May 4, 2011
The last sound card I purchased was in 2006, and that's only because I'm (occasionally) a bleeding edge PC gamer. The very same card was still in my current PC until a few days ago. It's perhaps too generous to describe PC sound hardware as stagnant; it's borderline irrelevant.
The default, built-in sound chips on most motherboards have evolved from "totally crap" to "surprisingly decent" in the last 5 years. But besides that, in this era of ubiquitous quad core CPUs nearing 4 GHz, it'd be difficult to make a plausible case that you need a discrete set of silicon to handle sound processing, even for the very fanciest of 3D sound algorithms and HRTFs.
That said, if you enjoy music even a little, I still strongly recommend investing in a quality set of headphones. As I wrote in 2005's Headphone Snobbery:
Am I really advocating spending two hundred dollars on a set of headphones? Yes. Yes I am. Now, you could spend a lot more. This is about extracting the maximum bang for your buck:
- Unlike your computer, or your car, your headphones will never wear out or become obsolete. I hesitate to say lifetime, but they're multiple decade investments at the very least.
- The number one item that affects the music you hear is the speakers. Without a good set of headphones, everything else is irrelevant.
- The right headphones can deliver sound equivalent to extremely high-end floorstanding speakers worth thousands of dollars.
If you're the type of person who is perfectly happy listening to 64 kilobit MP3s through a $5 set of beige headphones, that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Keep on scrolling; this post is not for you.
I realize that there's a fine line between audiophile and bats**t insane -- and that line better not be near any sources of interference! But nice headphones require powerful, reasonably clean output to deliver the best listening experience. This isn't high end audio crackpot snake oil, it's actual physics.
I'll let the guys at headroom explain:
You may have heard of a headphone's "impedance." Impedance is the combined resistance and reactivity the headphones present to the amplifier as an electrical load. High impedance cans will usually need more voltage to get up to a solid listening level, so they will often benefit from an amp, especially with portable players that have limited voltage available from their internal batteries. But low impedance cans may require more current, and will lower the damping factor between the amp and headphones. So while low impedance headphones may be driven loud enough from a portable player, the quality of sound may be dramatically improved with an amp.
The size of your headphone will give you some clues to whether an amp may be warranted. Most earbud and in ear headphones are typically very efficient and are less likely to benefit strongly from an amp. Many larger headphones will benefit, or even require, a headphone amp to reach listenable volume levels with portable players.
Thus, once you have a set of nice headphones, you do need some kind of amplified output for them. Something like the Boostaroo, or a Total BitHead. And if you're on a laptop these outboard solutions might be your only options.
But desktops offer the option of adding a sound card. The good news is that arguably the best sound card on the planet, the Xonar DG, is all of 30 measly bucks. It's a big step up in fundamental sound quality from even the best current integrated HD audio motherboard sound chips, per this Tech Report review.
||RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality, 16-bit/44.1kHz
||THD + Noise
||IMD + Noise
||IMD at 10kHz
|Realtek ALC892 HD
It also includes a little something extra of particular interest to us music loving programmers with nice headphones:
Built-in headphone amplification is something you won't find on a motherboard, but it's featured in both Xonars. On the DG, Asus has gone with Texas Instruments' DRV601RTJR, which is optimized for headphone impedances of 32-150 Ω according to the card's spec sheet. The Xense gets something considerably fancier: a TI amp capable of pushing headphones with impedances up to 600 Ω. Of course, the headphones bundled with the card are rated for an impedance of only 150 Ω. Mid-range stereo cans like Sennheiser's excellent HD 555s, which we use for listening tests, have a rated impedance of just 50 Ω. You don't need big numbers for high-quality sound.
The headphone amplification options are a bit buried in the Xonar driver user interface. To get there, select headphone mode, then click the little hammer icon to bring up the headphone amp gain settings.
After my last upgrade, I was truly hoping I could get away with just the on-board Realtek HD audio my motherboard provides. I resisted mightily -- but the drop in headphone output quality with the onboard stuff was noticeable. Not to mention that I had to absolutely crank the volume to get even moderate loudness with my fancy-ish Sennheiser HD 600 headphones. The Xonar DG neatly solves both of these problems.
