Author Topic: Sound Cards for Music Server PC  (Read 16805 times)

RoadRunner

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Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« on: November 30, 2009, 12:58:52 PM »
Years ago, "experts" stated that you could not get decent audio out of a PC. (Something about  too noisy an environment, electronically speaking) 

Now with  HTPCs and Music Server PCs, that certainly seems possible. 
Can any recommendations be made on  Makes and models of sound cards to use;   
specs to look for, specs to avoid,
What will affect for the good, and
what will affect for the bad.

Reading thru posts, it sounds like Carl and others may be using USB sound cards???
If that is the case, what would be the advantage.

It looks like many sound cards have an  expansion  bay, or external expansion box, but this looks mostly to me to be just for  connection ease, not performance.

My audio system is all andlog, so Toslink/S/PDIF is of little interest at this point.

My main interest is getting  lossless audio off my hard drive and into my audio system with as little distortion and loss to the original signal as was recorded on a CD.

The sound card and of course interconnects seems to be the major area of concern here.

Offline Carlman

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #1 on: November 30, 2009, 03:00:49 PM »
If you're not interested in an external DAC, you are interested in an internal (to the PC) DAC.  I personally think you'll be getting older technology going this route.  The Buffalo chip and DAC technology are moving fast and not trickling down as quickly to the pro audio cards (which is what you'll be needing). 
I have used an M-Audio Delta DIO for a long time.. and it is a very nice PCI card with analog outs.  I am hesitant to get rid of it because I do like it quite a bit and might need it one day (doubtful)... but I'd be willing to let you borrow it for experimentation.

I went with USB because it's supposedly a better digital feed than spidf.. the 'i2s' or whatever had some technological advantage.  I can't remember the details, just that it made sense at the time.  My DAC accepts coax and toslink also.  I have a really nice USB cable and so far I have not found a reason to change DAC's.  Another reason I like USB is that I can use any PC.. ANY.. so if it's super tiny, quiet, and so on.. I still have an audio PC.. Plus, you can easily bypass all the audio stuff Windows is doing.

All that said.. The Lynx LM22 is also a VERY nice card and the analog output from that is excellent. 

Other than the M-Audio I have and Lynx LM22 I've heard, I do not know of any other excellent cards for analog out.  The break out cables for some cards are for convenience.. or could be needed since there is no RCA jacks.. On my M-Audio there are gold plated RCA jacks.. but on others there are no jacks and you have to use the break-out cable.

If it were me, I'd highly recommend an external dac.  Use the PC as a transport.  You can get a much cheaper sound card or even use what's on the motherboard for the digital out (or usb) and spend that money on a DAC.. then you can try different DAC's... rather than sinking 200-1000 on a sound card that you may or may not like the DAC..  Just a thought.

-C
I really enjoy listening to music.

Offline mdconnelly

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #2 on: November 30, 2009, 03:27:42 PM »
I've wrestled with this as well.  There is no question that a quiet PC, a good audio board and an external DAC is very doable and sounds great (I've heard Carl's setup and it's pretty damn awesome  :thumb:).  I totally agree with Carl that finding a solid external DAC is the way to go and there are some great DACs out there.  But finding or building a quiet PC and getting a good audio board is not as simple nor as cheap as you'd think.

While I've been toying with doing this for quite some time, the path I have taken is Logitech's Squeezebox.  The SB3 is now out of production but can be picked up cheap.  While the internal DAC is going to sound mid-fi at best, using it with an external DAC is not too shabby. The Logitech Transporter is the high road - sounds great with a pretty good internal DAC but at a substantial price (although probably less than a Lynx audio board + good DAC these days).   Then there is the new, soon-to-be-shipped Logitech Touch which is reported to sound much better than the SB3 (or Duet which is what I'm currently using), capable of 24/96 playback without conversion and just $299.  From what I hear, it's internal DAC is also supposed to be a good bit better than the SB3 (albeit, probably still mid+fi).  What fascinates me about it is that it apparently can work as a server itself by just plugging a USB harddrive into it.  Time will tell on that front but I think I will jump on it once it starts shipping.

