what my sound card would be paired with. I might also buy a sennheiser hd595(or similar sennheiser headset) in the near future.

Then how I compared the two.

I connected both my pc(via the auxilary out with an adapter from the tradition red cable + white cable to a 3.5mm jack) and the CD player(via the CD out via the traditional red cable + white cable) to the amp. I ripped a rammstein CD which I had lying around on my pc and then put it in the CD player. I put the PC on full volume (and by clicking on the sound mixer button checked wether the output was really 100%). I played the same songs at the same time and switched between PC and CD player looking for differences.

What I found was:

CD-player seemed louder in a way, but only for the voice. The only way I can describe it is the voice seemed to come out of the boxes more.

The backround music seemed to be more in the backround then on the same level as the voice.

The instruments and voice seemed to be seperated more.

The low end sounds were clearer.

The high end(those round metal things from a drum kit, forgot what they are called in english) sounds were much much clearer. I couldn't even Identify the instrument with the pc.

I asked my dad(who knows far more about audio than me) for an opinion who could always tell when the CD player was playing and when the PC was playing even though he didn't see when I was switching to what.

So does any of this make sense?

What is lossless?

Can you give a step by step guide as to how I'm supposed to configure wasapi as my output? I'm really lost there.
August 12, 2010 10:43:41 AM

Emperus said:
If your speakers have RCA connectivity options then the best pc sound card available today is the Asus Xonar Essence STX (ST in case you want the PCI model).. It also features a 6.3mm headphone amp out which can adequately drive any professional headphone out there with upto 600 ohms of input impedance.. If your speakers sport a regular 3.5mm input connector then i'd recommend getting the Asus Xonar DX..


Thanks a lot for that I wanted a card supporting exactly what you mentioned there a headphone amp and RCA connection the price sucks though :(  but if that's what it takes then that's what it takes.

also to scotu if the alc 889 is so good why is it featured in boards which are cheaper than many sound cards?
August 12, 2010 1:13:07 PM

I'm with Emperus here, the essence uses hi-fi componentry and will give excellent sound quality.

most of the aforementioned sound cards will be a great improvement (paired with decent speakers), but I would avoid XFi.
August 12, 2010 2:29:09 PM

I still think, bang for your buck, AuzenTech Bravura or Forte are easily going to perform how you want. This is the Bravura's outputs:

And just so you know the headphone amp is very high quality which also supports up to 600ohm headphones

Plus, all the amps are replaceable if you want to upgrade which is not a common feature.
August 12, 2010 3:26:59 PM

Somebody_007 said:
Ok I'm lost. First of all thank you very much for the long and informative reply :D  and then let me explain my methodoly and hopefully answer most of your questions.

First of all I have a 20year old 3.0 system. I got it from my dad and it used to be very very high end. My dad has a 1year old 2.0 epos system with these boxes

http://www.epos-acoustics.com/products/m12i.php

it costed a little over 1200euros(with amp and cables) when we bought it. My system was similarly good and still performs amazing(I can't tell the difference between the two really). The reason he didn't want mine is because the middle frequency speaker died in one of the two boxes. And we couldn't find any replacements. So he gave it to me. And as compensation I added a relativly high end box to put next two the box which I took the middle speaker out. So that's what my sound card would be paired with. I might also buy a sennheiser hd595(or similar sennheiser headset) in the near future.

Then how I compared the two.

I connected both my pc(via the auxilary out with an adapter from the tradition red cable + white cable to a 3.5mm jack) and the CD player(via the CD out via the traditional red cable + white cable) to the amp. I ripped a rammstein CD which I had lying around on my pc and then put it in the CD player. I put the PC on full volume (and by clicking on the sound mixer button checked wether the output was really 100%). I played the same songs at the same time and switched between PC and CD player looking for differences.

What I found was:

CD-player seemed louder in a way, but only for the voice. The only way I can describe it is the voice seemed to come out of the boxes more.

The backround music seemed to be more in the backround then on the same level as the voice.

The instruments and voice seemed to be seperated more.

