Moving On Up
Many of you are going to be happy with on-board audio. An even larger group of people will be perfectly happy with an Envy24 solution. Moving to the 44.1 kHz native support of the Envy 24 is going to be great for most PC speaker systems from Klipsch or Logitech. However, the nature of hi-fi is that there’s always something better. Suppose you already have the Envy 24HT in your system and have a pair of Grado or Sennheiser headphones, or Swans speakers and now want to take the next step up. There are two good options.
Before I tell you about the options, it’s important to look at the weakest links of the Envy24: the DACs and the OP-AMPs. While the DAC better than most PC sound cards, this is the one component where there is sufficient room to grow. The DAC plays the crucial role of translating the 1’s and 0’s of the audio signal into the analog domain. It’s responsible for reconstructing the audio waveform. The OP-AMP is the low-power amplifier that takes the output of the DAC and amplifies the signal so that it’s usable with you headphone. Since these components are on the sound card and the inside of the PC is an “electrically noisy” environment due to all the fans and EMI, noise and distortion get introduced into the audio signal. The noise and distortion are minimal, but it can be a problem if your speakers or headphones are good enough to resolve the details. Therefore, the trick is to move the DACs and OP-AMPs outside of the computer. There are two different approaches to take.
The most common approach is to use the optical or coaxial digital output of the sound card. By routing the signal to your expensive surround sound receiver, you get to rely on the (usually) higher-end DACs and OP-AMPs in that machine. When the Envy24’s first came out, I would have told you that you’d need to spend $500+ on a receiver to get one that was substantially better than the on-board sound. Now, with most receivers under $500 using digital amplification technology, using the S/PDIF connection is a reliable approach. The problem is that you do need to have a full-sized receiver as part of your PC setup. For some people this works perfectly, and for others it doesn’t work at all.
USB External Sound Cards
The second option is to go with an external USB sound card. In this case, the idea is that you can move the entire sound card outside of the PC environment. We tried this before with the Audiophile USB in 2003. Unfortunately, consumer-grade external USB sound cards never seemed to work as well. Turns out that the problem was jitter.