5.1 DAC (need separate front and rear 3.5 outputs), $300 max?

The original title was: ‘AE-9? Topping DX3 Pro+? Something else? ($200-ish).’ Keeping the original post below for consistency/history. Feel free to disregard it. Right now, the new title pretty much says it all.

I’ve had a PCIE x-Fi Titanium (non-HD) for a long time and recently been handed down a Z (not the XR version) by a friend. I can’t decide which one to use (the x-Fi’s CMSS-3D is really good) and which one to sell, so why not sell both and get what should be a clear upgrade.

I’ve considered G6, but it being again a difficult choice between it and the AE-5 Plus (which costs less and measures better but lacks some benefits), I figured why not escape this choice by aiming slightly higher again.

So I can spend $200-ish on a used AE-9, which is obviously an internal card, or a new Topping DX3 Pro+, which is obviously a USB DAC/amp.

This is for mostly single-player RPGs and maybe competitive RTS, so not the kind of Witcher sense a more competitive FPS player might be after, but I still need accurate imaging and good directionality (including vertical), and good stage. Detail, clarity and layering/separation are also priorities (because of multiple effects stacking on top of the ambient and the music). And obviously that outta-yer-melon experience. I’d like to be able to drive (active) speakers as well.

Also, pardon the n00b questions, but:

  1. Am I correct in thinking a USB DAC like the DX3 through the USB connection is self-sufficient and doesn’t need to interact with onboard audio if you sell the internal soundcard?

  2. If I get the DX3, do I want to keep my K5 as a dedicated amp or just use the DX3? (The K5’s headphone out is 1.5W and the DX3’s is 2x.1.8W.)


get the dx3 if you can. you dont need internal sound anything with it. hooks up usb. bypasses the sound card

Finally have some time to get back to this.

So, right now I’m sitting on a Sound Blaster Z going out directly to two active stereo sets (for a 4.0) and FiiO K5 for headphones (through the dedicated headphone out). It plays better than my x-Fi Titanium did. It feels less epic in a number of ways, but it’s technically better overall. Also, SBX doesn’t feel as good as CMSS-3D. From a purely impressionistic sensory perspective, purely by my subjective taste, CMSS-3D just might be the best virtual surround ever. It may be slightly echo-ish, but it feels more 3D-like and more accurate than anything else. Nothing wrong with SBX, it’s just not as 3D as CMSS.

So I could just ease down and spend some time testing my new configuration more thoroughly and simply learning it by living with it — for like half a year or at least a couple of weeks.

Alternatively, I could skip this process and go for a clear, straight, indisputable upgrade.

But one thing I’ve decided is that I must remain able to plug my two analogue stereos in, for the time being. Either directly or through some sort of inexpensive adapter.

So… should I buy something with SXFI from Creative? Like X3, X4 or GC7?

Or something newer than SBZ but still with SBX?

I do like CMSS (on which I suppose SXFI is based), but I wouldn’t like to give up clarity, separation and good timbre for it (on which accounts my current SBX seems to beat my former x-Fi Titanium).

… Or indeed no more discreet cards and no more Creative products but a proper external DAC such as DX3 Pro+ or D50s or Zen/Zen Can?

I’ve read good reviews of a bunch of dongles, but I suspect full-sized desktop DACs and amps continue to exist for a reason, don’t they?

I can get a good bargain on a G6, but it seems to have only a single line-out (optical/analogue) at the back and dedicated headphone out at the front, so not a good fit for my current needs, which are two analogue line-outs plus a dedicated headphone out. D50s and DX3 Pro seem to have the same problem.

Am I doomed to internal soundcards if I want to plug two separate stereo sets as front and rear via 3.5mm jack plugs?

what are you trying to do? just use two separate pairs of speakers independently? or at the same time?

At the same time. So I need separate front and rear outputs.

I use a 2.0 as front and a separate 2.1 as rear. My internal soundcard makes this possible because it has an old-school row of jacks instead of one hole to rule them all.

oh so it’s for surround? yeah if that’s the case it’s gonna have to be matrixed somehow with software and 2channel stuff isn’t going to do any of that.

Yeah. This would be no big deal, but I’m emotionally attached to the 2.0, as it was my 18th birthday gift. And I’ve also found out I like it better with physical rear speakers than without. So I need a soundcard or USB DAC with real 5.1.

