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

Anything Above $2 Buys More Features, Not Better Quality

Although we don't typically review audio gear, we believe that we have a few advantages over some hi-fi reviewers. First, we have no financial interest in the products we review. Second, we're PC enthusiasts, not self-proclaimed audiophiles. Consequently, we're not afraid to talk about our strengths and weaknesses. In the audio field, an inability to hear differences among devices spanning a large range of price points is self-defeating. But here, we can comfortably suggest that those products might simply perform similarly.

One thing we know we're good at is designing objective tests, learning from them, and drawing fact-basing conclusions based on the analysis. The integrity of our methodologies is everything, and we can't help but believe that approach is rare in audio equipment testing. We hope our readers will find our experience in testing valuable.

Of course, we also have to acknowledge our own shortcomings and the limits of these tests; neither is perfect. We are audio amateurs, not audio professionals. However, we've tried to create the best possible tests, documenting each and every step along the way so that others can conduct their own experiment and form their own opinion. If you see a way to improve upon our process, we welcome this and look forward to seeing your results, too.

If some of the conclusions we drew sounded implausible, don't worry; they did to us as well.

Try A Few Things For Yourself

Although there is no quick and easy way to replicate the tests in this article at home on your own, here are a few tests we hope you'll have fun with. They should be far more enlightening than our technical explanations of some of the concepts we discussed.

You probably can tell the difference in 1 dB volume levels, but can you reliably tell the difference in 0.5 dB volume levels?

Can you hear all the way up to 22 kHz? What about at or below 20 Hz?

You can probably hear an absolute 54 dB of dynamic range in your environment, but can you reliably hear 78 dB? For reference 16-bit audio has roughly 96 dB of dynamic range. Twenty-four-bit manages a theoretical 144 dB, although it's almost impossible to achieve more than 120-130 using real-world ADCs. Eight-bit audio has a dynamic range of "only" 48 dB; can you reliably tell the difference between 8-bit and 16-bit audio?

Play all of these tests at maximum digital volume. Just be aware that they're not designed to be scientific, but rather to give you some perspective. Try them out for yourself and feel free to post your results in the comments section below!

A $2 Codec Sounds (to us) like a $2000 Device


Benchmark Media DAC2 HGC
JDSLabs O2+ODAC
Asus Xonar Essence STXRealtek ALC889
Price
~$2000
~$290 (including AC adapter)
$190
~$2 (OEM in volume)
Pros
-Great sound quality
-Outstanding build quality
-Only device to support 88.2/176.4/DSD64 in practice
-Dual headphone out
-Greatest number of analog/digital I/O and features (remote control, LCD display)
-Free 30-day trial
-Great sound quality
-Open-source design that can be self-assembled at lower price point
-High-quality volume control
-Semi-portable
-Great sound quality
-Does not take up desk space
-Has both RCA and 1/4" TRS output
-Has ADC stage
-Great sound quality
-Outstanding value
-Does not take up desk space
-Supports eight-channel audio
-Doesn't require PCIe or USB connectivity
Cons-Very expensive
-You pay for features; sound quality is matched at lower price points
-Adds desk clutter
-No RCA output
-No TRS 1/4" jack
-Power transformer not included
-Adds desk clutter
-RCA and 1/4" TRS output cannot be concurrently active; switch is software-only
-Requires free PCIe slot
-No external volume control
-Essentially no portability
-Not as linear or hi-fi as the other devices (-1.4 dB  @ 100 Hz)
-No TRS 1/4" jack
-Fixed gain setting
-No external volume control
-Essentially no portability
Application
Extreme PC-driven DAC / headphone amplifier and natural interconnect point with any high-end hi-fi system
Dedicated DAC and headphone amplifier with a convenient volume control and option for limited portability
Budget hi-fi solution that allows switching between 2(.1) stereo speakers and high-end headphones
"Near-Fi" solution that fits almost all major use cases and dominates from a value perspective

I sank $2000 of my own money into the DAC2 HGC last December, so I subjectively wanted it to sound better than everything else. Tests have shown that it doesn't. I was surprised, but, having been personally involved in the evaluation and believing in the integrity of what we set up, I rationally accept the findings.

Of course, we're ready for the audiophile community to rise up in arms about the statement you'll read next, but it's true that neither an intermediate enthusiast nor a serious one with ~$70,000 in gear at home were able to reliably tell apart any of the four devices once we properly set up a blind test with accurate volume-matching. We actually enjoyed them all as great audio experiences.

Using world-class headphones, a $2 Realtek integrated audio codec could not be reliably distinguished from the $2000 Benchmark DAC2 HGC in a four-device round-up. Again, all four devices sounded great. The same might not apply to full-sized speakers; we can't say, since we didn't test them. But as far as some of the best headphones in the world go, we stand by these test results.

While calibration does show that Realtek's ALC889 is less linear, and thus less hi-fi than the other devices we're looking at, the 1.4 dB difference at 100 Hz apparently isn't enough to reliably differentiate the experience it delivers from others in real-world scenarios. Isn't 1.4 dB a pretty big difference? In a "pure tone", it would be quite noticeable. That's less the case when you're listening to regular music though, especially if the more sensitive 1 to 4 kHz tones are more accurately matched.

But $2 Buys A Smaller Subset of Features

If we halted our exploration at perceived audio quality, we'd only be telling half of the story. There's just so much more to a DAC/amplifier.