As you probably expected, the answer to the question "Who needs a sound card?" is "Almost nobody." Except those of us who invested in quality headphones. Rather than spending $30 or $150 on an outboard headphone amp, spend $30 on the Xonar DG to get a substantial sound quality upgrade and a respectable headphone amp to boot.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
I agree fundamentally with your post, but I have to disagree that "Unlike your computer, or your car, your headphones will never wear out or become obsolete." Maybe I unknowingly turn into a violent maniac whenever I handle headphones or something, but even the expensive ones I've owned have developed problems in a year or (at most) two. It's much, much worse if I carry the headphones around with me instead of leaving them at a desk; I think I've gone through four of them since starting college. I generally consider them the most fragile piece of hardware I own.
You've never had the motherboard interfere with the sound card? I get noise whenever the CPU and/or bus do anything intense from both of my most recent desktop onboard sound chips. It's audible through headphones when the music is below averagely silent or when there is no sound at all. I usually wait for another song to begin before I scroll down a long webpage :) That's reason #1 for me to own a sound card.
I have to agree with Adrian. Any headphones I have ever owned seem to have crumbled apart after about three years or so. I live wearing my headphones at work, at home, and on the commute between the two.
I've tried owning multiple sets and leaving them attached to individual computers, but they still seem like they fall apart after a while. It doesn't matter how much they cost; I consider them extremely fragile as well.
I have the same problem as Gregopet. I've never had an on-board chip that didn't leak buzz and hum whenever the hard drive was active, or whenever I just used the scroll wheel on the mouse, or something else that really should be isolated from the sound output.
If you are going to be working out of an office, buying something like the Total BitHead is something you can use at work and take with you from place to place when you change jobs. I've got one that I've been using for seven or eight years, and it's made the trip with me to four different offices.
As for headphones, if you buy a good set (like those Sennheiser HD-600s that apparently both Jeff and I use), you can get ones with replaceable cords. And that's what usually goes out. My Sennheisers have been working great for the same period of time as my amp, and I've had to replace the cord two or three times, but that's $15 or so each time.
Choosing a good headset is a lot harder if you're a gamer that also requires a mic. It's either you get an awesome pair of headphones and then MacGyver (my current solution) on those cheap lavalier mics on to the wire, or a headset with a good mic, and mediocre headphones.
Unless someone has a recommendation for a good headset...
Pretty much anyone that wants to use their front audio ports will want a sound card. I have never had a motherboard with which the front port audio properly worked. Back audio has been fine, but not as great as a dedicated sound card.
I honestly believe that everyone should spend the thirty needed on the sound card. Even with relatively cheap headphones, it will sound better. Sony MDR-V6 are pretty cheap nowadays and still pretty fucking fantastic.
>> arguably the best sound card on the planet, the Xonar DG, is all of 30 measly bucks.
I'm sorry to break it to you, but there is no such thing as a good internal soundcard.
There may be mediocre internal soundcards, but the best you can do internally is mediocre.
If you want a good soundcard, or "Audio Interface" as the manufacturers like to style them, the simplest way is to simply discard every computer component manufacturer from your list.
Firewire is best (lower latency), though USB is more prevalent. No matter what you go with, expect cranky drivers.
There are alot of other brands that make audio interfaces, but I do not have personal experience with them.
Fundamentally, there is a difference in design philosophy between audio interfaces and generic soundcards.
- Audio interfaces almost never support any sort of onboard "enhancement" crap. EAX, etc.. is out. If you buy something like this, it's because you want the most accurate representation of whatever you are playing possible, not some DSP processed garbage.
- Greater Bit-Depth : 24 bit recording/playback is pretty much universal
- Greater sample rate : 24 bit / 96 Khz is common, many support 192 Khz.
- Openness about ADC/DAC and op-amp selections : This is not as common, but a some manufacturers explicitly state what devices they use in their analog sections, which you can then look up.
Whatever soundcard you use may be nice, but it's still just a internal soundcard. Please don't claim it's better than it is.
Personally, I use a M-Audio Firewire 410 as my daily soundcard. The firewire interface is getting cranky in it's old age (I think I've had it 5 years), but it still works, and all I have to do is disconnect and reconnect it about once a week.
I mostly listen to music, but I do occationally use it for record >> .wav dubbing, and it works very well.
