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Results: Get Lucky / Daft Punk

What Does It Take To Turn The PC Into A Hi-Fi Audio Platform?
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Track notes

HDTracks' version of Daft Punk's Random Access Memory album, inclusive of the hit single Get Lucky featuring Pharrell Williams, is made available in a DVD-A format of 24-bit/88.2 kHz. That created issues for us. While the Benchmark DAC2 supports such sampling frequency, the JDS Labs O2+ODAC and Asus Xonar Essence STX do not. Realtek's ALC889 codec does support that frequency in its specs, but in WASAPI mode using foobar2000, neither 88.2 nor 176.4 kHz worked.

Our only choice left was resampling. We could upsample up to 96 kHz, which was closer in absolute value and supported by all devices, or downsample to 44.1 kHz. Though it may sound counter-intuitive, we chose to downsample because converting from 88.2 to 44.1 kHz is a very simple and precise operation. All that is required is a sum-and-divide-by-two. Upsampling from 88.2 to 96 kHz is far more more likely to cause artifacts. Given that the differences between 88.2 and 44.1 kHz are generally considered inaudible anyway, we went the route more likely to preserve fidelity. Also, we used foobar2000's PPHS resampler in Ultra mode, which is considered a very high-quality resampler.

For the sake of integrity, Listener A did some (non-blind due to time restrictions) tests on the DAC2 to see if he could immediately tell 88.2 from resampled 44.1 kHz. The (unscientific) answer is that he could not. He also tried reducing the word length from 24- to 16-bit, with and without dither, and he still couldn't tell any difference.

Test results (Listener A, take one)

Run
Actual Device
Guess device
Correct / Incorrect
1
Asus Xonar Essence STX
Asus Xonar Essence STX (relatively certain)
Correct
2
Realtek ALC889*
Realtek ALC889 (absolutely certain)
Correct*
3
Benchmark DAC2 HGCBenchmark DAC2 HGC (uncertain)
Correct
4
JDS Labs O2+ODACJDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)Correct
5
Asus Xonar Essence STXAsus Xonar Essence STX (relatively certain)Correct
6
Realtek ALC889*Realtek ALC889 (absolutely certain)Correct*
7
Benchmark DAC2 HGC
Benchmark DAC2 HGC (uncertain)Correct
8
JDS Labs O2+ODACJDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)Correct

Listener A's comments:

In all honesty, I was really surprised to guess each device correctly. I believe luck played a role, although there is certainly a learning factor involved. I can definitely tell the Realtek ALC889 apart by its lower volume. But this was the first time I felt I could (and did) reliably identify the Xonar sound card from the O2+ODAC and DAC2. I did so through the bass' particular definition. It's hard to say if this track's 24-bit resolution was a factor.

Asus' Xonar Essence STX seems to have a more lively and emotional bass that I subjectively appreciate. It probably isn't as "reference" as the O2+ODAC or DAC2. In that specific sense, it can be argued that those two devices both appear to be marginally superior to the Xonar.

The Benchmark DAC2 HGC and JDS Labs O2+ODAC I simply could not tell apart. I was frankly guessing and happened to be correct. Don't take the outcome as definitive; I believe I could equally have guessed incorrectly.

With that said, all three discrete sources sound absolutely amazing on a track that is absolutely masterfully recorded.

*: Tests of the Realtek ALC889 codec marked with an asterisk had a volume level calibration issue that was corrected later. We kept the results in for the sake of transparency, although they should not be considered representative of an actual ability to distinguish the ALC889 from the other devices being tested.

Test results (Listener A, take two)

Run
Actual Device
Guess device
Correct / Incorrect
1
JDS Labs O2+ODACRealtek (uncertain)Not Correct
2
JDS Labs O2+ODACO2? DAC2? (uncertain)
(Directionally) Correct
3
Realtek ALC889O2? DAC2? (uncertain)Not Correct
4
Realtek ALC889Asus Xonar Essence STX (uncertain)Not Correct
5
Benchmark DAC2 HGCRealtek (uncertain)Not Correct
6
Benchmark DAC2 HGCO2? DAC2? (uncertain)(Directionally) Correct
7
Asus Xonar Essence STXO2? DAC2? (uncertain)Not Correct
8
Asus Xonar Essence STXAsus Xonar Essence STX (uncertain)Correct

Listener A's comments:

My second take, run a few days after the first, demonstrates how hard it is to tell these devices apart. The Realtek codec's volume issues are addressed and it easily blends in with the pack, making identification even harder. I still felt like I could tell the Xonar Essence STX apart, but the results proved me wrong. More interestingly, I could not even tell that a given device was the same when my partner smartly decided to run each device twice in a row.

