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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  • Olyros - Sunday, December 21, 2008 - link

    What about Vista's digital room correction?

    I'd really like to see a comparison of the effectiveness of different DRC software on the pc, including Vista's own implementation.

    Before reading this article DRC was off my radar, but now I'm really intrigued to try it out. However, reading this article one still doesn't know how he can use this specialized software with an application like Winamp or Vista Media Center. There's also no mention of all the impracticalities he might face like incompatible software, provisions for headphone use where DRC is not needed etc.

    I think digital room correction on a computer could be a subject of an Anandtech article again.
    Reply
  • Okos Bokos - Monday, December 15, 2008 - link

    If you don't care about room, don't spend money on expensive equipment.
    Bass traps, diffusion panels (bookshelfs are perfect), position of speakers.
    I used to play with all sort of best analyzers/equalizers, and it don't works.
    In essence you can not treat time related problems (short reverbs that couses phase cancelations for eg.) with frequency related tools (equalizers).
    My audio chain: CD – cables – amplifier – cables – speakers.
    In 1998 I bought first pro audio soundcard, and changed CD with PC. I can not afford myself such good sounding CD player.
    TV and home cinema is completily different issue.
    Nice article... I had to make my first comment on AnandTech...
    Reply
  • ccd - Thursday, December 11, 2008 - link


    I'd love to hear from others on this issue, but my conclusions based on following thread on various forums is that the PC as a one box solution is far from perfect. The issues are as follows:

    1) PC does not work as a source selector which means an external preamp if you want to use a source other than TV/cable and the CD/hard drive on the PC

    2) Most solutions for volume control cumbersome at best, again requiring a preamp

    3) Soundcards: the soundcards with the best DACs (ie Lynx) are not setup to act as just high fidelity soundcards. They are designed as studio mixers which makes them both expensive and hard to use for just good fidelity. Additionally, there are some formats that soundcards have not been able to decode. This is not because soundcards cannot decode, but that certain formats simply have not been available on soundcards.

    4) DRC: I have not tried the software mentioned in this article, but I have tried other DRC software. My complaint is that the DRC software is not easily implemented for novices. You have to know more about using programs than I would like. Their effectiveness is a subjective evaluation, but stand alone processors are much easier to use, IMHO.

    At this point in time, if I were to use a PC, I would use programs such as SoundEasy or the program available from ETFAcoustics to load a digital equalizer like the Behringer DCX 2496 for both digital crossovers and DRC. The PC is not a viable one box solution at this time as far as I'm concerned.

    BTW: I should give the author the props he deserves. Most audiophiles who are into tubes and full range drivers would not touch DRC. This author not only touched it, but liked it. Hats off to you!
    Reply
  • boredsysadmin - Wednesday, December 10, 2008 - link

    I'm afraid this question will get lost in this rant war, but I'm still curios about this : How Does PC based DRC compares to ones built-in into new a/v receivers?

    P.S: CSMR is right on so many levels and IMHO combining ultra Hi-End speakers with DIY usb to analog kits seems a bit silly....
    Reply
  • Rajinder Gill - Wednesday, December 10, 2008 - link

    Depends if you're looking for a one box solution (which you obviously are). I have not seen much web based edict on the technical abilities of your standard budget-mid priced reciever based DRC. If it is scaled down somehow in functionality and attenuation, a double blind test against the software would prove if it's far behind.:) Judging by all the responses here, there should be some sites out there that have covered something around that idea.

    I only wanted something for my redbook playback and quick access to my tracks. Out on a limb yes, but that's just me.


    Reply
  • egladil - Wednesday, December 10, 2008 - link

    This article is just so typical for the pseudo-audiophile scene. There people do lots of very stupid things, including stupid subjective comparisons.

    For really good audiophile stuff, go to hydrogenaudio.org, there there is a rule: don't claim anything unless you have done double blind tests with significant positive results. Anything else is just too much influenced by placebo effects. Because of this reason this article is a case for a trash bin actually.
    Reply
  • goshwan - Wednesday, December 10, 2008 - link

    Yup,

    All musicians should not listen to their instruments at all, because it gives rise to subjective preferences. Subjective instrument choices by the individual should be outlawed. Every musician should by rights play the most scientifically perfect instrument. Subjective choices do not matter at all. We should all buy the same car based upon te pricinples of horsepower per dollar and most importantly 4 wheels touching the road. Don't you dare tell me that you have a favorite color!

    We should all buy the same amps and speakers. Electronic engineers should be forced to adopt one single topology the world over. Further, no new product should enter the market place until the manufacturer can prove it's worth to the sinewave crew as offering something new and better than what's been released before. Product release shoul depend on approval by a team of government endorsed double blind testers.

    Good luck in your quest!




    Reply
  • phusg - Monday, December 15, 2008 - link

    Hi there,
    I think you are confusing objective testing with equipment (over-rated) and subjective double-blind testing. Double-blind testing just takes out the placebo bias of knowing what hard/software set-up you are listening to. That doesn't make it objective, the assessor is still a human subject.
    Regards,
    Pete
    Reply
  • ccd - Wednesday, December 10, 2008 - link


    What is your issue with double blind testing??? If audiophiles are unable to tell the difference between $1000 speaker cable and $25 dollar speaker cable, isn't that worth knowing??? And what has double blind testing have to do with musicians not listening to their instruments or the rest of your rant???

    Double blind testing can tell what people can differentiate (my speaker wire example) or what most people prefer. Personally, I think double blind testing is best for the former, not the later. Just because most people prefer something does not mean you would prefer it.
    Reply
  • Rajinder Gill - Wednesday, December 10, 2008 - link

    Wow, I never knew this stuff was going to continue on ad-infinitum when I wrote this piece. It'll please you all to know I have no plans to write another audio article. Anandtech will continue to concentrate on the computer stuff to the joy of many readers.

    I'm sure someone suitable will be found to take care of the soundcard stuff the way most of you would like to see it.

    The gist of this article was basically to show that even someone as knotted up as me on certain gear could adopt DRC as something special and above lesser needs in the audio chain. Some people got that, others did not. I know I'm not the greatest conveyer of things in the written word, I did my best.

    For the record, I also have solid state gear, so it's not all old-age beliefs. So let it go for the sake of your own sanity folks, there really is no winning these arguments.

    Take care
    Raja


    Reply

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