If you're one of those people in search of the holy grail of audio fidelity, there's no doubt that using a PC as a complete front-end solution has probably crossed your mind at one time or another. Saving your entire music library to a hard drive and having all your favorite tracks just a few clicks away is certainly appealing, but what about the sound playback quality? Can it compete with dedicated disc transports costing thousands of dollars?

If you haven't made the move to using a PC as your front-end player, perhaps you've been deterred by the fact that PC's lack the dedicated audio engineering that we find in high-end disc spinners. Or, like me, you brought a cheap CD player and modified it to the nines and are now reluctant to invest your time in starting afresh. Such was my case until a couple of months ago when my aging Pioneer PD-S801 gave up the ghost, leaving me scrambling to find a suitable replacement.

I'd invested so much time into the PDS-801; just about every aspect of the machine had been changed somehow. Modifications to the unit included a directly heated triode output stage, fitting a low jitter master clock, replacing all audio critical electrolytic capacitors with ultra low ESR types, and replacing the stock power circuitry with ultra low noise wide bandwidth voltage regulators. Most of the inspiration for these modifications came from cruising DIY audio forums, where other obsessive-compulsive audio crazed folk like me tend to hang out.

Frequenting such places again in my time of need, I noticed that the buzzword in audiophile circles regarding ultimate digital playback now revolves around using PCs to store and playback music rather than the very best standalone transports that money can buy. It seems the buzz is primarily about three things. The first is the prospect of bit perfect data retrieval when using a suitable lossless format to burn your compact discs to a hard drive. The second is using DRC (digital room correction) to help compensate for listening room resonance and reflections. The third, using software based digital crossovers, thus overcoming passive crossover insertion losses and allowing for a more cohesive integration of drive units in multi-driver speakers.

My previous experiments using a PC with mid-budget consumer grade soundcards fell short of providing the resolution, sound staging, and detail retrieval of the modified Pioneer player. I'd put the differences down to the rampant levels of noise present inside of a PC case. After all, when it comes to soul-stirring audio reproduction, ultra low noise clean DC power is a must, and that's not something that we associate with your typical computer PSU. Computer PSUs are primarily designed to supply huge amounts of current on demand, within a certified noise band of course, but nowhere near the quality we find in a dedicated linear power supply. Hence, serious audio playback requires a soundcard designed to deal with the shortcomings of the PC's internal environment.

This leads us back towards pro audio gear used by recording engineers such as the M-Audio and Lynx range of soundcards. Most of the physical differences between pro audio solutions and your basic consumer oriented product can be put down to better components, trace routing, voltage regulation, and power supply decoupling. In addition, the pro cards feature low latency drivers that bypass Microsoft's K-Mixer and can be used with specialized software allowing all sorts of signal rerouting and manipulation. This adds up to making the pro audio offerings flexible enough for people wanting to engage DRC in a fully customized multichannel setup.

Although user reports on some of the internal pro soundcards are very favorable, my interests are stoked by external affairs. An external box presents far more interesting possibilities and flexibility to me when it comes to power supply and output stage modifications. Both are things that I'm too twitchy to leave alone and unchanged until the unit either dies under the knife or gives me what I want in terms of sonics.

One such solution revolves around using the Texas Instruments 270* range of USB - I2S and S/PDIF converter chips, which are used in several commercial outboard DACs that are rumored to be capable of upstaging even the most expensive standalone players. Better still, a range of attractively priced DIY DAC kits based on the Texas Instruments receiver chips are available that utilize levels of engineering found in commercial products costing much more. The unfortunate upshot with the TI 270* family of converters is that they're designed for two-channel use only. Those demanding external multichannel audio units will have to look towards Pro FireWire audio boxes or standalone units like the Behringer DCX2496, which has more functionality than most of us will ever need. If two-channel playback is sufficient then Logitech's Squeezebox music streamer also deserves a mention. Both the DCX2496 and Squeezebox are products that have been thoroughly adulterated by DIY masterminds and there are plenty of commercial or DIY modification packages available for both units that elevate their performance.

We aim to put some of these products to the test in the coming months while also focusing on commercial loudspeakers, disc players, and amplifiers for a range of budgets from pocket friendly to the spare-no-expense league. Today, we will take a brief look at two DIY DAC kits that we've built up and have been subjectively listening to for the past few weeks. We'll also be looking at PC-based DRC in the form of a software package called Audiolense 3.0 using some open baffle single driver speakers from 3D Sonics. If any of this tomfoolery interests you, read on....

The Test System
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  • Hyperion1400 - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    Amen to that. There is no set style of music for audiophiles. I personally enjoy metal and classic punk (bad religion,sex pistols etc.) as well as a mix of classical composers(I have always had a strange love for Beethoven's 9th after watching Neon Genesis Evangelion)

    Also, will you be doing a review of the X-fi Elite Pro or will you be primarily dealing with external hardware. I know I will most likely be shunned for mentioning such a thing in the same post as (vicariously) declaring myself an audiophile, but I absolutely love mine. Without that card and my Senhiesser HD 650s, I don't think I could listen to my music/games the same way again(no pun intended)
    Reply
  • johnYks - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    Hello Rajinder - Excellent article
    Anyone interested in pursuing similar projects
    is advised to go to
    DIYAUDIO.com and read the thread in the speaker section
    titled A How to for a PC XO
    http://www.diyaudio.com/forums/showthread.php?s=&a...">http://www.diyaudio.com/forums/showthread.php?s=&a...

