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Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Connecting Hauptwerk to MIDI organs, sequencers, ...

Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby pat17 » Sat Oct 05, 2013 12:37 pm

Since cthart was raising the question of DAC compatibility with Hauptwerk setup ( viewtopic.php?f=3&t=12051&p=89101&hilit=dac#p89101 ) it remained on my mind as one direction to explore.

Actually the question might seem silly. sound boards contain DAC, and indeed DAC are equipped with DAC. but the point is a bit more subtle than that. In the sometimes difficult question of how to interconnect IT and audio, two answers came so far. One from the IT world - the sound board - and one from the audio board - the DAC. Two worlds that do not communicate easily - even the concerns are not the same. Jitter is an obsession on DACs, latency is the main issue for sound boards. Although jitter can also be an issue on sound boards, and latency on DACs!

Yet manufacturers do not always communicate on those aspects which are not "theirs". If we happen to know Cambridge has used Wolfson WM8742 DACs in his Magic 100, we even do not know which brand has been selected to equip the Motu unless we dig on the net.

A friend a mine had a Cambridge Audio Azur DAC Magic 100. He lended it to me graciously, which allowed me to compare it with my Motu UltraLite-MK3 Hybrid.

Actually I didn't know what to expect. I was afraid of the latency, somehow unsure it would be working well with the other components of my Hauptwerk setup - somehow complex, I'll come back to it later. The price gap ($ 549 vs. $ 299) also made me anticipate a better result for the Motu. Last but not least, the tiny box containing the DAC looked out of comparison with the sound board solid appearance -

ImageImage
(unfortunately not as the same scale)

My first surprise came with the connection. I had nothing to change in Hauptwerk itsellf, since Reaper is the output to which it is connected. In Reaper, the change from the Motu to the Cambridge Audio was sooo easy - just go to preferences, output, and select the Cambridge Audio Azur DAC Magic 100 in the drop down menu. Macs are amazing for that - no need for drivers, it works and is reconginsed by the Mac as soon the USB is connected. I then selected the input in the DAC to 48 kHz, and it was done.

Unlike the Motu which allows USB2 and FireWire800 - the latter being used in my case - the Cambridge can be connected with USB2 only. Good point for the DAC, it allowed a direct RCA connection. This is an important aspect for me, since my amps are fully analog.

I then checked the latency values in Reaper. For the Motu, for 512 spls the value was 11 / 11 ms. For the Cambridge, I was astonished to read for the same 512 spls setting a value of 10 / 11 ms!

It was not going to be my last surprise. I then played a piece on Saint-Michel-en-Thiérache, first with the Motu, then with the Cambridge. It was not a A/B Blind Test indeed, especially as I shut down both the computer and the audio setup between the change of interface - not really keen to try plug and play with this kind of equipment.

As a result, the Cambridge was much, much better than the Motu. More presence in the sound - a highly subjective statement indeed - but also much cleaner, richer bass. They were more defined, and precise in the audio rendering. I was previously considering to change my subwoofer, but with this experience there is no need to go for it any longer...

As for the rest of the spectrum, I had the feeling it was better, but it's really hard to tell to which extent my opinion might be biased since I knew which product was connected.

The conclusion of the test was simple - I bought a Cambridge Audio Azur DAC Magic 100 this afternoon itself...

Nevertheless, I would stress this "comparison" is to be considered in the very specific context of my setup, i.e. -

- my audio system is fully analog - when it goes through the source's DACs, it remains analog till it reaches the speakers (electrostatic panels).
- my Hauptwerk setup works in 2.1 (stereo + subwoofer). Not sure how DACs can work with multichannel configurations. I don't recall I have ever seen a DAC with 5.1 analog input. For digital signal, it's a different story of course.
- Hauptwerk is interconnected with Reaper, which is used as a VSTI host for Arc 2, a software specialized in room acoustics correction. DIgital signal comes out of the Mac after the full processing is done.
- the Motu was connected through XLR to RCA cables of standard quality. The Cambridge Audio was connected though RCA to RCA audophile one. The test was biased in thie domain - unless one believes cables are all the same.
- not sure what is the real consequence of it, but the Motu analog output is balanced, whereas the vintage Harman Kardon Signature 1.0 pre-amp inputs are unbalanced. On the other hand, the DAC output are unbalanced.
- the Motu was used for its DAC capacities only, in stereo - though it has 14 output channels! I was not using the reverb - I prefer to use very wet sample sets - or any mixes features. Its extreme versatility especially with the support of CueMix FX software (explaining its price tag) was more a liability than an asset to me. There is no option available with the Cambridge - it's perfectly goof proof.