I agree with you, internal chips are "surprisingly decent", but another reason to use a Sound Card is for the external inputs: most of the built-in solutions have plugs for mic, headphones and speakers, but not for line-in (I use sometimes line-in to record from external devices, e.g. tapes or vinyl).
I was quite happy with an on-board sound card, but when I got 5.1 speakers the occasional crackles from interference were quite noticeable. Getting a good plug-in sound card (in my case, a Xonar DX) made it all go away. Plus, the overall quality is significantly better as well.
I totally agree that a great headset is imparative. Personally, I don't think you can do much better than the Bose QuietComfort 3 headset. I have one, and it's the very definition of HiFi IMO, and has good noise-canceling to boot. Also comes with some nice extras for traveling. I work in an open office landscape, and for that the noise-canceling is a god-send.
I have a Koss Porta Pro. Would I benefit from a sound card? I do hear some noise when using onboard sound.
@Cat176 talks about interfaces aimed at those who are recording audio. They are probably OTT for just listening.
I see the Xonar DG can do 24/96 conversion. That's technically far better than CD quality, but the audible difference may be minimal. Some people are releasing music in 24/96 FLAC, but I generally buy 320kb MP3 and am happy with it.
Most of my listening is on my work HP box into Grado SR60 headphones and that sounds great. I've had those headphones a few years, but had to replace the foam pads which wore out. Got some Sennheiser pads that fit and cost a lot less than those from Grado. I also have some Sennheiser PX200 for mobile listening, but the cushion pads on those are wearing out. Those are harder to replace.
Like @Cat176, if you're doing any music creation or audio recording, cheap internal sound cards are no good - you need an external audio interface to reduce latency for your midi devices or conventional instruments or mikes. Another benefit is that they have more kinds of i/o ports, etc. Probably over the top though for merely listening to music where latency doesn't matter.
Now maybe I just don't tend to like the feel of headphones, but is there really any advantage of a pair of headphones over a good set of speakers?
I saw some of your posts on twitter about audiophiles, and now this one about sound boards.
I'd never noticed how bad is these integrated sound boards. The ones from brazilian Dell computer, sucks. Too much noise.
As a bass guitar player, I used to deal with some professional hardware. I found as a good cost/benefit the M-Audio Fast Track. It's an external USB recording interface, but works fine as a sound board too. Since then, in all my jobs I carry my external sound board and my Sennheiser phone (the one I can affot is the HD202).
Not too expensive stuff and solve my sound problem at work.
But... to really "appreciate" some sound quality, I really like my home setup. It's a Technics LP Player (not the MKII, that one from the 70's) with an old Super-A amplifier and Lando speakers (Lando is a entry-level audiophile hardware manufacturer from Brazil).
I really encourage sound lovers to try some "analogic" stuff.
The right technology for the right job, allways.
The problem is that after you're used to analogic audio, You'll hate your old digital setup. And I have some testimonials from non-audiophile people that agreed with me after I did my "blind-test" from analogical and digital.
If you have nice speakers, a good amplifier, you can note the difference
between MP3, CD (or loss less encoding) and analogic, specially in very low frequencies and very high frequencies. The cymbals sound squared in digital sound.
And of course you'll have clean and non-scratched LP's to have good quality in analogic audio.
Actually some guy from AdLib, a company that went bankrupt in 1992(!), some of you might still remember them, already said that many years ago: "If Moore's law will hold true for the next couple of years, it is only a question of time till a soundcard becomes just a piece of software and the only hardware involved will be a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) on your motherboard". And he was right, I 'd say.
Today, a CPU can do in software what was only possible with dedicated signal processors a couple of years ago and it won't even go beyond 10% load of a single core when doing so. The strange thing is, that people refuse to learn of the past: When I say today, that one day, a graphics adapter will be nothing more than a piece of software (meaning dedicated GPUs will die), I'm being laughed at; people actually get really upset and try to explain me why this cannot ever be the case and that I'm an idiot.
But let's face it: Everything a dedicated GPU can do can also be done by a CPU. And dedicated GPUs get closer and closer to generic usage processors. Not too many years ago, pretty much everything was hardcoded in a GPU and it only supported the operations really necessary to bring some 3D scene to the screen. Today, pretty much nothing is hardcoded anymore, developers write vertex- and fragment-shaders (alias pixel-shaders), as well as whole fragment-programs. Actually using OpenCL, you can perform any kind of computation on GPUs just like you can on a CPU. On the latest CPUs, an OpenGL software emulation of OpenGL 1.0 can run faster than a real OpenGL 1.0 implementation was running on a GPU at the time OpenGL 1.0 was released!
