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Direct to power amp: best audio card?

post #1 of 108
Thread Starter 
I want to use an Emotiva amplifier directly from the HTPC. I don't have an AVR and don't want one. I just don't know if it exists a good PCI/PCIE card that will produce great analog sound. At least as good as a dedicated pre-amp.

So I'm looking for the best 5 (or 6) channel PCI/PCIE card out there.

I'd be happy with a 6 chan DAC converter too, but I'd rather get a PCI/PCIE card instead if available.

Thanks for any help.
post #2 of 108
Just get a MoBo with 6 or 8 channel analogue audio out. No sound card needed.
post #3 of 108
I doubt onboard DACs will do that amp, and the speakers you probably have for it justice, but it's free to try.

I'm not an audiophile, but use the Xonar HDAV 1.3 for a similar setup. Supposedly the Burr-Brown DACs are top notch, and the opamps are swappable. You can get them used on ebay.

A Xonar DSX is a cheaper option.
post #4 of 108
Your best option is to buy a preamp/processor if you want quality audio. A PC is a component, not a controller. You wouldn't just plug a DVD player into a power amp, would you? You're basically doing the same thing with a HTPC (that's why it's listed under video components in the forum headings). What's the point of having a good audio system f you're going to cheap out on a preamp?
post #5 of 108
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sammy2 View Post

Just get a MoBo with 6 or 8 channel analogue audio out. No sound card needed.

Motherboards integrated audio is pure crap. That's the whole point of my question.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ruiner View Post

I doubt onboard DACs will do that amp, and the speakers you probably have for it justice, but it's free to try.
I'm not an audiophile, but use the Xonar HDAV 1.3 for a similar setup. Supposedly the Burr-Brown DACs are top notch, and the opamps are swappable. You can get them used on ebay.
A Xonar DSX is a cheaper option.

Thanks. I well check that out.

Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

Your best option is to buy a preamp/processor if you want quality audio. A PC is a component, not a controller. You wouldn't just plug a DVD player into a power amp, would you? You're basically doing the same thing with a HTPC (that's why it's listed under video components in the forum headings). What's the point of having a good audio system f you're going to cheap out on a preamp?

Where do I start?

1. Professional audio cards are used daily for audio production. No "preamps" whatsoever. They go directly to amp/recording. Not even a mixing table (that's done in software too). I'd go with one of those cards, but I obviously don't need 10 in / 10 out channels.

2. Very high end 2 channel audiophile PCI/E cards do exist. You absolutely don't need a preamp for those. Again, 2 channels is not enough. That's why I'm asking for a 5/6 channel audiophile quaility card (sure, I might use three of those cards, but that's overkill and has its own issues, software wise).

3. DVDs are designed to go through preamps. Nothing prevents you from connecting one directly to an Emotiva amp if you have five analog line level RCA outputs, except for the fact that you won't have volume control... An HTPC is not just "a component". It's a "component of components" and one of its purposes is to replace a bunch of other components itself doing it as well or better. You can have crap picture quality coming out of an HTPC or the best, depending on which components you choose to build your HTPC. The same goes for audio (to be honest, picture has gone digital and so it's much much easier to get good quality; analog audio takes a lot more work -and money- to be high quality). You will connect an HDMI cable or three analog component cables directly to a TV. I want to connect a line-level analog audio source to an Emotiva amp, which is perfectly fine as long as the quality of the signal is good enough (and the PC will actually control the volume in this case). I can achieve that with cards designed for other purposes (see points 1 and 2). I'm just looking for one designed for the purpose of home theater surround sound.