In some other cases the benefits might not be as obvious!
Last edited by pat17 on Thu Feb 06, 2014 4:55 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Analog amplification - Sound Board vs. DAC

Postby Jan Loosman » Sun Oct 06, 2013 8:40 am

Hello Patrick

I had a similar experience when i changed my Focusrite Saphire 24dsp to my new RME UCX .
The RME card has some very sophisticated anti jitter circuits onboard. The Focusrite was not a bad card at all but this RME is another class (also in price) :!: The easy relaxed sound without any sharp digital edges is a delight. I play now with a buffer size 256 in surround without a problem, so its a very low latency card.
Not to mention the increase of micro details in the sound that i never heard before. This is the most analoge sounding card i ever heard. So you are right there is a big difference in Dacs regarding sound quality.
Have you done new Arc measurments with your new card. I made new measurments with my RME card.

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Re: Analog amplification - Sound Board vs. DAC

Postby pat17 » Mon Oct 07, 2013 5:19 am

Hello Jan,

Happy to read you are satisfied with your new RME Card! 8)

This is what I love with Hauptwerk - the quality is so high that each improvement in one's setup is reflected in the audio rendering...

When I moved to the Cambridge Audio DAC I was thinking another measurement with Arc2 should be done, by pure logic. I got a confirmation it has to be done yesterday actually. I was playing Kampen's Hinsz, and the pedalboard sounded a bit weird - a plain and somewhat aggressive sound.

I've ordered a XLR to USB adaptor in order to make the measurement, since the DAC doesn't have any Mic input! It will be interesting to compare the curves obtained "through" the DAC, and the ones I already got with the Motu sound card.

Did it make a significant difference in your case? :wink:
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Re: Analog amplification - Sound Board vs. DAC

Postby Jan Loosman » Mon Oct 07, 2013 9:53 am

Hello Patrick

Your audio system is located at the other side of the organ if i remember correctly. Where did you place your dac. is it near the organ or near the amplifier. If you place it near the amplifier you can use very short audiophile rca cables to improve the sound even further. You only have to use a long USB cable. Digital signals are less sensible for degradation on long cable runs then analoge signals.
I understand you use the motu as mic.amp only for the ARC2 measurments.
The new measurments with RME gave a little improvement compared to the old measurments with the Saphire pro, but not a hughe improvement.

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Re: Analog amplification - Sound Board vs. DAC

Postby pat17 » Mon Oct 07, 2013 12:28 pm

Hi Jan,

You have a very good memory! Actually the DAC is next to the organ, at the same position the Motu used to be. It was impossible by that time to do it otherwise, since the Motu has to be switched on by pressing one of its button physically, and as it allowed to change any setting quickly if needed be.

In order to minimise the loss on the analog connections (15 meters!) I had chosen a quite good interconnect cables, AudioQuest King Cobra. It costs more than the DAC! Considering that point, I kept the DAC at the same position... especially as still, it cannot be switched on remotely!

As for the mic, I have order this product so as to be able to use the Arc2 Behringer-like device -http://www.mxlmics.com/microphones/usb/MicMate-Classic/

Since I shall not keep the Motu, I have to be able to replace all what I used to do with it!

I'm not surprised a new measurement helped in your case. There is a clear interaction between all the audio components - both hardware and software - that needs fine tuning so as to give the best of themselves! :wink:
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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby pat17 » Thu Feb 06, 2014 6:10 am

A quick update on this thread. After my initial and successful test with the Cambridge Audio Azur DAC Magic 100 I was facing some issues with the room acoustic software Arc 2. When I was measuring room acoustic in order to allow Arc 2 to calculate a correction, I obtained weird results.

