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Sound Card, or external DAC?

post #1 of 44
Thread Starter 
(the TL;DR is bolded below for those with little time but lots of insight)

I have a setup decided upon. My Kef Q300 speakers are paid for and are being shipped on their way. I'll be picking up a Marantz PM-6004 stereo amplifier tomorrow to pair with that.

The only thing I need to decide upon now is how to interface my desktop computer with the stereo amp.

I've been looking at the Asus Xonar Essence ST sound card as one possible choice. On the other hand, I haven't a clue where to start if I chose to go with a DAC.

Originally I thought I'd be done with just an amp and my two speakers. I had thought the amp would receive an SPDIF digital signal from my computer, but didn't realise that's not the case. This is an unanticipated cost; however, I do not want to bottleneck my investment from the get-go.

So, my question is this: what should I be considering? What are my options? Googling the topic has provided me with some information, but I don't feel informed enough to make any decision in one way or another. The Asus Xonar Essence ST is $200 and seems great to me, but I'm not sure if jitter could be an issue (not sure if that's the only point of concern)... and yeh... I'm just confused all-around.

Any input would be greatly appreciated! Again, my main point of concern is to not bottleneck my setup: I want things to sound excellent. Thanks.

TL;DR version:
Question: Should I get a DAC, or should I get a sound card?
Setup: 2.0, might become a 2.1 but nothing more
Speakers: Kef Q300
Amp: Marantz PM-6004
Speakers: Kef Q300
Purpose: Set up with my computer, first concern is music quality, I do game and watch movies lots too
Budget: ???
    
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post #2 of 44
Hey Paul,

If sound quality is your primary concern, there is no doubt that a dedicated DAC would beat an integrated sound card in that competition. However, depending on your budget (and your ears to some extent) the difference between the two could range from negligible to quite noticeable. The question you need to ask yourself is, how much money are you prepared to spend to improve your audio quality. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the law of diminishing returns applies here, and you have to spend a lot of money to gain a little improvement in sound quality when it comes to this sort of equipment.

Without knowing more than you have stated in your post, I would suggest an entry-level DAC would be the best solution to your problem. The main thing degrading sound quality is the design of the power supply. When using a sound card that has been integrated into your system, the sound card is drawing power from the motherboard which is first drawing it from your PSU. When using an external DAC, it is drawing power directly from the mains and has its own purpose-built transformer to condition the power supply and provide it with whatever power requirements the unit has. This means improved sound quality.

As I stated before, the results will vary depending on your budget and exactly which sound card you are comparing to which DAC, but as a general rule a DAC will win out.

Hope this helps.
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post #3 of 44
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Captain Lolburger View Post

Hey Paul,
If sound quality is your primary concern, there is no doubt that a dedicated DAC would beat an integrated sound card in that competition. However, depending on your budget (and your ears to some extent) the difference between the two could range from negligible to quite noticeable. The question you need to ask yourself is, how much money are you prepared to spend to improve your audio quality. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the law of diminishing returns applies here, and you have to spend a lot of money to gain a little improvement in sound quality when it comes to this sort of equipment.
Without knowing more than you have stated in your post, I would suggest an entry-level DAC would be the best solution to your problem. The main thing degrading sound quality is the design of the power supply. When using a sound card that has been integrated into your system, the sound card is drawing power from the motherboard which is first drawing it from your PSU. When using an external DAC, it is drawing power directly from the mains and has its own purpose-built transformer to condition the power supply and provide it with whatever power requirements the unit has. This means improved sound quality.
As I stated before, the results will vary depending on your budget and exactly which sound card you are comparing to which DAC, but as a general rule a DAC will win out.
Hope this helps.

This makes enough sense to me. Thanks.

Would the Cambrige Audio DacMagic Plus Digital to Analogue Converter be a good choice (copying & pasting the name). At $650, it's pricey, but it seems any decent DAC costs at least $400.

You have relatively convinced me that a DAC is the way to go. I have careful ears and I do hear quality (or lack thereof) in what I listen to all the time. It's a huge annoyance to have to break the bank account open and shatter away so many dollars (currently a student who isn't getting a paycheck this month since the job I do didn't have any demand this month). I do want to take a step back and see where I can save money, but would the $650 DAC I mentioned above be the best route probably? I've already been convinced the Marantz PM-6004 is worth the money at $650 as a good stereo amp (and that was already about $250 over what I had hoped to spend)... adding $650 makes it a nearly-$1000 unexpected cost at this point. I feel like I'm going on a ride here... so I just want to make sure that decent bang-for-the-buck is the route I'm taking.
    
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post #4 of 44
Hi, I'll start by saying that I have not heard Q300 speakers.
My set-up includes AE floorstands and marantz sr-5006.
Marantz being new addition made this month. The shop I make my purchase are friendly and owned by one guy. So I just brought my PC when audited receivers.
I tried both, digital and HDMI. The music was played from foobar via WASAPI passthrough to receiver that was set to "pure direct" setting.
Did not hear any difference, I tried connecting external high-end DAC and did not hear difference on sr-5006.

Sound was better when he switched to roksan kandy2 AMP without telling me... it was connected from same DAC.