To all: Emotiva amps are not luxury amps. They're just "great sound for the money". Ordinary audio cards for PC are below that standard. Most -if not all- I know, are designed with gamers in mind. Gamers usually don't care for HiFi audio. Audiophiles, even those without a five figure budget, like myself, do care about the purest possible audio.
post #6 of 108
I'd suggest checking out one of the cards from Auzentech for example the X-Fi Bravura. It appears to have a high quality multi-channel analog out stage for interfacing to your Emotival amp.
http://www.auzentech.com/site/products/x-fi_bravura.php
post #7 of 108
Thread Starter 
Thanks. I'll check those Auzentech cards. If you know of any review, I'd be grateful.
post #8 of 108
Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

Your best option is to buy a preamp/processor if you want quality audio. A PC is a component, not a controller. You wouldn't just plug a DVD player into a power amp, would you? You're basically doing the same thing with a HTPC (that's why it's listed under video components in the forum headings). What's the point of having a good audio system f you're going to cheap out on a preamp?
Actually, yes. I also plug my PC directly into amplified speakers. A good preamp is supposed to be transparent and if that's the case, aside from being a volume control and input selector, what's the purpose?
post #9 of 108
Thread Starter 
I just found this review at Stereophile: http://www.stereophile.com/computeraudio/asus_xonar_essence_ststx_soundcards/

It seems those Asus are pretty good for an audiophile (of course they're not as good as the reviewer's USD 2500 reference DAC, but they are very close for a tenth of the price). I've also found Asus offers an addon passive card providing the extra channels for surround sound (http://www.asus.com/Multimedia/Audio_Cards/Xonar_H6/). Having RCA connectors instead of mini-jacks is nice too.

I'll keep my research going on. smile.gif
Edited by comomolo - 8/25/12 at 5:14pm
post #10 of 108
Quote:
Originally Posted by comomolo View Post

Thanks. I'll check those Auzentech cards. If you know of any review, I'd be grateful.

The Guru of 3D has reviews of some of the Auzentech cards as well as other cards and DAC's that cater to the audio enthusiast. Other brands that are mentioned in some of the audio-centric forums are ASUS and M-Audio.
http://www.guru3d.com/category/sound/
post #11 of 108
Quote:
Originally Posted by olyteddy View Post

Actually, yes. I also plug my PC directly into amplified speakers. A good preamp is supposed to be transparent and if that's the case, aside from being a volume control and input selector, what's the purpose?
You'll notice that I recommended a preamp/processor, not just a preamp. A quality preamp/processor not only provides maximum control over your system but will also likely do a better job of decoding surround sound than your PC will, depending on what hardware and software you're using. PCs have no options for additional inputs whereas a preamp provides far more flexibility in this area.

FWIW, the vast majority of amplified speakers are designed for PC use and are well below what most of us would consider audiophile quality. I'd wager that your amplified speakers also have some sort of volume control, which means that they also have an integrated preamp. The biggest problem I see is with impedance matching between the PC sound card's output and the input to the amplifier. All "line level" outputs are not of the same impedance.

I've been an audiophile for over 45 years so I'm a bit more old school on the subject. I would never even consider what the OP is suggesting purely from the standpoint of sound quality and system flexibility. Taking shortcuts and going the cheap route tends to yield less than satisfactory results. Reading threads like this affects me like someone dragging their fingernails across a blackboard, but that's just me. Do whatever floats your boat. Why not just connect the PC to a Bose Lifestyle system and be done with it.rolleyes.gif
post #12 of 108
Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

You'll notice that I recommended a preamp/processor, not just a preamp. A quality preamp/processor not only provides maximum control over your system but will also likely do a better job of decoding surround sound than your PC will, depending on what hardware and software you're using. PCs have no options for additional inputs whereas a preamp provides far more flexibility in this area.
FWIW, the vast majority of amplified speakers are designed for PC use and are well below what most of us would consider audiophile quality. I'd wager that your amplified speakers also have some sort of volume control, which means that they also have an integrated preamp. The biggest problem I see is with impedance matching between the PC sound card's output and the input to the amplifier. All "line level" outputs are not of the same impedance.
I've been an audiophile for over 45 years so I'm a bit more old school on the subject. I would never even consider what the OP is suggesting purely from the standpoint of sound quality and system flexibility. Taking shortcuts and going the cheap route tends to yield less than satisfactory results. Reading threads like this affects me like someone dragging their fingernails across a blackboard, but that's just me. Do whatever floats your boat. Why not just connect the PC to a Bose Lifestyle system and be done with it.rolleyes.gif

I really don't understand this line of thinking.