    Another excellent source of information can be found at
    AUDIOASYLUM.com under the section Digital PC audio
    http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/etv.mpl?forum=pcaud...">http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/etv.mpl?forum=pcaud...
    look for the following threads
    cMP the open source memory player
    http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/vt.mpl?f=pcaudio&am...">http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/vt.mpl?f=pcaudio&am...
    and cPlay the open source high end player
    http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/vt.mpl?f=pcaudio&am...">http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/vt.mpl?f=pcaudio&am...
    Reply
  • Rajinder Gill - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    Thx John, excellent links.
    Reply
  • CSMR - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    I'm afraid the author is just the typical novice audiophile who has been taken in by an unscientific way of thinking; it's a shame to have an article like this on AnandTech.
    It touches on interesting issues but without proper discussion. (Discussion of DRC with no mention or use of complementary/alternative use of room treatments.)

    -Producing an analog line out with fidelity well beyond the range of human hearing is no problem these days. You don't need a fancy solution. There is no need to fiddle with I2S, or external DACs at all. You have semi-pro sound cards with analog out well beyond 16/44 fidelity.
    -kmixer no longer exists. There is no need to discuss it in a new system. It's a particular flaw of Windows XP, not Vista.
    -In a review of an audiophile computer system it is irrelevent to list amps/speakers/etc because the computer has only has three requirements - producing good analog out (very easy), being quiet (much harder), and good software (harder).
    -But if you do mention these things you should choose good ones. Tube amps are expensive, power-hungry, and often distorting. If you want any sort of alteration in the signal you can use DSP on the computer system, it's one of the advantages. And just use a good technically competent amp, with enough power, low output impedance, good s/n, etc.. Class D is today's technology; where have you been the last 5 years?
    -The computer is badly designed. Apart from unnecessary complexity (a simple pro-audio sound card should suffice), the computer is not designed to be silent. X48 is not the appropriate choice for a silent PC, and other choices are also bad.
    -The author is well-read like most audiophiles but has learned from the wrong sources, namely other audiophiles rather instead of people who know about audio engineering, and so is full of misinformation despite his enthusiasm.
    Reply
  • mindless1 - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    Your opening and closing statements are a bit ironic for having so many false conclusions.

    1) Analog out with fidelity beyond the range of human hearing is irrelevant, fidelity within it is. It is a fact that even switching an ompamp alone changes the sonic signature... anywhere in the chain. Also, there is no need for "semi-pro" sound cards, some of those are no better than a properly designed non-pro card. Pro tends to mean features and software, not basic audio quality beyond the cost of the DAC if talking analog output but why are we talking analog output? That is insane, the sound should leave the PC digitized still until a DAC local to the power amp converts it. No amount of money you spend on a pro sound card with analog output and no amount of modifying that card to make it even better will equal with an off the shelf reference DAC design will achieve by simply getting the analog subsection out of the PC and keeping cable losses and noise pickup minimized.

    2) It is relevant to list speakers and amps because they can and do color the sound, and provide a reference of whether someone can or can't hear something due to there being no difference or that they weren't changing the problem part or weakest link.

    3) I agree, tubes are a personal preference probably best left out of an article but to replicate with DSP is a bad idea if tube-like sound is the goal, it never sounds the same. It is not enough to just use a technically competent amp with all the paper specs the same, plenty of amps with very good s/n ratio that sound difference can demonstrate this. s/n ratio is an incomplete method of describing audible differences and often fails in the resolution of the sampling and order of harmonic distortions present. Class D? You must be joking that being "today's" tech is important. Good old class A biased transistors stomp all over class D in everything except efficiency. Remember, it's not about novel ideas, it's about what actually sounds best... and to the author that might even be tubes.

    4) About the computer, a X6800 CPU, 4GB memory, and Vista are all ludicrous overkill. Probably a Celeron 500 with 64MB memory would be fine, but claiming the X48 chipset system is loud based on some arbitrary assumption about heat without consideration of cooling design and that it's many times higher in performance than needed? The system could probably be underclocked and undervolted as far as it can go then every fan can be unplugged if you feel so strongly about that.

