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

Four Devices Tested: From $2000 Down To $2

All of our tests were run on a PC with Windows 7 x64. For the most part, the machine's specs aren't really relevant, except for the fact that the motherboard hosting our Realtek ALC889 codec is Asus' Rampage III Formula.

The following devices are included, covering price points from $2000 down to $2.

Foobar2000 sources, with the WASAPI sources circled in redFoobar2000 sources, with the WASAPI sources circled in red


Benchmark Media DAC2 HGC
JDSLabs O2+ODAC
Asus Xonar Essence STXRealtek ALC889
Price
~$2000
~$290 (including AC adapter)
$190
~$2 (OEM in volume)
Format
External USB Device
External USB DeviceInternal PCIe card
On-board codec
Driver version
1.61
Native USB Audio
7.12.8.17946.0.1.7023
DSP ChipCustom FPGAN/A
Asus AV100
(C-Media CMI8788)
Realtek ALC889
DAC ChipESS SABRE32 ES9018ESS SABRE32 ES9023TI PCM1792ARealtek ALC889
I/V conversion
2 x TI LME49860/LME45622 x JRC NJM4556AD2 x TI LME49860/LME4562 (1)
Realtek ALC889
BufferTI LME49600TSCustom 4 x NJM4556D stageTI TPA6120A2Realtek ALC889
PCM audio supportUp to 176.4/192 kHz sampling
Up to 24-bit word length
Up to 96 kHz sampling (2)
Up to 24-bit word length
Up to 192 kHz sampling (3)
Up to 24-bit word length
Up to 176.4/192 kHz sampling (4)
Up to 24-bit word length
DSD audio supportNatively supported via DoPNot supportedNot supported (5)
Formally supported, but couldn't get it to work

Notes:

  1. The STX has swappable socketed op-amps. We replaced the native 2 x JRC2114D (which are also very good) with 2 x TI LME49860/LME4562, the same ones used in the DAC2.
  2. Does not support 88.2 kHz
  3. Does not support 88.2/176.4 kHz
  4. Did not support 88.2 or 176.4 kHz in our test at 16- or 24-bit depth
  5. The PCM1792A DAC does support DSD, but unfortunately, the C-Media CMI8788 does not, hence the lack of this capability on the card

Despite the higher product series number, the ESS Sabre ES9023 DAC is, on paper, inferior to the ES9018. That doesn't imply an audible difference, though.

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    Top Comments
  • this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
    13
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
    13
  • 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
  • Don't forget that for PCs: the hardware is as good as its software (drivers).
    5
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • I would love to see ALC1150 in these tests too, since its widely used at most Z87 mobos.
    1
  • Excellent in depth review Filippo! It is good to see a bit of Tom's roots shining through after all this time :)
    0
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 1591957 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Why not include readings from the RightMark Audio Analyzer? They don't tell you anything about how it sounds but still...
    0
  • 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