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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.

  • 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