Creative Labs has launched the X5; a new external DAC for $279. Featuring dual Cirrus Logic CS43198 DACs, a balanced headphone amplifier, and customizable DSP EQ functions, the X5 looks like a nice audio upgrade to SFF users on paper. Rear connectivity includes unbalanced RCA input and out ports, USB input, and optical input and output. PCM playback at 32-bit /384 kHz at 130 dB DNR is supported.
You can check out the product page HERE.
Tech Powerup has done a review HERE.
That’s a lot of numbers. Let’s make it simple.
An external DAC is an external sound card.
Internal motherboard audio sucks. No matter how nice a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) is on the motherboard, it’s subject to large amounts of interference due to the very nature of PCs. This can lead to hissing, distortion, and other unwelcome effects. Internal PCIe slot sound cards go a long way to reducing but not eliminating the problem, but in the SFF world we don’t have those to spare. Truly, the best way to stop this interference is to move the sound processing out of the computer, and use and external DAC and amplifier. Do so moves the sound processing out of the electrically noisy environment of a mainboard, and into a more isolated and clean environment built specifically for the task.
Why is this important?
If you listen to your music through the speaker of your phone, this probably won’t mean much to you. If you have even a halfway decent set of speakers or headphones, then a clean signal path can be the difference between hearing hissing in the quiet moments, and a clean sound that lets you hear the subtleties of the sound that are often lost. This can take the form of the sound of a symbol crash trailing off and echoing around the studio versus just a loud clanging noise. You might hear instruments you’ve never realized were being played to add body to you song. Many times you can hear even the of the musicians fingers as they slide their hand down the strings of a guitar. With the right setup, you can even hear the depth of sound stage, and where the musicians were seated.
What about gamers?
Gamers aren’t left out with a good audio setup. Clean audio can give you a substantial competitive advantage, and bring a gaming world to life. Footsteps will resonate and echo around the environment. This can be the difference between getting fragged, and delivering the finest tea. In single player games, the audio can build the experience and deliver a world instead of a sound.
A DAC like the X5 is a good start to opening up these experiences. I used a Sound Blaster X7 for years and it was very good. However, you probably won’t be able to just plug in your speakers and go with just the X5.
What do you need?
First, audiophiles please forgive me as I’m about to super, super simplify this.
To listen to the audio you need four things: a source, a DAC, an amplifier, and an output method. The source is your PC or similar device. The DAC would be a unit like the X5. Now the amp and output are where things deviate.
The X5 has a built-in headphone amplifier, so that’s the third thing you need if you’re using headphones. The headphones would be the output which is the fourth item you need. However, if you choose to use speakers instead, you will need an external amplifier to power those speakers. Some speakers and speakers systems have amps built in. While convenient, I’ve always found them limiting in both sound quality and restrictive. You can purchase an external amplifier to power your passive speakers of your choice. The speakers can be anything from a humble set of basic Klipsch to the finest custom made studio monitors. However, not all AMPs are made the same, and many have different sound profiles. Some use old fashioned tubes while others use more modern components. All have a unique sound profile that you may like or not depending on your listening preferences. Personally, I use a S.M.S.L. DA-9 amplifier for my setup paired with Jamo C91 II speakers and a Deftech subwoofer in my current desktop setup. This is right for me, though many would find that this setup can push the bass and treble a bit too much to their liking. My DAC is a S.M.S.L SU-9n which is connected via USB to my system.
Even using the same AMP, my audio sounds far better through the external DAC than it does from arguably premium DAC on my motherboard especially when I start using electrically noisy sub-components like my GPU.
There are some caveats with all setups and Creative has a history of making absolutely the worst of the worst drivers and control panels in the industry. That said, they usually offer good equalizer support to allow you to tune your audio to your liking. If you’re interested in improving your desktop audio, it’s certainly worth a look.