PC Sound Card (external) DIY thread - start throwing ideas

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How about modding a PC audio sound card for improved audio output and input?


1) peer-select a suitable sound card for modding. Preferrably external sound card (easier to mod, when one doesn't have to keep pulling out a PCI card all the time. Also external units are easier for PSU mods and RFI/EMI rejection). Interface either USB or Firewired. Price top $400/400€, so things don't get out of hand immediately.

2) Photograph and analyse the innards of the box to identify potential places for upgrades & improvements.

3) Implement, test, listen & discuss. Go to (2).

Anybody interested in sharing a project like this?

I'm a beginner diyer myself, with very rudimentary skills, but a willingness to learn and try things out.

My goal would be personally also to get a good working sound card out of this (hopefully). That is, not only learn and blow things up, but make something that works better as well. Still, learning would be my personal main objective.

I can get the ball rolling on (1) "potential sound cards", if anybody's interested in sharing such project here?

Otherwise, I'm on my own, I guess :)

Any interested parties out there?


PS This is based on an assumption that even so called professional sound cards at this price range can be improved on some/all of the following areas: clock, headphone amplifier, power supply / related filtering, simple parts upgrades (caps, converters, sometimes even DACs).
It's great that there it at least some initial interest!

I think all Audigy gear must be ruled out by default :(


1) No proper Mac support

2) Resamples everything below 48kHz to 48kHz. Imho, a big no-no for those of us who'd rather not upsample in software before going to the sound card. No digital bit-perfect output at 44.1Khz. Can only be bypassed on _some_ Audigy models, using _hacked_ (3rd party) drivers. Rather not go through the hassle.

3) Default drivers leave a lot to be desired in terms of Kernel Streaming, ASIO, etc. support (I'd rather not start hacking the drivers too) :)

4) No xlr-input (with proper mic pre-amp).

I think there are much better option in terms of of sound quality (Mac compatible, external, with at least one XLR mic + pre-amp).

The following borrowed from another thread at head-fi ( http://www4.head-fi.org/forums/showthread.php?t=112165 ).

Focusrite Saffire, c. $400

M-Audio Firewire 410, c. $400

Edirol FA-66, c. $380

Presonus Firefox, c. $350

ESI QuataFire, $350

What other requirements should the external card pass?


PS. I'm adding a couple of points to the requirements (good additions pinkmouse!):

1) bit-perfect at 44.1kHz for digital output and before DAC
2) Mac support
3) minimum 1 XLR mic channel with mic pre-amp (for testing)
I dug up some additional info on the cards above:

ESI Quatafire 610
- 24bit 192kHz DA converter; 112dB dynamic range (specs)
- 24bit 96kHz AD converter; 107dB dynamic range (specs)
- Support 44.1 - 192kHz sample rate
- uses AK5385AVF / AK4358V0
- Review in Russian: http://www.musicmag.ru/info/soundstudio/soundhard2003.htm
- measurements from here (24/96, playback/recording):
- somewhat problematic drivers (?), not very good interface (not that it needs to be used for non-recording stuff, necessarily)
- Mac drivers being improved upon, now works with standard OS X firewire audio drivers (less than optimal)

M-Audio firewire 410
- AK4381 / AK4355 used (depending on output/headphone)
- op-amps for output LMV722
- some measurements (RMAA, loop-back and via LYNX) at:
- not the absolute top notch measurements or subjective sound appraisal from reviews
- low line output
- good drivers, DirectSound also works ok
- works well on Mac

Edirol FA-66[/b}
- RMAA test results:
- sample rate switch selectable on the back (?!), no 88.2kHz support ready (surely the chips can do it...)

Focusrite Saffire
- not much info yet. Apparently not shipping yet (?)

I'm trying to hunt down some pictures of the boards inside the boxes of each one.
This is what M-Audio Firewire 410 looks like inside (roughly)

http://www21.brinkster.com/roina/maudio_firewire_410_pcb.jpg [JPG, c. 700kB]

The upper additional board I didn't dare to remove, because it was my friends card and it didn't come off even with slight force.

