Good Sound Card for Receiverless HT & Gaming with Decent Windows 7 Drivers? - AVS Forum
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post #1 of 10 Old 07-26-2013, 05:24 PM - Thread Starter
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I'm using powered monitor speakers for a surround sound system and headphones for gaming, so I need a sound card + drivers that can do the following well:

- 5.1+ output.
- 7.1 is a bonus, in case I get more speakers
- Good crossover control for subwoofers
- Balanced output would be fantastic, but seems unlikely to be found at a reasonable price.
- Good headphone support for gaming
- Hardware accelerated HRTF
- Easily switch between headphones and 5.1
- ASIO drivers
- EAX
- EQ
- Would be nice to have several points on the low end to fine-tune my subs.

What I currently have:

Sound Blaster X-Fi
- Card is physically worn out, so I had to swap it out (might be able to resolder/replace the loose jack, but no sound comes out currently).
- HRTF (CMSS-3D) improves 3D awareness with headphones, but cuts out low frequencies and has weird reverb -- sounds like I'm in a tin can.
- Creative's driver support for older hardware is rather lacking.

Razer Barracuda AC-1
- C-Media Oxygen HD CMI8788 chipset
- Driver support almost nonexistent
- Control panel crashes all the time doing simple things like adjusting volume
- No ASIO drivers
- Can't fine tune the EQ as much as I'd like (nothing between 30 and 60 hz).
- Drivers don't appear to have any HRTF options, though I think the chip supports it

At first I was thinking about getting a Sound Blaster Z or Asus Xonar DX. Getting the Xonar seems kind of pointless as it uses the same chipset as the AC-1 I already have. I'd mostly be paying for different drivers. As far as the Z goes, it seems debatable if the Z has better quality than the X-Fi, and Creative's drivers tend to be very bloated and questionable in general, so I'm not sure about that, either.

I found some people raving about the HT Omega Claro Halo, so that might be worth investigating. Not sure if it has all the stuff I want.

I'm really surprised at how difficult it is to find anything that will do balanced output (or at least an inexpensive solution for converting unbalanced to balanced). Is it possible to mod a sound card to do balanced out?

I have pretty long runs of cable and I'm getting a little bit of interference (some buzzing), so it would be nice if I could find a good solution for balanced lines before I start running cables through the walls.
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post #2 of 10 Old 07-27-2013, 12:23 AM
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I have read that people like the Asus Xonar series of cards for HTPC, I have also read that the Creative XFI Series gaming cards are poop when it comes to HTPC and music use, lacking any significant bass. The Creative drivers are pretty bloated, I have the Fatality XFI gaming card in my main gaming Pc and the drivers were ridiculous. I think it was over 900 meg if you installed everything off the driver disc (which I would never do) I like my card, but I game with it almost exclusively, I do crank the tunes with it once in a while, but any music I want to blast is usually done in my car.
I did at one time have a little buzzing on my speakers from the Xfi, but it was from the crap Nvidia chipset on my motherboard, as soon as I dumped that motherboard and got one with a proper Intel chipset my sound issues disappeared. Intel CPU means Intel chipset, thank god Nvidia stopped making them, they were horrible.

Heres a link to a review site. http://sound-cards-review.toptenreviews.com/

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post #3 of 10 Old 07-27-2013, 10:00 AM
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The Diamond XS51 is a very good one that has dedicated 5.1 analog outputs and 48K sound and Dolby.

It is only $16 from MWAVE.

There are no sound cards with balanced outputs.

You would have to find a mixer or other device with multiple balanced outputs and feed your sound card signals into it and then run your balanced signal cables from it.

