What equipment is needed for Hi-Fi audio?

Derpinz297

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Mar 2, 2014
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I am trying to get into the so-called "audiophile world," and I wanted some clarification on what components I would need to achieve the absolute best quality audio possible. I already know I would need an amplifier and a DAC (obviously headphones too), but I heard that I might also need a standalone sound card as well. I thought those two things replaced a sound card, but apparently there's something else in sound cards that is required to produce audio. If someone could list every component I would need and kind of explain why (on a very basic level), it would be greatly appreciated.
 

Skylyne

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Sep 7, 2014
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The 2i2 is the smallest sound card that I'm aware of from Focusrite, and probably the best bang for the buck, as far as price/features/etc. while staying small. My L6 UX1 is nice, but it's about the same price as the 2i2 new. You could probably find some used ones on craigslist, if you look long enough.

If you're running a sound card, there's literally no point in running a DAC. From my understanding, a studio sound card is pretty much a DAC with inputs, some extra features for producers, and balanced 1/4" outputs (much cheaper than XLR, and just as good for the short cable runs in a studio). While you might get better sample rates with a DAC, going beyond 96k is genuinely absurd; you just won't ever be running equipment that will give you any noticeable difference, unless you are starting a real recording studio. Not to mention, most all of the pre-made stuff you will deal with (ie: samples, stems, and bought FLACs) are not likely to exceed 48k in sample rates. Having something that goes higher, with what you're doing, is basically just bragging rights, and doesn't give you any real benefits on the listening side. Not to mention, most vinyl rips I have come across tend to be in the 44k range.... so take that with a grain of salt. Since your sound card only handles audio output, and nothing else, there's no need to get one that handles things at a higher sample rate than what you'll be playing through your speakers.

Also, running both would just be a waste of power and computing. You'd have to rig up the DAC's outputs to the sound card's inputs, and then run the sound card's inputs directly to the outputs... and there is no benefit in doing so. If anything, you'll just slow yourself down, as you now have two latency times to worry about balancing, and your computer now has twice the amount of audio drivers to handle for just one source of audio. It's beyond pointless, especially if you're running the output of the DAC higher than the sound card's output; and even if they're running at the same sample rates... why bother with the redundancy?

A DAC is much better suited for the people who simply want to listen to high sample rate audio, and nothing more. If you wanted to use the DAC for nothing more than mastering, you could. On the downside, you'd be dealing with XLR connections; and those are bulkier, more expensive, and give you no genuine advantage in a studio setting. If you have the funds to get both, spend the money from the DAC on a nice pair of monitors; it will benefit you more than running a redundancy that will likely be more of a pain in the ass than anything else.
 

theLeggo

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Dec 26, 2014
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Audio quality is VERY subjective. Some headphones require amplification, some don't. In general an external DAC would replace a soundcard, so you wouldn't need a soundcard if you have a DAC. A DAC is there to clean up your source by converting from digital to analog. An amp may be needed depending on the headphone, and can change the sound of a headphone. also, make sure all of your audio is mp3 320kbps. remember crap in crap out for audio.
 

Derpinz297

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Mar 2, 2014
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Ok, thanks. I had the Sennheiser HD800s in mind for headphones, the Teac UD-501 for a DAC, and the HA-510 for an amp. Would you recommend these, or something else? I also heard that a soundcard is recommended for games and home theater audio, because it processes the sound better or something, is this true? I'm starting to get into electronic music composition as well, and many recommend a good sound card to reduce latency with the control interfaces, because good sound cards have a very high sample rate. Do DACs and amps process audio, or would this be the reason to get a sound card? Sorry for all the questions.
 

theLeggo

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Dec 26, 2014
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That would be an awesome setup for just audio. I don't have much experience with music composition, and you might want to check out some other websites, such as head-fi.org or audio specific forums, to find a good answer on that. sorry i'm not able to help more.
 
The Teac DAC and headphone amp are excellent and will work well with your HD800s. The DAC will upsample if you set it to do so but does not handle 5.1 or gaming. The Amp has an adjustment that fine tunes it to the headphones that works great. For simple high quality audio playback you don't need the soundcard as the DAC can connect with USB for highest sampling rates.
 

Skylyne

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Sep 7, 2014
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Okay... now it's time for a producer to step in...

Do you need a sound card and a DAC? Not really... but it really depends on what you're trying to do. For studio production, a simple Focusrite 2i2 would be a decent starting point for a sound card. You'll eventually want the inputs.... trust me. The bonus with studio cards is they typically offer independent headphone outputs, and some offer both outputs and dedicated monitor/recording outputs (which comes in handy for people who have basic speakers for listening/gaming, and dedicated monitors for mastering and mixing). If you get a card with a monitor/recording output, this comes in handy, as the gain for your main outputs does not change the volume of your monitors, and you can keep your monitors from clipping much more easily.

