Which do I need a external sound card or DAC?
January 19, 2010 2:08 AM   Subscribe

Which do I need a external sound card or DAC? I have a Macbook Pro that I for listening to mp3's and some light meddling with in Ableton (mostly working with samples). I run Ableton 8 under windows 7 which I have connected via the headphone jack to a decent hifi amp and speakers. My goal is 2 fold. 1) To get better sound quality when listening to mp3's 2) To get better sound quality out of Ableton I’m unsure if i need to get an external sound card (like a M-Audio Fast Track Pro)to do this or if an external DAC (like a Beresford Caiman DAC) would be better. Could someone outline the pro and cons of going down one of these routes? am I missing the boat are both these the same thing?
posted by toocan to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
am I missing the boat are both these the same thing?

There's a DAC in the Fast Track Pro, but also a whole lot of other things. Do you imaging using it for any kinds of input at some point in the future?

(In an ideal world, a dedicated DAC would either be cheaper than a box with additional features, or noticably better, but M-Audio produces huge series, and dedicated DAC:s are to some extent "audiophile" territory, so buyer beware...)
posted by effbot at 3:02 AM on January 19, 2010

buying a "Pro-Audio i/o Interface would probably play better with Ableton ie ASIO drivers and other factors, low latency, Midi i/o, Recording + Playback + possibly more than 2 outputs.

And I would expect the Signal to Noise ratio and THD of say an M-Audio Interface would be better than that of the Built In Soundcard. Also the level will be better matched for the Hi-Fi gear

Whereas an "external DAC Unit" seemed to be geared to the Hi-Fi Audiophile market and hence may not work very well with Ableton Live. or other Digital Audio Workstations. (Do these DAC units have ASIO drivers?).

Also, you realise that with a DAC you are considering buying a AudioPhile piece of equipment to play back MP3s - lossy, of dubious quality Mp3s? to me it seems a bit daft. (and I really doubt there is a noticable sound difference, except on a truely amazing Hi-Fi system (DAC versus the line out). except that it will be line-level not headphone.
posted by mary8nne at 3:11 AM on January 19, 2010

Sounds like I should be looking at an external soundcard. Could you recommend one for around the £200 ($350) mark?
posted by toocan at 4:03 AM on January 19, 2010

1) To get better sound quality when listening to mp3's

The encoding quality of your MP3 files will put an upper limit on replay quality, not so much the audio adapter.

2) To get better sound quality out of Ableton I’m unsure if i need to get an external sound card (like a M-Audio Fast Track Pro)to do this or if an external DAC (like a Beresford Caiman DAC)

If you're using Ableton Live to make music, any low-latency, low-noise Firewire or USB adapter will work, assuming it has the connectors you need. What instruments or other devices are you using with Live?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:15 AM on January 19, 2010

Pretty much whats in ableton no VST's i mainly use operator and layer drums over the top of samples.

Currently im using the built in macbook pro soundcard which im told is pretty terrible.

In terms of mp3 compression i usually work WAV in ableton or 192kbps V0 encoded mp3's
posted by toocan at 4:20 AM on January 19, 2010

Any built-in sound card will be noisy. WAV is equivalent to the quality of a track listened to from a CD. The MP3 encoder plays some irreversible tricks to reduce the file size of the end result. The general recommendation is to encode at 320 kbps to get as close to the non-lossy source as possible.

Nonetheless, for what you are listening to, you will easily get great sound out of any external adapter in your price range. Either the USB Fast Track Pro or their FireWire Solo would work well for you, I think.

It looks like there are Windows 7 32- and 64-bit drivers available for both products, as well as digital outputs that would be useful if you have a higher-end amplifier.

You might consider the FireWire adapter as you'll get lower latency, if you ever plan to make digital music with Live. USB connections can be a bit wonky for audio.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:43 AM on January 19, 2010

If you have the cash, I'd recommend the Apogee Duet over anything M-Audio make. The sound quality is amazing, the build is excellent and the drivers are rock solid.

