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Static noise in headphones when using PC, is an external soundcard the way to go?

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Hello, I've had weird static noise when using headphones on my PC for at least a year or two but it is starting to get really annoying now so would like to sort it out.

Currently using a Soundblaster Z internal soundcard, with my Sony MDR-1AM2 or Fidelio X2HR plugged into the headphone jack of the sound card. I figured a USB DAC/Amp would be the best way to go, such as the Fiio E10K. I've read that USB soundcards don't always solve the issue, but I did try a very basic USB headphone/mic adaptor just to see if there was any noise, it was dead silent even when running my GPU at maximum clocks, so I imagine the E10K hopefully would be silent too.

Is this the best way to go? is the E10K any better or worse than the Soundblaster Z? I also saw some suggestions online to go for a DAC/Amp that has optical and instead, connect the Soundblaster Z to the external soundcard using optical, if I wish to use the Z's DSP for gaming.
 

3125b

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An external device might be the best solution, the inside of a PC case is just not the best environment for analog audio signals - though not always problematic.
The E10K is a decent unit, and while not technically audibly transparent, subjectively it always seemd fine to me. It puts out 2.5Vrms with 1 ohm output impedance (as opposed to the 22 ohms of the SB Z), so it's good for most common headphones. The SNR is 108dB, though it does have some harmonic distortion more or less audible at -80dB or so.
You can get better DSP software than what comes with the SB Z for free, just get yourself Equalizer APO and some software based on that like HeSuVi or what have you.
 
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The E10K is a decent unit, and while not technically audibly transparent, subjectively it always seemd fine to me. It puts out 2.5Vrms with 1 ohm output impedance (as opposed to the 22 ohms of the SB Z), so it's good for most common headphones. The SNR is 108dB, though it does have some harmonic distortion more or less audible at -80dB or so

that definitely went over my head haha, not sure if that means its better or worse. The E10K is £68, if there is any other external soundcard that would be a better suit, I wouldn't mind going up to say £80-90 if it makes sense. If not then I'll just stick to getting the E10K
 

AnalogSteph

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I suspect your SB Z may just have started to fail... doesn't seem to be entirely uncommon for them. Not sure what's up with that, the electronically inclined may want to ask an ESR meter for the condition of the 4 electrolytic caps dotted around the control chip and perhaps the one near the PCIe connector as well, maybe one of them has gone high ESR and is upsetting things. Or perhaps the MAX97220 headphone amp IC needs a reflow, or even the control chip.

First of all I would just try reseating the card though, it's running entirely on +3.3 V and the power and ground pins on PCIe x1 aren't exactly super numerous.

The E10K is a very basic DAC/HPA, not sure it even is at the level of your old card (output impedance may be low, but distortion not so much, and this quite irrespective of load impedance). If it has to be external, I'd definitely spend a bit more, or consult the used market. Do you have any decent onboard audio available by any chance? You may get away with using that and an external amplifier only. Not necessarily cheaper but another option.

Concerns that an internal card can't be any good have been around for decades but a lot of them are actually unfounded. Ironically, a lot of current models are actually using USB sound chips with PCIe USB controllers, I suspect for software compatibility reasons. Which is all good and well as long as it works, which it doesn't always (reliably). That said, more traditional controller solutions have their problems, too...
 
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I suspect your SB Z may just have started to fail... doesn't seem to be entirely uncommon for them. Not sure what's up with that, the electronically inclined may want to ask an ESR meter for the condition of the 4 electrolytic caps dotted around the control chip and perhaps the one near the PCIe connector as well, maybe one of them has gone high ESR and is upsetting things. Or perhaps the MAX97220 headphone amp IC needs a reflow, or even the control chip.

First of all I would just try reseating the card though, it's running entirely on +3.3 V and the power and ground pins on PCIe x1 aren't exactly super numerous.