GPUs are still significantly faster than CPUs today, since they are very limited (they support far less operations than a CPU, but those operations are optimized to the max) and they are optimized for parallelization (your CPU might have 4 cores, but your GPU might have 32 shader pipelines, meaning it can perform 32 calculations in parallel). However, they also run at lower clock speeds in general and with the increasing shader capabilities, the GPUs need to support more and more operations that cannot be optimized beyond a certain point (e.g. conditional jumps!) and may also hinder further parallelism.
CPUs catch up because they run at higher clock rates, their number of cores keeps growing (8 cores are available today, in a couple of years, 16 core might be normal for a consumer CPU) and they keep getting better instructions with each new CPU generation (SSE4.2 will soon be replaced by SSE5, further AVX is almost ready and will give CPU x86 a huge speed up). Sure, if the GPU development continues equally fast as the CPU development, CPUs won't ever overtake GPUs... however, a company like AMD (who bought ATI and thus is the biggest competitor to NVidia) might say one day: Given the enormous speed of our CPUs, we stop GPU development altogether. And for many occasional players, a CPU that could render current DirectX10 games with all effects enabled completely in software and will achieve frame rates of 30+ FPS is all they need. And if you compare CPU to GPU speed comparisons, you'll notice, that actually CPUs are catching up, because they are currently evolving somewhat faster than GPUs are (whenever GPUs have doubled their speed, CPUs have almost trippled their speed at the same time).
So like soundcards are only for sound/music-enthusiasts today, 3D graphics adapter will only be for hardcore gamers one day, for the rest, a software emulation on the CPU will cut it just as it does for soundcards today.
I completely agree. Built myself a grubDAC and have been amazed at the quality of sound, much more responsive, detailed, and the bass is punchier. All with the same amp and speakers.
I am building three more, one for work and one for my laptop.
At one of my last jobs I had a pair of Sony headphones, but they were uncomfortable wearing glasses ( good audio or readable text? ), an solutions?
Unfortunately I think I'm stuck with Creative cards forever, because I still have old games that can use EAX (under Alchemy), and I never want to go back to plain stereo.
Yeah... I would also agree with the couple people who've mentioned that if you're ever *recording* in any serious capacity, you definitely need a dedicated sound card. I don't have one, cause I'm cheap and I only ever occasionally record for my own amusement, but anyone who's ever even thought about going pro (either as a musician self-recording, or recording for other people) would definitely want better equipment.
I also agree with the first post: I've never bought a 200 dollar set of headphones, but I've definitely bought "only" 75 dollar headphones a couple times. Both times they lasted maybe a year or two before something broke. These days I just use 20 buck earphones, and if they break, oh well, I'll buy another pair. Can I tell the difference? Yeah, a little, but I'll survive. Better than buying expensive stuff and having to replace it all the time.
Having a sound card for dedicated sound processing is missing the point entirely. For at least 5 years CPUs have been fast enough for that.
You want a sound card for these reasons:
- High quality DAC (digital-to-analog converters)
- Low noise level (no hiss in your headphones when not doing anything)
- Low inteference (otherwise you can actually hear your current CPU and hard disk usage! Interesting, but irritating)
Onboard sound cards are probably still crap on all three points, especially inteference.
A nice pair of headphones is a total waste of money with an onboard sound card, because the low quality DAC, high noise level and inteference more than negate the headphone quality.
I have a Xonar DG and it really does work. My onboard sound chip picks up a lot of EMI noise, and I'm not talking only-audible-to-audiophiles noise, I mean literally anyone can hear the static. The Xonar eliminates the noise, and drives my Sony MDR-V6's noticeably better than the onboard chip, though not as well as a "real" amp.
At work though I use a Behringer MA400 (along with another pair of V6's) which is a steal of an amp for $22, all made out of metal with really nice analog knobs. I used to think the whole headphone amp thing was snake oil but these Sony headphones, which are only about $75, have made a believer out of me. There really is a difference running them amplified.
I've never had any luck with the front TRS ports on a PC (in the event there are any). I use a USB headset for gaming-- trading "audio quality" for "don't have to go messing around with the TRS ports."
