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

Four Devices Tested: From $2000 Down To $2

All of our tests were run on a PC with Windows 7 x64. For the most part, the machine's specs aren't really relevant, except for the fact that the motherboard hosting our Realtek ALC889 codec is Asus' Rampage III Formula.

The following devices are included, covering price points from $2000 down to $2.

Foobar2000 sources, with the WASAPI sources circled in red

Benchmark Media DAC2 HGCJDSLabs O2+ODACAsus Xonar Essence STXRealtek ALC889
Price~$2000~$290 (including AC adapter)$190~$2 (OEM in volume)
FormatExternal USB DeviceExternal USB DeviceInternal PCIe cardOn-board codec
Driver version1.61Native USB Audio7.12.8.17946.0.1.7023
DSP ChipCustom FPGAN/AAsus AV100(C-Media CMI8788)Realtek ALC889
DAC ChipESS SABRE32 ES9018ESS SABRE32 ES9023TI PCM1792ARealtek ALC889
I/V conversion2 x TI LME49860/LME45622 x JRC NJM4556AD2 x TI LME49860/LME4562 (1)Realtek ALC889
BufferTI LME49600TSCustom 4 x NJM4556D stageTI TPA6120A2Realtek ALC889
PCM audio supportUp to 176.4/192 kHz samplingUp to 24-bit word lengthUp to 96 kHz sampling (2)Up to 24-bit word lengthUp to 192 kHz sampling (3)Up to 24-bit word lengthUp to 176.4/192 kHz sampling (4)Up to 24-bit word length
DSD audio supportNatively supported via DoPNot supportedNot supported (5)Formally supported, but couldn't get it to work

Notes:

  1. The STX has swappable socketed op-amps. We replaced the native 2 x JRC2114D (which are also very good) with 2 x TI LME49860/LME4562, the same ones used in the DAC2.
  2. Does not support 88.2 kHz
  3. Does not support 88.2/176.4 kHz
  4. Did not support 88.2 or 176.4 kHz in our test at 16- or 24-bit depth
  5. The PCM1792A DAC does support DSD, but unfortunately, the C-Media CMI8788 does not, hence the lack of this capability on the card

Despite the higher product series number, the ESS Sabre ES9023 DAC is, on paper, inferior to the ES9018. That doesn't imply an audible difference, though.