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DAC improvement and quality versus cost?

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1. I find I'm listening to more music through my PC using headphones than through my hi-fi. I'd be grateful for some advice on how to improve the music audio (it's fine for games). In particular, how much improvement I'd get by putting an outboard DAC into the system.


2. I run WinXP and probably won't change until Windows 7 is established. I either listen to CDs directly or from WAVs on the hard disk, ripped using EAC (Exact Audio Copy). I use WinAmp with ASIO driver, although I've also used Foobar.


2. My PCI sound card is an Auzentech Prelude. I need to retain the use of it to use the Creative EAX capability for games. It has the following chips on board (which don't mean anything to me.): Creative X-Fi CA20K audio processor; one AKM AK-5394 super high performance 96kHz 24-bit ADC for analog input; four AKM AK-4396 96kHz 24-bit advanced multi-bit DAC for analog output.


3. The RCA output from the sound card goes to an Earmax Pro valve headphone amp. I use Sennheiser HD650 headphones.


4. I've seen some DAC reviews, but they range from the affordable Cambridge DAC Magic up to the expensive Chord QBD 76 and Audio Research DAC7 which get fantastic reviews. I don't mind saving up to get one of them, but would I really hear the difference - with the law of diminishing returns, maybe something else would be the best 'bang for buck'? I'm not technically minded, though, so I don't want to do a lot of fiddling about, I just want something simple to connect and operate.


5. Sorry for the long post - thanks in advance for any advice.




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Hi Davycee - Thanks for all the info in your post although I shied away fro a bit since it was a little lengthy :-) It's tough to say how much better sound you'll get from adding an external DAC. In my opinion it's no contest that an external DAC will improve the sound tremendously. But, some people may not think the differences is big enough or might not even like the sound. You never know. That said, I'll make a couple recommendations. You should still try out everything before making a decision (if possible). If you're not married to your current headphone amp a Benchmark DAC1 USB or DAC1 Pre would be a great choice for you. Built in 24/96 USB DAC that bypasses your current sound card (no worries about the EAX drivers etc...) and it has a built-in headphone amp that is really nice. I'm willing to bet this will be a substantial improvement over your existing configuration. Plus, if you don't like the headphone amp you can always send an analog signal out of the Benchmark to your existing headphone amp. You could also look at something like the PS Audio DLIII DAC to feed your current amp. There are a ton of options and in my opinion the right choices will improve the sound greatly. Your headphones are capable of really nice sound, so improving the source could really make them sing.


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Hi Chris,

Thanks for advice - not least because the Benchmark DAC1 PRE is around half the price of the Audio Research DAC7, so it will be easier to save up for! It would be nice to be able to audition them, but at the moment DACs seem to be too much of a niche product to be in hi-fi shops (in London/UK anyway). The DAC1 PRE seems to be very much 'fit & forget', which would suit me too. Thanks also for such a useful site - I'll keep coming back to follow others' developments.


Regards, Davycee


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