Audio Technica produces some of the absolute best headphones, irrelevant of price, when it comes to positional audio. Even the likes of my Grado PS1000/GS1000 don't come close, and they are in an entirely different league. The capacity for almost lifelike audio positioning is frankly incredible. This is of course limited to their open air models, the closed ones lacking the AT magic in some ways.
However, you can have the world's best headphones, but they will sound like iPod ear buds (the world's worst headphones) if you are feeding them from a poor quality source. I do work as an audio engineer, and I will say that I have almost NEVER seen a set of headphones be the limiting factor in sound quality (the o cables have NEVER had a single impact on quality, and my Sonus Faber's for example sound exactly the same whether connected via the usual Monoprice 12AWG wire, or to one of the countless ridiculous snake oil "super cables" that I was given to try that would have cost $7500 for enough to match the length of the Monoprice in-wall runs, nevermind the fact that the $50, total, banana plugs from Monoprice are not just inordinately cheaper than the "super" ones, which retail for $799 per 2 PAIR, they're actually betterconstr ucted and have a noticeably better fit than the audiophool scam junk).
The fact is that the source is the most critical aspect in achieving good sound. You can have top of the line everything but if the source is junk, you will hear junk; however when the source is quality, it improves the audio whether you are using $10, $200, or $2000 headphones, to different degrees, but I can hear an immediate difference using even some MDR-100's much less any of my studio/higher end sets, when going from my TiHD to onboard audio.
When it comes to "simulated" 3D sound, Creative is without a doubt the top dog. CMSS3D is leagues ahead of the next best solution, Dolby's, in part because Dolby approaches the issue by simulating surround sound, thereby limiting the directional audio to 7 "virtual speaker" positions rather than the vastly superior "360 degree virtual world" as is done by Creative. In essence, Dolby is no different than the "Hall" or "Cathedral" DSP settings on a receiver, and the muffled, imprecise, distorted audio is the result.
I have had a number of AT cans, including the vaunted AD700/AD700X and AD900/X, and I have had a number of different sound cards (external DAC's too, but unlike most here, I find them to be no better or worse than a quality internal card until you get to the price range that exceeds the scope of not only cards but also what I consider reasonable).
The whole thing about the headphones having "no bass" is, like most things on the Internet, a vastly exaggerated claim that has been so repeated that it's become accepted as fact. Will you achieve higher LEVELS of bass with other (closed) cans? Absolutely! The thing is, "more" bass doesn't mean BETTER bass, it simply means that the lower frequency output is greater; unfortunately, many if not most people have been conditioned to think that with bass, quantity = quality (the reason you see so many obnoxious Civics w a $50 in dash unit, factory speakers, but stupid-ridiculous huge subwoofers in the trunk fed by thousands of watts worth of amps... Ironically, most of these people could have a great speaker setup for the same amount of money, but they would not be able to, literally, rattle apart the vehicle, or make everyone in a 3 block radius start looking up case precedent for shooting someone to protect humanity from their defective genetics spreading to future generations). I get asked for advice on audio stuff constantly, friends/family/etc, both home audio/headphones as well as car audio, and I always tell them to buy a subwoofer a size smaller than they are currently thinkingthey need; the 10" "stealth" sub in my '06 M3 (with Focal Utopia component speakers and a top of the line, 9" touchscreen headunit) even requires a bit of tuning in order to provide the right amount of bass, and a 12" much less 15" would be so much as to ruin the acoustics of a very high end setup.
The point I'm illustrating is bass should complement the rest of the frequency range, it should be clear and the difference between steps in frequency (ie from 35hz to 45hz) easily distinguished. This is unfortunately not what you will find in most cases, instead you will hear highs, mids, and "rumble".
The AT headphones provide extremely accurate bass, and the balance while not perfect is still far closer to ideal than most. It is not going to provide a concussive blast of smeary thumps, instead it is much more natural and "airy", with great definition or clarity. Most people who slam them for being bass anemic simply, through no fault of their own, possess a flawed idea of the purpose bass serves, although some simply like loud indistinguishable thumps (taste is as varied as anything, and while I admit that I think many people have horrific "taste", I respect and defend their right to have it).
Having had a variety of Audio Technica's good headphones (the open air ones), as well as a variety of sound cards, while by no means am I an authority on the matter but I do have significant experience as well as knowledge of audio in general. Keep in mind that audio is INCREDIBLY subjective, to theppoint where beliefs, expectations, and suggestions are just as much a factor in perceived quality as anything else; incidentally, this is why the audio industry is so filled with abhorrent, disgusting people who use manipulation, ridiculous pseudo-science (about as scientific as a Ouji board), and take a mound of cow feces, mould it into a bunch of outrageous technobabble that is absolutely meaningless, and use this to prey on people, selling $0.20 cable with a fancy sleeving/coating for as much as $100k or more. The placebo effect is high to say the least, and mixed with what I like to call "post-purchase defensive disorder", which is really a cognitive bias resulting from the need to rationalize the decision/purchase to themselves by trying to rationalize it to others (this is also the most common reason behind fanboy-ism, otherwise known as "the Internet").
