Sound card

Lynx L22

As most amplifiers don't know anything about PC audio, the audio stream must be converted to an input suitable for an amplifier.

 

The conversion from digital to analogue is done by a DAC.

In PC speak a DAC is called a sound card.

Sound cards often offer also recording facilities (the reverse, AD conversion).

The usual question is Which is the best sound card?

I think 'Presto' sums it up very well.

Word on the street is that the Lynx 2 series cards are the bomb but they're about $750. RME is priced similarly to the Lynx cards but Lynx seems more popular. Some guys swear by these cards and say they do as well (if not better) than really top dollar CDPs.

Then in the middle of the road you have Terratec, ESI, EMU, Edirol, and the more "prosumer" level M-audio stuff. These are not alway "cards" per se and can be USB devices or even FireWire. Some are a PCI "mother" card with an external bay or breakout box that contains the DAC's. The price range is about $250-$500 roughly. Some guys swear by these too - but they're not all created equal. Watch for ones that have external boxes which are powered by the PC power supply. I think a very important consideration is getting an audio interface that has an input for external power. Then you can replace the factory "wall wart" with a better supply or even batteries to get the cleanest power possible to those DAC's. This, according to many here, is the downfall of MOST low and medium price audio solutions. Dirty power (especially PC power) is a big source of clock jitter. This does not explain, however, why PCI cards in the category above work so well despite being INSIDE the computer AND being powered BY the computer's power supplies. This you have to figure out for yourself! Good design perhaps? Good filtering?

Here is a neat "newer" product from Terratec (a well regarded company)

http://www.mediatek.com.tw/eng/03_product/oemodm/SoundCard/HiFier_Fantasia/features.htm

Check out the features - it has externally powered USB Breakout box, just like I was saying. It's got AKM 4396 DAC's (really really good) and is based on the latest chipset from C-Media - the "Oxygen" CMI8787. Look at the emphasis the company has put in their ad copy about being "isolated" from the noise of the PC. Are manufacturers starting to listen? I would say YES!!

Then, in the budget category you have M-audio "Audiphile 24/96", M-Audio Revo 5.1/7.1, Creative X-Fi X-treme music, and cards in this $100-150. I have a M-Audio revolution 7.1 and a Creative X-fi. The Creative seems to be "more detailed" but the M-Audio sounds more "clear" to me - I think the M-Audio is more transparent and neutral. The X-fi almost adds a "tizzy factor" to the high end which can be seen as high-end detail at first... but is it detail or just noise? The X-fi measures EXTREMELY clean on a RightMark Audio Analyzer (cleaner than the M-Audio) but the M-audio is a MUCH simpler card with simpler drivers. In fact, the "bloat" of the Creative intallation is quite a bear. It's also hard sometimes to figure out how to get the MINIMAL drivers installed. I've tried "minimalist" installations but then I got strange functionality.

Personally I would avoid the Creative X-fi unless you want to use your card for games, home-theatre media, and all of the other frills. If you just want a decent 2-channel audio card with decent analog outs, I would recommend:

M-Audio 24/96
M-Audio Revolution 5.1*
M-Audio Revolution 7.1*
Any newer card with a Cmedia 8787 chipset and decent DAC's**

*Or any good card with an Envy 24 HT chipset. It's older technology, but stable with good drivers for XP or Vista.
** These could be the value leaders for price-to-performance ratio. But they may or may not have drivers that support ASIO even though the 8787 can support ASIO. The drivers NEED to be written for it as well. You may not need ASIO, but many guys here DO use ASIO to ensure bit-perfect playback.

Your biggest problem is the vast selection you have before you!

Cheers,
Presto 2008

A couple of reviews can be found at the IXBT Labs website.

Balanced > Swap > Unbalanced I/O

 

Isolation

Want to isolate the sound card from the electronically noisy computer?

 

The Adnaco-S1 PCI/PCIe Expansion System allows system integrators to operate 2 PCI and 2 PCIe add-in cards over fiber optic cable at distances up to 250 meters from the location of the computer system. No additional host software drivers are required during installation or operation. Any type of PCI and PCI Express cards can be used including audio, video, graphics, USB, FireWire, SATA, data-acquisition, network and others.

 

References
How On-Board Audio Works - Gabriel Torres 2008