In fact, I think since I got my USB headset (a year or so ago, I think?) I haven't had to replace it once, despite me hating TRS headsets for breaking so quickly after I get them.
For my phone (which is my MP3 player), I just have a fold-up pair of cheap headphones from Target. You don't know how hard it is to find headphones that 1) fit over my glasses, and 2) don't make my sinuses go crazy by blocking my ear canal. :/
Sometimes the onboard chipset sucks. When I was using onboard sound, my last PC used roughly 30% of one core when playing MP3s and would stutter if I tried to browse the web at the same time. Installing an el cheapo soundcard fixed it. I have no idea what the problem was.
My current PC still uses a bit more CPU than I'd like to play audio, but I haven't bothered to look for another solution because it's not a dorm room PC anymore and I rarely listen to music on the PC.
Total Bithead is a pretty darn awesome USB DAC plus headphone amp. $150 might seem expensive, but if you get good headphones, and you do some A/B comparisons, you should easily be able to hear the improvement. (If not, send it back, and they'll refund you.)
There's $30 DAC/amps on eBay, but it's hard to tell if you're going to get a bargain or a rock in a box. These days, I'm betting the latter.
Headphones: If you need to block out outside noise, and don't want to spend a huge amount of money, there are three awesome choices:
1) Beyerdynamic DT770 -- under $200 street price.
Conventional over-the-ear headphones which are comfy and sound awesome. Coupled with a good audio source and quality music, you will listen to your favorite song and say, "I never knew there was a guy playing mandolin on that track!" (Absolutely true story.)
To get better sound, you pretty much have to go to "open" headphones (which don't block as much outside noise) AND pay more.
2) Fidelity Custom Earphones -- about $300 ($250 plus an audiologist fee to get ear molds taken)
They go in your ear canals, but because they are custom-fit, you can sleep in them. (I have, many times.) Sound is, as the snobs say, "detailed" and "neutral." In other words, if you want to listen to string quartets, they work great. And if you want to listen to dubcore, maybe add a little bass boost.
3) Etymotic 6i or MC5 -- well under $100.
These go in your ear canals, and are not custom-fit, so you have to push them well in, and you'll want to take them out every hour or so. On the upside, there is NO better sound for the price. In fact, it's hard to find sound even REMOTELY this good for two or three times the price.
Everyone here who posts about how internal sound cards are crap obviously never looked at the result of RMAA tests. I've done numerous tests of varied motherboard/internal/external(pro) audio hardware and I can assure you that Asus Xonars easily beat the crap out of a number of external pro audio interfaces. And contrary to your ears, these tests never lie. Also, I'm speaking about the cheapest Xonar (Xonar DS) here.
Just because Asus puts a load of useless gadgets into its cards (DolbyTrueSurroundMegaBassExploder and the like) doesn't mean that it doesn't put high quality components in them, too. Components which are described in detail on the Asus website (including complete references for the DACs and OPAMPs).
As for the noise: as surprising as it may sound, my tests show that interference from other components inside the PCs usually do not happen inside the case but immediately outside, into the audio cable (where the audio card cannot protect the signal). This means that the quality of the audio cables directly connected to the sound card if quite important, and I've seen surprising differences in noise floor between cheap RCA cables and more pricey ones.
This is somewhat on topic, but I've got a fantastic set of custom molded headphones now. Anybody who knows sound knows that you'd have to pay an arm and a leg to get even a chance to look at molded headphones, but I met a company at a convention that's selling them for a paltry $159 ($169 if you want detachable cables). The other nice thing is that you don't have to actually make an appointment with an audiologist to get the molds made, unless you want to but it should only be $20 bucks or so.
Either way, if you want some nice headphones that block out ambient noise, and give you the crispest sound you've ever heard give these guys a visit.
* I don't work for these guys, and they haven't given me anything for this, I've got a pair and they're amazing, so I wanted to share.
Sony mdr-7506 headphones (yes i hate sony to). Can be had for 85 dollars. they are so cheap because they are basically an industry standard and everyone uses them, and so they are volume priced. They easily out perform most $300.00 headphones Read the reviews, there is very little reason to buy any other set of headphones, minus niche or specialty uses.
