Recommendations for audio card for listening to Classical Music?

Marcm

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Hello.

Before anything else, let me thank those who read this message and even more so for those who respond. I appreciate your patience and forbearance.


I'm seeking suggestions for a new audio card for our old Velocity Micro Desktop PC. Years ago, we upgraded the sound card to the Asus Essence STXII but it stopped working about 2 months ago.
My wife and I do NOT play games on the PC. Rather, we listen (for the most part) to classical music (although she does, from time to time, listen to pop music, The Beatles, etc.).

Neither of us know much about PC's and, in fact, when we have a problem that we cannot solve I call the IT guy who used to take care of the PCs where we worked (we are not retired). Our budget is 200 to 500 dollars or so, although I'm a bit flexible. Some questions we have include the following: 1. Would an external sound card and DAC be recommended over an internal sound card? 2. If so, is it best to purchase them seperately or are combined units sold as well? If we buy "Powered Speakers" do we also need to also purchase a DAC?

I know this will seem elementary but any and all responses will be appreciated.

Thank you again.
 

Darunion

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Schiit products are nice. A modi dac with a magni for headphones. I would go with powered speakers otherwise the other path I would take is a full receiver and passive speakers connected instead of the schiit setup.
 

grumperfish

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That's basically what I'm running - a Modi 3+ and Magni Heresy for headphones, with the Magni's preamp output going to a pair of R1850DB powered bookshelf speakers. Unless you're using analog outputs on your onboard audio chipset, you generally need a DAC of some sort even with powered speakers. If your PC has optical output on the onboard chipset you could get powered speakers with optical input and skip the DAC.
After dealing with driver issues on internal soundcards for a couple decades I stopped bothering to keep up with what is currently on the market.
 
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I'd recommend a good external DAC (unless your MB has really good audio already built in) and a good pair of powered studio monitor speakers.

For a DAC, any good external/USB driven one with decent specs would work well. We own/use this one:
https://www.amazon.com/Micca-OriGen-G2-Resolution-Preamplifier/dp/B01N14SY65
It has a nice analog volume control knob which makes adjusting speaker volume a bit easier without having to monkey with it via PC's in-app/settings.

Some other well respected external DACs that wouldn't disappoint would include:
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08CZ65188?pf_rd_r=TJS31EV7P6NR6KQP43TV
https://www.amazon.com/Schiit-Modi-Converter-Delta-Sigma-Silver/dp/B08NWGVSB4
https://www.amazon.com/Audioengine-D1-Converter-Headphone-Amplifier/dp/B006IPH5H2

For powered speakers, there are lots of options... but I'd recommend studio monitors - perfect for classical music. These are the ones we have/use: https://www.amazon.com/JBL-Professional-Next-Generation-Powered-306PMKII/dp/B0787KRJ9H
These sound fantastic by the way... great soundstage/dynamic range. Be sure to get the 6" drivers over the 5" if you want them for a larger room. (They are still bookshelf sized... the 8" drivers are a bit large for a bookshelf... and would also blow your budget.) Also note the price is for one powered speaker - be sure to buy two and don't forget cables! Powered studio monitors will typically use balanced cables... these are the cables you'll want/need: https://www.amazon.com/Hosa-HMX015Y-REAN-3-5MM-XLR3M/dp/B00V19AEVO

All in, you are looking at roughly $400. (~$300 for a good pair of powered speakers and ~$100 for a good DAC). Whatever you do end up getting, just don't skimp on speakers. For classical music, you definitely want some robust studio monitors as they are very neutral and can handle a really full dynamic range without much coloration or distortion. And stay away from anything with really small drivers (i.e. 4" or smaller). I can personally vouch that those JBLs really sound fantastic. (Wife uses this setup daily with her PC in her office.)

USB1.jpg


USB2.jpg
USB3.jpg
 
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Hallyday

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This all depends on how much from 200 to 500 you want to spend. That's a wide budget difference, for up to around 200 you could perfectly be fine with a pair of studio monitors using your onboard. Other options would be buying more expensive studio monitors and maybe sticking them up to a not so expensive but good interface. You don't seem to edit music, however interfaces can be a bliss if you ever want a dedicated, non-USB microphone. The last but not the least option would be buying a DAC that is meant for speakers (like the Korg stuff), then going with a receiver + passive speakers. This would probably be the more complicated and the most expensive setup. As such, I would actually simply recommend picking up a pair of solid reference monitors such as EVE audio (which go on sale), and trying them out with onboard audio first. If you aren't satisfied with the results, you can always opt to plug them to something else.
 

