Anything Above $2 Buys More Features, Not Better Quality
Although we don't typically review audio gear, we believe that we have a few advantages over some hi-fi reviewers. First, we have no financial interest in the products we review. Second, we're PC enthusiasts, not self-proclaimed audiophiles. Consequently, we're not afraid to talk about our strengths and weaknesses. In the audio field, an inability to hear differences among devices spanning a large range of price points is self-defeating. But here, we can comfortably suggest that those products might simply perform similarly.
One thing we know we're good at is designing objective tests, learning from them, and drawing fact-basing conclusions based on the analysis. The integrity of our methodologies is everything, and we can't help but believe that approach is rare in audio equipment testing. We hope our readers will find our experience in testing valuable.
Of course, we also have to acknowledge our own shortcomings and the limits of these tests; neither is perfect. We are audio amateurs, not audio professionals. However, we've tried to create the best possible tests, documenting each and every step along the way so that others can conduct their own experiment and form their own opinion. If you see a way to improve upon our process, we welcome this and look forward to seeing your results, too.
If some of the conclusions we drew sounded implausible, don't worry; they did to us as well.
Try A Few Things For Yourself
Although there is no quick and easy way to replicate the tests in this article at home on your own, here are a few tests we hope you'll have fun with. They should be far more enlightening than our technical explanations of some of the concepts we discussed.
You probably can tell the difference in 1 dB volume levels, but can you reliably tell the difference in 0.5 dB volume levels?
You can probably hear an absolute 54 dB of dynamic range in your environment, but can you reliably hear 78 dB? For reference 16-bit audio has roughly 96 dB of dynamic range. Twenty-four-bit manages a theoretical 144 dB, although it's almost impossible to achieve more than 120-130 using real-world ADCs. Eight-bit audio has a dynamic range of "only" 48 dB; can you reliably tell the difference between 8-bit and 16-bit audio?
Play all of these tests at maximum digital volume. Just be aware that they're not designed to be scientific, but rather to give you some perspective. Try them out for yourself and feel free to post your results in the comments section below!
A $2 Codec Sounds (to us) like a $2000 Device
|Benchmark Media DAC2 HGC||JDSLabs O2+ODAC||Asus Xonar Essence STX||Realtek ALC889|
|Price||~$2000||~$290 (including AC adapter)||$190||~$2 (OEM in volume)|
|Pros||-Great sound quality-Outstanding build quality-Only device to support 88.2/176.4/DSD64 in practice-Dual headphone out-Greatest number of analog/digital I/O and features (remote control, LCD display)-Free 30-day trial||-Great sound quality-Open-source design that can be self-assembled at lower price point-High-quality volume control-Semi-portable||-Great sound quality-Does not take up desk space-Has both RCA and 1/4" TRS output-Has ADC stage||-Great sound quality-Outstanding value-Does not take up desk space-Supports eight-channel audio-Doesn't require PCIe or USB connectivity|
|Cons||-Very expensive-You pay for features; sound quality is matched at lower price points-Adds desk clutter||-No RCA output-No TRS 1/4" jack-Power transformer not included-Adds desk clutter||-RCA and 1/4" TRS output cannot be concurrently active; switch is software-only-Requires free PCIe slot-No external volume control-Essentially no portability||-Not as linear or hi-fi as the other devices (-1.4 dB @ 100 Hz)-No TRS 1/4" jack-Fixed gain setting-No external volume control-Essentially no portability|
|Application||Extreme PC-driven DAC / headphone amplifier and natural interconnect point with any high-end hi-fi system||Dedicated DAC and headphone amplifier with a convenient volume control and option for limited portability||Budget hi-fi solution that allows switching between 2(.1) stereo speakers and high-end headphones||"Near-Fi" solution that fits almost all major use cases and dominates from a value perspective|
I sank $2000 of my own money into the DAC2 HGC last December, so I subjectively wanted it to sound better than everything else. Tests have shown that it doesn't. I was surprised, but, having been personally involved in the evaluation and believing in the integrity of what we set up, I rationally accept the findings.
Of course, we're ready for the audiophile community to rise up in arms about the statement you'll read next, but it's true that neither an intermediate enthusiast nor a serious one with ~$70,000 in gear at home were able to reliably tell apart any of the four devices once we properly set up a blind test with accurate volume-matching. We actually enjoyed them all as great audio experiences.
Using world-class headphones, a $2 Realtek integrated audio codec could not be reliably distinguished from the $2000 Benchmark DAC2 HGC in a four-device round-up. Again, all four devices sounded great. The same might not apply to full-sized speakers; we can't say, since we didn't test them. But as far as some of the best headphones in the world go, we stand by these test results.
