Soundblaster Z - "noisy" outputs (in particular Speaker out), any ideas?

Syphon Filter

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Guys,

Hoping someone can give me some pointers before I throw the towel in and get an external DAC or something.

I've been using my Soundblaster Z for a while now (years in fact) with headphones (DT 880 Pro) only and never really noticed any issues. However, this week I picked up a pair of KRK Rokit RP5 monitors.

I've connected them up to the Front L / R output of the SB-Z via a 3.5mm to RCA splitter and immediately, I noticed I am getting a lot of noise / interference on the speakers. It's 100% not the cable because when I use the same cable on say my Smartphone the speakers sound completely clean.

So this means it's down to the output of the SB-Z, the SB-Z itself or my PC in general (Gaming machine in sig).

Things I've tried:

1. Fiddling with the speaker / audio settings in both Windows and the the SB-Z utility.
2. Uninstalling and reinstalling the SB-Z drivers.
3. Moving the card to a different slot and then reinstalling the drivers.
4. Following the guide / info HERE and HERE

I'm getting my Google on but struggling to find any real fixes. If anyone has any suggestions they would be much appreciated.

Cheers,

SF
 

michalrz

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Uh, welcome to audio hell. Enjoy your buzz ;)

This is a common problem. You mentioned fiddling (hm!) with the audio settings. But did you fiddle with inputs?
I'll throw a few blanket statements that you might try - I hope you can get your nice speakers to work.
- mute all inputs
- disable onboard audio
- if overclocked, revert to stock for a while
- make sure you're powering your speakers from the same outlet as your computer
- try a different splitter cable
- make sure there are no power lines running adjacent to signal wires around your equipment
- disable power saving in bios or in windows (make sure all clocks are 100% all the time)
- with the volume slightly bumped up, try moving varous wires around (including power wires) and see if you can hear a difference/crackling
- make sure the power phase you're at in your domicile isn't loaded with things like washing machines, fridges, AC, basically devices that have protected metal enclosures
- run the computer as bare as possible. Down to removing any and all USB devices and listening for changes in the noise.

Random Qs that might help:
- is the noise present when you are just in CMOS setup?
- is the noise changing? any factors like the selected volume (computer side), time of day, anything at all which alters the phenomenon?
 

B00nie

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Most likely you have a ground loop. Your KRK:s and the computer have a potential difference which gets leveled through the audio ground -> you get interference.
Adding to the trouble, most computer power supplies leak 110v to the chassis. You need to install a galvanic isolator between your speakers and the audio-out. You can get one for peanuts from Amazon/Ebay/Partsexpress.

If you get shocked slightly when you leave your fingertip between the audio out and the jack that's a sure sign currents are flowing from computer to speaker.
 

Syphon Filter

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Hi Boonie, came to the same conclusion myself! Out of interest, will getting a USB DAC / Soundcard (rather than PCIe) help?

michalrz

- mute all inputs Tried this.
- disable onboard audio Already done.
- if overclocked, revert to stock for a while Will do.
- make sure you're powering your speakers from the same outlet as your computer It's all on the same ring. Shall I try a surge protector?
- try a different splitter cable 100% not the cable, it works fine on say my phone.
- make sure there are no power lines running adjacent to signal wires around your equipment Difficult, the wiring is in the walls!
- disable power saving in bios or in windows (make sure all clocks are 100% all the time) What's the thinking behind this?
- with the volume slightly bumped up, try moving varous wires around (including power wires) and see if you can hear a difference/crackling Will give it a go.
- make sure the power phase you're at in your domicile isn't loaded with things like washing machines, fridges, AC, basically devices that have protected metal enclosures I'm in the UK, it's all single phase power here unless you're in a massive house.
- run the computer as bare as possible. Down to removing any and all USB devices and listening for changes in the noise. Tried this.