As for the sound cards I've used with the AT headphones, they are:
Asus Xonar Essence ST (including the daughter board)
Asus Xonar Essence STX
Asus Xonar DSX/DGX/DG
HT Omega Claro Halo XT w daughter board
HT Omega Claro Halo
Creative SB Z
Creative SB Zx
Creative SB ZxR
Creative Titanium HD
and a handful of professional cards.
The Titanium HD is still, to this day, the most versatile card I've owned. It is a uniquely potent card in every scenario, from gaming to film to listening to music and even for producing music at the professional level! No other card has been able to do what this one does, which is to provide the best possible audio quality, without sacrificing one or more of the types of use. The STX, for example, the direct competition to the TIHD, is an incredible card for music, very good at film, but cannot even compare when it comes to games. The Claro Halo XT, one of the best of the best, is an absolutely perfect card for music on both ends, and is also superior to the STX for films in most all cases, but again, not a good choice for gaming. The new SB ZxR, with all its gizmos, doo-dads, whirligigs, and thingamajigers, wrapped in a shiny package with a bright red "look at me!" cover (claimed to be an EMI shield, but I did some tests, primarily w my TiHD, to see how it could be improved by intentionally creating an exceptional amount of EMI/RFI, and the cover makes extremely little difference vs the card naked; consequently, I have custom EMI/RFI shielding on audio, as well as high noise, components, which makes a measurable difference), is in my opinion a big step backward from the HD. Yes, it is very good at gaming, about equal to the HD, close enough that I can't say either is better. Unfortunately, it loses the magic of its older sibling, failing to continue the exceptional versatility, and as a result, while an excellent choice for gaming, I find the music/film audio noticeably lacking compared to its predecessor. Bear in mind that it's still far better than most, but I simply cannot recommend it because of price; it is simply not a $250 card, the Claro Halo XT far exceeding the ZxR in quality for everything but gaming, and costing less; I would recommend it at $130 or so, but at current prices it provides the poorest returns for the money out of everything I know of.
The STX, like all Asus cards, has an impressive amount going for it, from the construction quality to the choices of components, even the layout of the components is very well thought out. Unfortunately, for gaming, it is crippled by Dolby's lazy approach to positional headphone audio, whichas men tioned above is incapable of the precision and clarity of CMSS3D, with no way to improve the results. 7 "distinct" sources is awesome with 7 high quality tower speakers properly placed (and in a room well suited to surround) and enhanced by 1-2 quality subwoofer all fed from a world class receiver like a Pioneer SC-79 and even better with an extra pair for each Front-High and Front-Wide channels (11.x)...for film/television and the like. Well done, it can literally change how you view a film by cranking the "immersion dial" to 11.
However, headphones are both similar and world's apart from speakers, eliminating almost all of the things that make speakers at the same time both expensive and tremendously dependant upon the environment, and I have seen countless pricey setups that, as a result of environmental factors, sound no different than a HTiaB system. Headphones eliminate, or greatly reduce, all that extra air between your ears and the speakers, as well as the acoustic effects of an enclosed space much less the obstacles such as sofas, tables, and Spouse (
Creative, unlike Asus et al, took advantage of this and the result is the best available virtual surround you can get. Rather than trying to mimic an already limited, self-limiting approach to positional audio designed for full range 3-/4-way speakers in an enclosed space, Creative's approach is to actually produce sounds that are not tied to a preexisting speaker configuration, because our brain and auditory system is an insanely high precision instrument, one that hears and can distinguish between sounds in all "four degrees of freedom", as well as in time.
Thus, you can imagine a bubble completely surrounding you, one that can shrink or expand instantly and to immense differences in size. CMSS3D is that bubble, able to reproduce sounds from anywhere on it regardless of angle, and accurately do so even as the bubble is constantly changing from barely bigger than you to miles in diameter, with all sounds reaching you at the right point in time and none being out of sync.
Compare that to a reproduction of a basic home Theatre, where the sounds have only a few finite possible sources, which are completely static.
Which do you think is going to be more immersive?
As for an actual card, I recommend the Titanium HD over anything else. It's as close to a compromise free card as has ever existed, it is able to produce better than studio quality audio and also provide the most accurate and realistic positional audio CONCURRENTLY without sacrificing one for the other even in the slightest, and while games are it's strongest suit, unless you have well into six figures just in speakers and amps/receivers for your home system/theater you will likely never find it to be worse than (the select few mentioned above) cards that DO sacrifice gaming audio in favor of music/media.