It took me some time to understand why, yet I was in an uncomfortable situation where the Motu Ultralite MkIII Hybrid I was using before was already gone. I had to find another solution. I then tried the Apogee Duet 2

Image

The Duet is expected to be among the best 2-channel external sound card available for Macs. Thanks to its reduced available features, it's also relatively affordable - here in Dubai it is sold at the same price than the Motu Ultralite MkIII Hybrid. Sound wise, I could tell the Duet was better than the Motu, though I couldn't make a direct comparison between the two units. As for Arc 2, no issue at all - measurements were back to normal.

Yet, I felt the DAC was still clearer for details, more articulate for bass sounds. It was obvious when listening on my earphone - Stax SRS-4040 II - with Vacuum tube Class A SRM-006tII amplifier + SR-404 Signature electrostatic earphone. With earphone, no correction is needed. Sound is excellent. On my speakers, correction is mandatory, and the sound is really muddy.

Image

I was then feeling somewhat unhappy with the result.

I then decided to take the risk of going for a better DAC. My choice went for the PS Audio NuWave DAC. Almost three times the budget for the Cambdridge (US Street price at $999), the NuWave got excellent feedback thanks to its 192kHz 24-Bit resolution Burr Brown DACs, and its Class A output circuitry.

Image

Result was outstanding. Better than the Cambridge, much better than the Duet. on the Stax, sound came with a very wide stereo image, a lively warm sound, even more detailed, and with precise and loud bass. Amazing. Measurements with Arc 2 proved to be better, but still not normal. I found a way around - using Duet measurements to calculate the room acoustic correction, and the NuWave as the real audio interface.

Sound was impressive. I was really surprised to find the same open stereo image that comes through the Stax, although I'm out of the sweet spot - some 2 meters or 6 ft behind actually. But still, some excessive brilliance for certain stops, although better controlled than through the Cambridge.

Again, as for the Cambridge Audio, latency was really low - 10/11 ms @ 512 spls. I start to think latency can be considered as not being an issue when considering DACs for Hauptwerk.

I then discovered the reason behind the weird Arc 2 behaviour with DACs. Being used through the asynchronous USB connection, sound was processed through the DAC's internal clock. Having no microphone input - unlike external sound card - the measurement was done through a microphone that was eventually connected through USB to the Mini, thus using the Mini's internal clock. The two clocks being not synchronized, the result was not correct. It's actually very simple to overcome this issue - just connect the DAC through Toslink or Coaxial cables during the measurement, which forces the DAC to use the Mini's clock.

When corrected, I had at last a fully operational system. I just have to switch back to USB, which is the recommended connection format by PS Audio. Result is just perfect and sound very similar to the one I get through the Stax. Indeed, I have additional physical presence for the bass - thanks to the subwoofer and the room large dimensions.

I have tried to upsample it @ 192 kHz. No benefit from my prospective. A good true 48 kHz @ 24 bits, reflecting the actual output from Hauptwerk, is perfect. No need to play with that.

The last part of the experience was to try a XLR connection, since both the PSAudio and the Stax are equipped with the corresponding connectors. It was a premiere for me, I never had a full chain of equipment allowing this standard before. I then ordered a AudioQuest King Cobra cable. Result was another (good) surprise. A higher volume output - allowing to lower the volume and thus reducing possible distortions - and a crystal clear sound. The fact both devices are working in Class A must definitively have an impact on this outstanding result.

As a quick conclusion, I would say that since DACs prove to be a solution, they can be considered as a perfect solution for a stereo setup, where sound quality is a requirement. DACs simply allow to hook an Hauptwerk system to an audiophile setup. Indeed, any other feature that may be present on sound cards - such as reverb or any other DSP - will not be present there. And again, it cannot work with multi-channel configurations. It just converts sound.