Random Qs that might help:
- is the noise present when you are just in CMOS setup? No, only starts when Windows has finished loading, makes me think it could be a driver related issue.
- is the noise changing? any factors like the selected volume (computer side), time of day, anything at all which alters the phenomenon? I was going to say, the noise is definitely affected by mouse movement and depending what's being displayed on screen. Suggests the soundcard is definitely picking up "bus" noise from USB and PCIe.
 

michalrz

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Hi Boonie, came to the same conclusion myself! Out of interest, will getting a USB DAC / Soundcard (rather than PCIe) help?

- mute all inputs Tried this.
- disable onboard audio Already done.
- if overclocked, revert to stock for a while Will do.
- make sure you're powering your speakers from the same outlet as your computer It's all on the same ring. Shall I try a surge protector?
- try a different splitter cable 100% not the cable, it works fine on say my phone.
- make sure there are no power lines running adjacent to signal wires around your equipment Difficult, the wiring is in the walls!
- disable power saving in bios or in windows (make sure all clocks are 100% all the time) What's the thinking behind this?
- with the volume slightly bumped up, try moving varous wires around (including power wires) and see if you can hear a difference/crackling Will give it a go.
- make sure the power phase you're at in your domicile isn't loaded with things like washing machines, fridges, AC, basically devices that have protected metal enclosures I'm in the UK, it's all single phase power here unless you're in a massive house.
- run the computer as bare as possible. Down to removing any and all USB devices and listening for changes in the noise. Tried this.

Random Qs that might help:
- is the noise present when you are just in CMOS setup? No, only starts when Windows has finished loading, makes me think it could be a driver related issue.
- is the noise changing? any factors like the selected volume (computer side), time of day, anything at all which alters the phenomenon? I was going to say, the noise is definitely affected by mouse movement and depending what's being displayed on screen. Suggests the soundcard is definitely picking up "bus" noise from USB and PCIe.

B00nie is right about galvanic isolation. When there is current flowing between the grounds, it too can become amplified by the card's opamps and the speakers' amp.
Going optical is THE solution. There are various clever isolators online.

This is often the root of the problem. But, given thick enough cables, short cable runs and the like this issue can be minimized.

No, a surge protector won't work. But, you can try a different outlet in your home. And a thicker power cable. Same with PSU - to motherboard- push the bundles of wires down just in case.
And just make sure the splitter cable isn't touching any other power cable.

The science behind clock modulation (power saving) being an issue is beyond my knowledge. Though, it infers power draw/power supply fluctuations, and these can manifest in speakers. It worked for some people.

It can still be the cable I assure you. It isn't an issue with the phone because it is not powered from mains. I have seen this happen - believe me - it's very often the cable even when you think it's not.

If you hear a farting noise when you're moving your mouse then you're having the same issue I had. But with mine, it never went away even in BIOS. I narrowed it down to my motherboard not playing nice with the line of Corsair PSUs I had handy.
 

michalrz

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As far as drivers go, I remember upgrading to a newer version for my prodigy 7.1 hifi and what they did was they added output muting when the device was idle to 'cheat' their way around any possible hissing/buzzing. But during playback, any underlying issue will still be there...
 

Zepher

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I lifted the ground to the speakers to fix my issue. Nothing else seemed to work. swapped computers, added a soundcard, swapped speakers, swapped cables, had new circuits installed.

Both sets of speakers work fine with no noise upstairs in my room on 2 different computers.
 

Syphon Filter

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Going optical is THE solution. There are various clever isolators online.

So I need to be looking at an Optical DAC with RCA ouputs?

It can still be the cable I assure you. It isn't an issue with the phone because it is not powered from mains. I have seen this happen - believe me - it's very often the cable even when you think it's not.

If you hear a farting noise when you're moving your mouse then you're having the same issue I had. But with mine, it never went away even in BIOS. I narrowed it down to my motherboard not playing nice with the line of Corsair PSUs I had handy.

Ok, I'll try another cable. Funnily enough, I'm using a Corsair PSU (AXi1200).
 

Syphon Filter

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Hmmm, yeah not going to do that, earth protection is pretty important.

