Seeking skeptical, objectivist advice on a USB DAC+headphone amp - AVS Forum
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post #1 of 11 Old 04-30-2013, 02:24 PM - Thread Starter
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I currently use an Audigy 2 ZS with ATH-A900 headphones (no speakers for social reasons) for music and gaming (stereo only, no need for CMSS, etc.): emphasis firmly on the music. However, diminishing support for my soundcard and the prospect of avoiding drivers altogether is driving me towards considering a USB-based solution, which seems sensible on paper. I'd prefer this to be a single box if possible, but would consider two-box solutions. NB I'm based in the UK, so not all choices available to US posters will apply.

Reading NwAvGuy's thoughts on this subject (nwavguy.blogspot.com, I like his general approach) I came away with three main criteria. Feel free to correct or add to these if you think them mistaken.

1. Ideally, the headphone output should not exceed 5 ohms if it's to drive my 40-ohm cans properly. This rules out the headphone amps of most current soundcards, it would seem, and means that DACs such as the UCA-202 would also need a separate amp for best results.
2. It would be better to have a separate power supply, rather than have the USB doing both jobs.
3. If I want to use the Windows volume control as well as the amp volume knob (I quite like that flexibility), there's some value in a 24-bit connection even if the source material is 16-bit.

One obvious answer is the combined ODA+O2 device based on NwAvGuy's design sold by Epiphany Acoustics (http://epiphany-acoustics.co.uk/products-page/dacs/ehp-o2d-miniature-desktop-headphone-amplifier-with-usb-dac/). I have two reservations about this: (i) At nearly £200 ($300), it's a bit more than I ideally wanted to spend, and (ii) I have a feeling that it may be overkill for my headphones. I like the ATH-900s very much, but I believe they're fairly mid-range in the greater scheme of things, and I don't know whether they would show up the differences between this and something considerably more modest. Is this realistic?

A slightly cheaper alternative would be the Aune X1 Mk2, at about £140. Information about this is a bit thin on the ground, although the few opinions seem pretty positive. In particular, no figure on the output impedance, though they claim it is suitable for 30-600 ohm headphones. Anyone know more about it, or have similar devices they can recommend (available in Europe would be nice!)?

It seems difficult to find a DAC plus headphone amp combo, even in two boxes, that's noticeably cheaper overall than these, unless the amp is designed for portable use, in which case it relies on the USB for power, which I'm trying to avoid (e.g. UCA-202 plus Fiio E5, or just Fiio E10). Is this concern overrated? (edit, actually I've just noticed that the UCA+E5 combo doesn't do this, so is maybe a good answer, albeit not a very elegant one)

Lastly, I could just stick with what I have, which is serviceable enough, particularly if people think that none of these choices will make any difference to my listening experience, and wait for better alternatives to appear. In case it's not obvious, I'm only interested in measurable differences that show up as audible on double-blind testing. That's why I'm asking this question here, as these forums seem to have quite a few expert people who share this approach. smile.gif

Thanks in advance!
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post #2 of 11 Old 04-30-2013, 08:27 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by thriddle View Post

[...]
It seems difficult to find a DAC plus headphone amp combo, even in two boxes, that's noticeably cheaper overall than these, unless the amp is designed for portable use, in which case it relies on the USB for power, which I'm trying to avoid (e.g. UCA-202 plus Fiio E5, or just Fiio E10). Is this concern overrated? (edit, actually I've just noticed that the UCA+E5 combo doesn't do this, so is maybe a good answer, albeit not a very elegant one)

 

I've trimmed your original post, obviously, down to a bare minimum. I'll try to address your points.

 

Formerly, I used the Behringer UCA-222 (a UCA-202 in a red case with software I didn't want) with the FiiO E5. The analog output of the UCA can easily overdrive the E5's input, producing nasty distortion. Reducing the UCA's volume fixed it. It seems to be an unbeatable combination for the price (~US$45.)

 

I'm quite satisfied with their replacement: A JDS Labs' ODAC+O2 combo (but above your desired price, at ~US$285.)

 

  1. The O2's output impedance is well below 5 Ohms.
  2. I've had no problem due to USB power on the ODAC stage (or my UCA-222.) I don't think this should concern you. It never concerned me.
  3. I think your point about 24-bit output is (probably) well-taken. The main problem with 16-bit output, from NwAvGuy's blog, seems to have been with the implementation of Windows XP's digital-volume control.

 

The (analog) headphone jack on my new PC produces much much better sound than what I expected from built-in sound hardware. I don't regret the price of the ODAC+O2 combo, but I could have lived without them. It was just a luxury which fit my budget at the time.

 

Are they overkill for your headphones? I think only you can answer that question. It's not like anybody really needs this stuff.

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post #3 of 11 Old 05-01-2013, 04:46 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by thriddle View Post


Reading NwAvGuy's thoughts on this subject (nwavguy.blogspot.com, I like his general approach) I came away with three main criteria. Feel free to correct or add to these if you think them mistaken.