Just physically using adapters to convert RCA connectors to XLR connections does not result in a balanced signal or give you the advantages of a truly balanced signal, so that does not help at all.
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post #4 of 10 Old 07-27-2013, 10:18 AM
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This ASUS Sonar Phoebus looks like the sound card you need. I would avoid anything Creative makes as their only strong point is marketing.
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post #5 of 10 Old 07-27-2013, 10:34 PM - Thread Starter
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highd3f: Hm, that looked pretty promising from the video, but the reviews on newegg were pretty medeocre. Lots of people complaining about the driver support (exactly the thing I want to avoid). Also sounds like it can get a lot of interference from the video card (seems to be a problem with pci-e sound cards in general).

commsysman: That looks like it would be a downgrade from what I currently have, and a lot of people are compaining about the Win7 driver support on that as well.

There are sound cards that support balanced output, but the're a bit difficult to track down. The're more designed for studio settings, so I'm concerned about getting them to support what I want. An example is the E-MU 1820 / 1820M, but it's discontinued.

Slingblayde: The Xonars do seem pretty popular, but it seems like it would effectively just be a software change from what I have now. Might be worth it, though. Thanks for the link. I'll check those out.
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post #6 of 10 Old 07-28-2013, 12:16 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by commsysman View Post

The Diamond XS51 is a very good one that has dedicated 5.1 analog outputs and 48K sound and Dolby.

It is only $16 from MWAVE.

There are no sound cards with balanced outputs.

There are probably more than 100 sound cards balanced inputs and outputs, and I personally own maybe a dozen of them. They are widely used by audio professionals, but many non-professionals also use them because balanced I/O can be a very good thing, particularly in complex systems.

Here's an example:

http://www.m-audio.com/products/en_us/Audiophile192.html



The balanced I/O connections go through the DB (black, many pin holes) connector. The card comes with a wiring harness and a matching male connector. The wiring harness (dongle) has among other things 6 TRS female connectors.

It's called the M-Audio Delta 24192 AKA Audiophile 24192. It's under $200 and has about 110 dB dynamic range and THD, and has better than +/- 0.1 dB frequency response. IOW, it performs better than most HT and high end audio gear.

How do I know that the inputs and outputs are balanced?

(1) That's what the spec sheet says.
(2) That's what I find when I measure it on my test bench.
(3) That's what other technical people find to be true. This puppy has been on the market for about 8 years, if memory serves.

My first fully balanced sound card was a Card Deluxe:

http://www.stereophile.com/computeraudio/280

http://www.stereophile.com/images/archivesart/cardpic1.jpg

Which I bought 2 of in the year 2000, again if memory serves.



Notice that John Atkinson says

http://www.stereophile.com/computeraudio/280

"What it does offer are two channels of balanced I/O using TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) ¼" phone jacks,"

My best sound card with balanced I/O is:

http://www.lynxstudio.com/product_detail.asp?i=12



About 118 dB dynamic range with frequency response and THD to match.

It also uses a dongle, and these have XLR connectors on them.
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post #7 of 10 Old 07-28-2013, 03:29 AM - Thread Starter
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Thanks for the detailed post. I had seen the Audiophile 192, but it states it has "2 x 2 balanced analog I/O", which I assumed meant it only had 2 channels in and 2 channels out. The CardDeluxe sounds like it also only has 2 balanced output channels. While I'm sure the Lynx is nice, it's a lot more than I'd like to spend. Have you used any balanced output cards in a 5.1 setup?

Currently I'm using up to 50ft RCA cables, then have RCA->XLR cables to the speakers. Would having the RCA->XLR adapter sooner, then running 50ft of XLR cable make any difference? I figure it wouldn't, but maybe the extra grounded line running along there would pick up some interference and allow it to cancel out?