Would a USB soundcard resolve this? Or would it just suffer the same issues given it will still be connected to the PC (providing an electrical route for the ground loop)?
 

michalrz

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A USB may not resolve this. It hasn't in my case. The buzz was still there, just much quieter because my USB card had low dynamic range.

I think you'd want an external (self powered?) Digital Analog Converter (ie DAC) with an optical or electrical digital input and an analog output.
That the least problematic solution.
Not saying you can't solve your current problem - UK is 230V right? If your house wasn't wired by anyone I personally know then you should be fine as is with that bohoemoth of a PSU.
 
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B00nie

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Syphon your phone is not connected to the mains like your speaker is. So the cable doesn't have to carry current like your speakers force it to. Getting a double shielded cable may fix your problem. A double shielded cable may (or may not) be sufficient to make the problems inaudible as it has two protection layers and a lot more metal to carry the current.

A friend of mine bought two quadral subs recently and when he connected the other one far back in the room it had a ground loop problem (buzzing). He was sceptical but surprisingly switching the 5 dollar cheap cable to a quality double shielded RCA made the buzz go away.

Of course optical DAC is the best solution. Galvanic isolator second best.
 

Syphon Filter

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B00nie, appreciate the help. Just so we're clear though...

By "Optical DAC" you mean something that can take an Optical (TOSLINK) input and will output line-level right?

So then I will need to enable the following setting:

8nGq6nUc.png


Take that optical out, shove it into the DAC and connect the line outputs to my monitor?

Will a cheap one do? Something like this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Digital-Op...F8&qid=1480622177&sr=8-1&keywords=TOSLINK+DAC

Or should I really spend more?
 

B00nie

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B00nie, appreciate the help. Just so we're clear though...

By "Optical DAC" you mean something that can take an Optical (TOSLINK) input and will output line-level right?

So then I will need to enable the following setting:

8nGq6nUc.png


Take that optical out, shove it into the DAC and connect the line outputs to my monitor?

Will a cheap one do? Something like this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Digital-Op...F8&qid=1480622177&sr=8-1&keywords=TOSLINK+DAC

Or should I really spend more?

That setting looks correct. That cheap DAC will do just fine. It's only computer speakers after all. You can always replace it later if you want to. Most likely the speakers are the weakest link in your system currently, even with a cheap dac.
 

Syphon Filter

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The speakers are KRK Rokit 5s, pretty decent monitors for the price.

I'll try and snag one of those DACs
 

rezerekted

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Get ground loop isolator for the rca or go optical, as said. I had this issue with an Asrock mb and ground loop isolator fixed it for me. Some say ground loop isolators degrade audio quality but I never noticed that. You can get them at RadioShack fairly cheap so worth a try.
 

B00nie

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The speakers are KRK Rokit 5s, pretty decent monitors for the price.

I'll try and snag one of those DACs

Still the speakers are most likely a far weaker link than even a basic DAC. As weird as it sounds ;)

You have to sink tens of thousands to speakers to match cheapo front-end components in terms of distortion, linearity and dynamic range.
 

Skripka

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Get ground loop isolator for the rca or go optical, as said. I had this issue with an Asrock mb and ground loop isolator fixed it for me. Some say ground loop isolators degrade audio quality but I never noticed that. You can get them at RadioShack fairly cheap so worth a try.

This...although it depends on what kind of noise we're talking

Still the speakers are most likely a far weaker link than even a basic DAC. As weird as it sounds ;)

You have to sink tens of thousands to speakers to match cheapo front-end components in terms of distortion, linearity and dynamic range.

Depends on what you're dealing with and what you're doing.

Apple iPods, iPhones, iPads, Macbooks, and powerbooks for over a decade have universally had bad ground soldering of the headphone jacks. Which was especially apparent when plugged in or charging. Now for normal headphone use you might not notice it....but as soon as you jack of of the aforesaid into a clean-powered commercial professional sound system-noise galore.
 

B00nie

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This...although it depends on what kind of noise we're talking



Depends on what you're dealing with and what you're doing.

