Introduction to audio interface / who buys sound cards?

IdiotInCharge

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This is more a journey. It's one I've been slowly walking toward for some time and just recently started walking down; the purpose of this post is to invite discussion between those that find themselves in a similar position, those that have never considered an audio interface but perhaps could appreciate the utility of one for their uses, and of course, this post is to invite feedback from those that have already moved in this direction.

As such, please keep replies respectful, and while hijacking is not allowed, tangetial discussions that support the overall related knowledgebase are welcome. Just remember to tie them back in to the topic, thanks!

To start, I've used a few sound cards over the years, including a smattering of Creative products as well as onboard stuff for better or worse, and a few USB solutions ranging from a cheap ASUS to much nicer USB (or optical) balanced DAC / Amp units.

And now, I'm taking a different tack: I picked up the Audient Evo 4. I already have several sets of nice headphones as well as a pair of studio speakers and a studio sub and had been looking for a more convenient method of powering them noiselessly.

The Audient Evo 4 does both quite well! Obviously plenty of line-level signal for the pair of LSR 305s and 10" sub, and plenty of juice out of the headphone amp for my 250Ohm DT880 cans.

Sound is great out of the speakers and the headphones, and it's even better for the star of the show: the mic input capability. I picked up a Shure Beta 58A, ostensibly an upgrade to the legendary SM58 but with even better off-axis correction (we'll see), but thus far it easily exceeds my requirements.

I'll need to do plenty more informal poking around and maybe some semi-formal testing in the near future, but I've already reached on conclusion: unless one is chasing after peak Hi-Fi, for most desktop gaming purposes (or desktop usage period), there's very little reason to buy much else really.

What do you guys think?
 

Morphes

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I've been into audio for a while but only within the last year or two have I really dived into the fancy stuff. I used to think that onboard is fine and has no issues.... Until I heard my first DAC from schiit.

My whole world changed as far as audio goes. This wasn't even considered a great dac/headphone amp, but it was night and day between my onboard. For me, I use it mainly for gaming or music. In gaming I noticed that I could pinpoint exact locations WAY easier, and hear all the small details that was muddled before. Just got my new dac yesterday and haven't had time to really listen to it yet.

History of audio gear:
asus rampage V (x99) on board audio

schiit modi and headphone amp (version 1)

schiit modi and JDS Labs Atom

schiit modi dac dies (100% my fault, I messed up a solder connection making a cable)

fiio q1 mkii and JDS Labs Atom

Schiit Modius and JDS Labs Atom

replacing the Atom with a a90 amp shortly to go balanced, but saving up a little first.

oh and my speaker amp is a sa-98e with Micca RB42's

Headphones:

m50x (sold these after getting a dac), audio technica ad700, phillips sph9500, BD dt990 pro 250ohm, Helios (kickstarter, made my own cable to make it balanced)

Portable:

Fiio q1 mkii, BTR3 and BTR5
Ikko OH10, Blon BL-03, kz zs10 pro, jadeaudio ea3


My advice for anyone interested, get a decent headphone/dac combo that has balanced and don't go further. Its marginal increase in quality of sound for a ton of money. But I love the gear and learning about audio is fun. Building cables is also really fun and although silver litz cable does nothing for sound for me, it does look really good.
 

IdiotInCharge

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My advice for anyone interested, get a decent headphone/dac combo that has balanced and don't go further.
To add to this, most audio interfaces have a balanced output / preamp. This is one of the two main reasons I picked one up; I have several balanced DAC/Amps available (and a balanced amp elsewhere), but these do not provide volume control on their balanced line outputs. They're not preamps.
The Audient interface that I purchased and linked above does provide this function, meaning that I can string my sub and then speakers from it with a balanced connection and use the volume control on the interface. And in the case of the Audient, I can use the volume control in Windows too, which is convenient.

Also note that the Audient has AKM DACs, as featured on higher-end gear, and the Motu M2 I was also looking at has an ESS DAC.
 

