Sunday, June 5, 2016

Building a New Computer: Appendix A - Audio

I have to admit to being guilty of giving in to the Audiophile Placebo effect. What makes me feel bad about this was that in the 1970's the audio industry decided to make the less expensive analog VU meters sound better than the digital versions started calling them by the name of one of the three people who designed it. Which one that was used varied but all made them sound better than the digital version. In reality they were the same inexpensive meters that the more accurate digital meters were replacing.

When I was looking at Motherboards initially the audio circuits were not something that I was using in the evaluation. However, if two boards were comparably priced I often selected the one where the audio description made it sound better. This is where I was falling victim of the Audiophile Placebo effect. If the advertising made it sound like it had better sound, I would hear better sound even if it was not there.

For the same digital sound file there are a few factors that determine how well the computer will do: DAC bits, DAC frequency, interference and the output electrical resistance. Since all on board sound systems use only a few different audio chip sets the first two elements will not be a problem since the bits and frequency associated with the DAC's in these chips far exceed the range of sound that humans can hear.

This leaves us with interference and output electrical resistance.

Interference if present can be readily heard. While the potential for interference is strong inside a computer case, the chance that it can be heard is low. The greatest chance for hearing interference is when using the front panel jacks. Depending on how you run the cable from the motherboard and how other parts are oriented it may pickup and inject noise into what you are hearing. If you suffer from this the best solution is to use the connections on the back of the computer.

This leaves the output electrical resistance. This is harder to quantify since the resistance rating of the headphones that you are using will define how much of the low frequency range you loose. A large number of sites that measure and review this has indicated that low end and high end computer systems generally have the same resistance for motherboard and sound card audio. Any difference is measurable with sensitive equipment but is generally not perceptible by people.

Ok so what differences are real?

Headsets and Speakers

Let's start with headsets of the two.

The quality of the headsets have more of an impact on the quality of what you hear more than your computer sound system. A reasonable guide is the more expensive the better. That is up to a point and with a few exceptions.

I have been told by Audiophiles that headphones that cost more than $500 cost far more than the added benefits. Personally I have never used ones that cost more $100 and rarely spend anything close to that much. So this is the first caveat about the more expensive the better. Try headphones and when you can not tell the difference between them and the less expensive ones, then they are too expensive for you. Over the year we have all done things to damage our hearing and as we get older our hearing changes. So while someone else may be able to tell a difference between a $100 headphone and a $500 one, if you can not then save your money.

Another example of where spending more does not mean better are the quadraphonic or even the 7.1 headphones. In a room where you can set up lots of speakers in the location guided by the channel that they are tied to then the additional speakers make sense. In headphones they add cost and not any better sound. Your computer can properly merge all eight channels of 7.1 sound into stereo. When using headphones all of the sound is right there at your ears just like from the real world when it comes together. The additional speakers in the headset are simply doing the mixing that your computer can do for a much lower cost.

Another situation is wireless. A $70 wireless headset does not have the same sound as a $70 headset. The wireless system adds a cost. Also there is a big difference in the quality of the sound sent to the headset between infrared and blue-tooth types of wireless headsets. My recommendation is to try them out and compare them to wired headsets and use the same guidance that if you can not tell the difference between them and a less expensive version then it probably costs too much.

Now on to speakers.

Unless you simply do not want to wear a headphone, using speakers will give you lower quality sound. To actually get as good of sound as you can get with headphones you will need to have a theater setup with properly located speakers and use the digital optical connection from your computer to the amplifier.

Connecting four sets of speakers to the ports on the back of the computer generally will give you a lower quality sound than you would get with headphones.

However, a decent desktop speaker will be better than the speakers in your monitor.

USB Sound

This is one of two situations where using something other than your built in sound card can result in better sound.

Generally external digital converter boxes have lower impenitence and as such do not lose base like the sound cards and sound on motherboards. So they reproduce a broader range of sound. Digital data is also much more resistant to the electronic noise inside a computer case.

If you want better sound getting a USB driven DAC is an option to consider. Personally I would only look at investing in this if you can actually hear noise.

One interesting thing about this is that the premium Asus ROG Maximus VIII Extreme/Assembly includes a SupremeFX Hi-Fi Audio module. This is a USB driven external DAC that is also shielded so that it can be mounted in an empty external drive bay if you so choose.

I have also not found any USB driven sound system that do not include speakers, like the Jensen SMPS-200A that I have, a headphone-microphone jack pair or are built into a headphone/mic unit. They are not designed to support 7.1 audio.

Optical Sound

Most motherboard and add-in sound cards come with TosLink optical or Coax-Digital ports. These bypass the sound chips and like USB send the raw digital sound signal out to a device for interpretation.

If you really want the best sound from speakers then using one of these ports to connect to a surround sound amplifier and speaker set is the way to go.

HDMI Sound

If you are using HDMI to connect to a monitor or 1080P TV set you may have the option to use HDMI sound. Today most high end graphics cards that have a HDMI port have the ability to send the digital sound information to the monitor/TV.

One problem with this will be the quality of the speakers in the monitor/TV. They certainly will not be as good as an expensive set of speakers and since they are two speakers, in front of you it will be harder to get a proper surround effect like you can get with headphones.

I mention themsince they are an option.


Since the primary use of the computer being discussed is for gaming my advise is to invest in a good quality headset and mic combo. You can try connecting it to a front panel set of jacks. If you here interference then plug it into the back of the computer.

Investing in a separate sound card will not improve your sound. If you are not satisfied with the sound you get out of the back of the computer then investing in a good USB DAC or connecting it to a surround sound system are ways to actually improve the sound. However, most gamers who do a blind test generally do not have problems with the sound cards that are integrated into motherboards.

If you are looking for a quick sound setup and do not plan on using a mic. Using HDMI to connect to your display and the speakers built into it is one option.

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