Apple iPods, iPhones, iPads, Macbooks, and powerbooks for over a decade have universally had bad ground soldering of the headphone jacks. Which was especially apparent when plugged in or charging. Now for normal headphone use you might not notice it....but as soon as you jack of of the aforesaid into a clean-powered commercial professional sound system-noise galore.
I have owned a 2012 macbook pro, 2014 mbp and now a late 2015 mbp, 2010 iMac, iPhones 1, 3, 4, 5 and now 6s+ and none of them exhibited any disturbance loading or not loading. My business associates 3000 euro Acer laptop with 'high end' audio then again buzzes like mad if it's plugged in. :)
 

Syphon Filter

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Yes, almost exactly like that plus it picks up pops and crackles when the mouse moves. Also when, when I run up a game (i.e. the GPUs are working hard) it gets A LOT worse.

It's pretty much inaudible at desktop unless I up the gain on the speakers themselves but as soon as I run a game, it's in your face. I'll chuck a vid on YT and post back.
 

Great Tiger

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Yeah it definitely sounds like your getting PCIe crosstalk in the PCIe lanes. Although the exact fix isn't on the top of my head I do remember that sometimes messing the PCIe timings and voltages can help/hinder.
 

B00nie

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Yeah it definitely sounds like your getting PCIe crosstalk in the PCIe lanes. Although the exact fix isn't on the top of my head I do remember that sometimes messing the PCIe timings and voltages can help/hinder.

If the headphones are not picking it, it's still most likely ground related. It just comes from the PCI-E power. A galvanic isolator may still fix it - and of course going optical will completely bypass the soundblaster -> problem solved.
 

Zepher

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Yes, almost exactly like that plus it picks up pops and crackles when the mouse moves. Also when, when I run up a game (i.e. the GPUs are working hard) it gets A LOT worse.

It's pretty much inaudible at desktop unless I up the gain on the speakers themselves but as soon as I run a game, it's in your face. I'll chuck a vid on YT and post back.
I could hear noise when the mouse moved and when the hard drive was reading/writing.
I lifted the ground and the speakers have no noise coming through them now. This issue happened with my Alesis and M-Audio monitors, so it wasn't the speakers or cables, as both sets of speakers work fine with no issues upstairs.
 
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Syphon Filter

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Ok so, I've done tests as follows.

michalrz I reset all my clocks (CPU, GPU, voltages etc) to stock. No different.

Also, when using headphones via the "headphone out" of the soundcard, I couldn't hear the noise. So I threw the speakers on this output. Sadly the "noise" is in fact present on both the headphone and the speaker out of the soundcard. However, it is inaudible through the headphones (DT880 Pro). I am guessing that's because the headphones themselves are passive whereas the speakers are active and have their own integrated amp) or perhaps they're just not sensitive enough.

So, I'm thinking I've got a few options.

Option 1. Ground loop isolator. As far as I can tell this is just a signal transformer. The in and out are galvanically isolated but there's a risk of some loss on the outgoing signal. Something like THIS or THIS. Not 100% keen on this but it's cheap. I would continue to use the headphone out on the soundcard for my cans.

Option 2. Optical DAC. Use my soundcard software to play out a stereo mix on its optical output (screenshot above), feed that into an optical dac like THIS or THIS and then connect the RCA outs to the speakers. Again, I would continue to use the headphone out on the soundcard for the cans.

Option 3. Get myself a natty DAC / Headphone Amp with optical in and both headphone and line-out. If I were to go down this route, I would NOT want to spend a fortune but I would want a DAC that has 2 x optical inputs. I've been searching like mad on Google /
Amazon but not found anything that meets this criteria. If anyone has any suggestions they would be most welcome!

We've already discussed the possibility of a USB soundcard but it seems this may or may not work so risky proposition.

What does [H] think?
 

Zepher

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I think you should lift the ground on the speakers to see if the noise goes away.
 

Syphon Filter

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To prove it's a ground loop issue?