The low end sounds were clearer.

The high end(those round metal things from a drum kit, forgot what they are called in english) sounds were much much clearer. I couldn't even Identify the instrument with the pc.

I asked my dad(who knows far more about audio than me) for an opinion who could always tell when the CD player was playing and when the PC was playing even though he didn't see when I was switching to what.

So does any of this make sense?

What is lossless?

Can you give a step by step guide as to how I'm supposed to configure wasapi as my output? I'm really lost there.


Ok, it sounds a lot like maybe an EQ might solve your problem, if the CD player had one built in internally, that could provide a similar difference.

Lossless is a format of storing audio that keeps it exactly the same as what was on the CD. PCM Wave, FLAC, TTA, and ALAC are a few examples of the file formats that are lossless. Of course just playing the CD would be lossless as well. Lossy formats on the other hand (MP3, AAC/m4a, WMA, ogg) will attempt to make an accurate representation of what the music sounds like not what the bits on the CD are saying it is. As such they're able to fit much more music in a given filesize. If you ripped the CD into MP3/AAC/WMA with windows media player or itunes or something and weren't paying much attention (or didn't know much about those formats) it's easy to rip the CD in a lossy format that will be discernible from a lossless reproduction. This could also be responsible for the differences you heard.

idk if not using WASAPI can result in the distortions you heard or not, but it can be for others. As for how to use it:
1) Download Foobar2000
2) Download the WASAPI output plugin for Foobar
3) In the foobar preferences go to Playback\ Output; set the Output Device to the WASAPI choice corresponding to the device you want to listen on
4) If files refuse to play you may need to reduce the buffer length (under where you chose the WASAPI device). On my alc889 I had to set it as low as 450ms to play 5.1 24-bit 96kHz tracks.

Somebody_007 said:
also to scotu if the alc 889 is so good why is it featured in boards which are cheaper than many sound cards?


I never said that it was as good as expensive cards, just that it's very close. While it's noise floor isn't below what is considered to be transparent to human hearing, it's only a few decibels off, and it's THD is actually better than many X-Fi products, but its Frequency response curve drops off a bit earlier. By no means is it better, or even as good as an expensive alternative, it's just one of the best onboard DACs, and performs very closely to (read: often non-discernible from) a high end card. I'd just figure that I'd help you make sure you're getting the best out of that chip before you ditch it in favor of an expensive alternative. Even if you did, the WASAPI thing will make better use of the higher end card as well.
August 12, 2010 4:27:44 PM

scotu said:
Ok, it sounds a lot like maybe an EQ might solve your problem, if the CD player had one built in internally, that could provide a similar difference.

Lossless is a format of storing audio that keeps it exactly the same as what was on the CD. PCM Wave, FLAC, TTA, and ALAC are a few examples of the file formats that are lossless. Of course just playing the CD would be lossless as well. Lossy formats on the other hand (MP3, AAC/m4a, WMA, ogg) will attempt to make an accurate representation of what the music sounds like not what the bits on the CD are saying it is. As such they're able to fit much more music in a given filesize. If you ripped the CD into MP3/AAC/WMA with windows media player or itunes or something and weren't paying much attention (or didn't know much about those formats) it's easy to rip the CD in a lossy format that will be discernible from a lossless reproduction. This could also be responsible for the differences you heard.

idk if not using WASAPI can result in the distortions you heard or not, but it can be for others. As for how to use it:
1) Download Foobar2000
2) Download the WASAPI output plugin for Foobar
3) In the foobar preferences go to Playback\ Output; set the Output Device to the WASAPI choice corresponding to the device you want to listen on
4) If files refuse to play you may need to reduce the buffer length (under where you chose the WASAPI device). On my alc889 I had to set it as low as 450ms to play 5.1 24-bit 96kHz tracks.



