Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe PC soundcard Page 2

I mainly used the CardDeluxe to output 88.2kHz- and 96kHz-sampled digital audio data to the Mark Levinson No.30.6 D/A processor during my regular review auditioning (which is why you see so many speakers listed under "Associated Equipment"). The DAL performed sterling service in this role, though I found that reclocking the datastream with a dCS 972 maximized sound quality. And it was kind of cute to hear the mighty Levinson gear reproducing all the various Windows sounds. The Win98 opening noise was envelopingly trippy, suggesting that they're not all pocket-protected nerds up in Redmond.

The analog outputs offered no clue that the DAC chips were housed in a PC rather than a standalone processor of high-end pedigree. The basic presentation was full-bodied, with good low-frequency extension and definition. Going from CD-standard playback to my now quite extensive library of 24/88.2 and 24/96 WAV files, the improvements in transparency and sonic ease were readily apparent through the CardDeluxe. Listening to my 88.2kHz masters of Robert Silverman's Beethoven sonata cycle, due to be released this month on the Canadian OrpheumMasters label, was deeply satisfying.

As well as WAV files, I auditioned some commercial 24/96 recordings through the CardDeluxe's DACs using a Panasonic DVD player's S/PDIF data output. Compared to the Panasonic's internal DACs, the CardDeluxe's presentation sounded fuller, with a considerably smoother midrange and a more solid-sounding presentation. Peculiarly, there was also less analog tape hiss apparent on Muddy Waters' Folk Singer 24/96 DAD (Classic DAD 1020), even though levels were matched.

As good as the CardDeluxe's analog outputs sounded, they were no match for the $15k Levinson's. For a more relevant check, I did some level-matched comparisons using the soundcard's digital output to drive the $450 Musical Fidelity X-24K D/A, which I reviewed in February 1999. On some live 24/96 drum recordings, the differences were very small: the CardDeluxe's bass was fuller and more extended, the MF's perhaps better-defined. On my hi-rez piano masters, the differences in sonic character were more apparent. The distinction in the bass remained the same, though I would give the edge in LF solidity to the PC card, the Musical Fidelity having a somewhat exaggerated upper bass.

But the standalone processor gave both slightly less upper-midrange "clang" to the sound of the big Bösendorfer, and a better-fleshed-out sense of space. And on Sara K.'s "Brick House" (from Hobo, Chesky CHDVD177), K.'s distinctive voice revealed a little more grain from the CardDeluxe than from the MF. But while the sonic characters of the two D/As were different, their presentations were sufficiently similar in absolute quality (other than the PC card's flatter soundstage) that I could reverse my preference for the Musical Fidelity by boosting the volume of the CardDeluxe by 1dB.

I used the card's analog inputs mainly to archive LPs and aging open-reel tapes to 88.2kHz/24-bit WAV files. While the CardDeluxe's ADCs were not as deathly quiet or as grain-free as the professional dCS converters I use for the Stereophile recordings, they were amazingly transparent and detailed, considering the enormous difference in price.

One thing that should be remembered when recording straight to hard drive is that your PC should be booted up "clean": No screen savers, no utilities that decide to "image" a hard disk at arbitrary intervals. You want nothing else going on while you're streaming the data to disk. Even then, at the high sample rates and word depths, I occasionally got a dropout in the new file, which might have been due to the drive not keeping up over a long period of time. New, high-rpm drives are what you need.

Summing Up
Even though the Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe generally offers superb measured performance—astonishing performance, considering how little it costs in comparison to high-end audio gear—the fact that it must be used in the hostile electronic environment of a PC did make its presence known in the narrow-band jitter analysis (see "Measurements" sidebar). Does this behavior correlate with the slight treble graininess I noted from the card's analog outputs? It's impossible to say. And, of course, this problem can be circumvented by feeding the CardDeluxe's S/PDIF data output to a separate high-end digital processor.

What I can say is that, at $595, the CardDeluxe is the most cost-effective way of making a PC an integral part of a high-end audio system. You can use it to make your own 24/96 recordings while we all wait for DVD-Audio. And for archiving your precious LPs onto cheap-as-dirt CD-Rs, look no further. You can pack between 15 and 18 minutes of 24/96 WAV data onto a regular, computer-grade CD-R, meaning that your media costs for producing a hi-rez digital clone of a typical LP will run to $3 or less.