The E10K is a very basic DAC/HPA, not sure it even is at the level of your old card (output impedance may be low, but distortion not so much, and this quite irrespective of load impedance). If it has to be external, I'd definitely spend a bit more, or consult the used market. Do you have any decent onboard audio available by any chance? You may get away with using that and an external amplifier only. Not necessarily cheaper but another option.

Concerns that an internal card can't be any good have been around for decades but a lot of them are actually unfounded. Ironically, a lot of current models are actually using USB sound chips with PCIe USB controllers, I suspect for software compatibility reasons. Which is all good and well as long as it works, which it doesn't always (reliably). That said, more traditional controller solutions have their problems, too...

Onboard audio is "Intel HD Audio via Realtek ALC889 with 8-channel support " - I'm using a pretty old PC at the moment, motherboard is around 10 years old. I'm building a new machine in 2-3 months so I could potentially wait and see how I get on using onboard audio on the new build.

Reseating the Soundblaster Z didn't do anything. I'm of the assumption that lower output impedance is preferable then? some very basic research searching on Google seems to suggest that. So despite the E10K having lower output impedance than the Soundblaster Z headphone amp (which I've found is 22Ohm) it hasn't got low distortion? Hmmm in that case what soundcard would you recommend, whatever I buy will eventually be used on the new build in a few months so I'll just look at it as a future investment

Edit

Also of note, I'm in the UK and products seem to be very hard to come by here. I've been looking at the ifi Zen DAC which I can get from Amazon. Some further research brought my attention to the Fiio K5 Pro but I can't find that reliably here in the UK. Amazon UK does have the Topping MX3 available although there seem to be mixed reviews on the MX3 and Zen DAC. My current headphones are 1AM2 (16Ohm) and X2HR (30Ohm)
 
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3125b

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The E10K is £68
That's fairly expensive, didn't know it was that much in UK. At that price, it might not really be worth it.
Usually I'd recommend getting it used, the little FiiOs seem to last quite well and can be had for around 35€ that way usually.
If it is available in the UK, Creative sells B-Stock of their G5 and G6 external sound cards for half price at 50/75€, wich is cheap for what you get.
Both of your headphones are very easy to drive, so a dongle might be a good option, however I'm really not sure what the market in the UK looks like.
As far as driving the headphones from the onboard audio of your eventual new mainboard - they all have high output impedances of around 80 ohms. That might lead to unwanted FR changes in dynamic headphones with uneven impedance curves (with the X2HR for example will boost the subbass at around 40Hz) and maybe other more or less effects (?).
 
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That's fairly expensive, didn't know it was that much in UK. At that price, it might not really be worth it.
Usually I'd recommend getting it used, the little FiiOs seem to last quite well and can be had for around 35€ that way usually.
If it is available in the UK, Creative sells B-Stock of their G5 and G6 external sound cards for half price at 50/75€, wich is cheap for what you get.
Both of your headphones are very easy to drive, so a dongle might be a good option, however I'm really not sure what the market in the UK looks like.
As far as driving the headphones from the onboard audio of your eventual new mainboard - they all have high output impedances of around 80 ohms. That might lead to unwanted FR changes in dynamic headphones with uneven impedance curves (with the X2HR for example will boost the subbass at around 40Hz) and maybe other more or less effects (?).

Yeah, some places sell the E10K for £60 but their returns process isn't as robust as Amazon's (in the event of warranty issues or just not being happy with the performance of the E10K). Dongle is an option although I would prefer having volume controls on the unit. I'll have a look at the G6 for £75 if there are any second hand (brand new is £99). The QC on the G6 does concern me though, frequent reports of overheating, popping, software support now ditched too. Might be better off with something else.

Is there any dac/amp combo that you'd recommend at say £140 tops?

Edit: There is also the DX3PRO which was £160 for several months until it jumped up to £230 on Amazon, could potentially wait and hope for it to drop down to £160 if nothing else is suitable. Besides that, everything else recommended that I see, would costs £200-250

Edit 2: Gone for the £75 G6, have 30 days to try it to see if it's suitable for my needs or not. If not I'll just send it back.
 