Morphes

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Yeah, they def don't have a pre-amp attached. That would actually be a downside for me, I'd prefer to change the volume on the end device instead of through a pre-amp if possible. So the speakers are controlled by the speaker amp, the headphones are controlled by the headphone amp. But I totally get wanting one volume control on one unit, to each their own.

I don't know too much about audio interfaces compared to dacs, but I don't see any balanced outputs. I see a left and a right out, but nothing I could find shows its balanced. Totally willing to be wrong, I'm just not as familiar with those.

What dacs/amps do you have to compare to this audio interface?

Cool unit for sure! I just went with a usb condenser mic, because I don't care enough about mic quality to jump down that rabbit hole lol.
 

IdiotInCharge

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Yeah, they def don't have a pre-amp attached. That would actually be a downside for me, I'd prefer to change the volume on the end device instead of through a pre-amp if possible. So the speakers are controlled by the speaker amp, the headphones are controlled by the headphone amp.
In this case, I'm using studio monitors and a studio sub, which are all powered and balanced. Of course, given that they all have their own amps and gain controls, you want a preamp of some sort upstream. Here, any interface with balanced TRS can be used as a balanced preamp, and with the Audient EVO 4, that preamp is tied into the Windows volume control.

Main reasoning here for a balanced signal chain is that I got tired of using speakers with amps in places with poor power and dense RF, i.e. apartments.

I don't know too much about audio interfaces compared to dacs, but I don't see any balanced outputs. I see a left and a right out, but nothing I could find shows its balanced. Totally willing to be wrong, I'm just not as familiar with those.
I really didn't either, and a lot of audio interfaces in the recent past had various issues that precluded them from recommendation.

First, the 'left and right' outputs are 1/4" TRS and balanced, carrying exactly the same signal as a balanced XLR 3-pin. Here is a balanced cable example that has both connectors. One issue I imagine is that interface makers aren't accustomed to having to say that their 1/4" TRS outputs are balanced, as for decades that's just been assumed to be the case. Unbalanced line-level connections are usually RCA ports in the audio recording / performance world.

Second, an audio interface is basically five things:
  • A DAC
  • An ADC
  • A mic preamp
  • A line-level preamp
  • A headphone amp
Basically a sound card, but nicer, and more fully-featured than a DAC. For example, the Audient EVO 4 goes for US$129; a balanced DAC with no preamp goes for US$150 from Drop (the SDAC Balanced).

And that's kind of the motivation for this post: if a US$129 device, basically decent sound card territory, can do everything that a sound card can do, and then do balanced output and provide inputs for a wide variety of microphones, why buy a sound card at all?

What dacs/amps do you have to compare to this audio interface?
One each of Topping's DX7 and DX7s, and an O2/ODAC from JDS Labs.
I just went with a usb condenser mic, because I don't care enough about mic quality to jump down that rabbit hole lol.
I went with a dynamic first because I wanted to take a stab at reducing surrounding noise; condensor mics tend to pick up everything. I do have a Blue Snowball that I've used for at least half a decade, and I have a small Samson mic that I've used for a year or so on a separate system.
 

Morphes

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First, the 'left and right' outputs are 1/4" TRS and balanced, carrying exactly the same signal as a balanced XLR 3-pin. Here is a balanced cable example that has both connectors. One issue I imagine is that interface makers aren't accustomed to having to say that their 1/4" TRS outputs are balanced, as for decades that's just been assumed to be the case. Unbalanced line-level connections are usually RCA ports in the audio recording / performance world.

Ohhh gotcha, I didn't even know those were 1/4" jacks lol, I thought they were 3.5mm connections. Its way bigger than I thought it was

For your needs, yeah that makes total sense! I can def understand the need/want for something like this for sure.

How does it compare to your other gear? Have you tried back to back testing? I'm usually too lazy to compare once I get everything where its supposed to go haha.

I was just watching a review of that unit, love the LEDs on it!