I have a Firewire 410, which is okay. I bought it years ago, and definitely wouldn't rebut, as I have had major driver issue in the past. I probably wouldn't buy anything M-Audio again at all, actually.
posted by Magnakai at 5:04 AM on January 19, 2010

My only experience with an M-Audio product was the Oxygen 8, which was a pretty good piece of kit for something so inexpensive. I hadn't heard anything bad about their audio adapters until now, good to know!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:33 AM on January 19, 2010

Yeah, I have used some of their MIDI controllers in the past and they were fine... until they broke. I never took them beyond my bedroom. I'm still really angry about my Axiom. There are other, more trustworthy companies that I can give my money to, so I think I'll do that in future.
posted by Magnakai at 6:29 AM on January 19, 2010

nthing that you get what you pay for (ie, not very much) from MAudio. Had a Radium 49 for about five months, then, well, I still had a Radium 49 but it didn't work.

As for recommendations, a lot of folks I know use PreSonus FirePods, which are a bit out of your pricerange, but bloody awesome. I personally use a Natural Instruments Guitar Rig Sessions USB box as an external sound card on OS X. Haven't used it with Ableton, but I get good-enough-for-a-dabbler performance in Ardour, the Cubase Light that comes with the kit, and PureData. If you don't want the guitar effects processing stuff, you can probably get more sound card for the same money, though.
posted by Alterscape at 7:19 AM on January 19, 2010

You really shouldnt be using mp3 if youre after high quality. Even at 320kbps, which only affects the sampling rate, you still lose a heck of a lot of information via the psychoacoustic model. Perhaps you should just be ripping to FLAC, which is lossless. Disk space costs are nothing compared to when mp3 was developed.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:05 AM on January 19, 2010

For audio hardware (and probably most other hardware), given X dollars, the more specialized a thing is the better the quality you can expect (i.e.—you'll get better sound quality from a $350 DAC than a $350 computer). The difference between an external soundcard and a DAC is slightly blurry, but a DAC only takes digital and converts it to analog, whereas a soundcard might have other components like an ADC. So, if you only need the DAC functionality, buy a DAC not an external sound card. It's probably also true that more audiophile oriented products would be called DAC's, while similar studio oriented stuff might be called sound cards.

There are lots of good DAC's at or under the $350 mark, including the HeadRoom Micro DAC, the Spitfire, and the VALAB NOS DAC. I've owned all those, and they're all pretty good for the price; the VALAB in particular is a good value.
posted by paulg at 12:45 PM on January 19, 2010

In general, the rule for increasing sound quality is (in priority order):

1. the analog boundary: microphones and speakers/headphones
2. the source: mp3s are not high quality
3. the electronics.

Another rule of thumb is: if you have a X dollars for music,
- spend half of it on source material (CDs, LPS, ...)
- of what remains, spend half on speakers
- with the remaining, get your CD player, amps, and other electronics.

If you think your speakers are good enough, first stop using lossy formats; if you feel you still need more quality, maybe you can demo or borrow a DAC and see if it really improves your experience. (No point in spending $350 if you don't have to.)

For what it's worth, I like M-Audio. I have a midi controller, powered speakers, and a soundcard from them.
posted by phliar at 1:43 PM on January 19, 2010

2nding the recommendation of an Apogee Duet. Sure, it costs $500, but it's as sexy as a piece of tech can be, and sound quality wise, I've never heard anything under $2,000 that sounds better. Good grief! I've PAID over $2000 for DACs that didn't sound better! (digidesign, I'm pointing at YOU!)

My jaw literally dropped the first time I fired up my iTunes after plugging in my Duet. I can't emphasize that highly enough. If you're an audiophile, you want a Duet.

If you're an audiophile and it cost $1000, you would still want a Duet. Seriously.
posted by 2oh1 at 6:59 PM on January 19, 2010

Now, if you really want to blow your mind... pair up an Apogee Duet with a new amplifier that costs a whopping $17.99. If your speakers are efficient enough for that amp, your ears will be in heaven.

I have a Mac Mini, an Apogee Duet and that Lepai TA2020. It's a Class D amp. The low power TA2020 replaced a beefy 100 watt per channel rack mounted amp, and - again - the difference was remarkable. More info on Class D amps here. If I'm not mistaken, someone here on metafilter first turned me on to that one.
posted by 2oh1 at 7:18 PM on January 19, 2010

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