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

Why We Need To Test Low-Impedance Headphones Soon

So far, all of our tests employed Sennheiser's HD 800 headphones. As a reminder, they're relatively high-impedance (300 Ω) cans.

HD 800s and K 550s in their respective housings

As we talked about testing the O2+ODAC, JDS Labs asked that we also try using low-impedance headphones, and the company sent a set of of AKG K 550s, rated at 32 Ω. Its point is that one of the O2+ODAC's main advantages is a vanishingly small output impedance (close to 0 Ω), which is supposed to be great with low-impedance headphones.

Now, the Benchmark DAC2 also has vanishingly small output impedance; its HPA2 headphone amp is rated close to 0 Ω, too. Naturally, then, testing against the DAC2 again was fairly redundant. But what about Asus's Xonar Essence STX, which implements the TI TPA6120A2 datasheet-recommended 10 Ω output impedance level, or Realtek's codec, rated at 2 Ω but subject to a suggested 75 Ω resistor in series on the output path, yielding a typical total of 77 Ω?

Output and Load Impedance

In order to understand why output and load impedance might matter, we need to introduce a concept known as Damping Factor.

As speaker (or headphone) drivers oscillate, they generate a voltage difference of their own that affects all directly-connected electrical components. Without going into too much detail, if an amplifier's output impedance is high compared to the load's impedance, speaker motion and control are impeded. This is particularly true at low (<500 Hz) frequencies, and extremely so at the driver's resonance frequency (resonance, as you can imagine, is very bad for hi-fi audio). The ratio between an amplifier's output impedance and a load (headphones, in this case) impedance is called Damping Factor.

Impedance is a concept that applies exclusively to alternating-current circuits. Furthermore, impedance is not a set figure. It varies based on the frequency of the electrical signal. The 300 Ω-rated HD 800s, for example, typically measure in the 600 Ω impedance range below 1 kHz frequencies.

Headphone / AmplifierHeadphone Actual Load Impedance at <500 HzAmplifier Output ImpedanceDamping Factor
HD 800 / Benchmark DAC2 HGC600 Ω0.1 Ω6000
HD 800 / JDS Labs O2+ODAC600 Ω0.1 Ω6000
HD 800 / Asus Xonar Essence STX600 Ω10 Ω60
HD 800 / Realtek ALC899600 Ω77 Ω7.8
K 550 / Benchmark DAC2 HGC35 Ω0.1 Ω350
K 550 / JDS Labs O2+ODAC35 Ω0.1 Ω350
K 550 / Asus Xonar Essence STX35 Ω10 Ω3.5
K 550 / Realtek ALC89935 Ω77 Ω0.4

A DF of 50 or more is typically considered excellent. That means amplifiers rated for up to 12 Ω output impedance should encounter little trouble driving the HD 800s (600/12 = 50 DF at <500 Hz), even through deep bass. The benefits of even higher damping factors, which you see in the chart above can approach 6000, are debatable.

But using a 32 Ω headphone as a load yields quite different numbers. According to InnerFidelity, the K 550 measures between 34-37 Ω impedance below 500 Hz. With that load on the 77 Ω Realtek ALC899 codec, the Damping Factor is a fairly poor 0.4, and on the 10 Ω Xonar Essence STX, it's a not-so-stellar 3.5.

Technically, you also need to add cable impedance to the amplifier's impedance. But given that the 10-foot cables and connectors we're using have an impedance of <0.1 Ω, I felt that could be excluded. If you're using long or thin cables, the same might not be true.

Coming Soon: Low-Impedance Headphone Testing

We would have loved to test AKG's K 550 as part of this article. But at over 12,000 words, this piece was already a behemoth before going down that road. Still, we know that testing the AKG K 550 (or another low-impedance headphone, for the matter) is important since high-impedance headphones tend to be exotic, expensive stuff. A vast majority of PC users own headphones rated at or around 32 Ω.

Because we haven't yet covered 32 Ω headphones, the results discussed throughout this article only apply to 300 Ω headphones.

We plan to explore whether the same conclusions can be drawn about lower-impedance headphones in a future article.

  • 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