It must be added here that this can be achieved with budget DAC models as well. I've read a lot of good comments for this model for instance, offered at less than $ 50 -

Image

LInk (in French) http://www.audiophonics.fr/audiophonics ... -5807.html

I've not tried it indeed, yet from the limited experience I have gathered on DACs so far, there is no reason to believe there can be any issue there. It could actually show that DAC may be a cheaper alternative to sound cards, again if keeping in mind it will work with stereo configurations only. :wink:
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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby Jan Loosman » Thu Feb 06, 2014 6:49 am

Hello Patrick

I think It is possible to use these dacs for multichannel. You can use a normal multichannel sound card for the rears and use the digital/spdif out to feed your Dac with the front channels. So you can have the best of both worlds :D :D

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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby pat17 » Thu Feb 06, 2014 7:39 am

Jan Loosman wrote:I think It is possible to use these dacs for multichannel. You can use a normal multichannel sound card for the rears and use the digital/spdif out to feed your Dac with the front channels. So you can have the best of both worlds :D :D


Hello Jan,

I guess this could work, yet it makes the setup a bit complicated. Anyways I shall not try it by myself, since I prefer a good stereo to an average multi-channel - my RAM limitation doesn't allow me to configure a good multi-channel setup. :wink:
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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby Jan Loosman » Thu Feb 13, 2014 7:15 pm

How about the Nad c390DD
http://www.whathifi.com/review/nad-c390dd
This is a sound card with a integrated digital amplifier. The price is high but i think it will come down.
I think this amp. Can perform very well in a Hauptwerk setup if latency isn't to high.

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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby ernst » Thu Feb 13, 2014 10:06 pm

pat17 wrote:Again, as for the Cambridge Audio, latency was really low - 10/11 ms @ 512 spls. I start to think latency can be considered as not being an issue when considering DACs for Hauptwerk.
:


Hello Patrick,

I´m sorry to report a different experience. As I wrote recently in another thread, I recently bought an Anedio D2 DAC (and Sennheiser HD 800 headphones as well). The D2 DAC in terms of sound is a revelation, absolutely superb, both for listening to music or to organ sample sets through Hauptwerk, but the latency with Hauptwerk is substantial: 58.7 ms at 48 kHz and 256 samples buffer size. The resulting delay between hitting a keyboard key and hearing the sound I have now more or less become used to, but it is clearly a serious minus point.
Anedio can´t provide a USB driver with lower latency. Alas, though the issue of latency has been widely spelled in threads here recently, in the heat of finding the optimal DAC (cost, DAC quality, preamp quality, volume control, connections, specifications etc) and doing that in the audiophile world where latency is no issue, I simply forgot about that. And there is no way of going back to my M-Audio 1010LT which has 5.9 ms latency at the same conditions - the difference in sound is just prohibitive. The 1010LT just functions as the MIDI connection now - and as an installed spare.

I also use the D2 DAC and HD 800 headphones to play piano samples (VI Labs Fazioli and Bechstein), as I wrote before, and there I choose a sample rate of 192 kHz and a buffer size of 64 samples. I can´t measure the latency but is negligible. Doing math it should be about 4 ms.This sound by the way - especially the Fazioli - is the best virtual piano I´ve ever heard. I use a Yamaha digital piano with a very good keyboard so this really is a joy.

pat17 wrote:I have tried to upsample it @ 192 kHz. No benefit from my prospective. A good true 48 kHz @ 24 bits, reflecting the actual output from Hauptwerk, is perfect. No need to play with that.

You can please elaborate on this? How could you "upsample"? Could this be a help in my case?

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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby pat17 » Fri Feb 14, 2014 3:15 am

Hello Ernst

ernst wrote:I´m sorry to report a different experience. As I wrote recently in another thread, I recently bought an Anedio D2 DAC (and Sennheiser HD 800 headphones as well). The D2 DAC in terms of sound is a revelation, absolutely superb, both for listening to music or to organ sample sets through Hauptwerk, but the latency with Hauptwerk is substantial: 58.7 ms at 48 kHz and 256 samples buffer size. The resulting delay between hitting a keyboard key and hearing the sound I have now more or less become used to, but it is clearly a serious minus point.