It's surprising how few people realize that the speakers are dominant factor in sound quality. I've seen engineers proudly buy a $1000 amplifier and push the sound out of some no-name $10 speakers. A rough rule of thumb to get the best bang for your buck is that you should aim to spend about 5 times as much on your speakers as you do on an amplifier so your $30 sound card going into $200 cans is about right.
Of course as with anything audio the only real test is whether you think it sounds good.
"You've never had the motherboard interfere with the sound card? I get noise whenever the CPU and/or bus do anything intense from both of my most recent desktop onboard sound chips. It's audible through headphones when the music is below averagely silent or when there is no sound at all. I usually wait for another song to begin before I scroll down a long webpage :) That's reason #1 for me to own a sound card."
Same shit here. Back audio is fine, front audio makes a buzzing sound. I watch HD video, game casually, and am a serious audio nerd. I will be investing in a sound card come next desktop.
My headphones/earphones aren't expensive, but they get the job done.
Totally agree re: headphones.
As for soundcards, last time I checked (admittedly, in 2008) the popular audio APIs did not support software HRTF-based 3D audio. In uni, I worked on an audio based augmented reality project using FMOD for audio and the software-mode did not cut it (3D was not very easily localized) while using hardware mode with a X-Fi soundcard (the ones with hardware HRTF - the Xtreme Audio did not support it, despite advertising CMSS-3D) had pretty good results. Perhaps FMOD (and OpenAL) have got better software 3D support now.
I do agree that we now have the processing power that HRTF could be done in software (and afaik adding the functionality to FMOD through effects plugins should be possible), but I don't know if anything exists yet - at least, it didn't back in 2008.
I got an Emu-1820m sound card with Sennheiser HD650's headphones. I made the mistake(?) of spending a ridiculous amount on a HiFi, and I can say, without a doubt the headphones + sound card (~£500 total) match the quality of my hifi which costs well over 10x that. Apart from not having such a great sound stage, everything else is pretty much equal in detail, clarity and quality. I absolutely love my headphones and sound card.
One benefit of a good quality soundcard is it blocks all interference from your hardware. Without a good soundcard, you might hear a hissing, whirring when your hard drive is spinning up and other such interference. Good sound cards are designed to block this out.
I think as a gamer, surround sound is more important than fidelity. With that in mind, most built-in sound cards do not support dolby digital live. Hence I very recently invested in a Creative X-Fi 5.1 to use in conjunction with an Astro MixAmp and Turtle Beach HPX1 cans. Granted it's a bit convoluted, but it's awesome.
As far as I understand Jack, a good pair of headphones will have as good of soundstage or surround sound as a pair of gaming headphones and should have higher fidelity obviously depending on the price you are paying.
Theres also the subject of gaming headphones sounding worse for music since they have multiple smaller drivers. Also there are virual 5.1 gaming headsets which are just two drivers with a higher markup price. (5.1 headsets in two cups is a weird way to market this to me in the first place)
Anyone in the discussion feel free to correct me on info, always happy to learn.
+1 about headphones being one of the most fragile components of my PC. My wife makes fun of me on a regular basis about the sheer number of them that I've broken over the years (she herself has broken none). I really want to find a pair with a metal frame. And decent sound, although an $80 set is fine for my tastes and budget.
But what really puzzles me is your statement about "the very fanciest of 3D sound algorithms and HRTFs." Is the CPU really enough for that? And are games really using it for sound effects? Because it seems to me that, although EAX and hardware accelerated sound is truly dead, there has been nothing to replace it. It's like the game developers collectively decided that fancy sound effects are just not worth it. Which is, honestly, sad, because I still remember the difference in sound in Neverwinter Nights 1 with and without EAX. It was astounding! EAX really made a HUGE difference.
It is my opinion that, just like there is always room for more improvement in 3D graphics, there is also always room for improvement in 3D sound. And a custom silicone would be very well warranted if game developers actually started exploring that realm. But there are currently some marketing rules in play here (game budgets are limited; most people care more about graphics than sounds; sound is harder to do than graphics; few people have custom sound hardware; etc.) which have all but eradicated efforts in this direction, and returned us to the place where we were nearly 15 years ago, before A3D and EAX.
I agree with the posts that your use an external DAC instead of a sound card. I went with Nuforce Icon-2. It takes a USB input from your PC, and has special cables (CAT-6E RJ45 to RCA banana) for standard non-powered speakers.
