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firedog
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internal vs external and usb sound cards

Hi-

I've long assumed a good quality usb sound card would deliver better sound than an internal PC sound card, even of the audiophile variety. Why? Because of the inherent noisiness of PC's.

See then this quote from Tracer Technologies, who market both kinds of cards:


Quote:

Many folks choose USB or Firewire soundcards for their desktop PCs because they believe that old adage that processing audio outside the machine is better. This simply isn't true for professional sound cards. In fact, given the choice, we'd always choose an internal sound card over an external for a desktop machine. It is simply more convenient to work with and given the quality of the shielding on the sound cards we sell, there is no advantage from a noise standpoint. The converters in our M-Audio sound cards probably better than in any of your other audio gear. You simple won't introduce noise on recording with these cards.

What do you think of this? Isn't there also the issue of the quality of the DAC in the sound card? Even if true, wouldn't the best sound come from the card with the best DAC, either internal or external?

What if one is using only the digital stream (say coax digital out) from an internal sound card: do noise issues of the PC have any effect?

Thanks

CharlyD
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Re: internal vs external and usb sound cards

There are PCI sound cards with performance equal to nearly any external USB DAC (check out the Auzen X-Meridian 7.1). But, as a PCI card, they would require a desktop PC. Desktop PC's that are quiet enough for an audiophile environment tend to be quite expensive (e.g. Niveus). They would also require a display. If you happen to have a monitor with a PC interface in you listening room, great. Otherwise, you'll have to add the monitor to your listening room. My choice would be a quiet laptop with an external USB DAC.

I'm assuming this query is related to your other posting about streaming S/PDIF to your TACT preamp. Once again, you would have no need for high-quality DACs on a sound card with this configuration. A USB-S/PDIF converter (or a networked device e.g. SB3) is all you need. Elk's warning about the jitter on S/PDIF from a PC should be heeded, and you should seriously consider a reclocking device.

struts
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Re: internal vs external and usb sound cards

firedog,

I agree with CharlyD but here are a couple of aditional reflections:

  • There really aren't any 'audiophile' sound cards, at least not that I have come across on my travels. I have found sound cards for gamers, sound cards for home theatre users, sound cards for amateur musicians and sound cards for professional musicians/recording engineers. Some of them (mostly from the latter two categories) are capable of high quality playback of two-channel audio, however I have yet to come across one for which that was the primary design goal. If the niche is interesting enough commercially I am sure someone will try to fill it at some point, one could imagine some sort of joint venture or partnership between a pro sound card vendor such as Metric or Lynx and an equipment vendor with more high-end audiophile cred such as dCS or Meridian. We'll see!
  • It seems to me that the Tracer Technologies comment about "The converters in our M-Audio sound cards probably better than in any of your other audio gear" was almost certainly made in the context of sound recording, i.e. comparing the ADCs in M-Audio cards with other studio recording gear and not cost-no-object audiophile kit. Commercial recording studios are in business to make money, and for most their equipment is a tool and a cost of doing business, not a passion like it is for many audiophiles. They have neither the desire nor the financial latitude to chase performance too far up the diminishing returns curve and consequently few of them use equipment of the same caliber as JA (or 'boutique' labels like Chesky) to make their recordings. I have an M-Audio 2496 card and I can assure you that even if it represents great value for $100 the analogue output is audibly inferior to that from both my Grace m902 and my Boulder 1012, not to mention the dCS Elgar Plus I had B.C. (before children).

As to your questions:


Quote:
What do you think of this? Isn't there also the issue of the quality of the DAC in the sound card? Even if true, wouldn't the best sound come from the card with the best DAC, either internal or external?

For analogue output there would clearly be some correlation but I think this is still a consideable oversimplification. As an electronic engineer by training (although not an audio specialist) I would say it is about end-to-end design and execution of the circuit, not simply about having 'the best DAC'. Myriad other factors play an arguably equally important role in the final sound, not least analogue filters and op amps to drive the output stage. The car with the most powerful engine won't necessarily accelerate fastest if it is wrongly geared or if the tyres are too skinny to adequately get the power down on the road.


Quote:
What if one is using only the digital stream (say coax digital out) from an internal sound card: do noise issues of the PC have any effect?

Yes they do, certainly in theory, and probably in practice although I have not seen any measurement, analysis or comparison of the quality of sound cards' digital outputs (other than JA's reviews of course and he has only covered one or two of each sort, internal and external, so not really enough data to draw any general conclusions). Just about everything that could possibly spoil your digital day is present in abundance in a computer chassis: power supply noise, ground noise, RF noise, physical vibration, you name it. However the problems don't stop there: the S/PDIF interface itself is inherently susceptible to jitter and even with re-clocking devices this can at best only be reduced and never eliminated. The hard-disk based replay products that seem to offer the best subjective performance to date (e.g. Slim Transporter, Linn Klimax DS) seem to have in common that they generate the clock for the digital-to-analogue conversion outside the computer chassis in a purpose-built audio(phile) unit and don't rely on S/PDIF. I don't think this is a coincidence.

Just my two cents' worth.

MLZ
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Re: internal vs external and usb sound cards

Though not audiophile quality, when I installed an M-Audio sound card in my HP desktop pc, I experienced noise with I/O on my second hard drive where I store my music files in WMA Lossless format. I also had to work around an IRQ conflict. M-Audio techs suggested I reinstall Windows XP changing some of the hardware settings which might have fixed the noise.

I did not want to do that, so I sent back the card and purchased an external 2-channel USB DAC (Silverstone EB01) which I am quite happy with for listening in my den. The install was a piece of cake - just plugged in the USB cable to the pc and DAC and the RCA cables to the DAC and my receiver.

I also stream music to my Roku Soundbridge 1001 on my main system.

iceCubeFoSho
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Re: internal vs external and usb sound cards

I build and know alot about computers, however I'm no audiophile so I'm not sure, but I know that using an internal card makes programs run faster (games see the biggest advantage). Using a PCI bus or PCI-E bus has more bandwidth than running a USB or Firewire cable to the card. Then, cards are heavily shielded these days to prevent interference with other devices in the system, sometimes you can read reviews about cheaper junk cards that do get interference, but most sophisticated cards do not receive this.

I think if you have a Desktop PC, go with a PCI card, but if you have a laptop, go with a USB card rather than PCMIA.

As for that M-Audio card, it must be defective, or the PCI slot you placed it in was getting interference from your AGP or PCI-E slot. I always place my sound cards 2-3 slots down from my video card to reduce any possibility of getting interference, or running slowly.

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