    5) You claim to know audio engineering. You may know about integrated circuit engineering, how to plug a chip in and follow a schematic, or you may not - this is a different tangent, but you don't know how the variables interact to change the sound in ways that are DBX audible. In some cases one change alone may not even be audible but the sum of several changes are. You might not feel it if someone dropped a grain of sand upon your head but what if it was a bucket full?
    Reply
  • CSMR - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    Thank you for the reply.
    1. I suggested semi-pro level card because they produce good analog output and maybe more importantly have good and flexible drivers which can be used for DSP and audio routing, and because they can be relatively inexpensive by audiophile standards ($100-$300). I haven't studied the range of consumer cards but if they produce good enough analog output and you don't mind using 1/8" jacks which can be unreliable, then they are a good option.
    I didn't suggest modding or spending a lot of money because it's pointless if all you need is good analog output.
    2. But an a review of an audiophile computer need not involve how it sounds! Relevant factors are price, noise, analog out measurements.
    3. OK class D and A compete at the high-end but for budget amps you can get very good class Ds and not class As, and mostly I would recomment budget amps because other factors (speakers, room acoustics, DSP) are much more important.
    4. You can't undervolt enthusiast components to low power levels, and yes they can be cooled quietly but it becomes harder and more expensive with no actual benefit, so what's the point? Undervolting and underclocking only works to some extent on some components btw. Often only the processor.
    5. Maybe changing the opamps has a measureable effect then. The study I posted concluded that a combination of ADC+96/24->16/44 downsampling+DAC resulted in no audible effect, and none of these components were high end. I would conclude that all of these steps was essentially perfect, as far as hearing is concerned. Yes, maybe combined with other effects it can make a slight difference. So bump up qaulity (s/n, thd, frequency response) by a few db by using a good card and just a DAC. Now the effect is not a grain of sand but a fraction of a grain of sand. Whereas speakers, DSP, room acoustics have HUGE effects.
    Reply
  • phusg - Tuesday, December 02, 2008 - link

    Guys, feel free to discuss what you like, but personally I'd say discussions about speakers (important as they are to the sound you hear) are pretty much off-topic for a PC hardware site such as anandtech.

    Another interesting discussion which I missed was analog or digital out of the PC. Sure going digital with an outboard DAC is a reasonable way to go but plenty of sites cater to that route, and it doesn't have much to do with home computing anymore. I would like to hear more on the analog option.

    The really interesting bit to me is the DRC software. Thanks for opening my eyes to this. Unfortunately not testing the open source ACXO software because you couldn't install or find a Windows XP system, but still recommending it, is a bit lame. Now I'll have to install and test it on my own system, which is exactly what I want to avoid by coming to a site like this.
    Reply
  • RamarC - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    i'm not sure all of your criticism is warranted but i do agree that this article is very out-of-place on anandtech. with the somewhat exoctic amps and speakers, it should be on a home theater mag/website or some other speciality audio site, but not my "source for hardware analysis and news".
    Reply
  • aapocketz - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    RamarC has pointed out something that struck me as well, why is this posted on anandtech (not the blogs even). Its somewhat out of place. Also I think CSMR has a point, it seems a bit like cargo cult science to me. Next we will be talking about gold foil CDs and premium HDMI cables and stickers to get your cell phone better reception. Reply
  • whatthehey - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    I'm afraid the above poster is just the typical arrogant troll who has been mistaken in thinking his opinion is somehow more important than yours; it's a shame to have post like this in the AnandTech comments.

    It touches on some issues but without meaningful discussion. (Discussion of flaws with no real proof of how they're wrong, other than to suggest much more informaiton is needed.)

    -Producing an analog line out with fidelity well beyond the range of human hearing is no problem these days. Obviously. You dimwit, Rajander! How dare you suggest that you can actually hear a difference, when clearly it's a trivial problem solved by sound engineers five years ago. Didn't you know that a $150 sound card is all you need?

    -In a post in Anandtech comments, it's tradition to bitch about the choice of components. God forbid anyone use what is available instaed when he admits the core aspect (analog out) isn't that hard. You should never use X48 in anything even if that's what you have, because other better options abound. See his list of good alternatives and clear, concise explanation of how they're superior.

    -Where have you been the last 5 years? All you need to do is plug in a semi-pro sound card and all your problems are solved. Just look at all the testing and results he's compiled in the above post!

    -Your software choices also are terrible. Again, see his list of superior alternatives as constructive criticism.

    -The poster is opinionated like most readers but has learned to believe in a subjective audio article exploring a new subject, your opinion is wrong and his is right. Who in the hell listens to any audiophiles when all you need is some people that know about audio engineering? Because obviously he does!

    In short, despite his obvious disdain for your treading in his territory, he contributes nothing to the discussion other than to piss on your ideas and those of all other audiophiles, without any clear indication that there's a better way.

    The only real problem I have with articles like this is that they're so subjective... and they cause the opinionated trolls of the internet to surface and tell you you're totally wrong and the article should never have been posted, but without any clearly better alternative. It seems like this might become another area similar to digital cameras if you don't back the f*** off, because you should just listen to audio engineers. Don't trust your ears or anything else; trust the guy posting anonymously without any links to back up his assertions.

    Personally, I only know enough about audio to say that sound mixers and the like use all sorts of different mics, speakers, DAC/ADC, etc. because it really does make a profound difference. That's why some albums come out sounding amazing and others suck; it's an art form rather than engineering. God forbid engineers be put in charge of anything where creativity plays a role. FWIW, I'm sure the final result is highly pleasing to you, and that's what's really important. Now I'm just going back to my boring old audio setup that does what I need it to do (because I don't really listen to music much).
    Reply

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