[Off-topic]
Sounds like you know more about mic stuff than me, I've always wondered, why don't people use shotgun mics for pc streaming?
 

IdiotInCharge

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How does it compare to your other gear? Have you tried back to back testing? I'm usually too lazy to compare once I get everything where its supposed to go haha.
Mostly, all of my gear exceeds what sources I use are capable of. If I were to make any addition, it would be to get a THX headphone amp of some sort, but even then, that's mostly unneeded. The Topping DX7 (and newer) amps are plenty powerful and plenty clean.

What I have been doing is using the headphone output on the EVO 4. As noted, it's strong enough for the DT880 250Ω set, which is just about all you'd need for most consumer and 'sane' audiophile headphones. I do doubt that I'll hear a difference; the headphone output on the interface is mostly useful for monitoring microphone input for say recording, which I plan to do some of.

Sounds like you know more about mic stuff than me, I've always wondered, why don't people use shotgun mics for pc streaming?
Think in terms of signal quality, dynamic range, distortion, background noise rejection, and so on. Every microphone is a compromise (like anything else), and shotgun microphones will be limited similarly.
 

tungt88

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Jan 14, 2008
Messages
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No longer really considering sound cards as a recommendation -- my SMSL M500 (v2) came in yesterday, and paired with my Audeze LCD-GX + Dolby Atmos software, it's a real joy to listen to tracks, compared to my (previous) Sound Blaster X7 LE. No "major, mindblowing improvements" by switching to the M500 (as expected -- you get your big sound quality improvements from a good headphone), but a lot of nice, little, noticeable ones. I really like the Dolby Atmos software, and much prefer it over the Sound Blaster software -- the Atmos' presets and EQ are pretty well-thought-out in my book.

Had a fierce internal debate over whether I should go with the M500 or the Topping DX3 Pro or DX7 Pro -- but I'm really glad I went with the M500.

Was a bit back-and-forth on getting a halfway decent mic (since the LCD-GX's mic is absolutely NOT something I'd recommend at all, especially since testing it out), and settled on the AKG Lyra (was considering Rode NT-1 & Audio-Technica AT 2035), which is due to come in over the weekend (I'm using the crappy-but-passable "free waveform mic" that was bundled w/the Sound Blaster Z I got a number of years ago).

The Sound Blaster X7 LE I used to have was passed onto a musician/amateur producer friend of mine yesterday -- I pass to him all the headphones/amps/etc that I don't need or don't want, as he gets a lot of use out of them.

-------------

Computer-oriented Audio gear: Besides the ubiquitous Walkman of the 80s, I started out with a:
  • Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum 16 (PAS-16) in 1992
  • Went on to add the Advanced Gravis ACE (for GUS & MIDI support) in 1995/1996
  • And later replaced both with an Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold in 1997/1998
Fast forward 10 years (after using motherboard sound and a few really cheap PCI sound cards put out by Creative), and I found myself with a:
  • Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer in 2007
  • Replaced by Sound Blaster Z in 2012
  • Replaced by ASUS Strix Raid DLX in 2015
  • Also got the Sound Blaster X7 LE in 2015 (rapidly replacing the Strix Raid DLX due to versatility)
  • SMSL M500 (as of yesterday)
-------------

