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

Results: Soothe My Soul / Depeche Mode

Track notes

The second single released from the album Delta Machine, Soothe My Soul is a rich track with deep drums and intense vocals. We listened to the Red Book 16/44.1 version, although a 24-bit release is available.

Test results (Listener A)

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RunActual DeviceGuess deviceCorrect / Incorrect
1JDS Labs O2+ODACAsus Xonar Essence STX (uncertain)Not Correct
2Realtek ALC889*Realtek ALC889 (very certain)Correct*
3JDS Labs O2+ODACJDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)Correct
4Benchmark DAC2 HGCJDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)Not Correct
5Realtek ALC889*Realtek ALC889 (very certain)Correct*
6Asus Xonar Essence STXBenchmark DAC2 HGC (uncertain)Not Correct
7Benchmark DAC2 HGCAsus Xonar Essence STX (uncertain)Not Correct
8Asus Xonar Essence STXBenchmark DAC2 HGC (uncertain)Not Correct

Listener A's comments:

This was an interesting second test. I can now clearly distinguish the Realtek ALC889 and detect it immediately with certainty. I was highly uncertain of the others. Note my double error in runs six and eight. Twice I mistook Asus' sound card for the DAC2. That's because, subjectively, those were the devices that sounded the best to me. They should be the most expensive, right? It turns out that I show a patter of personal preference for the Xonar Essence STX. It doesn't sound as "reference" as the others, but it seems to be what I favor. The bottom line, either way, is that (excluding the ALC889) I got almost all of the others wrong.

*: 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.