I never said that it was as good as expensive cards, just that it's very close. While it's noise floor isn't below what is considered to be transparent to human hearing, it's only a few decibels off, and it's THD is actually better than many X-Fi products, but its Frequency response curve drops off a bit earlier. By no means is it better, or even as good as an expensive alternative, it's just one of the best onboard DACs, and performs very closely to (read: often non-discernible from) a high end card. I'd just figure that I'd help you make sure you're getting the best out of that chip before you ditch it in favor of an expensive alternative. Even if you did, the WASAPI thing will make better use of the higher end card as well.


Ok I'm going to do all the things you mentioned and I'll report back as soon as I can.

Just three questions first.

To my knowledge I've never even played lossless music(exept for CDs then). Does that mean i've been putting my speakers to shame all this time? Is it really that bad?

does RCA connection provide an advantage over a 3.5mm jack?

Is a headphone amp in the sound card helpful?
August 12, 2010 6:47:11 PM

Somebody_007 said:
Ok I'm going to do all the things you mentioned and I'll report back as soon as I can.

Just three questions first.

To my knowledge I've never even played lossless music(exept for CDs then). Does that mean i've been putting my speakers to shame all this time? Is it really that bad?

does RCA connection provide an advantage over a 3.5mm jack?

Is a headphone amp in the sound card helpful?


It's possible that you have been not getting the full potential of your speakers. If you've been using MP3 or AAC for your CD rips (check the file extensions), then if your bitrates are below ~192 (for variable bitrate) or 260 for constant bitrate, then it's possible to notice a difference just by making better rips. Those bitrates and above are usually at the point where you would need very well trained ears to tell the difference or you can't tell the difference at all. However, if you just want the music exactly as it is on the CD, just rip to a lossless format like FLAC. The two most popular CD ripping software in the Audiophile realm are EAC (not for beginners) and dBpowerAmp (easier to use). Both of these will guarantee perfectly accurate CD rips and can encode to a lossless format (FLAC is the most common).

An RCA connection is essentially equivalent to a 3.5mm jack. It's a trivial difference that is only the connector shape, basically. Same quality. If you want something better, you'd have to go S/PDIF (which can only carry stereo unless compressing to Dolby Digital or DTS... Lossy formats) or HDMI (which can do up to 7.1 at studio quality uncompressed pure PCM audio). In the two latter cases your soundcard doesn't matter too much because the DAC is done at the receiver instead of the computer.

I've never noticed a need for a headphone amp (I use AKG K240 MkII phones), but I've never had the opportunity to try one. I'm not actually sure what (if any) benefit there is.
August 12, 2010 7:22:50 PM

Ok tried out what you said. It's pretty hard to tell because the CD player is louder. But the differences I mentioned before are certainly not as present. I can't tell a difference at this point even if I try. Also since as I said before haven't even heard of lossless music let alone listened to it I suppose the use of a sound card is fairly useless.

You guys taught me a lot and and saved my quite some cash. For that I thank you :D 
August 12, 2010 7:34:28 PM

scotu said:
It's possible that you have been not getting the full potential of your speakers. If you've been using MP3 or AAC for your CD rips (check the file extensions), then if your bitrates are below ~192 (for variable bitrate) or 260 for constant bitrate, then it's possible to notice a difference just by making better rips. Those bitrates and above are usually at the point where you would need very well trained ears to tell the difference or you can't tell the difference at all. However, if you just want the music exactly as it is on the CD, just rip to a lossless format like FLAC. The two most popular CD ripping software in the Audiophile realm are EAC (not for beginners) and dBpowerAmp (easier to use). Both of these will guarantee perfectly accurate CD rips and can encode to a lossless format (FLAC is the most common).

An RCA connection is essentially equivalent to a 3.5mm jack. It's a trivial difference that is only the connector shape, basically. Same quality. If you want something better, you'd have to go S/PDIF (which can only carry stereo unless compressing to Dolby Digital or DTS... Lossy formats) or HDMI (which can do up to 7.1 at studio quality uncompressed pure PCM audio). In the two latter cases your soundcard doesn't matter too much because the DAC is done at the receiver instead of the computer.

I've never noticed a need for a headphone amp (I use AKG K240 MkII phones), but I've never had the opportunity to try one. I'm not actually sure what (if any) benefit there is.