That's one minus for modifying this (as it's not super easy to remove the smaller pcb nor work under it).

I haven't been ablo to get my hands on the other cards.

I will post updates as soon as I do.
I'm continuing this as a public memo of sorts.

Please chime in, if you know about the devices in question or want to add something.

I just testd Firewire 410 for basic things like clipping/aliasing. Seems to pass them audibly ok.

However, I can't find a possibility to selec the input signal level, so attaching unbalanced devices to Firewire 410 results in a loss of -10dB in signal level (cannot be compensated for in the true-line level stages, only if one goes through to the mic/preamps inputs in the front, which i didn't test).

I think most of the above devices are made by BridgeCo based on a very similar reference design:


Focusrite saffire is not yet on that list, so it could be a different design.

Then again Focusrite is already using BridgeCo reference designs in their other products, so maybe not :)
Sorry for no updates.

I had to postpone my purchase due to other arrangements (both timewise and also moneywise).

I'm trying to get back on track.

I'm not too happy with the comments on most of the BridgeCo models (esp. Edirol and ESI). They seem to have all sorts of problems with dropping connections, etc (according to users in various forums).

One option would be the E-MU series, which are quite good to start with. It's just that they are quite expensive. The external sound card option from them is the PCMCIA/PC-card version (1616m). One needs a PCI-to-PC-card adapter if one wants to use that in a standard desktop PC. Modern laptops should be fine and it would make a good portable setup.

If anybody has other contenders here to consider, please post.

I'd go for the E-MU 1616m myself, but it's too expensive at c. 500USD (even more in Europe 522€ from Thomann).
can be had for $480 new, I need a bigger discount than 16% to accept 30 day limited replacement warranty on refurbished product

but I would consider the 1616m vs the 1820m - with $20 pcmcia-pci adapter I can use on desktop and still move to laptop for portable use

I'm using the 1820M to drive my UCD based amplifier.

I've taken it apart and find much room for improvement even at just a quick glance.

The drivers for it have gotten much better and I trust will continue to improve.

The biggest problem with it is that it's most suscetible to a less than ideal ground, when confronted with such a situation it will feed through mass amounts of ground noise directly to the outputs even if disabled.

I also got the factory refurbished B stock and it comes with the same full one year warranty.

I noticed this deal isn't available on the EMU site for the 1616M, but offered through creative with a lesser warranty.


I also have the 1820M (and will be driving them with a UCD amp like ClassD4Sure) so would be interested in information about modding it. This soundcard is one of the cheapest for its performance and also supports up to 8 analog outputs so useful for home theater projects.

However I have had a terrible time with its drivers, I am sure there is a bug when switching between 44.1Khz 2 ch and 48Khz 6 ch that the audiodock becomes invisible to the software, yet you can recreate the additional outputs by modifying the 44.1 2 ch drivers. I also had to re-install XP twice to find a configuration that was stable (and I'm not using any complex software or hardware, just home theater software like FFDSHOW and a Digital TV tuner card).

It has a good sound out of the box. Here is a thread about modding at head-fi: http://www6.head-fi.org/forums/showthread.php?t=68667&highlight=1820m

I have also evaluated these other soundcards all PCI except the 1820m (subjective assessment based on taste - mine!):
- Audigy 2 ZS: Only for non critical listening. No bass and soft treble.
- M-Audio 410: Sounds a bit muffled, but otherwise OK.
- M-Audio Revolution: Reasonable sound but a little like the 410, the sound is muffled, lacking dynamics.
- EMU 0404: Dynamic sound, lively, clear bass and treble.
- EMU 1820M: Not as dynamic as the 0404, but has very clear bass and treble. Easy to listen to.

I have modified the 0404 by shorting out the output buffer and output caps which increased the bass and lifted a slight veil - worth doing IMO. I use the 0404 in my study with a Tripath 2.1 system and in some ways I prefer this system to my much more expensive HT system.

The 1820m can be had on ebay for about $400 - $450.

Since this is a DIY place, how about building your own external sound card?


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