In every home theater processor (separates or receiver) the digital audio, is just that... digital. The processing of the signal is handled 100% digitally. Its all 1's and 0's. It makes no difference what box this processor is in. Theta Processor = HTPC processor = HTIB processor. It's all the same processing.

You could even argue a HTPC is better, since typically, pc software is more flexible than the built in software home audio gear uses. It takes some really high end gear today, to be able to tinker with the software (Onkyo Integra Line is the least expensive stuff that I'm aware of, all over $1k)

The difference in sound quality between high-end and low-end gear is in the Digital-to-Analogue stage.

So the question is really this:

Is there a sound card that offers the same high quality analogue output stage, that a high end preamp/processor does?
post #13 of 108
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by t-c View Post

The Guru of 3D has reviews of some of the Auzentech cards as well as other cards and DAC's that cater to the audio enthusiast. Other brands that are mentioned in some of the audio-centric forums are ASUS and M-Audio.
http://www.guru3d.com/category/sound/

Thanks. I'm looking for sites devoted to audio, though. Computer enthusiasts sites tend to find everything slightly better than the average onboard sound "amazing" and they usually look for the gaming experience, something I honestly don't care about.

Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

You'll notice that I recommended a preamp/processor, not just a preamp. A quality preamp/processor not only provides maximum control over your system but will also likely do a better job of decoding surround sound than your PC will, depending on what hardware and software you're using.

Besides the fact that I have never asked for an audio processor (because I don't want one; I'm happy with the sources as they have been created by engineers in the studio) I'm sorry but that simply has no rational grounds. Every operation in the digital domain is inherently better done on a high end programmable device, commonly known as "a computer", than any "high end" audio hardware with locked software. You're plain wrong on this.

Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

PCs have no options for additional inputs whereas a preamp provides far more flexibility in this area.

For most of us, the whole purpose of an HTPC is having a single source for everything audio and video. Obviously, if I were planning to use the HTPC along with a cable set top box, a radio tuner and a turntable, for instance, my question would be debatable and you might have a point. (There still are very good ways -albeit prohibitive- of using the HTPC as an audio selector; multiple input professional audio cards do that beautifully.)

Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

FWIW, the vast majority of amplified speakers are designed for PC use and are well below what most of us would consider audiophile quality. I'd wager that your amplified speakers also have some sort of volume control, which means that they also have an integrated preamp.

What are "amplified speakers designed for PCs" doing in this discussion?

Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

The biggest problem I see is with impedance matching between the PC sound card's output and the input to the amplifier. All "line level" outputs are not of the same impedance.

Numbers and sources please.

Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

I've been an audiophile for over 45 years so I'm a bit more old school on the subject. I would never even consider what the OP is suggesting purely from the standpoint of sound quality and system flexibility.

Flexibility maybe. You still have to explain what's the issue with sound quality, though. The only stage where quality can make a difference is at the DAC. Once I'm assured DACs used in a card are of good quality, the rest is plain irrelevant.

FWIW, I'm probably as old as you, an audiophile since the age of 10, and still can't understand why, in the digital age, we still need those cumbersome AV receivers, let alone the even more cumbersome preamp+amp combos with lots of cables in between.

Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

Taking shortcuts and going the cheap route tends to yield less than satisfactory results. Reading threads like this affects me like someone dragging their fingernails across a blackboard, but that's just me. Do whatever floats your boat. Why not just connect the PC to a Bose Lifestyle system and be done with it.rolleyes.gif

That's just dumb and mildly offensive. I'm not even trying to reply to that.

Quote:
Originally Posted by NorCalJason View Post

I really don't understand this line of thinking.
In every home theater processor (separates or receiver) the digital audio, is just that... digital. The processing of the signal is handled 100% digitally. Its all 1's and 0's. It makes no difference what box this processor is in. Theta Processor = HTPC processor = HTIB processor. It's all the same processing.
You could even argue a HTPC is better, since typically, pc software is more flexible than the built in software home audio gear uses. It takes some really high end gear today, to be able to tinker with the software (Onkyo Integra Line is the least expensive stuff that I'm aware of, all over $1k)
The difference in sound quality between high-end and low-end gear is in the Digital-to-Analogue stage.
So the question is really this:
Is there a sound card that offers the same high quality analogue output stage, that a high end preamp/processor does?

