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

Results: Dragonborn / Jeremy Soule

Track notes

If you're reading this page and you've never played Skyrim, then stop reading. Now. Go play Skyrim. One hundred or 200 game-hours later, you'll appreciate the remainder of this page...

...or will you? In the game's encoded format (a lossy, compressed, WMA-related format with an .xwm extension), Skyrim's soundtrack is pretty outstanding. But the official soundtrack on CD has a special degree of immersiveness that goes beyond the in-game music (or so my brain seems to think).

So, after you put in your game time, go buy Skyrim's soundtrack, spend some more time just listening to that, and after you catch yourself singing out Dovahkiin! with those 90 voices, you will really appreciate the rest of this page.

The Dragonborn track itself is a Red Book-standard 16-bit, 44.1 kHz file. It is remarkable because of its deep vocals and bass-heaviness, intermixed with high treble female vocals that create an extreme sonic contrast.

Test results (Listener A)

Swipe to scroll horizontally
RunActual DeviceGuess deviceCorrect / Incorrect
1Benchmark DAC2 HGCBenchmark DAC2 HGC or JDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)(Directionally) Correct
2Realtek ALC889*Realtek ALC889 (uncertain)Correct*
3Realtek ALC889*Benchmark DAC2 HGC or JDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)Not Correct*
4Asus Xonar Essence STXAsus Xonar Essence STX (uncertain)Correct
5Benchmark DAC2 HGCBenchmark DAC2 HGC or JDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)(Directionally) Correct
6JDS Labs O2+ODACAsus Xonar Essence STX (uncertain)Not Correct
7JDS Labs O2+ODACRealtek ALC889 (highly uncertain)Not Correct
8Asus Xonar Essence STXBenchmark DAC2 HGC or JDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)Not Correct

Listener A's comments:

As we start our blind tests, I'm not really sure what exactly to listen for. Based on the results above, obviously for an untrained ear it is hard to tell most devices apart. I'm really curious to see if I improve as I listen to more content. From my notes, it seems that the device I subjectively preferred was what turned out to be Asus' Xonar Essence STX (runs four and eight). That is surprising to me. I'm curious to see if that continues to hold true.

*: 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • shahrooz
    this article just won Tom's Hardware Readers Elite award
  • 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!
  • blackmagnum
    Don't forget that for PCs: the hardware is as good as its software (drivers).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Memnarchon
    I would love to see ALC1150 in these tests too, since its widely used at most Z87 mobos.