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

Why Audio Formats Above 16-Bit/44.1 kHz Don't Matter

Musical records vary enormously in their recording and mixing quality. Albums like Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, most of Lady Gaga's pop work, Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines, and many others are simply masterfully recorded/mixed.

Obtaining an audiophile-quality 24-bit/192 kHz version of a poorly put-together track does nothing to make it sound better. As a matter of fact, in all of our blind tests, we couldn't tell the difference between 44.1 and 176.4 kHz, or 16- and 24-bit recordings. While those formats do have a place (namely, in the recording studio where the mixing headroom is a real advantage), they don't seem to add anything to consumer audio. Based on our experience, 16-bit and 44.1 kHz provides the best audio quality you're able to experience. Everything beyond that format tends to be a waste of drive capacity and, since the high-def recordings are more expensive, money as well.

Downsampling a 176.4 kHz track to 44.1 kHz using a high-quality resampler should prevent clipping and yield an output that you can't distinguish from the original. So, if you somehow find a 176.4 kHz recording in your hands and your hardware doesn't natively support it, don't worry. Resample it to 44.1 kHz and know that you're, in practice, not losing any of its fidelity.

Pretty much all modern DACs oversample inputs before the analog conversion (sometimes to a fixed rate [Benchmark converts everything to 211 kHz internally] and sometimes to a input-dependent rate, which is still usually pretty high). Besides the loss of audio frequencies above 22 kHz, which are inaudible, there should be very little difference between a native signal at 176.4 kHz converted to 211 kHz and a native signal at 44 kHz converted to 211 kHz.

The main advantage of 24-bit versus 16- is greater dynamic range (144 dB compared to 98), but that's practically irrelevant. Many of today's records succumb to the loudness war, where dynamic range is artificially compressed in the production stages. Michael Jackson's "Black or White", shown in the figure above, is a great example of this phenomenon. Even if the dynamic range of records wasn't becoming smaller, you'd be hard pressed to meaningfully experience a larger dynamic range in music. As a test, try some of the unscientific but directionally interesting tests on our conclusions page.

Monty at xiph.org has a separate and far more exhaustive discussion of this topic, and I encourage you to read it if you find the subject matter interesting. For our part, we're limiting ourselves to what we hear and understand, which tells us there is no difference between 16- and 24-bit, or 44.1 and 176.4 kHz.

DSD is a bit of a different story. SACDs are vanishingly rare. Any suggestions that the DSD64 format will pick up steam seems highly unlikely to us; even the academic world cannot decide if it is better than multi-bit PCM. The technicalities differentiating DSD and PCM are very complex, though high-quality DSD and PCM recordings shouldn't sound all that different. Both DSD64 and Red Book PCM are, in essence, hi-fi formats. Moreover, it's extraordinarily challenging to compare them in any objective way since DSD and PCM encodings are often obtained through separate masters. When they are not, the DSD encoding comes from a PCM master (what's the point, then?) or an eight-bit DSD called DSD-Wide, which has more similarities than differences from regular PCM. We just have to rely on subjective opinions on this one.

  • 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.