I couldn't have said it better.

Actually, during my late research I've come across sound cards used in professional studios such as the ones manufactured by Lynx and RME that will probably surpass any consumer "high end" gear quality by far. Of course, they're around the USD1000 mark (and beyond) and that's not reasonable when I'm going to spend USD400 on the amp stage. I guess I'll settle on the Asus Xonar Essence ST that has been praised by audiophiles in a number of places. Sources from around 2010 say it's discontinued, but I can find it everywhere here in Europe, including its H6 daughter card (maybe they're manufacturing them again?). The two go for around EUR200, which is perfectly reasonable and balanced for the purpose.
Edited by comomolo - 8/26/12 at 9:45am
post #14 of 108
Thread Starter 
Thanks. I stumbled upon those two brands just yesterday and have read reviews about them. They are definitely too expensive for a USD400 amp, IMO. Maybe when/if I get to spend USD2000 on an amp, I will consider them.
post #15 of 108
They can also be found in the USA, so either these are left in stock (i doubt half of the stores in Europe and USA have had these in stock for the last 2 years), or they started producing them again, they even show up on the Asus site : http://www.asus.com/Multimedia/Audio_Cards/Essence_series

Xonar XT : http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16829132014

Xonar STX : http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16829132010
post #16 of 108
Quote:
Originally Posted by comomolo View Post

Thanks. I stumbled upon those two brands just yesterday and have read reviews about them. They are definitely too expensive for a USD400 amp, IMO. Maybe when/if I get to spend USD2000 on an amp, I will consider them.

Sorry, I deleted my post as you had already checked them to be too expensive. All I can add from personal experience is of course that "you get what you pay for". The difference in SQ between a Lynx TWO-B or a RME Hammerfall 96/32 and a XONAR HDAV1.3 is impressive, to say the least.
post #17 of 108
Quote:
Originally Posted by comomolo View Post

Thanks. I'm looking for sites devoted to audio, though. Computer enthusiasts sites tend to find everything slightly better than the average onboard sound "amazing" and they usually look for the gaming experience, something I honestly don't care about.
.

If you are looking for product reviews and advice only from audio-centric sites then why not just post questions on those sites?
post #18 of 108
I've been running an HTPC directly to a high powered amp for about 5 years. Be sure to get a card that mutes the outputs during boot, otherwise you can get a loud pop directly into the amp. I've had reasonably good experience with the Asus Xonar D2X. Also did some reading on the HT | OMEGA CLARO II but have never tried it.
post #19 of 108
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ruiner View Post

and the opamps are swappable. You can get them used on ebay.

I've read that in a number of places but don't know quite what it means. Why would I want to swap the opamps? I understand I should learn a little bit about that. Can you help me finding some info on it?
post #20 of 108
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by t-c View Post

If you are looking for product reviews and advice only from audio-centric sites then why not just post questions on those sites?
I thought this very site was one of them... But will happily learn about more.
post #21 of 108
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tulli View Post

Sorry, I deleted my post as you had already checked them to be too expensive. All I can add from personal experience is of course that "you get what you pay for". The difference in SQ between a Lynx TWO-B or a RME Hammerfall 96/32 and a XONAR HDAV1.3 is impressive, to say the least.

Thanks again. I understand what you mean and agree that most of the time "you get what you pay for", but the chasm between an Asus Xonar Essence ST + Doughter board and those from Lynx/RME is huge (five times the price, at least). Isn't there anything in between?
post #22 of 108
Rather than get into a pissing contest with the OP I'll just say that he's as entitled to his opinion as I am to mine. I'll certainly agree that processing the data in the digital domain is absolutely the most desirable scenario. The trick is to keep it in the digital domain as long as possible. Once it's converted to analog you're at the mercy of whatever electronics the signal is feeding. Most PC sound cards are anything but audiophile quality until you start getting into professional level hardware. At that point it's probably more cost effective to go with a separate preamp/processor than buying a high end sound card that provides better sound, but little in the way of flexibility.

