Dec 172013

Auzentech logoYesterday I talked about the Beyerdynamic MMX300 headset, which is probably one of the best consumer headsets money can buy (made in Germany and shit), and today it’s more like “Made in Korea”. Today, my Auzentech X-Fi Prelude 7.1 arrived, replacing my Creative Labs SoundBlaster X-Fi XtremeMusic. “Now”, you might say, “replacing one X-Fi with another doesn’t seem too smart”. Well. The chip is the same, sure, and so are the drivers and the rest of the software. But this is where the similarities end. What Auzentech – the only add-on board manufacturer ever allowed to use X-Fi chips – actually did was upgrade the whole rest of the board, that’s the new solid capacitors, the amplifiers (the front stereo OP-AMP is even socketed and replaceable) and some very high end AKM DACs, which are supposed to do digital-to-analog conversion at very low noise rates. And that was the thing I was particularily interested in.

You see, when I turned up the volume on my Lake People G93 amp, I could hear tons of background noise and some low frequency hum, and I simply didn’t like that audio pollution. Plus, when my fat graphics cards started computing and/or rendering, it got a lot worse even.

Before presenting the results, here are some pictures for you. As you can see, with the Auzentech Prelude I picked a card that sits on classical parallel PCI. I had to take that route because that PCI slot between my fat GPU boards is the only interface left for an internal sound card:

On the front picture you can see the socketed stereo OP-AMP for the front stereo channels, right beside the analog Aux/CD-ROM connector. This amp is [upgradeable]. This is the one powering the front channels, or your classic 2.0/headphone output. Above the X-Fi chips heatsink you can see the 2 x 32MB = 64MB Creative “X-RAM”, that can be used for caching audio samples for faster playback as a replacement for using system memory. Some older games like Battlefield 2 or Quake 4 and Doom 3 can actually use the X-RAM, not that it helps much. ;)

The four small chips left of the X-RAM are the AKM DACs, and probably the parts that I’m currently profiting most of.

Now, I can turn the volume ALL the way up in idle, and there is nothing. No hum. No noise. It is only one simple thing. Dead! Silent!

This is perfection. All I hoped that card would do it does. Now, with the Beyerdynamic MMX300, my trusted old Lake People G93 and that “new” Auzentech X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card, my audio world has finally been fully restored to what it was always supposed to but never has been!

And as a little plus, the pre-amp seems to also be more powerful than my old X-Fi’s, which I welcome, having to drive some 600Ω headset. :)

Dec 172013

Beyerdynamic logoThere is one thing that I cannot do at home, and that’s play games, movies and music at loud volumes. Given my neighbors, that’s just not an option, so since about 10 years I have been using headphones. I started with some crap made by Philips, then switched over to Sony MDR-V700DJs, which had lots and lots of the boom I wanted back in those times, and then later – as I started to also want to hear some high and mid ranges too – I switched to Sennheiser HD-25, which were low-Ω mobile phones. Lacking bass and having some harmonic distortions in the high ranges made this still a nice headphone, but nowhere near perfect.

Then, I did some real research for many months, discovering the [Beyerdynamic DT770 Edition 2005] as a result. Now, for the first time I understood what a “wide audio stage” (for a closed headphone) and “well-defined instruments” really meant! It did break after a few years though, and I have to admit, I didn’t really treat it that well, so it’s probably my own fault. Since there was no more warranty left, I went back to the HD-25, using them for about a year now. Since going back to the HD-25 I thought about the Beyerdynamic MMX300 headset, which basically features the DT770 drivers plus an electret capacitor microphone that operates in the 1.5V-9V range and can even be connected to a regular sound cards microphone jack (Thanks go to the steno-s & gaming manager Bastian Ziebart from Beyerdynamic who told me this upon inquiry)! Plus, you can have this thing [customized] to your liking, even engraved if you want.

Bottom line: I got myself that custom-built Beyerdynamic MMX300 headset now, no more Sennheiser HD-25 and no more cheap 10€ microphone. As I already own a Lake People G93 headphone amplifier, I picked the high-impedance 600Ω version, which is supposed to feature a more linear frequency spectrum than the mobile-ready 32Ω version:

Again, going from the supra-aural Sennheisers to the circum-aural MMX300, i noticed the wider, more spacious sound stage immediately. Surprisingly, the sound from the MMX300 was also a lot softer and warmer than expected, this will need some getting used to. It’s been a relatively long time since I’ve been using the DT770, no I’m no longer used to that I guess. As I hooked it up to my G93, I connected the capacitor microphone directly to my Creative Labs SoundBlaster X-Fi XtremeMusic, and it worked just fine, so there is enough volume as long as the cards mic boost is on.

Needless to say, the quality of the microphone is quite a lot better than my previous one, which was just a piece of cheap plastic crap. Also, having velours earpads instead of faux leather, I can once again experience the superior wearing comfort of the Beyerdynamics, as the best audio is worthless if you’re not feeling comfortable wearing your headphones. The big plus of those velours pads is, that you simply won’t start sweating like it can happen with faux leather. Plus, the isolation from outside noise is still pretty good.

Now I’m still waiting for my Auzentech X-Fi Prelude 7.1 card that has higher quality capacitors, Pre-Amps and most importantly DACs than my lowly X-Fi XtremeMusic. I wonder if I can lose some of the electric noise that my system causes for the sound card with that Auzentech. Especially when the graphics cards are working, this is quite bad as my sound card is sandwiched between [those two high-power EVGA cards]. When I have that card up and running, my audio subsystem will finally be whole again. ;)

Apr 112012

X-Fi HD USBThere are good ideas, and then there are bad implementations. And this is a classic case of a good idea meeting a bad implementation. I actually sought to get the audio DAC (digital to analog converter) out of my computer to reduce noise on my sound system. Now I have a high quality Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro Edition 2005 headphone and a Lake People G93 linear headphone amp. I wanted to get the very few last pieces of background noise out of the system, so I thought I could do that by getting the DAC out of the noisy insides of the PC to its own external power supply, far away from the strong disturbances caused by graphics cards, CPU VRMs etc.

So far so good. Many people have done this successfully. I have not. And why? Because I have picked the wrong bus to do it; I have chosen the SoundBlaster X-Fi HD USB for this, as it is a cheap solution to get the entire soundcard including the DAC out of the system, including headphone jack and microphone jack. But god dammit, USB sucks. It sucks so hard in so many ways design-wise, it physically hurts.

Since audio streaming is very low latency and at the same time somewhat high bandwidth, it is easily disturbed when interrupt calls occur in the system. Also when the driver (USB protocol stack is implemented entirely in software! What an abomination!) hiccups. What you might hear then is sometimes described as “white noise” and sounds like a bit of crackling every few seconds. This is SO annoying, it’s unbelieveable. And what’s the solution? Remove as many devices that call interrupts as possible (graphics cards, TV cards, whatever) and also remove all USB devices that are hooked on the same USB root hub as the sound card.

May I say “HAH HAH, yeah right…”? Bottom line: USB sucks. Ass. Cheap crap. Industry should’ve gone Firewire. One can only pray that Thunderbolt will one day take over and kill this shit for good, it’s about damn time.

The X-Fi “HD” USB is going back tomorrow. What a waste of time. On top of all that, it didn’t even give me less noise than the PCI card, which is a Creative Labs SoundBlaster X-Fi XtremeMusic. So much for that. So disappointed.