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Top Comments
  • 12 Hide
    SuckRaven , February 25, 2014 12:29 AM
    Bravo ! Awesome, and a very thorough review. Even though as you mention, audio gear is not usually the forté/emphasis of the reviews here, it's refreshing to have someone at least try to cut through the (more often-than-not) overpriced arena of bullshit that is the field of "high-end" audio. I applaud the review, and the effort. Keep up the good work. More please.
  • 11 Hide
    kitsunestarwind , February 25, 2014 12:52 AM
    The biggest thing I have found for the PC is no matter how good your DAC is , if your speakers and AMP are crap, then it will never sound better.People spend big money on DAC's and forget that you need a high Quality amp with very very low THD (total harmonic distortions) and a very good set of Full Range speakers with high sensitivity if you want good sound, instead of crappy (albeit expensive) computer speakers especially sets with a sub.
  • 10 Hide
    shahrooz , February 25, 2014 1:05 AM
    this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
Other Comments
  • 12 Hide
    SuckRaven , February 25, 2014 12:29 AM
    Bravo ! Awesome, and a very thorough review. Even though as you mention, audio gear is not usually the forté/emphasis of the reviews here, it's refreshing to have someone at least try to cut through the (more often-than-not) overpriced arena of bullshit that is the field of "high-end" audio. I applaud the review, and the effort. Keep up the good work. More please.
  • 8 Hide
    PudgyChicken , February 25, 2014 12:44 AM
    Just wondering, why not test a Creative X-Fi Titanium HD or something like that alongside the ASUS Xonar? It would be interesting to see some of the differences between different PCIe sound cards in this matchup. However I understand that what you were really going for was showing the difference between price point and form factor at the same time, so perhaps not testing two PCIe cards makes sense.
  • 11 Hide
    kitsunestarwind , February 25, 2014 12:52 AM
    The biggest thing I have found for the PC is no matter how good your DAC is , if your speakers and AMP are crap, then it will never sound better.People spend big money on DAC's and forget that you need a high Quality amp with very very low THD (total harmonic distortions) and a very good set of Full Range speakers with high sensitivity if you want good sound, instead of crappy (albeit expensive) computer speakers especially sets with a sub.
  • 10 Hide
    shahrooz , February 25, 2014 1:05 AM
    this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
  • 1 Hide
    maestro0428 , February 25, 2014 1:27 AM
    Wonderful article! I love listening to music and do so mostly at my PCs. I try to set up systems where audio is important in component selection. Although we all love drooling over expensive equipment, many times it is not all that necessary for an amazing experience. I'd love to see more! Including smaller, studio speakers as I believe that speakers/headphones are the most important part of the equation. Keep up the great work!
  • 5 Hide
    blackmagnum , February 25, 2014 1:28 AM
    Don't forget that for PCs: the hardware is as good as its software (drivers).
  • 0 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , February 25, 2014 1:43 AM
    Agree totally with this. It always annoys me when people say they're spending over $100 on a sound card, especially when it turns out that they're using Optical out, and the whole thing is basically moot.I now have a nice source to link to.
  • -1 Hide
    1zacster , February 25, 2014 2:01 AM
    The thing is you can't just pick up two sets of good headphones, try them on different DACs/AMPs and expect to hear major differences, it takes longer than 5 minutes for your ears to adjust to newer headphones and for the differences to actually show. This is like taking food from Left Bank and then bringing in a bunch of hobos and asking them tel tell the differences between the foods.
  • 1 Hide
    dogman-x , February 25, 2014 2:34 AM
    I use an optical cable from my PC to a home theatre receiver. With this setup, stereo CD audio content is sent as raw PCM to the receiver, not compressed into DD or DTS. These days you can buy a very good quality home theatre receiver for less than $200. Audio quality is outstanding.
  • 1 Hide
    Memnarchon , February 25, 2014 2:50 AM
    I would love to see ALC1150 in these tests too, since its widely used at most Z87 mobos.
  • 0 Hide
    outlw6669 , February 25, 2014 2:56 AM
    Excellent in depth review Filippo! It is good to see a bit of Tom's roots shining through after all this time :) 
  • 3 Hide
    loosescrews , February 25, 2014 3:01 AM
    I would have liked to see some hard to drive planar magnetic headphones in the mix (maybe some of the Audeze LCD-X or LCD-XC headphones or HiFiMAN something) and also a cheaper DAC/Amp solution like Maybe the Schiit Audio Modi + Magni or Vali. Another nice addition would be the Creative Sound Blaster Z Series ZXR with its TI Burr-Brown DAC.
  • 4 Hide
    BrightCandle , February 25, 2014 3:17 AM
    Can we get game surround sound audio tested as well? A lot of the reviews recently are focussing on sound quality differences in music but as you have determined there really isn't any difference there. But there is a clear difference I can hear in the comparative videos of battlefield with cmss, sbx pro, razor and realtek on youtube videos and the different surround sound effects really do seem to change positioning quality. This remains the only reason I think a sound card is worth it over realtek but it would be good to get to the bottom of whether its just EQ or its genuine quality differences related to the HRTF or something else.
  • 0 Hide
    bstaletic , February 25, 2014 3:27 AM
    Great article. I also came to similar conclusions. I had bought High Resolution Technolies Musicstreamer II 2013 edition for ~$140and an Asus (I don't remember which one) for ~70$. I have technics SU-V8 amplifier and Wharfedale E50 speakers (cool stuff, look it up). Muscistreamer made bass a bit better (though not everyone could hear the difference) and now I say it was a waste of money. Asus on the other hand could make a difference if you set it up correctly, but you have to do it for every album so forget about shuffle. Only DAC I'm willing to hear is DACmagic for ~$400 and I doubt I'm going to be impressed.Conclusion: Buy any PC (the cheaper the better), and spend the rest of money you have on speakers and amplifier. Also make yourown cables.
  • 4 Hide
    ilovetea , February 25, 2014 3:34 AM
    What's the purpose to invest into some special pc hardware, if major reciever brands have digital inputs and also usually unify inflows of audio through digital filters? This makes the reciever to serve as DAC both supporting and limiting the final quality.
  • 3 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , February 25, 2014 3:53 AM
    Quote:
    What's the purpose to invest into some special pc hardware, if major reciever brands have digital inputs and also usually unify inflows of audio through digital filters? This makes the reciever to serve as DAC both supporting and limiting the final quality.