When I ripped my CD now I just did it with WMP and put settings to lossless. They are still WMA files but around 30megs now instead of 5. They have a bitrate of 1120kbps which is 5 times more than the 192 of the mp3s. So to a dummy ear like mine is this as good as it gets or should I use the proggrams you reccomended and rip to FLAC or similar files?


That's what I presumed really(seeing as RCA is 2 metal conductors and 3.5mm is 2 metal conductors in one cable) but then why does the essence have RCA if they can just ship an adapter?

Well I suppose I'll just trust you :D .

And thanks again btw.
August 12, 2010 10:37:33 PM

If you're comfortable ripping with WMP and using WMA lossless, that's an acceptable choice. dBpowerAmp/EAC are mainly for things like making perfect duplicate backups of CDs (maintaining the between track gaps, checking to make sure your rip is exactly the same as how others have ripped it). Using WMP's WMA lossless should get you your tracks in perfect quality assuming no errors in reading from the CD drive (I've never seen one, but apparently people do).

The only reason I can think the Essence uses RCA is to make it more convenient to use. Although really any dual shielded cable should be good for any normal spender's equipment.

As far as youtube quality goes, I've never been a fan, but I guess the HD isn't worthless. Allegedly youtube bitrates for 720p videos tend to average about 128kbps which is what's considered "good enough" when you're playing over your Ipod with crappy little earbuds but can usually be differentiated from a higher bitrate encode. Judging by the DL link in that video, the source was constant 128kbps, and I guess the uploader really likes touhou/anime.

Just remember, it's your music, if you can't tell the difference , there is no difference. Except in archiving music libraries. That should always be done in a lossless format if you have the space, that way you have the master to encode newer versions of the lossy files if you need to (i.e. you get a new media player that has more space/ accepts a new format/ etc)
August 12, 2010 10:50:52 PM

While I haven't used the specific onboard audio being talked about here, my Asus P7P55D Pro has HD Audio - Realtek I believe. Switching from that to my Bravura, I noticed an immediate increase in sound quality and that's using some fairly low end speakers (X540 5.1 + AL 2.1), so I can imagine that you'd be able to really tell with a higher end card. IMO, get a card at a local retailer to test it out and if you don't like it, return it (just make sure that's a possibility first).
August 13, 2010 8:37:55 AM

Yeah lol lot's of these songs have anime pics, so weird. So yeah I suppose 128kbps isn't "that" bad.

And just one last question: Like you said before compressed audio files aren't complete and the sound chip just reads what it thinks it should read. Would a sound card be better at this? Do sound cards provide any other advantages over onboard?

And wolfram23 I think your audio chip is a bit worse than the alc889 because the higher end asus boards also use the alc889.

And yeah good plan, but then the thing is I live in Belgium and computer stores here are scarce at best.
August 13, 2010 3:36:01 PM

Somebody_007 said:
Yeah lol lot's of these songs have anime pics, so weird. So yeah I suppose 128kbps isn't "that" bad.

And just one last question: Like you said before compressed audio files aren't complete and the sound chip just reads what it thinks it should read. Would a sound card be better at this? Do sound cards provide any other advantages over onboard?

And wolfram23 I think your audio chip is a bit worse than the alc889 because the higher end asus boards also use the alc889.

And yeah good plan, but then the thing is I live in Belgium and computer stores here are scarce at best.


Usually the compressed audio is actually converted into a normal PCM stream in software before it hits the sound chip. However, since even a waveform if not sampled frequently enough will not be fully constrained (which some people seem to falsely think that all human hearing is fully constrained by 44.1kHz just because it's metaphysically possible to do so) and different DACs may produce different output. As to "is a more expensive one better?" I... don't know. Is there a "better" at this point? They'd both be different interpretations of the same input, so it'd be up to you to determine which you like more. That being said, the difference (if any, idk how differently they actually make DACs, for all I know they might just all be standard demultiplexers) would be very very subtle (as in tiny variations of the output levels of very high frequencies).
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