Zepher

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What speakers and other audio equipment do you currently have?
If you have a receiver already and your PC happens to have optical out, you could just get an optical cable.
 

Wiz33

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I would use a USB DAC since all the decoding will be done outside of the PC case when there can can be EM noise from other cards and components.

Fiio makes a line of USB DAC headphone amp but they work well driving power speakers, both the E10K and Q3 will work within your budget.

For speakers, take a look at these threads as we went through a bunch of powered speakers in the $250-$350 range

https://hardforum.com/threads/good-compact-2-0-setup-pc-music-some-movies-occasional-gaming.2010032/

https://hardforum.com/threads/around-250-speakers-to-connect-to-my-pc-for-small-room.2011193/
 
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michalrz

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I would use a USB DAC since all the decoding will be done outside of the PC case when there can can be EM noise from other cards and components.

Fiio makes a line of USB DAC headphone amp but they work well driving power speakers, both the E10K and Q3 will work within your budget.
Sadly, it's not always the case (I wish it were!). I had two different systems with 'digital' noise issues and the USB DAC (one was a DIY PCM2704, the other a FiiO E10K Olympus2) did/does pick stuff up. I still prefer external, though, partly for the reason you mentioned.
 

Wiz33

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Sadly, it's not always the case (I wish it were!). I had two different systems with 'digital' noise issues and the USB DAC (one was a DIY PCM2704, the other a FiiO E10K Olympus2) did/does pick stuff up. I still prefer external, though, partly for the reason you mentioned.

There're a lot of stuff on an average PC desktop that can also generate EM noise from USB Hub, varies charging devices. Microphone and even wireless Keyboard and mouse. That's why I put my PHA-2A on top the PC case plugged directly into the case USB instead of on the desk.

IMG_8938.jpg
 

SmokeRngs

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What speakers and other audio equipment do you currently have?
This is the important question which needs answered. Until we know what you have, suggestions are going to be all over the place with possibly no relevancy to what would work for you.
 

B00nie

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The DAC is one of the least significant components in the audio chain so usually it makes zero difference what you use as long as it's basic quality, not some 5 dollar chinesium. Your speakers are always the weakest link in a typical system.

Just to show how trivial a good DAC is to make, this is a well performing DAC from Apple:
1627379686207.png
 

N4CR

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There are power isolators for USB DACs that make a big difference for noise floor.
Mate runs one of these with a power isolator (external supply so USB isn't subject to noise from pc power). It's similar to dac in a lgv30 which is considered one of the best portable music devices under 400usd...

https://www.audioquest.com/dacs/dragonfly/dragonfly-red

The DAC is one of the least significant components in the audio chain so usually it makes zero difference what you use as long as it's basic quality, not some 5 dollar chinesium. Your speakers are always the weakest link in a typical system.

Just to show how trivial a good DAC is to make, this is a well performing DAC from Apple:
View attachment 378841
I disagree with older dacs and even onboard the differences were much more pronounced. There are still shitty dacs today sadly though.
I'd say room treatment is almost a bigger difference once you have a decent setup.
 

B00nie

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There are power isolators for USB DACs that make a big difference for noise floor.
Mate runs one of these with a power isolator (external supply so USB isn't subject to noise from pc power). It's similar to dac in a lgv30 which is considered one of the best portable music devices under 400usd...

https://www.audioquest.com/dacs/dragonfly/dragonfly-red


I disagree with older dacs and even onboard the differences were much more pronounced. There are still shitty dacs today sadly though.
I'd say room treatment is almost a bigger difference once you have a decent setup.
Room treatment helps bad speakers, that's true.
 

MaZa

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Sadly, it's not always the case (I wish it were!). I had two different systems with 'digital' noise issues and the USB DAC (one was a DIY PCM2704, the other a FiiO E10K Olympus2) did/does pick stuff up. I still prefer external, though, partly for the reason you mentioned.

This is why I prefer optical cable. No electical connection between PC and DAC means 100% isolation. USB dac combined with powered speakers can result in ground loop hum and other noises with devices I have at hand (Stello DA100 and Behringer monitors). There are devices that can get rid of them though but I just use optical.
 

grumperfish

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I actually never tried connecting my DAC over USB and went straight to optical, although in my case it was to avoid needing drivers. I didn't even consider potential ground loop isolation although that is a nice side benefit.
 

