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MANY questions about upgrading my audio hardware and buying headphones

I plan to upgrade my whole audio system solution. This means Hardware in terms of Sound cards, headphones, etc. The thing is I am quite a newb in all this I guess.

For example: I want to get a better audio solution for music on my PC. Right now I am using the headphone jack of my onboard sound, which is btw a Creative Sound Core 3D or something. Was a bit more expensive motherboard. And here is where things start. I have no idea if it would be worth it to buy a dedicated Soundcard or perhaps just another audio solution. There are those decks that you can plug in via USB or something and they serve as own audio solution. A company named Schiit does produce them. Generally I feel like a solution like Schiits is more interesting for me since I might also be able to plug my phone and other stuff into it. From what I understood this thing has pretty much its own soundcard and processor in it, no? But wouldnt it also get the soundsignal from my Soundcore 3D audiochip? I have no idea how all this stuff works as you can see. Still, I dont even know if those solutions are better than my Creative Soundcore 3D chip. I guess it seems to be somewhere between a onboard and a soundcard, in terms of audio quality but some also claim it should theoretically sound exactly the same as a Creative soundcard. No idea here. Maybe its worth getting another audio solution, maybe not. MI hope you can help me deciding this.

For gaming and videostuff I usually use my Corsair Gaming Surround 7.1 Headphones. I think it has an own audio processor and is wireless as well. Dont really need to touch that. I only want to improve my music audio quality listening experience, which I keep completely seperate from this headset.

I also planned to buy a Sony 1000XM3 headphone. This is also why I want to upgrade in those terms. To ensure I have top notch audio solutions and then maybe I am finally able to hear the advantage to Lossless audio compared to lossy codecs. Of course, if you think you know better headphones in the 300 euro price range, dont hesitate to point some out. So far I settled with the 1000XM3 because I had the possibility to listen with it inside a store and I really liked. They also had a XM2, from which some people say is better, but the only real difference I could tell was that the XM3 seems to be a bit more oriented towards electronic music with good bass and all, which is also why I prefer it. I listen 80% of the time to electronic music with heavy bass. Feel free to point your experiences out or maybe recommend whole different headphone vendors. The only important thing is that the headphone supports both wired mode and bluetooth. I also want to use it outside with my phone. But mostly its used wired on my audio system.

Last but not least... How is the audio quality with Bluetooth compared to Wired headphones? I often see people claiming that its worse, noticeable so. But is this really the case or imagination? And what does exactly matter here? Some seem to blame the fact that for Bluetooth audio, the audio goes through an own Sounddriver inside the headphones and with wired not? And how do the 1000XM3 fair here, having the latest Bluetooth technology and hopefully high quality drivers? My phone has btw Bluetooth 5.0. Not sure if it matters but yeah, its an up to date model.

To summarize this long-ass text:
So now I dont know if I should stick with my Creative Sound Core 3D or get sound card or get this deck stuff. Plus I don't know which Hardware I should buy. I know Creative and Schiit but I guess there are many other vendors for this stuff. And Im open for other recommendations for good headphones. And it would be interesting to get opinions and experiences on the Bluetooth audio quality.

Re: MANY questions about upgrading my audio hardware and buying headphones

Reply #1
I don't have any recommendations for you.

As for the headphones - Have you listened to the Sony headphones?   I always recommend that people listen (and check the comfort, etc.) and choose for themselves.    There are various "frequently recommended" or "highly recommended" headphones in various price ranges but...

Headphones are notoriously difficult to measure because of the way they interact with different people's ears and the results from one artificial head will differ from another artificial head.

And, opinions & preferences vary.    Magazine or professional reviewers will generally praise everything and generally prefer whatever is the most expensive...

There are lots of very-good headphones in the $200 - $300 USD range.    At that price range you are into "diminishing returns" and in "blind" test where you didn't know the brand or price, you might prefer one of the more-affordable headphones over the super-exotic super-expensive pair.

