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

Results: Get Lucky / Daft Punk

Track notes

HDTracks' version of Daft Punk's Random Access Memory album, inclusive of the hit single Get Lucky featuring Pharrell Williams, is made available in a DVD-A format of 24-bit/88.2 kHz. That created issues for us. While the Benchmark DAC2 supports such sampling frequency, the JDS Labs O2+ODAC and Asus Xonar Essence STX do not. Realtek's ALC889 codec does support that frequency in its specs, but in WASAPI mode using foobar2000, neither 88.2 nor 176.4 kHz worked.

Our only choice left was resampling. We could upsample up to 96 kHz, which was closer in absolute value and supported by all devices, or downsample to 44.1 kHz. Though it may sound counter-intuitive, we chose to downsample because converting from 88.2 to 44.1 kHz is a very simple and precise operation. All that is required is a sum-and-divide-by-two. Upsampling from 88.2 to 96 kHz is far more more likely to cause artifacts. Given that the differences between 88.2 and 44.1 kHz are generally considered inaudible anyway, we went the route more likely to preserve fidelity. Also, we used foobar2000's PPHS resampler in Ultra mode, which is considered a very high-quality resampler.

For the sake of integrity, Listener A did some (non-blind due to time restrictions) tests on the DAC2 to see if he could immediately tell 88.2 from resampled 44.1 kHz. The (unscientific) answer is that he could not. He also tried reducing the word length from 24- to 16-bit, with and without dither, and he still couldn't tell any difference.

Test results (Listener A, take one)

Swipe to scroll horizontally
RunActual DeviceGuess deviceCorrect / Incorrect
1Asus Xonar Essence STXAsus Xonar Essence STX (relatively certain)Correct
2Realtek ALC889*Realtek ALC889 (absolutely certain)Correct*
3Benchmark DAC2 HGCBenchmark DAC2 HGC (uncertain)Correct
4JDS Labs O2+ODACJDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)Correct
5Asus Xonar Essence STXAsus Xonar Essence STX (relatively certain)Correct
6Realtek ALC889*Realtek ALC889 (absolutely certain)Correct*
7Benchmark DAC2 HGCBenchmark DAC2 HGC (uncertain)Correct
8JDS Labs O2+ODACJDS Labs O2+ODAC (uncertain)Correct

Listener A's comments:

In all honesty, I was really surprised to guess each device correctly. I believe luck played a role, although there is certainly a learning factor involved. I can definitely tell the Realtek ALC889 apart by its lower volume. But this was the first time I felt I could (and did) reliably identify the Xonar sound card from the O2+ODAC and DAC2. I did so through the bass' particular definition. It's hard to say if this track's 24-bit resolution was a factor.

Asus' Xonar Essence STX seems to have a more lively and emotional bass that I subjectively appreciate. It probably isn't as "reference" as the O2+ODAC or DAC2. In that specific sense, it can be argued that those two devices both appear to be marginally superior to the Xonar.

The Benchmark DAC2 HGC and JDS Labs O2+ODAC I simply could not tell apart. I was frankly guessing and happened to be correct. Don't take the outcome as definitive; I believe I could equally have guessed incorrectly.

With that said, all three discrete sources sound absolutely amazing on a track that is absolutely masterfully recorded.

*: 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.

Test results (Listener A, take two)

Swipe to scroll horizontally
RunActual DeviceGuess deviceCorrect / Incorrect
1JDS Labs O2+ODACRealtek (uncertain)Not Correct
2JDS Labs O2+ODACO2? DAC2? (uncertain)(Directionally) Correct
3Realtek ALC889O2? DAC2? (uncertain)Not Correct
4Realtek ALC889Asus Xonar Essence STX (uncertain)Not Correct
5Benchmark DAC2 HGCRealtek (uncertain)Not Correct
6Benchmark DAC2 HGCO2? DAC2? (uncertain)(Directionally) Correct
7Asus Xonar Essence STXO2? DAC2? (uncertain)Not Correct
8Asus Xonar Essence STXAsus Xonar Essence STX (uncertain)Correct

Listener A's comments:

My second take, run a few days after the first, demonstrates how hard it is to tell these devices apart. The Realtek codec's volume issues are addressed and it easily blends in with the pack, making identification even harder. I still felt like I could tell the Xonar Essence STX apart, but the results proved me wrong. More interestingly, I could not even tell that a given device was the same when my partner smartly decided to run each device twice in a row.

  • 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.