Bottom line from me would be that you totally must audit by yourself before you buy it. Hear it and then decide if it's what you want.
But generally I'd say that external DAC will give you much better performance gimmicky card. There are pro audio cards and those are not asus or logicrap.

P.S. Blind test is a must.
Edited by DiNet - 10/18/12 at 1:17am
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post #5 of 44
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by DiNet View Post

Hi, I'll start by saying that I have not heard Q300 speakers.
My set-up includes AE floorstands and marantz sr-5006.
Marantz being new addition made this month. The shop I make my purchase are friendly and owned by one guy. So I just brought my PC when audited receivers.
I tried both, digital and HDMI. The music was played from foobar via WASAPI passthrough to receiver that was set to "pure direct" setting.
Did not hear any difference, I tried connecting external high-end DAC and did not hear difference on sr-5006.
Sound was better when he switched to roksan kandy2 AMP without telling me... it was connected from same DAC.
Bottom line from me would be that you totally must audit by yourself before you buy it. Hear it and then decide if it's what you want.
But generally I'd say that external DAC will give you much better performance gimmicky card. There are pro audio cards and those are not asus or logicrap.
P.S. Blind test is a must.

Unfortunately I can't audition the sound card frown.gif

Auditioning the DAC might be a possibility, but that won't give me a reference point from a computer with a sound card (since the place I would be able to get the DAC doesn't have that sort of thing on display).

I'll see what I can do about demoing, but I think I'm left in a position where I just have to acquire as much knowledge as I can.

I'm thinking I may just get a sound card for now, and a DAC later. I hear daisy-chaining, going SPDIF from the sound card to the DAC, allows me to set up certain sound processing for movies & games through the sound card... which might be nice... so I might go with that cost-saving measure for now (which will end up being an extra $200 in the long-run).

This is definitely a tough decision. Thanks for the input.
    
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post #6 of 44
Thread Starter 
A bit of a self-bump here:

It's between the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100 at $380, and the Asus Xonar Essence ST sound card at $200. Any other DAC recommendations are something I'll take in.

Any input on the two? This is really a google-fest for me: I am very doubtful I'll have any chance to demo anything prior to a permanent purchase.
    
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post #7 of 44
The ST/STX (the ST sounds better; something about the PCI-E bus and sound cards) is actually not powered by the slot; it has a dedicated four-pin PSU input, so it gets power like a disk drive or an old graphics card. I can vouch for the ST; I love it. A lot better than anything X-Fi or any other internal card I've used and a lot better than my cheapo FiiO-E10 (I know, not in the same category). I have mine going straight out to an old Niko amp I refurbished (new caps and resistors and diodes all around), to some Polk Monitor 40's and my HD600's, and it does an excellent job.
I swapped out the opamp for the headphone amp, and that made it better than stock. The headphone amp built in does a surprisingly good job.

Can't say anything about the Cambridge; the last thing I used from them were some mid-90's 4.1 speakers. They were pretty good. But that doesn't help.
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post #8 of 44
It is audio equipment, you need to demo it before you buy. Making decision based on google is wrong on many levels.

All you'll do is send digital signal to DAC. I assume you'll use wasapi and will just passthrough to receiver untouched signal.
Asus Xonar has in-built DAC that takes external dac function and gives you analog outputs.

Audio Processor:
ASUS AV100 High-Definition Sound Processor (Max. 192KHz/24bit)
24-bit D-A Converter of Digital Sources:
Texas Instruments PCM1792A*1 for Front-Out (127dB SNR, Max. 192kHz/24bit)
24-bit A-D Converter for Analog Inputs:
Cirrus-Logic CS5381* 1 (120dB SNR, Max. 192kHz/24bit)

So it does same function as external DAC. Generally I have not ever received recommendation to buy audio card for my set-up. That being HiFi shops and my friends with pic set-ups that I only dream to own some day.

P.S. you can demo different DAC's. Just use some sort of portable player. Listen to your set-up at home from that source then bring it to shop. As far as DAC recommendation, I can't help there. Blind test FTW wink.gif
Edited by DiNet - 10/18/12 at 4:39am
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post #9 of 44
Cambridge Audio gear has been widely regarded as great value for money for several years now, since their comeback last decade. I have extensive experience with their CD players, 2 channel amplifiers, home theatre receivers and DVD players from my days working at a high-end hi-fi store. The DACMagic 100 is a great bit of kit and you will not regret purchasing one if you choose to do so. I would recommend that you do this rather than go for an internal sound card, as it will:

1) Provide at least the same quality as any sound card, as they are PC components, built by IT manufacturers. The DACMagic is designed and built by a company that specializes purely in audio gear.
2) Be of more use to you in the future where it can possibly be used in a dedicated hi-fi audio system, or another situation not involving a PC.
3) Look more awesome. smile.gif

The only downsides I can see is a slightly higher cost (although you have previously indicated that money is not the primary concern) and the requirement of another mains outlet. I think you should spend the extra $180 for the DACMagic and never look back.
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post #10 of 44
I had the original DAC Magic and thought it sounded nice. Use the USB input, being asynchronous, it will eliminate jitter and any electrical or ground loop noise.

The Q300's are great speakers, I have the Q100's desktop duty and love them.
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