And...  The sound character/quality difference between different headphones is 99.9% frequency response and you can adjust that with EQ.  ;)

You do have to be a little careful with digital EQ...   If you boost any frequencies you can push the levels into digital clipping (distortion), depending on your digital volume control setting, and/or if you're listening loud you can push the amplifier into clipping.    So for example, if you want to boost the bass, it's usually better to cut everything else (but that won't help on the analog-side if you compensate for the cut by cranking the volume up and clipping the amplifier.)

And I always ask, "what's wrong with the sound now?"   An external interface or headphone amplifier may not improve sound quality. 

As far as the soundcard/interface there are only a few things to consider -

If you are hearing noise from the soundcard, and external interface may help.   There are lots of "nasty" high-frequency signals inside a computer case and sometimes that "noise" gets into the soundcard.   (This can also happen with external USB-powered interfaces or soundcards because there is often noise on the power supply can leak into the analog electronics, so a device with it's own power supply is "safer".)

Or, in some cases the impedance of the headphone (which varies over the frequency range) can "interact" with the amplifier's (soundcard's) output-impedance and that can affect frequency response.   Otherwise, virtually all soundcards have flat frequency response over the audio range.    Unfortunately, it's not easy to find the output impedance spec for soundcards/headphone amps (which should be about 1/10th of the headphone impedance).   If they give you an impedance spec, it's usually the recommended minimum headphone impedance, and that's not really useful.    However, you can run an RMAA test with the headphones connected to see if the headphone load messes-up the frequency response.

And of course, output power/voltage can be an issue if you like listen loud and you're hearing distortion.   In that case, you need some kind of amplifier, or an interface with higher output.  (Under "normal conditions" you shouldn't be getting audible distortion from any soundcard/interface.)

With active noise canceling or Bluetooth headphones that have their own built-in amplifier, impedance and power output are not an issue and the ONLY issue is noise.  (And of course, noise cancelling headphones are designed to cancel acoustic  noise, not electrical noise coming-in with the audio signal.)

Then there are features you might like on an amplifier/interface such as a physical volume control and maybe bass & treble controls and some headphone amps have a "blend" control to blend the left  right channels, which some people like.

maybe I am finally able to hear the advantage to Lossless audio compared to lossy codecs.
A higher-end setup is unlikely to help.   That's mostly an audiophile myth spread by people who don't believe in blind listening tests.    Headphones can help (almost any headphones) but the audibility of compression artifacts is more related to the quality of the compression, program material, and your ability to hear the artifacts.  


Re: MANY questions about upgrading my audio hardware and buying headphones

Reply #2
Thanks. That was definitely interesting and helpful so far. Not really on the side of whether I should buy something or not but just as general information.

I am not hearing any noise from my soundcard/chip. The headphone output is also a "special" grounded one or something. Not getting any interference from the others. In fact for my standards the audio is pretty good and crystal clear. Of course cant tell how it compares to expensive soundcards or decks and whether I would even notice the difference.

I actually do start to hear noise when I put the volume too high on my headphones. However, this is usually around 80%+. And its definitely loud enough for me. Also seems to depend on the audio material dB. But guess its usually going noisy at like 90dB output volume. Just a guess.

Re: MANY questions about upgrading my audio hardware and buying headphones

Reply #3
Of course cant tell how it compares to expensive soundcards or decks and whether I would even notice the difference.
If there are no audible defects in the sound (noise, distortion, or frequency response variations) you are unlikely to hear a difference...    In other words, your soundcard is probably better than human hearing.   With modern electronics it's cheap & easy to build stuff that's better than human hearing. 

Transducers…  Headphones & speakers (and microphones and phono cartridges) are a different story.    Every different headphone/speaker is going to sound different.    