After considering my options, I’ve decided it might not be the end of the world if I:

A) have to plug a receiver/decoder into optical to pick up some Dolby or other and split it; or

B) keep an internal card just for analogue multispeaker

Out of which I already have an internal card.

So my upgrade options would be to either get something like AE-9 and call it a day, or go for a USB DAC/combo and just accept the fact that it won’t do real 5.1 (4.0 in my case).

My options for USB include:

  1. SXFI amp — Creative’s own outlet, discounted from $160 to $60
  2. G6 — Creative’s outlet again, discounted from $160 to $82
  3. Zen DAC — used for $125 with power supply added to the bargain
  4. Mojo — $275 used
  5. D50s — $275 new
  6. DX3+ Pro — $275 new
  7. HiFace — $125-ish
  8. Cobalt — $160-ish
  9. Modi 2 — $190-ish used (Schiit is notoriously unavailable here, as is LakePeople, and importing sucks because of customs plus VAT plus cross-continental shipment fees)
  10. X1S — $250-ish
  11. Audio GD R2R-11 — $200-ish used
  12. E50 — $275 new
  13. E30 — $160 new

(Plus some Arcams, one or two Nu Force DACs or the Cambridge DAC.)

For comparison, in this country (or anywhere it makes sense shipping from) AE-5 is $75-ish, add ~$30 for the plus version, and AE-7 and 9 are 1) expensive AF with almost no option of buying used for a reasonable price.

Use: Gaming. Casual, narrative, playing for immersion but want it to be engaging and stimulating rather than laid-back. Preferably not recesed in any part of the range. Probably neutral or Harman rather than V. Probably not competitive/analytical-style / plan. Not really a bass head but care for the bass more than I’d be willing to admit (detail and resolution important, though, not some kind of bloated boom boom). Prefer to avoid metallic distortions and similar digital leftovers. Stage would ideally have good depth, not just width. Focus on holography/3D anyway. I like detail and separation but that’s just my idea of fun, as opposed to aiming for analytical parameters. Part of the same idea of fun that prefers energetic/inspiring to laid-back/relaxing for immersion. Again, top focus is just plain good for gaming, where to my subjective taste that’s close to movies, though it depends on the game (an RTS would be less cinematic than an RPG). For music genres, let’s say an all-rounder. What I like in gaming cards/DACs is how you can turn VSS on/off, but I guess you can do that with Sonic, Atmos, etc. with just a couple of clicks, so probably no big deal.

Having conveniently accessible and well-tuned EQ presets for different genres/situations (e.g. holography for game immersion vs something more laid-back for casual listening at work) wouldn’t hurt but is not critical. Cans: have Tygr, consider K702, pine for (400SE=>)Sundara=>Ananda, maybe 880/600, maybe 560s, largely depending on what’s a good deal for in some outlet or second-hand. If an integrated unit, being able to run Hifiman planars (2W ideally) would be a bonus and would free up some money due to not needing to buy a powerful dedicated amp.

Seems I can’t edit the title anymore, so right now it’s misleading in the light of this post — sorry for this, but I’d keep it to a single thread.

Just for reference, what I currently have is Sound Blaster Z => FiiO K5 (non-pro). For gaming I have to use just the Z with a cheap 3.5 extension cable because that somehow escapes the noise that more expensive RCA cables pick up, as does the amp, or Z => stereo set => headphones (the stereo also manages to kill off most of the noise the FiiO picks up even if I plug it into the stereo’s headphone output, which I’ve also tried).

I’m not really complaining about what I already have, but YOLO and there’s no rewind. I can afford the B-stock Creatives easily, and the $200 solutions won’t exactly make my household finances keel over, though $300 + $300 for dedicated amp + dedicated DAC would certainly give me a pause and probably fill me with a whole new appreciation for Creative’s outlet.

Obviously, I could keep the FiiO K5 non-pro as my amp for the time being and focus on the DAC at this time, to upgrade the amp only as a later step somewhere down the road, like next year or two. So buying a DAC without a strong amp section is no big deal.

But if the Z is a decent better DAC than the K5 is amp, then I could sell the K5 on and focus on the amp at this stage. But if so, then I’d only be taking a 1.5W, ideally 2W amp due to my pining for Hifiman planars.