P.S... Logitech Touch can be preordered from Crutchfield.com for $279 with promotion code 3A825 but I think it expires today!
« Last Edit: November 30, 2009, 03:42:06 PM by mdconnelly »

Offline richidoo

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #3 on: November 30, 2009, 04:11:48 PM »
Internal cards have some advantages over USB or SPDIF because they sit right on the PCI bus in the same room with the processor creating the stream. An external sound card on the other end of USB or SPDIF converters must remedy the jitter created in getting the data out of the computer. USB2 is stuck below 48kHz sampling rate. 

State of the art internal sound cards:
CardDeluxe
RME
Lynx

These are all pro audio parts, so things like air, soundstaging, tonal perfection are not necessarily on the pro audio engineers priority list. You just have to listen to see if it's good enough. Pro gear is all about the specs, and these cards are technically "perfect" in the test lab.

The value sweet spot in the market now is an external DAC which eliminates jitter, fed by a cheap digital source like network player, PC, CDP. DACs using ESS Sabre32 are particularly good at eliminating jitter. Carl refers to it as Buffalo because that is model name of a DAC which uses that chip. They are offered now by many brands from Eastern Electric to McIntosh and Sim Audio and lots more to come. But there are other great DACs like Bryston BDA-1, Oracle DAC1000, PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC which do not use Sabre32 and deal with jitter their own way.

The Cambridge DACMagic is supposed to be decent, USB input <$1000.

A high end audio DAC will have a purist current to voltage and analog output stages that retain all the esoteric sonic attributes that audiophiles crave.

djdube525

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #4 on: November 30, 2009, 07:22:17 PM »
Other than the M-Audio I have and Lynx LM22 I've heard, I do not know of any other excellent cards for analog out.  The break out cables for some cards are for convenience.. or could be needed since there is no RCA jacks.. On my M-Audio there are gold plated RCA jacks.. but on others there are no jacks and you have to use the break-out cable.

The Esi Juli@ is another decent sound card with analog outs

http://www.esi-audio.com/products/julia/

Dave

Offline bpape

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #5 on: December 01, 2009, 04:55:03 AM »
The other option is to use something like a modded Squeezebox or a Transporter and avoid having your DAC anywhere near the noisy PC guts.  You'd stream to the SB or TP over a network connection.  This also allows you to not have to have a physically noisy/loud PC in the listening room.

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Offline rollo

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #6 on: December 01, 2009, 06:23:41 AM »
A simple and solution could be the HRT Musicstreamer+ USB DAC at $299. Very close to my Lector CDP7, a steal . Check out Music Direct or the HRT site for details.



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Offline hometheaterdoc

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #7 on: December 01, 2009, 07:35:16 AM »
I've tried more cards than I care to remember as I've been doing audio PC for at least 5+ years now.  Even the ultra expensive internal pro cards are not as good via analog output as the alternatives.  External interfaces like those from MAudio, RME, etc. try to bridge the gap by getting the delicate stuff on a soundcard outside the noisy environment of the PC.

In my opinion, an Audio PC should be used as a transport to feed music digitally to an external DAC.  Trying to do analog out from inside the PC on a sound card is not going to achieve the best possible audiophile sound.

The perk of an audio PC over some of the other alternatives being discussed here (Sonos, Logitech's products based on Slim Server, etc.) is that it's a PC and can do all the other things a PC can do while you are listening to music.  For those of us with the attention spans of a gnat (I'm raising my hand here) you can surf the web, respond to customer emails, do video editing, etc. all at the same time that music is playing since its right on the screen there with the music.  All from one device.  Streaming out digital audio via Foobar, MediaMonkey, etc. is not CPU intensive at all.  You don't need a lot of resources to do that.  So if going the USB method, you can use a rinky dink PC and be fine.  It can be easily done with the ~$120 Linux based fanless all in one board units to $240 Dell desktops, etc.  For what I'm doing, the only caveat is that you need a spare PCI full height slot in the case.