I actually do start to hear noise when I put the volume too high on my headphones. However, this is usually around 80%+. And its definitely loud enough for me. Also seems to depend on the audio material dB. But guess its usually going noisy at like 90dB output volume. Just a guess.
Typically noise (like background hum, buzz, or hiss) is "constant" and most-noticeable at low levels or during silence and when the program gets loud (or just moderate) the noise is drowned-out.    But if you have an external amplifier and you crank-up the volume control you'll increase the noise along with the program material.   Then the noise becomes more noticeable during quiet parts or between songs, etc. 

Distortion (clipping) can happen at louder volumes when you "overdrive" an amplifier.   For example, if you have a 100 Watt amplifier and you crank up the volume and "try" to get 110W out of it, you'll get clipping.   

The dB SPL level at which you get clipping depends on the headphone amplifier and the sensitivity of the headphones.   With regular passive headphones, the amplifier is usually built-into your soundcard, laptop, phone, etc.   With active headphones (USB, noise canceling, Bluetooth) the amplifier is built-into the headphone itself.

Or, headphones & speakers can distort mechanically if over-driven by a high-power amplifier.   But, that usually doesn't happen with headphones until it's dangerously (and uncomfortably) loud.    Mechanical distortion is more common with speakers (because speakers, especially small speakers, can't always go uncomfortably loud) but if you drive a speaker hard enough to distort it you may kill it.

Or, in some cases you can get mechanical rattling or buzzing of a headphone/speaker when it's over-driven.   (I'd call that "noise" rather than distortion but it wouldn't show-up in traditional noise measurements...  It would show-up in distortion measurements.)

(You can also get clipping on the digital side if you amplify digitally and try to go over 0dBFS.)

Re: MANY questions about upgrading my audio hardware and buying headphones

Reply #4
Your motherboard sound is probably more than adequate for hi-fi reproduction, no need to waste money on something that isn't going to make a difference.  Only cheap motherboards and laptops now days have just average audio.  I bought a really cheap motherboard and my Soundblaster X-Fi was showing its age, so otherwise I would have just stuck with that, but I ended up getting a Soundblaster Z this winter as it was on sale.  You certainly do not need a soundcard or DAC if you have decent motherboard audio.  Anything above 90 dB signal-to-noise is decent, and over 104 dB is very good.  Decades ago people were lucky to have the kind of fidelity that people now days take for granted even on cheap audio solutions. 

Lossless audio is quite good now days.  At 128 kbps I cannot hear the difference between lossy codecs like Vorbis or Opus and uncompressed PCM files, even using planarmagnetic and electret driver headphones, though I have found MP3 and AAC to be inferior and not transparent at those bitrates, they are still acceptable for casual listening.

You do not need to spend alot of money on headphones to get good sound.  I typically use the same headphones for gaming or music- it is not necessary to have special gaming headphones.   I prefer open back headphones for gaming and music, but sometimes I will use a pair of closed headphones if the air conditioner is running or if I need sound isolation (good for listening to music on the go).

Learning how to use an equalizer will go a long ways towards helping to improve the sound quality of any headphones you have.  Your motherboard likely has an equalizer for the Soundcore 3D chip, and many portables and phones have equalizers as well.  

I have found Zeos channel on youtube very helpful in finding deals on hi-fi headphones.  Several years ago I picked up some Tascam TH-02's on his recommendation and used them for some time.  He has tended to gravitate towards high end headphones but not exclusively so.  I really prefer a neutral, analytical sound, and EQ'ing the headphones to tame the highs.  Once you get used to flat frequency response and the benefits that gives, you won't want to put up with the typical bloated bass sound that so many people think sounds "good" and "warm".

Normal sound out of a PC should only get up to over 90 decibels for brief periods, like a crescendo in a symphony or perhaps a loud explosion in a video game.  Otherwise, most music should be 60 - 75 decibels on average.  Getting some noise with the volume turned up high might simply be just turning the volume up too high.  A headphone amplifier might help in the rare case that there is an impedance mismatch between the headphone output and your headphones (it does happen, especially with cheaper internal amplifiers), but more likely the volume is simply too loud.

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