B00nie

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This is why I prefer optical cable. No electical connection between PC and DAC means 100% isolation. USB dac combined with powered speakers can result in ground loop hum and other noises with devices I have at hand (Stello DA100 and Behringer monitors). There are devices that can get rid of them though but I just use optical.
Optical has its issues also. A USB isolator is something to look for.
 

sharknice

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If you're planning on spending that much you would probably be better off buying a AV receiver than a DAC.
It would essentially function the same way but you would connect it to the pc via HDMI.
 

Bankie

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Neither of us know much about PC's and, in fact, when we have a problem that we cannot solve I call the IT guy who used to take care of the PCs where we worked (we are not retired). Our budget is 200 to 500 dollars or so, although I'm a bit flexible. Some questions we have include the following: 1. Would an external sound card and DAC be recommended over an internal sound card? 2. If so, is it best to purchase them seperately or are combined units sold as well? If we buy "Powered Speakers" do we also need to also purchase a DAC?

Since it doesn't look like anyone answered your questions directly:

1) External is generally recommended as it's further away from the EFI generating components in your PC but you may or may not be able to hear a difference depending on the quality of your Soundcard/DAC, the components in your PC/on your desk, and the rest of your audio chain (reasonable quality cables that aren't run near electrical components for example). And even then if you're using speakers it's usually much harder to tell versus using good headphones.

2) A "soundcard" is a DAC. The term soundcard generally means that it's used with a PC as opposed to most DACs that are meant to be used with any audio source.

3) A handful of powered speakers will have a built-in DAC (these will have a USB input) but the quality of that DAC varies wildly and a lot of the time it's a 'you get what you pay for' prospect. If you don't pick a set of those speakers then you'll need a DAC of some sort.
 

B00nie

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nboard the differences were much more pronounced. There are still shitty dacs today sadly though.
I'd say room treatment is almost a bigger difference once you have a decent setup.
Older DACs have been phased out 10-20 years ago though ;)
You'll be hard pressed to find subpar dacs unless you buy chinesium.
 

SOAREVERSOR

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Hello.

Before anything else, let me thank those who read this message and even more so for those who respond. I appreciate your patience and forbearance.


I'm seeking suggestions for a new audio card for our old Velocity Micro Desktop PC. Years ago, we upgraded the sound card to the Asus Essence STXII but it stopped working about 2 months ago.
My wife and I do NOT play games on the PC. Rather, we listen (for the most part) to classical music (although she does, from time to time, listen to pop music, The Beatles, etc.).

Neither of us know much about PC's and, in fact, when we have a problem that we cannot solve I call the IT guy who used to take care of the PCs where we worked (we are not retired). Our budget is 200 to 500 dollars or so, although I'm a bit flexible. Some questions we have include the following: 1. Would an external sound card and DAC be recommended over an internal sound card? 2. If so, is it best to purchase them seperately or are combined units sold as well? If we buy "Powered Speakers" do we also need to also purchase a DAC?

I know this will seem elementary but any and all responses will be appreciated.

Thank you again.

Seconding schiit as well. The good thing about an external DAC/AMP configuration is it's going to last through builds and is driver less.

You'll always need a DAC of some sort, but you don't need an AMP if you have powered speakers as they power themselves. For 110-200 you can get a schiit fulla/hell which is a DAC/AMP for driving headphones with a second line out for speakers and a mic in. I have one of those and it's great. If you're willing to go up a bit you can get a standalone DAC from them and then also an AMP or empty premap (this is a bare board that just passes signal doesn't add power) and combo those.

The fulla/hell is more for running a headset as it will handle the mic duties as well, the other is targeted for speakers. That said you can run both and just change audio sources

https://www.schiit.com/products/fulla-2 that is for headsets

https://www.schiit.com/products/modi-1 dac and then this if you want speakers https://www.schiit.com/products/sys

If you want both just go with the fulla and call it a day.
 

daglesj

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There are power isolators for USB DACs that make a big difference for noise floor.
Mate runs one of these with a power isolator (external supply so USB isn't subject to noise from pc power). It's similar to dac in a lgv30 which is considered one of the best portable music devices under 400usd...

https://www.audioquest.com/dacs/dragonfly/dragonfly-red


I disagree with older dacs and even onboard the differences were much more pronounced. There are still shitty dacs today sadly though.
I'd say room treatment is almost a bigger difference once you have a decent setup.