I assume I need to get something like a DI box:
http://www.audiopile.net/products/DI_Boxes/DBRC-2A/DBRC-2A_cutsheet.shtml
http://www.mouser.com/ProductDetail/Neutrik/NA2M-D2B-TX/?qs=sGAEpiMZZMtUKTCHc2CNRNxLM%2fiDLi42

There are a large variety of products that will convert unbalanced to balanced, but some sound like they're designed for high impedance devices like guitars. I'm not sure if those would work for sound card output.
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post #8 of 10 Old 07-28-2013, 04:00 AM - Thread Starter
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I've found a couple threads indicating the potential to modify a card and get (quasi) balanced output:

http://linux-audio.4202.n7.nabble.com/turning-a-consumer-soundcard-into-quot-prosumer-quot-w-quasi-balanced-outs-td40030.html

http://www.head-fi.org/t/226975/hotrodding-the-x-fi-a-laymans-guide-no-56k
Quote:
Discrete Output Mod - you bypass the opamps completely and use a discrete analog output stage, such as a Zapfilter MK2 or your own brew. Simply hook up the discrete output stage directly to the outputs of the DAC chip. Advanced mod, but I'd like to see someone try it. Discrete puts opamps to shame IMHO, plus you get balanced output as an option.

Passive Output Mod - like in the discrete mod, you bypass the opamps completely, and use either a transformer or a bandpass filter, and you have the option of getting balanced output. If using a transformer, use 1:1 ratio and 1.2k resistors across the outputs of the DAC chip to create a load. Alternatively, you can simply use a RC highpass filter. I used C=3.9uF and R=4k for a -3dB point of 10Hz. I didn't find a need to add a lowpass filter, but technically you should. I used a balanced Beta22 as my output buffer.
Anybody tried one of these to get balanced output?

I don't need true balanced output. I just want to reduce the noise from interference.
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post #9 of 10 Old 07-28-2013, 04:34 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jitspoe View Post

Thanks for the detailed post. I had seen the Audiophile 192, but it states it has "2 x 2 balanced analog I/O", which I assumed meant it only had 2 channels in and 2 channels out. The CardDeluxe sounds like it also only has 2 balanced output channels. While I'm sure the Lynx is nice, it's a lot more than I'd like to spend. Have you used any balanced output cards in a 5.1 setup?

I would never attempt such a thing if I had full control. I would hook up an AVR via my PC's HDMI outputs.

For what you want to do, with many of these pro cards you have the option of using multiple cards - the M-Audio Delta series supports 4 cards for a total of 8 channels in and out using AP 24192 cards. There are also 4-in/out and 8-in/out audio interfaces (below).
Quote:
Currently I'm using up to 50ft RCA cables, then have RCA->XLR cables to the speakers. Would having the RCA->XLR adapter sooner, then running 50ft of XLR cable make any difference? I figure it wouldn't, but maybe the extra grounded line running along there would pick up some interference and allow it to cancel out?

The big question about balanced I/O is whether you are having hum or other noise pickup problems? Most such problems come from the configuration, not the line length. The idea that balanced I/O is required or even advantageous when lines are longer than a few feet is an audiophile myth. In the PC world the typical commodity audio output is actually a very low impedance source and will drive the #!$$ out of long RCA lines.

Plan B is to put something you probably need - like a crossover (for bass management) or equalizer (for system tuning) close to the PC, and use its balanced outputs for the purpose you seem to want to address. Run unbalanced lines from a 8-output card like the Delta 1010LT to the equalizer or crossover. Use cables like the ones in http://www.rane.com/note110.html picture 17 or 18 and you will get a strong benefit from your balanced inputs even though you have balanced outputs. There is also a Delta 1010 (no LT) that has 8 balanced inputs and outputs. If there is no new stock of them at dealers, try eBay.

I have a lot of experience with DI boxes, but avoid them when possible for critical applications because they usually have transformers and somewhat nonflat frequency response. Behringer has a 4 channel DI box that has worked well for me in large venue AV applications.

The Rane Note I cited shows how to use specially made cables that are very cheap and easy to make to do many things that you might think you need a separate expensive box for. The balanced input you already have is a powerful tool. Most of the benefits of balanced I/O relate to balanced inputs. For years people have been building pro equipment that has a single balanced line per channel hooked to a connector like an XLR or TRS that we associate with balanced outputs and when put into a system driving a balanced input, the performance losses compared to true balanced outputs are microscopic. Inaudible by a big margin.
Quote:
There are a large variety of products that will convert unbalanced to balanced, but some sound like they're designed for high impedance devices like guitars. I'm not sure if those would work for sound card output.