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AnalogSteph

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Onboard audio is "Intel HD Audio via Realtek ALC889 with 8-channel support " - I'm using a pretty old PC at the moment, motherboard is around 10 years old.
That's actually an excellent chip for the day, pretty much the best you could get in onboard at the time and good enough to be audibly transparent. If the drivers aren't as old as the board (there was a phase in ~2011 when they could be a bit buggy, around build 6263) and the hardware implementation isn't screwed up, there isn't an awful lot wrong with it, save for the usual ~1 Vrms maximum output of course. You may want an amplifier with a "high" gain of about 6 (~16 dB), although even around 4 should still be louder than the SB Z ever got.

Topping DX3Pro is unlikely to go back down in price any time soon, it uses AKM chips and their supply has been disrupted since a massive factory fire in October.
 
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That's actually an excellent chip for the day, pretty much the best you could get in onboard at the time and good enough to be audibly transparent. If the drivers aren't as old as the board (there was a phase in ~2011 when they could be a bit buggy, around build 6263) and the hardware implementation isn't screwed up, there isn't an awful lot wrong with it, save for the usual ~1 Vrms maximum output of course. You may want an amplifier with a "high" gain of about 6 (~16 dB), although even around 4 should still be louder than the SB Z ever got.

Topping DX3Pro is unlikely to go back down in price any time soon, it uses AKM chips and their supply has been disrupted since a massive factory fire in October.

Yeah back when I built the PC I remember it being at the higher end of the spectrum, onboard wise. I have pulled the plug on the Creative G6, tempted to buy something else and compare the two though, hmmmm.

Ok so DX3Pro is out of the question then being £70 more expensive than normal. I imagine if I ever decide to spend £200+ It would be better to just buy a JDS Atom stack or E30/L30 stack

There is a used DX3PRO for £143 but...................the condition on Amazon is "Acceptable" with no description of what is actually wrong with it.
 

Aerith Gainsborough

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Only time I ever heard static noise / drive activity was in a very old onboard sound of my 2003 system. Yuck.
I never heard noise in any of my Creative add-in cards, so going external is not necessarily a must.

You can get a nice box with amp and DAC in one though.
 
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You can use a small amplifier instead of a good sound card..

What amp would that be? wouldn't I still have the same issue if I did Soundblaster Z (which is the source of the problem due to it being internal) --> Headphone Amp --> Headphones
 
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Only time I ever heard static noise / drive activity was in a very old onboard sound of my 2003 system. Yuck.
I never heard noise in any of my Creative add-in cards, so going external is not necessarily a must.

You can get a nice box with amp and DAC in one though.

It is definitely the Soundblaster Z picking up some sort of interference with my GPU, I am changing PC's in a few months but would rather not risk an internal again. As I type this, I hear barely audible static/noise and my GPU is at low/idle clocks. Once I play ANY game that pushes GPU clocks up, I get this very audible buzz/hum which is worse with more demanding games. During action the buzz isn't audible, but during cutscenes or moments where not much is happening, its noticeable.

I've tried a couple of headphone dongles, all are dead silent with my GPU at max clocks, so figured going external is the best way of getting away from the problem
 
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G6 arrived. Think I made the right choice, low gain mode is more than enough for my X2's, let alone the 1AM2 which are even easier to drive. And even when using EQ APO + Peace GUI. With the lowered preamp (-5dB) I do give the X2's a bit more juice, especially since media players and YouTube seem to sound quieter in general, but always below 79% windows volume to avoid distortion.

The main problem is completely solved though. Not an ounce of hiss when playing games or just browsing in general. Feels weird not hearing the static. Audio quality has gone up as well, the X2's sound clearer as do my 1AM2's. And yeah, the amp in this destroys the one in my Soundblaster Z by far, should help in the future if I end up with headphones that need more sauce. Thanks everyone for all the suggestions/advice etc
 
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