While calibration does show that Realtek's ALC889 is less linear, and thus less hi-fi than the other devices we're looking at, the 1.4 dB difference at 100 Hz apparently isn't enough to reliably differentiate the experience it delivers from others in real-world scenarios. Isn't 1.4 dB a pretty big difference? In a "pure tone", it would be quite noticeable. That's less the case when you're listening to regular music though, especially if the more sensitive 1 to 4 kHz tones are more accurately matched.
But $2 Buys A Smaller Subset of Features
If we halted our exploration at perceived audio quality, we'd only be telling half of the story. There's just so much more to a DAC/amplifier.
Neither the Realtek codec nor Asus' Xonar provide volume control, aside from what you get in Windows. Realtek does support DSD, but without an ASIO driver, we couldn't get it working in foobar2000. Neither lower-end solution can drive headphones and speakers concurrently, let alone automatically mute speakers when headphones are connected. They don't support amplifying an external source, either. Not surprisingly, they're strictly tied to a single device with no real portability. Realtek does facilitate eight-channel output, and the integrated codec and discrete sound card help prevent clutter on your desk.
The DAC2 and O2, being USB-based audio devices, can be plugged into and rapidly switched between any USB source. Want to connect your laptop to your audio system rather than your desktop? That's easy. The O2 has a very high-quality analog volume control, which provided the finest calibration in our round-up. The DAC2 has a motorized volume control with remote control. Want to listen to your headphones in bed and adjust the volume without getting up? Only the DAC2 can do that.
Ultimately, music is about entertainment and personal enjoyment. Hi-fi is meaningful insofar as it heightens the experience of music; it is not necessarily helpful beyond that. Some audiophiles even prefer the low-fi distortion that tube amplifiers introduce. The DAC2, O2+DAC, Xonar Essence STX, and ALC889 are all outstanding solutions. Each delivers a beautiful experience that you'd certainly enjoy. They're similar when it comes to sound quality. Where they differ is mainly in their feature sets and price points.
I think that money spent on quality recordings, whether they're digital recordings, CDs, DVDs, or SACDs, is the money best-spent. They'll simply never become obsolete.
From there, speakers and headphones are the most important components in your sound system. Headphones generally give you better bang for your buck and are usually more convenient. Obviously, though, they can't replicate the experience of full-range speakers. You feel bass from a subwoofer in ways a headphone can't match. Also, listening to high-end speakers well-separated provides a more immersive experience.
If headphones are the way you go, then our tests show that quality integrated audio codecs are sufficient for driving some of the best in the world. You simply have to live with the fact that a motherboard with built-in audio is going to give you fewer features. That's the point where you have to decide what you're willing to pay for.
We debated whether to recognize a codec for its achievements, rather than a specific product hosting it, but decided that Realtek deserved credit for its work. The ALC889 is found on premium motherboards, as are the newer ALC898 and ALC1150. It's somewhat lacking in the features department; you don't get external volume control, RCA (or 1/4" TRS) outputs, or an ASIO driver. You could argue that eight-channel output partly compensates, though it's not a factor in hi-fi audio. The ALC889 is the least-linear of the devices we tested, though its worst performance of -1.4 dB(A) at 100 Hz is still acceptable overall.
With all of that said, we simply could not tell the little codec's sound quality apart from other, much more expensive devices. For a component that costs 1/1000 of our highest-end contender, that's an impressive-enough feat to earn Smart Buy honors. It also encourages a broader re-evaluation of how integrated audio is reviewed.
The Benchmark DAC2 HGC, on the other hand, easily gets the money-is-no-object Tom's Hardware Elite award. It is a wonderful device with a wide array of features that aren't just mashed together, but rather designed for intuitive usability. Further, the DAC2 is built like a rock. Of course, you'll have to decide if the spec sheet and build quality are worth $2000, particularly since our ears couldn't tell it apart from much cheaper products at a fraction of the price. If you're shopping in this price range for a DAC/amp, also consider the Mytek Stereo192-DSD ($1600), Bel Canto C5i ($1900), and Violectric HPA 200 ($1000), all of which sport similar features and are generally well-reviewed. Remember that our Elite recognition is not a reflection of the DAC2's performance compared to similarly-priced contenders in its class; we haven't had a chance to test them yet, after all.
The PC As The Future of Hi-Fi
As optical storage fades away, we believe PCs will increasingly become the center of the hi-fi listening experience. Nothing can match the accuracy (bit-perfect sourcing and streaming, and no degradation over time) and convenience (thousands of losslessly-compressed albums a mouse-click away) of PCs. Today we even demonstrated that a $2 codec is sufficient for driving some of the most expensive headphones in the world. We haven't tested this yet, so we can't say with certainty, but a DAC hooked up to a PC should also drive amplifiers and associated full-sized speakers as well as the DACs built into, say, high-end CD players. For PC enthusiasts, that convergence is just one more reason to love our versatile systems.