DI boxes are usually designed for guitar pickups which are very high source impedance devices. They work reasonably well with low impedance sources but they involve cost and complexity that may have no benefits at all in most cases.
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post #10 of 10 Old 07-28-2013, 11:04 AM - Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by arnyk View Post

I would never attempt such a thing if I had full control. I would hook up an AVR via my PC's HDMI outputs.
If you already have a nice receiver, that's fine, but I don't, and I don't really see a point in getting one with my configuration.
Quote:
For what you want to do, with many of these pro cards you have the option of using multiple cards - the M-Audio Delta series supports 4 cards for a total of 8 channels in and out using AP 24192 cards. There are also 4-in/out and 8-in/out audio interfaces (below).
Interesting. That, unfortunately, drives the cost up quite a bit, and I may not have enough physical slots in my PC to do this.

Quote:
The big question about balanced I/O is whether you are having hum or other noise pickup problems? Most such problems come from the configuration, not the line length. The idea that balanced I/O is required or even advantageous when lines are longer than a few feet is an audiophile myth. In the PC world the typical commodity audio output is actually a very low impedance source and will drive the #!$$ out of long RCA lines.
Everything was fine when I had short cables to test it out. When I run 50ft RCA cables to the next room, I get a buzz in the speakers. This buzz is louder when lights are on. I was even picking up noises when scrolling around on web pages on my laptop near the speakers. I'm pretty sure interference is not a myth. smile.gif The subwoofers, interestingly enough, take RCA connections directly and appear to have some kind of noise canceling electronics -- the buzz is apparent when they're powered on, but only lasts a second or two.
Quote:
Plan B is to put something you probably need - like a crossover (for bass management) or equalizer (for system tuning) close to the PC, and use its balanced outputs for the purpose you seem to want to address. Run unbalanced lines from a 8-output card like the Delta 1010LT to the equalizer or crossover.
How much would a decent EQ or crossover run that can handle 5+ channels and convert unbalanced to balanced? What would be the advantage over using a DI box?
Quote:
Use cables like the ones in http://www.rane.com/note110.html picture 17 or 18 and you will get a strong benefit from your balanced inputs even though you have balanced outputs.
Interesting -- goes back to my question of switching to XLR cables earlier. Maybe that can result in an improvement. It's certainly the cheapest option.
Quote:
There is also a Delta 1010 (no LT) that has 8 balanced inputs and outputs. If there is no new stock of them at dealers, try eBay.
Looks like that would work, but I'm wondering how good the support is considering how old it is. It also sounds like there's a common issue with getting static due to capacitors going bad. I'll do some more research on it.
Quote:
I have a lot of experience with DI boxes, but avoid them when possible for critical applications because they usually have transformers and somewhat nonflat frequency response. Behringer has a 4 channel DI box that has worked well for me in large venue AV applications.
Looks like their 8-channel version (ULTRA-DI PRO DI800) is not much more expensive. That might be a good choice. I'm really not sure on these. The Jensen transformers tend to be the most frequently recommended, but those would run at least $50 per channel.
Quote:
The Rane Note I cited shows how to use specially made cables that are very cheap and easy to make to do many things that you might think you need a separate expensive box for. The balanced input you already have is a powerful tool. Most of the benefits of balanced I/O relate to balanced inputs. For years people have been building pro equipment that has a single balanced line per channel hooked to a connector like an XLR or TRS that we associate with balanced outputs and when put into a system driving a balanced input, the performance losses compared to true balanced outputs are microscopic. Inaudible by a big margin.
I'll order some cables and give this a shot first. That may be all I need. Thanks again for your detailed replies!
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