You could also consider using a DJ mixer to control your outputs, and keep an eye on the levels being sent. Since even the most basic mixers have a dedicated monitor output, you can control the monitors independently of the rest of your speakers. Having a DJ mixer could also come in handy for recording mixes, and also for managing other audio inputs (ie: any other device you want to listen to on the same sound system), so it's a nice option to consider. You can get a decent one for anywhere between $50-100, depending on what you want it to do. Music equipment is pretty versatile for many home audio solutions, so give it some consideration.

And, before I forget, you might want to see how well running an ASIO driver with your sound card does. Typically, running an ASIO driver will allow you to get very low latency settings, with much less resource consumption than the factory drivers.

As far as audio quality is concerned, keep your connections balanced (ie: 1/4" TRS, or XLR). Using RCA, or any other unbalanced analogue connection will have a higher potential for interference. Cables are just as important as the rest of your hardware, so don't skimp on them. It's sad to see great hardware wired with a slapdash job of 3.5mm connections, and low-budget wiring. While it can sound decent, it has it's place in gaming and casual listening; not music production. Sample rates for your sound card should be set at a minimum of 44k (ideally 48k as a bare minimum), and exporting your tracks should be in WAV formats, which can then be compressed to FLAC to prevent using a lossy codec. 320k MP3s are fine for casual listening, but FLAC will give you a better sound without taking up too much space. Is there a significant difference? Yes. If people want to argue with the audio analyses of both types of files, be my guest.

Upsampling is something that will never increase audio quality, but is sometimes used for various reasons; just don't think it will give you a better sound. It's like re-encoding a 128k MP3 into a 320k MP3, or "decompressing" an MP3 into a WAV file... the audio stays the same, but it's played back in a different way; nothing more.

If you use a decent studio sound card, it will definitely be versatile enough for whatever else you want it to do; you just might need to do your wiring a little different, or so on. Your headphones are very nice, and they will definitely give you a great flat response for mastering. I'm not entirely sure what the output power is with most studio cards, so a headphone amp is probably a good idea, especially with 300 ohm cans. The 510 isn't a bad choice, but I would personally say it would be more suitable for casual listening, instead of production. It would be a nice piece to throw into the mix while mastering, though, but not to use as your core reference amp. Again, that's my personal opinion.

Anything I missed?
 

Derpinz297

Estimable
Mar 2, 2014
8
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4,510
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Oh wow, that was a LOT more info than I expected. Some of the things you mentioned I still don't know what they mean, though, just because I'm new to this kind of stuff. One thing that I would like to know is what kind of improvement of sound quality would I get if I had a DAC and a sound card? Even if the DAC's not necessary, would it still be better? Besides that, all I need right now is some recommendations on what equipment to get exactly. You said the amp could be better, what about a DAC (if I actually do need one)? The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 you mentioned earlier, you said that it would be a good one? I don't really need that many inputs, because the only things I have are a usb midi keyboard and a usb mic at the moment. The only aspect I care about is the performance of the card (like quality and sample rate, etc.). Would you say that it still fits in with what I need? Thanks a ton for the help.
 

Skylyne

Estimable
Sep 7, 2014
405
0
5,010
36
The 2i2 is the smallest sound card that I'm aware of from Focusrite, and probably the best bang for the buck, as far as price/features/etc. while staying small. My L6 UX1 is nice, but it's about the same price as the 2i2 new. You could probably find some used ones on craigslist, if you look long enough.

If you're running a sound card, there's literally no point in running a DAC. From my understanding, a studio sound card is pretty much a DAC with inputs, some extra features for producers, and balanced 1/4" outputs (much cheaper than XLR, and just as good for the short cable runs in a studio). While you might get better sample rates with a DAC, going beyond 96k is genuinely absurd; you just won't ever be running equipment that will give you any noticeable difference, unless you are starting a real recording studio. Not to mention, most all of the pre-made stuff you will deal with (ie: samples, stems, and bought FLACs) are not likely to exceed 48k in sample rates. Having something that goes higher, with what you're doing, is basically just bragging rights, and doesn't give you any real benefits on the listening side. Not to mention, most vinyl rips I have come across tend to be in the 44k range.... so take that with a grain of salt. Since your sound card only handles audio output, and nothing else, there's no need to get one that handles things at a higher sample rate than what you'll be playing through your speakers.

Also, running both would just be a waste of power and computing. You'd have to rig up the DAC's outputs to the sound card's inputs, and then run the sound card's inputs directly to the outputs... and there is no benefit in doing so. If anything, you'll just slow yourself down, as you now have two latency times to worry about balancing, and your computer now has twice the amount of audio drivers to handle for just one source of audio. It's beyond pointless, especially if you're running the output of the DAC higher than the sound card's output; and even if they're running at the same sample rates... why bother with the redundancy?

A DAC is much better suited for the people who simply want to listen to high sample rate audio, and nothing more. If you wanted to use the DAC for nothing more than mastering, you could. On the downside, you'd be dealing with XLR connections; and those are bulkier, more expensive, and give you no genuine advantage in a studio setting. If you have the funds to get both, spend the money from the DAC on a nice pair of monitors; it will benefit you more than running a redundancy that will likely be more of a pain in the ass than anything else.
 
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