Sorry to hear about that... :oops:

To make sure there is no mistake from my side, I connected directly Hauptwerk on the DAC, thus bypassing Reaper that provided me with this 10/11 ms value. The value reported by Hauptwerk is very close actually -

Image

I should have been more cautious when guessing latency is not an issue for DACs. Sorry for the deceiving information... :oops:

Anedio can´t provide a USB driver with lower latency. Alas, though the issue of latency has been widely spelled in threads here recently, in the heat of finding the optimal DAC (cost, DAC quality, preamp quality, volume control, connections, specifications etc) and doing that in the audiophile world where latency is no issue, I simply forgot about that.


This is the main advantage of Macs. When it comes to sound cards of DACs, it's very much plug and play. For the PS Audio for instance, the driver to be downloaded is for PC users only. No need under OS X, it works straight out of the box once connected.

If I am not mistaken you are yourself working under Windows. I'm not very familiar with this environment when it comes to audio - I only use PCs at work - yet I understood on this forum ASIO drivers were important. What is the result if you install / de-install / re-install / upgrade your ASIO drivers?

And there is no way of going back to my M-Audio 1010LT which has 5.9 ms latency at the same conditions - the difference in sound is just prohibitive. The 1010LT just functions as the MIDI connection now - and as an installed spare.


Same here. It would be very difficult for me to come back to sound cards after I have experienced the DAC world...

I also use the D2 DAC and HD 800 headphones to play piano samples (VI Labs Fazioli and Bechstein), as I wrote before, and there I choose a sample rate of 192 kHz and a buffer size of 64 samples. I can´t measure the latency but is negligible. Doing math it should be about 4 ms.This sound by the way - especially the Fazioli - is the best virtual piano I´ve ever heard. I use a Yamaha digital piano with a very good keyboard so this really is a joy.


I understand you can play your Yamaha Digital Piano without PC, am I right?

pat17 wrote:You can please elaborate on this? How could you "upsample"? Could this be a help in my case?


There are two possibilities with the NuWave. Either you use the frequency coming out of the computer - in our case 48 kHz - or you can "force" it at 192 kHz. These are the three LEDs on the below row ("locked" means simply the DAC has selected by default the frequency to be used) and a selection button dedicated to this effect.

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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby ernst » Fri Feb 14, 2014 1:54 pm

pat17 wrote:If I am not mistaken you are yourself working under Windows. I'm not very familiar with this environment when it comes to audio - I only use PCs at work - yet I understood on this forum ASIO drivers were important. What is the result if you install / de-install / re-install / upgrade your ASIO drivers?

You´re correct, I use Windows. I do have the best actual ASIO driver for the D2 DAC, made by Anedio specifically for it. They wrote me: "We apologize that at the moment we are unable to suggest ways to reduce the latency. We agree that the latency of 58.7ms is unacceptable for playing virtual organ. The D2 DAC was not designed for low-latency applications.".
Like you mention for your PS Audio NuWave DAC, equally for the D2 DAC the USB ASIO driver is only required for Windows.

I understand you can play your Yamaha Digital Piano without PC, am I right?

Right, it is a Clavinova CLP-270 and contains everything needed to be independent. Also has USB, MIDI and amplifier ins/outs. I use USB for connection to the PC (better than MIDI) and can use the audio out of either the 1010LT or D2 DAC as inputs for the amp/speakers of the Yamaha, that works, but I far prefer the HD 800 headphones. So I can either use the Clavinova by itself, which is fine for requirements of 2006, but with PC/VI Labs Fazioli/D2 DAC/HD 800 it is just another league.

pat17 wrote:There are two possibilities with the NuWave. Either you use the frequency coming out of the computer - in our case 48 kHz - or you can "force" it at 192 kHz. These are the three LEDs on the below row ("locked" means simply the DAC has selected by default the frequency to be used) and a selection button dedicated to this effect.

That sounds like a nice option. I am not sure - IF I had that option, which I don´t - whether upsampling to 192 kHz would also reduce the latency. I will look into this.