I currently have it powering a pair of Paradigm Mini-Monitors that are resting on speaker stands next on either side of my desk. The combination sounds fantastic! My only wish is that Nuforce would come out with a newer version that had more than 24 watt per channel.
When you mention:
> Thus, once you have a set of nice headphones, you do need some kind of amplified output for them.
Why do you need an amplifier for your good headphones? Are you using an amplifier for equalization purposes?
I have a Philips SBC HP800 for 5+ years now, and I find absolutely no need to keep volume at a high setting --- and that's on my laptop output, which is a Whatever Sound Card (Intel HDA). I do miss my SoundBlaster MP3+, but right now that's what I have.
Most of the time I have the volume at 50%--60%. Up to about 80% when listening to Dream Theater or when the surroundings are noisy. On favorite songs, I will push to 90% or 95% for the duration. 100% is reserved for those favorite solos, for a couple minutes at most. On certain songs, I would barely hear the fire alarm if it sounded and the volume was 90% or more. And no, these headphones don't have noise canceling.
With these headphones, OggVorbis (http://xiph.org/vorbis/) or FLAC (http://flac.sourceforge.net/) becomes a priority. Investing on top-notch headphones to listen to MP3 is kind of throwing money away.
Personally I use budget studio gear. Much better than anything you get at retail and largely cheaper too because they're not pretending to be 'luxury products for the discerning gamer/film enthusiast'. The build quality is generally superior.
@Cody Rather than tying yourself into a particular sound card for legacy functionality you like, you can use alternatives. The point here is that EAX-like functionality doesn't require hardware, you can have applications do it in real time.
@Vilx Games use engine-bespoke software DSP nowadays. As a single example, all Source games use the same DSP http://developer.valvesoftware.com/wiki/DSP (and note, this is an old as hell engine). Again, no need for EAX. It's already in the game.
Check out Focusrite VRM Box (http://www.focusrite.com/products/audio_interfaces/vrm_box/) for an interesting take on headphone usage - not just an excellent headphone amp, but also some nice speaker and room modelling which can reduce listening fatigue.
(full disclosure - yes, I work for Focusrite :)
@Rushyo - Indeed. Profoundly disappointing. Imagine where the sound effects could be today if the audio silicone had evolved like the video silicone did! Instead of a generic "thud" when a dead alien hits the ground, you would hear a multitude of "splotch"es as the limbs hit the ground and each other, all precisely calculated and reflecting in the room and around the corners as they do in the real life. You could literally hear your teammates breathe down your neck as you step softly down a dimly lit tunnel towards the muffled cries of hostages. Your cloak would rustle in the wind and you could hear the chittering of squirrels as it echoes down the hollow trunk of the tree. The virtual haircut (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUDTlvagjJA) would be a 5 years old demo on a dusty CD that came along your low-end sound-accelerator.
A good pair of headphones can rival expensive speakers. I like Goodcans, a web site completely devoted to headphones: http://www.goodcans.com/. Getting decent sound out of a laptop is abit more difficult, love some advice.
I am not a musician, nor an audiophile. I do, however, record vinyl from time to time, and I bought a little keyboard synth to play around with. Even audio-troglodyte moi noticed appalling quality of line in on an Intel "HD" onboard sound card.
I dug a 13 year old SB Live! out of storage and tried that -- *infinitely better*.
Speaking of noise, it's a shame to see the signal-to-noise ratio of facts in these comments tending towards the nonsense :(
Too bad the Xonar DG does not work in Linux. :(
well - I am using external USB card Roland UA-25 and it has extremely gorgeous audio - there is NO AWESOME internal audio card on the market, it cannot be :)))
BTW works in Linux
I bought myself a Logitech G330; it comes with an external ADC/DAC. I doubt it's as high quality as the ones that you mentioned - but is miles ahead of on-board solutions (although you might find because the two are designed for each other the quality could be high).
It also has built-in weak noise cancellation (if you use the ADC/DAC and plug in the microphone) - which really helps with concentration. If you have music playing at a 'normal' level it completely cancels out environmental noise.
The only thing is that the headphones are pretty heavy; it took me a month to get used to the weight on my ears.