You can get an audio PC pretty darn quiet.  Windows 7 also has some great power saving features built in.  I finally got around to adjusting my bios to control fan speed, put an SSD drive in my machine (no hard drive noise!!) and you can barely hear the PC when you are within a foot of it and everything else is turned off in the house.  At the listening seat, nothing...

For getting digital audio out of the PC, my personal choice is a Lynx sound card with custom dongle to replace the included breakout cable.  I tested it against an asyncrhonous USB to SPDIF converter and I preferred this method.  The Lynx AES16 is the standard amongst computer audiophiles as far as I can tell for folks trying to get AES/EBU out of their audio PCs.  The L22 can do the same thing but is usually more expensive because of it's DAC capability for analog output.
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RoadRunner

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #8 on: December 03, 2009, 07:14:42 PM »
Since I will only be able to upgrade my system by bits and pieces at a time, I am most likely looking at a fairly simple and recyclable solution.

On internal DAC solution that has really caught my attention is from, of all people, ASUS, that's right, the Motherboard people.

They have one product, not long on the market, using TI DACs, (the 24bit  TI Burr-Brown PCM1792A, with a 127dB cited SNR.)

It is the  ASUS Xonar Essence ST/STX soundcard.

This 'sounds' to be the best of all worlds, by the reviews I have read, but  does anyone have some ears on experience with it? 


Your thoughts on the card, if experienced or the TI DACS would be appreciated.

Offline Carlman

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #9 on: December 04, 2009, 05:54:59 AM »
I doubt very many people have experience with the Asus DAC your referring to.  However, the Asus mobo's are generally very good and they were producing 'deluxe' boards a few years ago with bit perfect digital outs.. and were well reviewed.  Asus clearly has some clue about audio.

It's definitely worth a shot.  Depending on the rest of your system, it may be more than adequate.. What are you hooking it up to.. i.e. what's your system?

-C
I really enjoy listening to music.

Offline richidoo

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #10 on: December 04, 2009, 07:24:48 AM »
I think it's worth a try. You could unload it easily for $100 if you didn't like it. Funny the marketing they put on it as an audiophile source. Gold engraved noise shield, and gold ribbon on spine of manual. I think they are trying to appeal to gamers who really like their music and listening to headphones while they play their games.

The chips are OK, TI DACs are kinda old hat now, chosen here for price. But they will outperform the analog circuits. Electrolytic and SMD caps no matter how good are limited in the resolution they can deliver - no room for films caps in a PC soundcard's space or budget. But they are using good quality electro caps, Nichicon and Oscon.

Specs: http://hothardware.com/Articles/ASUS-XONAR-Essence-STX-Headphone-Amp-Card/

It has digital output in case you want something better later.  I hope you will write a little review for us when you get it set up and burned in. Thanks!

Card Deluxe CDX-01 is the only other card that I would recommend. Costs twice as much, but has a real audiophile heritage. Stereophile class A rating for a decade. But you are paying for recording ability, and low latency analog and digital inputs. I like to be able to record radio broadcasts and vinyl, but that may not be important to you.

RoadRunner

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #11 on: December 05, 2009, 01:34:26 PM »
I doubt very many people have experience with the Asus DAC your referring to.  However, the Asus mobo's are generally very good and they were producing 'deluxe' boards a few years ago with bit perfect digital outs.. and were well reviewed.  Asus clearly has some clue about audio.

It's definitely worth a shot.  Depending on the rest of your system, it may be more than adequate.. What are you hooking it up to.. i.e. what's your system?

-C

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Offline richidoo

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #12 on: December 05, 2009, 01:44:25 PM »
Very interesting system!!!

RoadRunner

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #13 on: December 05, 2009, 01:47:18 PM »
Very interesting system!!!

like in drag racing....'run what ya brung'  then modify upgrade & replace as you have the resources.

Offline richidoo

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Re: Sound Cards for Music Server PC
« Reply #14 on: December 14, 2009, 05:29:12 PM »
The ASUS Sound cards are on the cover of Stereophile magazine this month!  The review is very good. Looks like a winner for the $200 price.