I final remark. In this (and other threads) also the issue of multi-channels has been tabled. As Jan Loosman mentioned in this thread, for the (slightly less critical) rear-surround channels one might consider using a multi-channel sound card. For headphones - which is my exclusive use - this does not apply. However, I do use a method presented by Leo Chris (see viewtopic.php?f=17&t=12803&p=94449#p94449) to mix front and rear channels and adjust their volumes, and it does enable me to feel a lot closer to the (surround) organ and feel more like organist than audience by reducing substantially the rear channel volume (I tried for now -24 dB). Also it makes organs with much reverberation a lot less "muddy". You can adjust the channel volumes on the fly, you just have to draw your stops again after a volume change, no need luckily to recache.

All in all, I´m very happy, and I´m adjusting to the unavoidable latency. With real organs that often happens when the distance to divisions is appreciable. With pianos that would be unacceptable and luckily I have no problem there. I just tried a harpsichord and that´s more difficult to swallow...

So a DAC (for stereo users) is a very serious option, and the available range is incredible, but you have to well consider the latency. Probably, because in the audiophile world the latency does not count, the only way to know is to try. Apart from the fact that I forgot about it, I had to import the DAC myself (and the headphones as well) so trying and returning would not have been an option.

For sure the least complicated and most universal option would be a high quality multi-channel sound card like the RME UCX Jan Loosman is using, if just I knew how it compares sound wise to high quality ("audiophile") DACs. But I can´t compare because I would have to import that one in addition as well and I can´t afford that. And if I had purchased the UCX instead I would always have been wondering how it would compare to a top-class DAC....

In the end you have to judge for yourself, but good reviews can help a lot. But there are no side-by-side reviews of sound cards and DACs of the required quality that I know of.

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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby CHRIS 037 » Sat Feb 15, 2014 1:09 am

Hello ernst,
For what it's worth, with my Mac Pro and the audioengine D1 DAC, and using the digital optical connection, I get a latency of 21 ms. I really can't hear any delay when playing. Maybe the USB connection is the problem? (The USB connection on the D1 is shown as v1.1.)
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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby ernst » Sat Feb 15, 2014 1:55 am

CHRIS 037 wrote:Hello ernst,
For what it's worth, with my Mac Pro and the audioengine D1 DAC, and using the digital optical connection, I get a latency of 21 ms. I really can't hear any delay when playing. Maybe the USB connection is the problem? (The USB connection on the D1 is shown as v1.1.)
Leo Chris. :)


Hello Leo,

The "problem" is the USB ASIO driver, not the USB connection as such. The Hauptwerk user guide explicitely warns for latency which depends on the suitability of the (ASIO) driver. The driver I´ve got has been optimised for audio, and includes an asynchronous USB connection. Asynchronous USB transfer mode means that the DAC controls when the computer sends data through its USB interface and how much at a time. The DAC becomes the bus "master", and no longer has to rely upon noisy clocks generated by the computer or its USB interface logic. So that is very good. But the driver has been optimised for listening to audio (minimal jitter) and not (also) including low latency. People like RME, who make sound cards for musicians, are aware of that and optimise both audio quality and latency in their drivers. The drivers of RME are particularly reputable.

If you connect a DAC to a Mac you DO NOT need any driver - the Mac is natively suited - and therefore the delay of a driver does not apply. So part of the problem is PC vs Mac. That´s why you don´t notice any delay (latency) in playing. I use a PC and have to bear the consequences.

So there are three solutions:
* buy a Mac (can´t afford and don´t want to change operating system)
* get a USB driver with lower latency (AND high quality sound - that´s imperative) - the factory say they can´t currently
* apply a higher sample rate and/or smaller buffer size. Hauptwerk has a minimum buffer of 256 samples and (almost) all sample sets are at 48 kHz (the DAC supports up to192 kHz). I have verified this by using a piano sampler at 192 kHz and 64 samples buffer size which gives me (approx) 4 ms latency only!

Thanks for your input.
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Re: Analog amplification - External Sound Card vs. DAC

Postby Jan Loosman » Sat Feb 15, 2014 7:14 am

Hello Ernst

Have you considered trying the asio4all driver.
Another solution is using your old m-audio and connect your dac with the m-audio using the spdif or optical connections. So you use your old card only as connection interface and let your new dac do the DA conversion.

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