@Adrian Petrescu and others, I agree the durability issue is a problem. I eventually went with the sennheiser 25-1-ii
These headphones are breathtaking. They are closed back and supra-aural so you can't hear the person in the cube next to you. This also means you can reduce the volume to play it at to enjoy it, saving your hearing. ALL parts are user replaceable, so I've heard of pairs lasting 10-20 years (as long as the model as been out). I am fan of going with commercial grade quality if possible since they normally last longer than consumer grade material (at a higher cost of course). These are used in studios and TV's. They are well worth the investment if you are daily listening to music.
Sounds like some of you have been unlucky with headphones. My Sennheiser HD280s are 7 years old and still going strong.
And the fidelity is as good as it can be (because it is better than my hearing, so there's no point in me spending more on higher-quality phones as I would be unable to tell the difference.)
And if I remember right they cost UK£80 (with the exchange rates at the time that would have been equivalent to US$145.) If I bought a pair of *speakers* for $145 there's no way they would sound that good.
I'm looking for an awesome external 5.1 solution. Most of the USB boxes I've tried have been unreliable. Any ideas?
Another IT Blog : http://veracitek.net/blog
As someone who actually does a lot of DSP work I have to disagree. Hardware channel mixing, audio latency, resampling, and so on are all often handled very poorly by multi-purpose processors. 3D and HRTF's although 'cool sounding' are not the most resource intensive functions a card, or audio application will perform. 'Perfect' polyphase or bandlimited interpolation techniques will consume far more resources than they will. Most any processor today, including current i7's, xeons, etc can be bogged down by resampling alone. Let alone noise shaping, dithering, hard limited, and so on. We're a long way off from no longer needing sound cards. The only reason they wouldn't matter is if audio quality isn't something that matters. Which is sometimes the case.
Also onboard sound cards are generally atrocious. I'd put them about on par with your average onboard graphics adapter in quality. No sample rate switching, no hardware mixing, no hardware dac, high latency.
I realize this may seem pedantic, but really it's not. The onboards aren't crappy compared to some studio level expectation. They're crappy by most standards. In many cases when you're listening to lossy audio, sent through a crappy resampler, with a ton of gain added through some relatively low end speakers of course you're not going to notice. When you start talking about high end headphones, or monitors however, it often will be noticeable in more ways than one. Your audio setup is only as strong as its weakest link, and if you're using an onboard... it's not your monitors/headphones.
i just got a Zacate as an HTPC. annoyingly there was a hum on the analog outs, both on onboard as well as a low-to-mid-range "audiophile soundcard," a Razer Barracuda AC-1. probably my fault for running a 12 foot 1/8" to RCA.
i fixed it with a $30 USB DAC/Soundcard from Diamond (i really wanted multichannel, but $100 from Creative was a bit expensive "just to see if it would work"), and even tho it's just 48/16, i'm impressed enough to speak up about it. it seems louder (higher line voltage, maybe?) than my old but broken workhorse, the Chaintech AV-710 as well as some crap X-fi.
I have a box of old soundcards. I use them once in a while when I need a game port plug for outdated controllers and software. lol -rc helicopter
I realize this may seem pedantic, but really it's not Coupons
I had that onboard sound chip before upgrading to a Xonar DG. Although I had no problems with onboard, I can clearly tell a difference.
[quote]Too bad the Xonar DG does not work in Linux.[/quote]
But it should.I've used the Xonar DX in Linux for over a year! It's the same DSP - as far as the drivers are concerned - on both the DX and the DG. In the DX case it's the CMI8788 and on the DG it's the CMI8786, which is the exact same DSP with some features hardlocked.
The drivers will identify it as a CMI8788. And support for CMI8788 has been present in the Linux-kernel and in ALSA for quite some time.
Linux even adds an Audiphile killer feature over the Windows-drives in the form of the possibility to trim the roll off of the DACs digital filter. Not sure if it's supported on the lower specced CS4361 on DG but it works alright on the CS4398 of the DX. Switching the digital filter to the "slow roll off"-mode gives every sound a slight extra lifelike quality :)
Also, it's probable that it won't be possible to trim the headphone output impedance on the DG, at least not yet. But it should definitely work as a normal soundcard.
I'd just like to point out that RightMark AudioAnalyzer measurements are worthless, it's explained somewhere in here:
Even without checking the facts I'd assume that there's a real difference between builtin Realtek and any proper discrete soundcard.