1. Ideally, the headphone output should not exceed 5 ohms if it's to drive my 40-ohm cans properly. This rules out the headphone amps of most current soundcards, it would seem, and means that DACs such as the UCA-202 would also need a separate amp for best results.

Agreed.
Quote:
2. It would be better to have a separate power supply, rather than have the USB doing both jobs.

I don't share this concern. If I had this concern I'd grab one of the many USB-power wall warts that I have kicking around the house for other purposes and press it into service.
Quote:
3. If I want to use the Windows volume control as well as the amp volume knob (I quite like that flexibility), there's some value in a 24-bit connection even if the source material is 16-bit.

Windows schmindows. I am very happy setting the windows volume control for max or close to it and doing such major volume adjustments as are needed on the headphone amp.
Quote:
One obvious answer is the combined ODA+O2 device based on NwAvGuy's design sold by Epiphany Acoustics (http://epiphany-acoustics.co.uk/products-page/dacs/ehp-o2d-miniature-desktop-headphone-amplifier-with-usb-dac/). I have two reservations about this: (i) At nearly £200 ($300), it's a bit more than I ideally wanted to spend, and (ii) I have a feeling that it may be overkill for my headphones. I like the ATH-900s very much, but I believe they're fairly mid-range in the greater scheme of things, and I don't know whether they would show up the differences between this and something considerably more modest. Is this realistic?

I can't see spending $300 for something that I am currently accomplishing for less than $60.
Quote:
It seems difficult to find a DAC plus headphone amp combo, even in two boxes, that's noticeably cheaper overall than these, unless the amp is designed for portable use, in which case it relies on the USB for power, which I'm trying to avoid (e.g. UCA-202 plus Fiio E5, or just Fiio E10). Is this concern overrated? (edit, actually I've just noticed that the UCA+E5 combo doesn't do this, so is maybe a good answer, albeit not a very elegant one)

I repeat - USB power doesn't seem to be a problem. It seems like the current trend in computer USB ports is towards even greater robustness for charging portable devices, etc. But, I've never found the current situation to be problematical. A well-designed headhphone amp is not a big consumer of power.
Quote:
Lastly, I could just stick with what I have, which is serviceable enough, particularly if people think that none of these choices will make any difference to my listening experience, and wait for better alternatives to appear. In case it's not obvious, I'm only interested in measurable differences that show up as audible on double-blind testing. That's why I'm asking this question here, as these forums seem to have quite a few expert people who share this approach. smile.gif

One you get enough unclipped power for your desired level of loudness, and you get the source impedance issue under control, it is hard to do anything more than just enjoy the music!
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post #4 of 11 Old 05-01-2013, 05:56 AM
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I'm not sure that I share your concerns about USB power - if you're using an external power source I would then start to be concerned about ground loops.
And similarly, while it's nice to have a "driverless" solution, only USB Audio Class 1 devices are driverless on Windows, which limits you to 24/96. (that is more than sufficient for most - but I feel it's worth mentioning)
Are you actually having problems with your Audigy 2ZS now, or are you just concerned that anything beyond Windows 8 is not going to support it? You may just want to buy a headphone amp rather than an Amp + DAC right now if you are happy with it - the O2 on its own is half the price of the O2+ODAC.

I would be tempted to suggest that you get the O2+ODAC if you can stretch to it though, because they are known to have very good performance, and there should be no reason to upgrade to anything else if you change your headphones in future.

Quote:
Originally Posted by arnyk View Post

Windows schmindows. I am very happy setting the windows volume control for max or close to it and doing such major volume adjustments as are needed on the headphone amp.
Many of us like using ReplayGain so that you are not constantly having to change the volume control when listening to music - the same issues apply there, and you should use a 24-bit output.
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I can't see spending $300 for something that I am currently accomplishing for less than $60.
You don't mention what you are using - but I would be surprised if what you have performs as well as the O2+ODAC. Those products are extremely cheap for the level of performance that they offer, and they have had a lot of testing done that verifies their performance.
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post #5 of 11 Old 05-01-2013, 07:56 AM
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Originally Posted by Chronoptimist View Post

I'm not sure that I share your concerns about USB power - if you're using an external power source I would then start to be concerned about ground loops.
And similarly, while it's nice to have a "driverless" solution, only USB Audio Class 1 devices are driverless on Windows, which limits you to 24/96. (that is more than sufficient for most - but I feel it's worth mentioning)
Are you actually having problems with your Audigy 2ZS now, or are you just concerned that anything beyond Windows 8 is not going to support it? You may just want to buy a headphone amp rather than an Amp + DAC right now if you are happy with it - the O2 on its own is half the price of the O2+ODAC.

I would be tempted to suggest that you get the O2+ODAC if you can stretch to it though, because they are known to have very good performance, and there should be no reason to upgrade to anything else if you change your headphones in future.

