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

Results: Through The Fire And Flames / DragonForce

Track notes

If you have any experience with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, or if you like power metal in general, you almost certainly know this song. It is widely regarded as the game's hardest track.

At 200 BPM, it is extraordinarily fast, and with Hernan Li and Sam Totman playing guitars together in the foreground, this is one track that can very quickly degenerate into a muddled mess with poor headphones or other equipment.

Of the tracks we're using to test, this is probably the one that received the least amount of attention in the studio recording and mixing rooms. It's nowhere near as polished as the others. Since the music itself is amazing, however, that shouldn't deter listeners excessively.

Test results (Listener A)

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

Listener A's comments:

By this third test, Realtek's ALC889 codec became easy to tell apart. The others, however, are much more difficult. I have notes riddled with comments like "sounds the same as before" with, for instance, round five (DAC2) compared to round four (the Xonar).

Interestingly, I wrote "sounds familiar" in run four (Xonar), which was actually true, since I've owned Asus' sound card for a long time. Evidently, though, it wasn't familiar enough to become apparent in run two. I'm now starting to focus on whether I can tell the Xonar apart from the O2+ODAC and DAC2. I'm not yet close to telling those two latter components apart.

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