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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  • mindless1 - Monday, December 1, 2008 - link

    The fact is, even audio streams that measure the same can and do still sound different. The problem is the resolution of measurement and the misconceived notion that the brain interprets sound at a fixed interval as measured.

    There's a lot of snake oil in the audiophile world, but there's also a lot of what you'd like to call "magic" only be cause you don't accept it as non-magic.

    Any decent DAC would in idealized theory be as good, but in practice a different IC topology may lend itself better to certain inherant localized noise frequencies and cutoffs, be better mated to the circuit it's dropped into, have drifts from thermal changes, etc. If they were all the same why would there be so many? I will agree that which modern DAC is used in a reasonably good design matters less than what follows after it in the chain but the best way to minimize any potential for degradation is to start out with what is most likely to minimize it in every way possible then following this concept the entire time, waiting and seeing if the end result is audibly different rather than downplaying them all without knowing the additive result yet.
  • CSMR - Monday, December 1, 2008 - link

    Yes if you are maximizing quality you will choose the best of all components. But it's more sensible to care about cost and time too, so you have to prioritize. The value of the research about the unimportance of DACs (at at beyond a certain level) is that you can stop worrying about this part of the chain and spend you time/money where it is important.
  • JonnyDough - Tuesday, December 2, 2008 - link

    Exactly my point. Why spend more on one component if it's going to be "bottlenecked" by another one. Spending $2000 on a nice amp is crazy if your other components are crap. I think in the end it's like all other techs. You want decent stuff for a reasonable price unless you have more money than brains. While I scoff at people willing to spend more than few thousand on a sound system, without them we wouldn't have gotten to where we are today - with good possibilities on the market. As long as you like what you hear, who cares if it's perfect? At one point is something "good enough?" I mean honestly, there are people starving in the world, friends dying of cancer, etc...and we want to worry about whether or not something is inaudibly "perfect." Blow your money on something that MATTERS, you can't listen to music every hour of everyday unless your job is singing.
  • CSMR - Tuesday, December 2, 2008 - link

    I meant you can spend time/money on speakers/room acoustics/dsp but food for starving people is admittedly a better use of time and money.
  • JonnyDough - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    That's actually a matter of perspective. For example, you can donate food to a starving kid in some third world country and next thing you know that child has three kids and no way to feed them - and you've just marginally made the problem worse, not better.

    I think money is better spent on education, which leads to fewer babies. Many countries do not have quality farmland that can support the population on their own (the U.S. supports a large percentage of the world's population). Then there's natural habitat destruction, pollution from oil for having to ship food to them, etc. You get the picture.
  • JonnyDough - Monday, December 1, 2008 - link

    While I was generally agreeing with CMSR above, I guess what everyone ends up saying is that hearing is subjective, which is something audiophiles are always agreeing upon yet they still love to argue over things.

    Does a vinyl record produce better sound than a CD?

    It depends on what an individual values most.

    A CD may produce less static noise, but have a "duller" sound, seemingly less highs and lows. It all depends on what one appreciates with their own ears.

    While there are measurements that can be taken in a closed chamber, one sound system might actually sound better in a specific home or room than another for whatever reason. Even so, the average person can rarely tell a difference these days between the moderately priced components.

    The really silly thing is that people will spend $200 on a sound card and then use cheap plastic speakers.
  • Rajinder Gill - Monday, December 1, 2008 - link

    Lol, it's ok, everyone in entitled to have their say.

    It's the first piece so bear with us while we try to cater to a wider set of ideals.

    With regards to the obj/subj stuff, it's an argument that'll never be solved.

  • CSMR - Monday, December 1, 2008 - link

    Sorry if I came on too strongly; I was just expecting that Anandtech would have not necessarily an expert take but at least a more technical take than you get in audiophile communities.
    I would do some more fundamental thinking about what are the key factors in computer audio playback.
    As a start you could rank in terms of what is most critical:
    computer performance, computer quietness, software (drivers, dsp), analog line out, volume control, amplification, cables, speakers, room acoustics.
    I won't give you my list but you should think about it and it is possible to compare many of these things in a very quantitative way, and some are more important than others by several orders of magnitude.
  • AnnihilatorX - Monday, December 1, 2008 - link

    A dumb question about correction.

    The theory behind it is simple enough, but why do we need dedicated hardware to do the correction? Why can't we use simple graphical equalizers? I understand graphical equalizers are quite discrete in the range of selectable frequencies. How much difference does it make?
  • Rajinder Gill - Monday, December 1, 2008 - link

    DRC - ease of use and range of control, plus taking care of things in the digital realm rather than in the analogue.You could fudge some control with a multi band digital equaliser and the means to measure the response, but it'd be damn tedious and utimately limited.

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