I'll also agree that HTPC owners likely tend to limit their system to a minimal number of components and let the PC do most of the heavy lifting. In fact, the only components currently active in my system are my HTPC and an Onkyo Pro preamp/processor (which happens to be identical to an Onkyo Integra model). I also have a turntable and a huge vinyl collection that I hope to put back into service at some point in the near future, hence my desire for a separate preamp.

The subject of powered speakers were raised by someone else. I just iterated that the vast majority of powered speakers that I'm aware of are for PC use. The only audiophile powered speakers I've ever seen were made by Meridian over a decade ago and I don't even know if they're still in production. I haven't kept current with the latest audio hardware so there may be others now available that I'm not aware of.

I got into audio back when I was a teenager in the mid 1960's. Some of my earliest audio components were built from kits, mostly Dynaco and Heathkit. I got into high end gear when I was in college in the early 70's. Now I'm mostly into home theater systems and HTPCs. I still prefer having a separate controller to handle my switching and processing chores. That's my personal preference and also just my opinion. Take it or leave it. If you find a sound card that does what you want then more power to you. Personally, I want something that's going to provide me with something that's more than just "reasonably good." But like I said, that's just me.wink.gif

FYI - There are dozens of threads in this forum just like this one that you could find with a simple search. Rather than rehash a topic that's been done to death in this forum, try looking into what's already been discussed.
post #23 of 108
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

...

I searched before and found nothing that wasn't two years old at least. You're just being obnoxious, as well as ignorant (lots of studios have been using self-amplified high-quality monitors for decades and current PC sound cards easily rival your beloved preamps, something I have been learning recently, not thanks to you). You might as well stop subscribing this thread at all if you're not going to help.
Edited by comomolo - 8/26/12 at 2:44pm
post #24 of 108
Quote:
Originally Posted by NorCalJason View Post

I really don't understand this line of thinking.
In every home theater processor (separates or receiver) the digital audio, is just that... digital. The processing of the signal is handled 100% digitally. Its all 1's and 0's. It makes no difference what box this processor is in. Theta Processor = HTPC processor = HTIB processor. It's all the same processing.
You could even argue a HTPC is better, since typically, pc software is more flexible than the built in software home audio gear uses. It takes some really high end gear today, to be able to tinker with the software (Onkyo Integra Line is the least expensive stuff that I'm aware of, all over $1k)
The difference in sound quality between high-end and low-end gear is in the Digital-to-Analogue stage.
So the question is really this:
Is there a sound card that offers the same high quality analogue output stage, that a high end preamp/processor does?
It's clear that you don't understand it. Do you really believe that a Theta processor uses the same processing circuitry as a HTIB system? If so, I've got some beautiful swampland to sell you.wink.gif They may, in fact, use similar DACs, but high end DACs, such as Burr-Brown, aren't likely to be found in low end hardware. Keep in mind that a dedicated preamp/processor is designed with one purpose in mind - to decode the audio stream as accurately as possible with the best sound quality in mind (i.e., minimal degradation of the original signal), at least based on whatever price point the processor is aimed at. There are tradeoffs in every design based on the target cost of the unit. A sound card in a PC is limited to a specific form factor so that design shortcuts have to be made in order for all of the components to fit on a small PCI-e or PCI add-on board. You can't seriously expect a PC sound card to provide the same level of quality that a dedicated processor can, at least not unless you start using proprietary LSICs and other high cost components. This is why I prefer to send the digital signal directly to an audio component that's specifically designed to do the job and do it well.