I would watch prices, as they're still available retail and quite often are heavily discounted; I picked up five BNIB from Micro Center 8mo ago for $60 a pop, more than half off. Even at the $130 it seems to be retailing for standard these days it is a phenomenal deal, orders of magnitude better return on your money than the $120 more expensive ZxR. Also, watch the classifieds here; I would not hesitate to pick up a used one from a trustworthy member, and you will end up with the peak of premium discrete audio output for the price of a new budget card.
The Z-series are newer, yes, but they are not better. In many ways they are inferior, and most others they merely match, because the audio world moves about as fast as a tectonic plate compared to the computer world, and unlike computers, age is at worst irrelevant, heck I am listening to music on Winamp through my TiHD right now, with quad-shielded (and custom sleeved by me w one of Tech Flex's premium AlCu fine wire mesh EMI/RFI resistant sleeving and their Kevlar/Aramid sleeve atop that) RCA cables from Monoprice running to a Pioneer SC-79 receiver (they are at the lead for home receivers, with the absolute best amplifiers that aren't independent units; I have plenty of McIntosh amps for the times those are needed, but the Class D3 Pioneer amps are extremely far ahead of the game), then Monoprice 12 gauge 99.99pct pure high-strand-count speaker wire and gold electroplated banana plugs (the wire is sleeved w the same EMI/RFI followed by Kevlar exterior) to a pair of speakers that are one of my favorites, 100pct original RTR Digital V Model 200's circa 1980 or so, from when RTR was a small family run company, and the speakers are hand made, drivers designed by a collaboration with Pioneer, Focal, and ML and manufactured alongside Pioneers Ultra premium drivers. 4-way speakers, they have one each of 1", 2.25", 4", and 8" drivers, a complex baffles system with high density foam and fiber, and the crossovers were considered one of the bestever designed aand equal or better than anything else regardless of price. Each and every driver was tested independently and the frequency response graph recorded, and each speaker houses the best matching drivers (most complementary) out of as many as 1100 and at least 300 already produced, on-site, and tested. Each pair of speakers was matched the same way, and the crossovers were tuned again after being paired so to best match the speakers, all done manually with the help of instruments, rather than assembly line production. The result is a speaker that is not known by many audio enthusiasts, but which have a cult following, due to the limited number made. The Digital V Model 200 was the last speaker they made before being bought out and turned into a shell of a name, and consequently it not only is the pinnacle of the company's design and development experience, but it was also built with zero regards to materials cost, allegedly the drivers are the highest grade manufactured at the time and the the cheapest other speaker to use them was $5800, in 1980's dollars, and each speakers individual frequency response graph is printed onto the face of the unit by the name. I paid less than $20 for the pair, and they'd spent the last 14 years (1998-2013) in climate controlled storage in airtight packaging. I have a lot of speakers, from cheap (money, not quality) Craigslist deals to high end handmade ultra premium speakers such as the Sonus Faber's, but these RTR are one of my favorite speakers ever.
Can you imagine still relying on a computer from the early 80's, much less choosing to use it because it's better than almost every modern one?
That's what I mean. Quality audio equipment DOES NOT ever expire, in fact it's just the opposite: like good wine, they get better over time.
One of the most heavily emphasized pieces of advice I give to people who ask for my help is this: "you will see a lot of neat-o whizz-bang doodads, a lot of stuff alleging it's ultra new superiority, and so on... I am not telling you to ignore it, I'm telling you to avoid it. I havesseen enough to surmise a direct linear correlation between the amount of fluff or gimmicks, and the 'expiration date', and brands like Polk and Klipsch, unless you get into their actually good stuff (which you will never see in Best Buy; the only possible place would be a small high end audio shop), are not designed to be around for long, but just enough until the next "updated" model is released which will be 99.99pct identical, but unless they know better, people think newer is better, and consequently rush out to replace their 2yr old speakers with, well, the same thing but it's a 75T instead of a 70T so clearly it's a worthwhile $800 purchase, right? Look for brands that skirt the edge between common/popular and unknown, they're usually the best in almost all ways; there are a few exceptions to this, from the well known side, and believe it or not Cerwin Vega is the biggest one. Yes, the headbanger brand, except for the fact that the VE-12 and similar newer models are simply incredible for the price, and are phenomenal speakers for any use. Andrew Jones Pioneer speakers are the best on the market for the money, zero exception, and would still be at 2x the price and likely higher. The most important thing is research, I don't want you to take just my opinion, but rather be able to form your own. Avoid ANY "audiophile" site or source, as most had their intelligence and logic removed to make the air in their skull "more conducive to the inherent warmth and psycho electroacoustic interdemodulatuon of the rapid phase change state of the music particles", and they're not idiot savants, just idiots. Don't trust anything but your own ears, because the audio world is the most corrupted market there is, the most egotistical, and the most full if bleep. The ONLY time to look at reviews, is after you narrow down choices, and then you just check amazon and Newegg to get an idea of reliability. Good luck!".
Substitute sound card or headphones for speakers, and it remains at least as true.