Does anyone know of a budget equivalent of and Audiolab M-DAC?

Specifically something with two optical inputs...
 

rezerekted

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I know a sure way to fix it, get a motherboard without this issue. As soon as I upgraded form the Asrock to an Asus the issue was gone. I told Asrock they had an EMI issue with that mb but of course they denied it. I still have the Asrock in an old computer with WindowsXP on it but haven't used it for a couple of years and I did use a groundloop isolator on it. I actually bought 4 ground loop isolators for just in case. Try the ground loop isolator, if that doesn't work then rma it for a mb without that issue or buy a different mb.
 

Syphon Filter

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No idea. I'm sorted though.

SBZ outputting stereo down-mix on TOSLINK out -> Fiio Taishan D03k DAC with RCA Out -> Speakers.

Clean as a whistle now and I can control volume from Windows. Sorted.
 

Zarathustra[H]

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No idea. I'm sorted though.

SBZ outputting stereo down-mix on TOSLINK out -> Fiio Taishan D03k DAC with RCA Out -> Speakers.

Clean as a whistle now and I can control volume from Windows. Sorted.


Yep, that's the way to do it. The innards of a PC (especially an ehtusiasts one, running overclocked out of spec voltages, fancy fans, water pumps, etc.) is electrically noisy. Sound cards try to filter this out, but sitting on the same power source as the noisy parts, there is only so much they can do.

An external DAC solves this instantly.
 

Wiseguy2001

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I've come across the same issue, and worked out what it is.

Is there more noise on the HD-Audio jack at the front of the computer than the rear of the card? If so your HD-Audio cable sucks and it is picking up loads of interference. So unplug it...

I can't be bothered to test it but I have a feeling the HD jack is on the same ground as other front-panel/ USB devices. There's just way too much noise to be a mere shielding issue, and I have tried to route that cable as far away from other cables as possible but that made zero difference. The main reason dedicated soundcards are generally much better than built-in is because they have far more power filtration & isolation from other components. A dirty ground on the headphone output is not a good thing!

Ah duck it, I have the multimeter out from a few weeks back, somewhere...
 

SvenBent

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i did not read the entire thred so i apologize if this has already been coveter.
but some chais front outlees does grounding badly and shared and cutting the comom ground in the front output PCB can improve the audio quality.
i dont know where i saw the modifications. but il t ry to dig it up again
 

Wiseguy2001

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The moment I sent that post there was a power cut, must be a sign...

I did check if the front jacks had a dirty ground (even a crap cable shouldn't be that bad), but I couldn't find anything from the cable's pins (sound card side) to the chassis or USB housing, although I wasn't overly thorough.

The sound is now quite a bit livelier. So yeah, l think it is a grounding issue (I went to the trouble of routing that cable away from everything, even used spacers to keep it off the GPU). Still, should have checked that cable sooner (Occam's razor and all). I've had this case for years (it's a DefineXL from 2011).

This noise issue isn't just limited to this sound card (I've seen this issue to some degree numerous times in the past and with various PCs).


Fun Fact: I found out my CPU's heatsink (an NH-D14) isn't grounded! Something I never expected as I've been using that technique to ground myself for years (paint isn't a good conductor).
 

Zarathustra[H]

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I've come across the same issue, and worked out what it is.

Is there more noise on the HD-Audio jack at the front of the computer than the rear of the card? If so your HD-Audio cable sucks and it is picking up loads of interference. So unplug it...

I can't be bothered to test it but I have a feeling the HD jack is on the same ground as other front-panel/ USB devices. There's just way too much noise to be a mere shielding issue, and I have tried to route that cable as far away from other cables as possible but that made zero difference. The main reason dedicated soundcards are generally much better than built-in is because they have far more power filtration & isolation from other components. A dirty ground on the headphone output is not a good thing!

Ah duck it, I have the multimeter out from a few weeks back, somewhere...


Get a cheap optical dac, and all of your grounding and leakage current woes disappear :p
 
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