The main thing that separates the low-end processors from high end units is the analog output stage. High end units will use military grade components with tighter tolerances. Low end units will use low quality components with wide tolerances, resulting in wide unit-to-unit variances and poorer overall sound quality. Which do you think will sound better? Once you enter the analog domain all bets are off. This is where high end hardware is a must for accurate sound reproduction.
post #25 of 108
Quote:
Originally Posted by comomolo View Post

I searched before and found nothing that wasn't two years old at least. You're just being obnoxious, as well as ignorant (lots of studios have been using self-amplified high-quality monitors for decades and current PC sound cards easily rival your beloved preamps, something I have been learning recently, not thanks to you). You might as well stop subscribing this thread at all if you're not going to help.
You're not looking very hard, then. I spotted at least two other threads that are current discussing a similar topic. This topic gets brought up at least several times a month, if not more often. FWIW, I was trying to help. You just don't like what I'm telling you. I'm only offering suggestions. What you do with the info is your business. Why don't we just agree to disagree and leave it at that.wink.gif

It's clear that you've made up your mind about what you want so I'm curious why you even asked in the first place. I think by now you've realized that audiophile quality sound cards at a decent price are pretty slim pickin's. My point is that in order to achieve the level of sound quality I think you're looking for, it will probably be cheaper to go with an outboard preamp/processor. Otherwise, you're going to get what you pay for.
Edited by captain_video - 8/26/12 at 2:52pm
post #26 of 108
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

FWIW, I was trying to help.
No. You have been trying to suggest that going with a PC sound card is cheap and the "superior" choice is going with a preamp. You haven't even listened to the needs I exposed in my posts, unlike almost every other poster. You just want to lecture everyone because you're so "old and experienced". If you think that's helpful, think again.
post #27 of 108
Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

You're not looking very hard, then. I spotted at least two other threads that are current discussing a similar topic. This topic gets brought up at least several times a month, if not more often. FWIW, I was trying to help. You just don't like what I'm telling you. I'm only offering suggestions. What you do with the info is your business. Why don't we just agree to disagree and leave it at that.wink.gif

The OP's title was "Direct to power amp: best audio card?". If you didn't have any suggestions specific to the title you shouldn't have posted.
post #28 of 108
http://www.avsforum.com/t/1426304/audiophile-sound-from-htpc-sound-card-hdav1-3-or-is-there-another-option
Quote:
Originally Posted by comomolo View Post

No. You have been trying to suggest that going with a PC sound card is cheap and the "superior" choice is going with a preamp.
Nice to see you paid attention.wink.gif
post #29 of 108
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by captain_video View Post

They may, in fact, use similar DACs, but high end DACs, such as Burr-Brown, aren't likely to be found in low end hardware.
You mean the Burr-Brown ones Asus and others employ in their cards?

You seem to have no clue about computer components. As someone else said, I've opened this thread asking for a computer component. I'll contact you when I need help on old school configurations, such as preamps and "processors".

Oh, and by the way, the thread you linked to is newer than this. You might go there and make some obnoxious comment about the lack of searching abilities of the OP.
post #30 of 108
This topic was quite a prominent discussion way back when HTPCs were in their infancy.

The Lynx2B and RME cards (also the Delta 1010s and to a lesser extent EMU-1616m) were the flavour of the day.

The main hurdle back then was proper bass management. That and the fact that early software had a tendency to do funky dynamic range compression to the signal which turned off a lot of people.

I have been going from soundcard direct to power amp for a very long time now. Just have to remember to turn your amps on after you have your PC on, and turn them off before you turn your PCs off. This is a general rule of thumb and it appears not all cards will produce this thump. I am still using the M-Audio Revo 5.1 as that card was inexpensive and had great audio quality (many tests compared it favourably to $2000+ AVRs back in the day) and it had proper bass management. Today, this card is a nuisance as they won't release windows 7 drivers and 64bit does not work properly so I am stuck using Vista x86 for the HTPC. As a stopgap I have bought a cheap Asus DX soundcard that in theory should sound better, but have not had the time to swap.

In my mind I am considering going over to AVRs for the room correction and other features when the time comes.

For those that harp on about how PCs are not for audio reproduction etc. Consider that a processor/avr is basically a very specialised PC. Also consider that all the music and movies you hear are mixed on PCs and that a properly designed PC does not have any of those unwanted qualities you speak of. I can put my ear up to my speaker and hear barely any noise coming out of it. Get a good PSU and motherboard and you are usually set.
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