    What I have been saying for quite a while.
  • 5 Hide
    vmnej , February 25, 2014 3:57 AM
    Electronics are negilable. The hard part ist turn ing the electrical signal into a mechanical signal (sound waves). That' why most of the money should go into the speakers and then maybe room acoustics. I highly recommend a pair of Nubert nuPro speakers.
  • 2 Hide
    gaymer1984 , February 25, 2014 4:01 AM
    I have a challenge to lay down for the writers of this article as an audiophile.Nothing you have particularly referred to can be contested; you do get more features with more expensive hardware, but price isn't necessarily an indicator of quality and it is high quality audio you are looking for, not necessarily the price point. That assumption doesn't work with sound cards as the first point in the signal path to the speakers.My challenge is this: compare your ALC 889 to an E-MU 1616m PCI-E. The quality of the DACs is higher on this £250 board than other PC sources I've heard myself, and you aren't spending £2,000 to get there. I challenge you to NOT find a difference. Don't change anything else in the signal path - keep the cable that feeds to your amp, and the speaker cables the same. Then listen to audio you know very well, and you know has been recorded well. This is harder to find with current music.You aren't looking for things to sound "better" or "louder", you are looking for greater detail. A better stereo "image" as it is called, where you can place instruments being reproduced by the speakers in a notional 3-D space. That is the mark of "good" audio.I ask you to accept this challenge because without following up this statement of $2 is as good as $2,000 you will potentially mislead budding enthusiasts down a misguided path.
  • 0 Hide
    martel80 , February 25, 2014 4:10 AM
    Why not include readings from the RightMark Audio Analyzer? They don't tell you anything about how it sounds but still...
  • 6 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , February 25, 2014 4:11 AM
    Oh, great.

    Do you believe that the E-MU 1616m is significantly better than their $2k amp? If not, then they're still not going to find a difference.
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