Headphones:
  • Whatever crappy headphones came with my Walkmen/AIWAs in the 80s/90s
  • AKG K240 in 1999 (birthday present from my cousin) -- first pair of "acutally decent headphones"
  • Countless crappy earbuds from various MP3 players in the early/mid 2000s (Creative MuVo, D-Link Roq-It, etc)
  • Cheap pair of Sennheiser headphones I got from the Virgin Megastore in Times Square (forgot the model name/number)
  • Steelseries Siberia (original) around 2008/9 or so
  • Bought into the "audiophile hype" in 2011 & bought the Corsair HS1 (which had "audiophile" prominently written on it, along with bloated bass) -- thing broke within a few months
  • Used some other cheap crap, including some bad Creative gaming headsets -- there was one pretty good Creative gaming headset, but thing developed a mic issue, sadly :( (don't remember the name -- might've been a Fatali1y one)
  • Beyerdynamic MMX 2 in 2013 (cheap, and actually quite good for the price, but on-ears hurt me like crazy); sold to another [H] dude after the pain was too much for me
  • AKG GHS-1 gaming headset in 2nd half of 2013 (had exact same strengths and weaknesses as the MMX 2, but [gasp] much better build quality) -- passed to mom
  • Sennheiser PC 360 in 2013 (finally, a good gaming headset that was also very comfortable - build quality could be better, though)
  • Some more crappy gaming headsets, including the Klipsch KG-200 in 2016 (worst headset or headphone I've ever tried in my life)
  • Philips SHP9500 in 2016 (great choice back then) -- that really got me started on good headphones (besides the K240)
  • Fostex T50RPMk3 (fun, boomy bass headphones with big soundstage; modded w/Shure 1540 pads) in 2016
  • Sennheiser HD630VB in late 2016 (great choice with excellent bass dial tuning)
  • Audio-Technica ATH-AG1 (pretty good closed-back gaming headset) in 2016
  • Sony MDR-1A (also bought in 2016 -- good, but lots of heavy, bloated bass; extremely comfortable)
  • Beyerdynamic Custom Studio (tank-like build quality, and pretty good sound/comfort -- has adjustable bass ports)
  • 2017: Beyerdynamic Amiron Home in early 2017 (smooth, very well built, & super comfortable)
  • 2018: Audeze LCD-2 Classic (wonderful, wonderful -- bit too heavy, though)
  • 2019: Cooler Master MH751 (very comfortable, well priced, good sound),
  • 2019: Koss Porta Pro (w/Yaxi Pads) -- great bang/buck headphone that I use when on the move
  • 2019: Sennheiser HD 58x (when slightly modded properly, very comfortable and versatile headphone, with good sound quality)
  • 2019: Fostex TR-70 250ohm (good for studio work and not much else)
  • 2019: Creative Aurvana Live! (great little V-shaped headphone w/phenominal bang/buck value, but very crappy build quality)
  • 2019: Audeze Mobius (promising start marred by horrific software & weird lack of pop filter; only now in 2020 can I recommend this).
  • 2020: Audio-Technica ATH-ADG1: Bought for comparison purposes: it's "ok" but no longer what its earlier iterations were in the mid 20teens (due to competition). Mic w/pop filter is pretty good.
  • 2020: Audio-Technica ATH-G1: Great build quality & comfort, really bad bass bloat & cheap cabling. Shame, b/c the mic and the treble/mids are actually pretty good (based on the M50x, according to AT themselves)
  • 2020: Sennheiser GSP500: Almost a winner (for gaming headsets), but the great discomfort on the head makes it a really big loser. Shame, b/c the mic is actually really, really good.
  • 2020: Aiwa ARC-1: Bluetooth/analog headset. Bluetooth is great (AptX, AptX LL, SBC, AAC), but analog mode is a massive downgrade. Good sound, Good build quality & very competitively priced, with really long battery life. I recommend this for a Bluetooth headset w/ your smartphone
  • 2020: AKG N90Q: Best noise-cancelling headset on the market, hands-down, with best sound quality of any noise-cancelling headset. Excellent Auto-Tuning process. Not really recommended for "light mobile use" due to bulk (good for long business/tourist trips on train/boat/plane). Needs headband for more comfort (which I did get)
  • 2020: Audeze LCD-GX: Best headphone I've ever personally owned, and I'm glad I did: tremendous "bang/buck" for *higher-end* mid-fi; offers much that the high-end has, at a much better price point (you are getting the sound of $1200-$3000 USD/Euro for high 3-figures, a win in my book). Seriously underrated headphone. Mic is quite bad, and close to being outright garbage (get another mic). Also, quite comfortable (nice surprise from Audeze, renowned for heavy LCD-series).
 
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