Neither the Realtek codec nor Asus' Xonar provide volume control, aside from what you get in Windows. Realtek does support DSD, but without an ASIO driver, we couldn't get it working in foobar2000. Neither lower-end solution can drive headphones and speakers concurrently, let alone automatically mute speakers when headphones are connected. They don't support amplifying an external source, either. Not surprisingly, they're strictly tied to a single device with no real portability. Realtek does facilitate eight-channel output, and the integrated codec and discrete sound card help prevent clutter on your desk.

The DAC2 and O2, being USB-based audio devices, can be plugged into and rapidly switched between any USB source. Want to connect your laptop to your audio system rather than your desktop? That's easy. The O2 has a very high-quality analog volume control, which provided the finest calibration in our round-up. The DAC2 has a motorized volume control with remote control. Want to listen to your headphones in bed and adjust the volume without getting up? Only the DAC2 can do that.

Ultimately, music is about entertainment and personal enjoyment. Hi-fi is meaningful insofar as it heightens the experience of music; it is not necessarily helpful beyond that. Some audiophiles even prefer the low-fi distortion that tube amplifiers introduce. The DAC2, O2+DAC, Xonar Essence STX, and ALC889 are all outstanding solutions. Each delivers a beautiful experience that you'd certainly enjoy. They're similar when it comes to sound quality. Where they differ is mainly in their feature sets and price points.

Value Considerations

I think that money spent on quality recordings, whether they're digital recordings, CDs, DVDs, or SACDs, is the money best-spent. They'll simply never become obsolete.

From there, speakers and headphones are the most important components in your sound system. Headphones generally give you better bang for your buck and are usually more convenient. Obviously, though, they can't replicate the experience of full-range speakers. You feel bass from a subwoofer in ways a headphone can't match. Also, listening to high-end speakers well-separated provides a more immersive experience.

If headphones are the way you go, then our tests show that quality integrated audio codecs are sufficient for driving some of the best in the world. You simply have to live with the fact that a motherboard with built-in audio is going to give you fewer features. That's the point where you have to decide what you're willing to pay for.

We debated whether to recognize a codec for its achievements, rather than a specific product hosting it, but decided that Realtek deserved credit for its work. The ALC889 is found on premium motherboards, as are the newer ALC898 and ALC1150. It's somewhat lacking in the features department; you don't get external volume control, RCA (or 1/4" TRS) outputs, or an ASIO driver. You could argue that eight-channel output partly compensates, though it's not a factor in hi-fi audio. The ALC889 is the least-linear of the devices we tested, though its worst performance of -1.4 dB(A) at 100 Hz is still acceptable overall.

With all of that said, we simply could not tell the little codec's sound quality apart from other, much more expensive devices. For a component that costs 1/1000 of our highest-end contender, that's an impressive-enough feat to earn Smart Buy honors. It also encourages a broader re-evaluation of how integrated audio is reviewed.

The Benchmark DAC2 HGC, on the other hand, easily gets the money-is-no-object Tom's Hardware Elite award. It is a wonderful device with a wide array of features that aren't just mashed together, but rather designed for intuitive usability. Further, the DAC2 is built like a rock. Of course, you'll have to decide if the spec sheet and build quality are worth $2000, particularly since our ears couldn't tell it apart from much cheaper products at a fraction of the price. If you're shopping in this price range for a DAC/amp, also consider the Mytek Stereo192-DSD ($1600), Bel Canto C5i ($1900), and Violectric HPA 200 ($1000), all of which sport similar features and are generally well-reviewed. Remember that our Elite recognition is not a reflection of the DAC2's performance compared to similarly-priced contenders in its class; we haven't had a chance to test them yet, after all.

The PC As The Future of Hi-Fi

As optical storage fades away, we believe PCs will increasingly become the center of the hi-fi listening experience. Nothing can match the accuracy (bit-perfect sourcing and streaming, and no degradation over time) and convenience (thousands of losslessly-compressed albums a mouse-click away) of PCs. Today we even demonstrated that a $2 codec is sufficient for driving some of the most expensive headphones in the world. We haven't tested this yet, so we can't say with certainty, but a DAC hooked up to a PC should also drive amplifiers and associated full-sized speakers as well as the DACs built into, say, high-end CD players. For PC enthusiasts, that convergence is just one more reason to love our versatile systems.

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    Top Comments
  • shahrooz
    this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
    13
  • SuckRaven
    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.
    13
  • kitsunestarwind
    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.
    12
  • Other Comments
  • SuckRaven
    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.
    13
  • PudgyChicken
    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.
    7
  • kitsunestarwind
    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.
    12
  • shahrooz
    this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
    13
  • maestro0428
    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!
    1
  • blackmagnum
    Don't forget that for PCs: the hardware is as good as its software (drivers).
    5
  • Someone Somewhere
    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.
    0
  • 1zacster
    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.
    -2
  • dogman-x
    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
  • Memnarchon
    I would love to see ALC1150 in these tests too, since its widely used at most Z87 mobos.
    1
  • outlw6669
    Excellent in depth review Filippo! It is good to see a bit of Tom's roots shining through after all this time :)
    0
  • loosescrews
    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.
    3
  • BrightCandle
    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.
    3
  • bstaletic
    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.
    0
  • ilovetea
    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.
    4
  • Someone Somewhere
    Anonymous said:
    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.
    3
  • vmnej
    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.
    5
  • gaymer1984
    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
  • martel80
    Why not include readings from the RightMark Audio Analyzer? They don't tell you anything about how it sounds but still...
    0
  • Someone Somewhere
    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.
    7