Later these days, I saw many new sound cards claiming itself as an audiophile’s card. Few of the sample are Onkyo SE-90PCI, SE-150PCI, and some from Audiotrak like Prodigy 7.1 XT Gold or HiFi version.

Very interesting to see what is real thing behind this phenomena.

Onkyo SE-90PCI, 2 channel sound card from Onkyo. Claims 110 dB SNR and 24 bit 192 kHz. High quality components used on board.

Who is the target market for this type of cards?
For some people, most consumer grade sound card quality is horrible. It’s far from good, thought I believe it’s good enough for most people. The current available solution is a professional card. The problem is, this card offers a lot of “useless” professional feature for non-pro user. Let’s say I’m not a professional but I expect better sound quality than consumer card. What should I do? Buy a $500 professional card for playing my collections is not a feasible way.

So, the solution is available right now. Most vendors offer a new sound card, with professional grade quality but with reduced “useless” consumer function. I will not find a balanced AES/EBU, no external clock supported, no extra onboard preamp, no phantom power, etc. All I got is a professional sound quality with premium high quality components (and at lower price than professional card).

This kind of card also priced higher than most consumer card. But surely less than most professional card (at same quality). As example, you can have Creative X-Fi Extreme Music (consumer, 7.1, 24/192) at $100-120. At the same price (US$ 120), you only get the Onkyo SE-90PCI (audiophile grade claimed, 2 channel only, 24/192). I wonder they should pack this Onkyo with highest grade components to make it sound good. So, if this Onkyo sounds good, then they have to sound good. It’s a mandatory for a 2 channel card priced at the best 7.1 consumer card like X-Fi 😉

The target market is clear. For you who want to get better sound from your PC (I use word “better”, not “best” because I’ve never found “best” sound from PC in whole of my life playing with PC and dozens of cards), but you don’t want to pay at professional card price (and you don’t and won’t use the professional card’s features anyway).

Similiar with SE-90PCI, this is the 7.1 version. The bit/sample rate is reduced to 24/96. High quality parts on board.

PC is the problem itself
Well, I have to tell you first. PC is a bad source for audiophile. A lot of noises inside the PC will affect your sound quality. This hindrance is very hard to be avoided. And if you insist, you have to pay more for extra shielding and filtering. Only to get a better sound from your PC. I’m gonna tell you this: it’s easier to design a good audio circuit than to eliminate the environmental problem (noise, bad power supply, EMI, etc).

Inside the PC, the card should be plugged into the slot (commonly PCI). These PCI should get signal and power from the motherboard. If you have a bad motherboard in terms of environmental (bad circuit topology, crossing pcb lines, etc), then you have to live with it. Not all motherboard are designed to be good for audio. I mean, this motherboard may perform excellent, stable, long life, but it could perform bad in terms of audio due to “bad” design. This may not affect you Ethernet card, your VGA card, your modem card, but if it will affect your audio card. Who’s going to care about it? Audio has their own sacred way to perform good. For example, never let your audio cable touch the floor directly to perform better sound. Thas is one of the example of sacred audio way 😉 hard to believe, hard to explain, but shit happens when you do it.

The vendor tries to eliminate the problem by designing a better sound card. Protection from the outsider problems is the key. Audiotrak use PNK (PCI Noise Killer) technology. This technology claimed to provide better isolation for the card from the outsider noise. The expected result is a better sound, off course. Onkyo doesn’t mention their protection circuit. They only claim VLSC (Vector Linear Shaping Circuitry) to provide more analog sound. But I believe they also protect their card with expensive components and circuitry to provide better and better filtering.

All of these “audiophile’s claimed cards” are also supplied with massive high grade components. You can see high grade components (very clear explained when you see the capacitor size on the picture at this page). Higher grade component believed to provide better sound quality, better filtering, and better life.

A last tip from me. Every PCI slot has their own characteristic. Perhaps you get a lot of problem on one slot, then try to move the cards to another slot. Usually, lower slot (the one that far from the processor/AGP slot is the best) but you should try yourself.

I will discuss how to mod you card to become a better card. But later I guess 🙂 Don’t have enough time right now to heat my soldering iron 😉

For me myself, I’ve given up playing with PC sound, expect for typical daily listening and my recording hobby (I use ESI Juli@ and EMU 1820M). For real sound, I prefer stand alone equipment like CD Player, integrated or separated amplifier, and a bookshelf/floorstand speakers. PC audio never satisfy me and never at least until near future 🙁 I would spend my money more and invest on stand alone equipment rather than my PC audio. Oh well, that’s me… You are free to have different opinions 😉 But surely there are a lot of people out there trying and begging for “audiophile’s sound quality” from their PC. This card is yours for sure.

The last is card from Audiotrak. So far, Audiotrak is well know as prosumer card maker (ESI handles the professional division). Now, Audiotrak releases the Prodigy HiFi version. From the picture, we can expect high quality parts used.