The Saga of Headphones- Ep. VIII- A New Source

At first it seemed good enough, just listening on the 595’s through my headphone amp, connected straight to my PC. Yet when I tried comparing to the Pioneer DVD player, it just wasn’t the same. The Pioneer has such richly textured bass and a more ‘lively’ sound. Going back to the PC, I felt like I was missing something. It was a something I didn’t notice so much with my AKG 240S’s, which just aren’t refined enough to show up such differences. I was planning on going over to put CDs in it and listen in the living room, but when I’m surfing the net, I just didn’t feel that was convenient. Using disks also means you can’t shuffle different albums. So, I diligently transferred all my new CDs to the hard-drive as lossless files (I like the ‘APE’ format, but there’s loads of them around now, even Apple and Mi-Soft have gotten in on the game) and have them at easy reach, even to send by cable to my speakers. It sounded very good… but not amazing… and amazing is what I want!

The Soundblaster Audigy (2001)- Named after the central ‘Audigy’ processor, designed by EMU.

I started to think that my aging Soundblaster Audigy was the weak point in the chain and looked around the ‘net for alternatives. It had said on the packaging that it was an ‘audiophile solution’, but actual audiophiles felt rather differently and in the end the makers, Creative, ended up with a class-action suit for falsely claiming it can output 24bit audio, when it could only process regular 16bit sound. Seeing it panned on the Head-Fi forums and people saying that when they upgraded, the difference was like night and day, made me feel that time for action had come! You see, however good the ‘digital’ CD, APE file or MP3 is, sooner or later you have to turn it into analogue- and to do this very well is beyond the ability of  most low-end consumer equipment. I started to realise what the fuss over CD players is and why people feel the need to spend a lot on them, or get the higher-end amplifiers and so on. Still, as far as possible, I wanted to centralise it around the PC, as that is where I usually am to be found, and then I can always pipe it around the apartment. I just love having the PC jukebox. Also the ‘jitter’ problem of the CD slightly vibrating as it revolves- something that thousands of pounds can be spent on ‘transports’ avoiding or correcting- is altogether a thing of the past. Whilst I’m sure high-end audiophiles are having none of it, there were people blown away by getting a better soundcard and sometimes modifying it, or getting an ‘external DAC‘- a piece of equipment which is dedicated to that digital-to-analogue phase and produces a the detailed, rich sound that makes your ears so happy.

The X-Fi Xtreme Music (2005)- Note the large, CPU-like processor (also by EMU), which has 51,000,000 transistors.

The first plan was a newer member of the Soundblaster series; the X-Fi Xtreme-music. People seemed to be buying them and then modding them with better components. It was at heart still a gamer’s card, though with much better audio components than it’s predecessors and a great price. All of this may have something to do with the fact that Creative recently bought up EMU, giving them access to their best components. The only problem here is that the was recently discontinued and sneakily replaced with something cheaper, called an ‘Xtreme-Audio’- that in reality is not much different from my original Audigy I was trying to escape from- leaving only the expensive ‘Elite’ series or gamer editions to choose from. That and the fact that I might as well get something with better components and not need to do any risky modding at all!




The EMU 0404 USB2- A musicians tool, with great musical potential.

Another possible solution was the EMU 0404 USB, which through USB or digital gives you a much better DAC, along with a decent built-in headphone amp. I originally was set on this, seeing it so raved about giving such wonderful sound, but then a few things put me off. The first was the fact that it wasn’t available at Bic Camera, so it would mean another trip to Akiba and potentially yet another one if for any reason it didn’t suit me. The second was the fact that it has a pretty big box, which would mean more clutter and another thing to plug in. It was really designed for music creation and has loads of recording features I’d probably never use. The third was more damning- that people reported lag, desynch and jitter when they used it with a laptop or though USB on a busy computer, so it might be a hassle to get working, especially for surround-sources. Altogether, it still attracted me, until I saw something that might even be better and cheaper (here), too… the Onkyo SE 200 PCI.


The Onkyo SE 200 (2006)- Notice the larger components.

I’d seen them lined up with a mini-PC next to them, the photo on the box showing off their complex, refined circuitry, their large capacitors. It had all once seemed a bit pointless to me- I mean, after all, if some little thing can do the job, why have all that extra stuff? My gradual journey back to analogue and away from all the gobbledygook of features and multiple channel-sound had shown me that god components, too, have a purpose. Also, unlike it’s little brother, the SE 90, the SE 200 does offer the multi-channel out (for what it’s worth) and also has (apparently) better components. Though it’s not really available outside Japan, people seem to think it’s worth the trouble and expense of importing. I liked the idea of choosing a card that people recommend above all others, optimised for music appreciation, without a bunch of features that I’ll never use. Plus there is a basic difference between studio-oriented equipment for making music, which emphasises transparency, and that designed for enjoying it. Wearing my HD 595s convinced me of this- the sound is just so good, so enjoyable. What better match than possibly the best sound-card ever made for music lovers?

So, saving on shoe-leather and following every post I could find on the matter, I made the jump. So how does it sound? Well, miles better than before, I did experience that ‘night and day’ difference. It has a broad, lively sound, which is always rich and musical, natural-sounding. The Audigy was indeed a little better than the built-in audio, but this really is in another world. Instruments have texture, they reverberate more and the sound-stage is also a lot broader. Watching LOST or HEROS is far more enjoyable; though it was already good, it is much more detailed now, more ‘airy’. I can hear sounds that eluded me before and what is good is that they are harmonic, not studio-like and cold. What’s also nice is that it comes with built-in Q-expander, one of those surround-sound DSPs, but a good one that doesn’t seem too invasive or distorting. It can also upsample up to 192khz, which does seem to make for a smoother sound (though audiofiles don’t generally think it helps at all). I’m sure it’s not as good as some super-expensive CD player or high-end DAC, but the fact that it sounds so good and satisfying is enough for me. As far as sound straight from a PC goes this is probably about as good as it gets- some wouldn’t even bother trying to but I’m glad I did. Compared to the Pioneer… hmm… I’m not sure it’s actually better, perhaps smoother, definitely a lot more usable with headphones. Being able to alter the headphone sound is invaluable for me and the PC is a great place to do this to taste with every DSP under the sun available.

Hey, if I want to upgrade to a better external DAC or just send it all to a reciever in the future, I can always send a digital signal out, along with all the goodies I want to process the sound with in the PC- dolby virtual speaker, improved soundstage, DSPs galore. It’s also (only in Japan) a lot cheaper than the 0404; it’s not only the box that’s smaller. Still- for someone with a laptop, or without a headphone amp to hand, the 0404 is a much better choice- even more so if they want to do any recording.

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