Quote:
Originally Posted by arnyk View Post

Windows schmindows. I am very happy setting the windows volume control for max or close to it and doing such major volume adjustments as are needed on the headphone amp.
Many of us like using ReplayGain so that you are not constantly having to change the volume control when listening to music - the same issues apply there, and you should use a 24-bit output.

I don't see replaygain as a justification for worrying about > 16 bits.



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Originally Posted by arnyk View Post

I can't see spending $300 for something that I am currently accomplishing for less than $60.
Quote:
You don't mention what you are using

Among other things, a UCA202 + a FIIO E5.
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but I would be surprised if what you have performs as well as the O2+ODAC.

Measured or audible performance?
Quote:
Those products are extremely cheap for the level of performance that they offer, and they have had a lot of testing done that verifies their performance.

I don't see much benefit to buying leading zeroes for the sake of having leading zeroes. I think that the O2+ODAC have a number of more leading zeros than they need to have in order to be sonically transparent.
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post #6 of 11 Old 05-01-2013, 01:30 PM - Thread Starter
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Many thanks to all of you - very useful responses!

Hamilcar, that's an interesting progress from a UCA222 + E5 to a JDS ODAC/O2 (same as the options I'm considering, basically) to "maybe neither". Can I just ask what headphones you are/were using through this journey? It might be relevant.

Arnyk, you're one of the people I particularly hoped would comment. When you say
Quote:
Originally Posted by arnyk View Post

I don't share this concern. If I had this concern I'd grab one of the many USB-power wall warts that I have kicking around the house for other purposes and press it into service.
it makes me think I've not been clear. If understand NwAvGuy correctly, his concern is about having the power and the audio signal transmitted through the same USB connector, as with the Fiio E10. Obviously that can't be alleviated with a USB wall-wart, so there must be a degree of misunderstanding here. Maybe that's not a concern to you either, but I want to be sure we're talking about the same thing.
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Originally Posted by arnyk View Post

I can't see spending $300 for something that I am currently accomplishing for less than $60.!
Agreed. I am prepared to spend a bit more though for a one-box solution.

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Originally Posted by Chronoptimist View Post

only USB Audio Class 1 devices are driverless on Windows, which limits you to 24/96. (that is more than sufficient for most - but I feel it's worth mentioning)
Yes, I'm fine with that.
Quote:
Are you actually having problems with your Audigy 2ZS now, or are you just concerned that anything beyond Windows 8 is not going to support it?
More the latter, and a general disenchantment with Creative drivers, as much historical as anything, I admit.
Quote:
I would be tempted to suggest that you get the O2+ODAC if you can stretch to it though, because they are known to have very good performance, and there should be no reason to upgrade to anything else if you change your headphones in future.
Yes, that would be the main justification from my POV. Supposing you are right that the difference between a UCA202 + E5 vs O2+ODAC is audible, how good would you say the headphones have to be to pick it up? smile.gif
Quote:
Originally Posted by arnyk View Post

I think that the O2+ODAC have a number of more leading zeros than they need to have in order to be sonically transparent.
I suspect the designer might agree. His goal as I understand it was to debunk "audiophile" wisdom and produce a device that was the very *most* you had to spend for transparency, not the least. A certain level of overkill (just not stupid amounts) is a likely outcome.
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post #7 of 11 Old 05-01-2013, 02:54 PM - Thread Starter
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Oh and one more question, if I may presume.

Arnyk, how do you connect your UCA-202 and E5 together? I'd assumed I'd use the line out into a phono-jack converter, but Hamilcar's comment about adjusting the level made me wonder. Thanks! smile.gif
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post #8 of 11 Old 05-01-2013, 10:35 PM
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Hi Arny,

A related question: So a Fiio E09 or E12 will have no audible benefit over E5 ?

Thanks.

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post #9 of 11 Old 05-27-2013, 01:39 AM - Thread Starter
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In case anyone finds this thread later and wants to know, I eventually ordered a HifiMeDiy Sabre USB DAC (http://hifimediy.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=83) figuring that it should be fine soundwise, and on paper seemed likely to be able to drive my headphones (though the mfr does not give an actual output impedance). And if it didn't, I could add an E5.

So far, I'm very happy with this choice and can detect no great difference from the Audigy 2 headphone output quality-wise. I have to turn up the volume quite a bit further, and if you like very loud listening levels, you might need an amp as well, but I'm OK with without one for now.
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post #10 of 11 Old 06-03-2013, 11:19 AM
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Originally Posted by thriddle View Post

In case anyone finds this thread later and wants to know, I eventually ordered a HifiMeDiy Sabre USB DAC (http://hifimediy.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=83) figuring that it should be fine soundwise, and on paper seemed likely to be able to drive my headphones (though the mfr does not give an actual output impedance). And if it didn't, I could add an E5.

So far, I'm very happy with this choice and can detect no great difference from the Audigy 2 headphone output quality-wise. I have to turn up the volume quite a bit further, and if you like very loud listening levels, you might need an amp as well, but I'm OK with without one for now.

I ended up getting Audioengine D1. So far so good smile.gif
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