USB filtering does jack apparently. But you know...if you THINK it makes it sound better...





 
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B00nie

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Audio is very subjective and often placebo really works. There are many controlled experiments where highly regarded audiophiles couldn't tell the difference between two devices when they didn't know which one was which, even though they swore before the test the other device is superior in quality.
 

daglesj

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Audio is very subjective and often placebo really works. There are many controlled experiments where highly regarded audiophiles couldn't tell the difference between two devices when they didn't know which one was which, even though they swore before the test the other device is superior in quality.
It's why I stopped buying Hi-Fi magazines 30 years ago.

Especially now that 80% of hi-fi gear is now simply rebadged computer gear that's designed by people that are far more qualified and technical than any self-taught 'audio genius' working at a hi-fi firm in Huntingdon.
 

B00nie

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It's why I stopped buying Hi-Fi magazines 30 years ago.

Especially now that 80% of hi-fi gear is now simply rebadged computer gear that's designed by people that are far more qualified and technical than any self-taught 'audio genius' working at a hi-fi firm in Huntingdon.
Most DAC's, SACD etc players are just a fancy aluminum box with a small circuit board and a couple processors filling the empty void. Only power amplifiers are still analog.
 

LukeTbk

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Audio is very subjective and often placebo really works. There are many controlled experiments where highly regarded audiophiles couldn't tell the difference between two devices when they didn't know which one was which, even though they swore before the test the other device is superior in quality.
I remember reading about a blind test where experts did find some recording played with speaker did had a better reproduction than the actual violinist playing in the room.
 

B00nie

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I remember reading about a blind test where experts did find some recording played with speaker did had a better reproduction than the actual violinist playing in the room.
It's because a good speaker can reproduce the acoustics of the concert hall vs violin played in a regular room. Flat panel speakers do this illusion excellently.
 

LukeTbk

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It's because a good speaker can reproduce the acoustics of the concert hall vs violin played in a regular room. Flat panel speakers do this illusion excellently.
I think the recording was that actual same violin played in that room (or the difference would have too big) but I could be wrong.

That said, I feel the same could be said with tv-monitor now a day, often the blind test are paid by the company and use critical element to make sure people will say distinguish between 4K and a 1080p on a 55 inch monitor at 9 feet (like using a lot of specially designed to show the difference text, has if that was an important part of movie watching)
 

D-EJ915

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I remember reading about a blind test where experts did find some recording played with speaker did had a better reproduction than the actual violinist playing in the room.
20 years or so ago one of the home theater mags did a 3-way blind test for the reviewers and it was pretty interesting. The same guys also hooked up some bookshelf speakers to a 2kw amp or something and caught them on fire as well, ah the "good old days" of hifi mags haha. I kinda miss my B&K reference preamp from that era but it wasn't worth it to get the prom fixed, oh well.
 

B00nie

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I think the recording was that actual same violin played in that room (or the difference would have too big) but I could be wrong.

That said, I feel the same could be said with tv-monitor now a day, often the blind test are paid by the company and use critical element to make sure people will say distinguish between 4K and a 1080p on a 55 inch monitor at 9 feet (like using a lot of specially designed to show the difference text, has if that was an important part of movie watching)
Well then that's hard to believe but plausible. They might have used a little bit colored speakers and a tube amp which brings harmonic distortion to the sound -> makes the sound richer and warmer. Effects like this are used every day in music production. In the old days it was common to 'mike' your guitar amp i.e. play the sound through it and record it to play it again through bigger speakers, only because the guitar amp had it's distinct tone that was not an accurate reproduction of the guitars sound but engineered to sound pleasant.
 

LukeTbk

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sound pleasant
Yes to your original point: Audio is very subjective

But here they did not ask which speaker do you prefer (that would make preferring an old wax cylinder on a radio speaker to the actual sound purely ok and a pure taste exercise) to expert but which reproduced the sound the best, for which the answer is almost an objective one or at least the claim is. Putting the real thing in there in the list of comp is just a good way to see that if someone did not put that has number 1, the ranking of speaker in quality of sound system reproduction is quite dubious to say the least.
 

B00nie

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Yes to your original point: Audio is very subjective

But here they did not ask which speaker do you prefer (that would make preferring an old wax cylinder on a radio speaker to the actual sound purely ok and a pure taste exercise) to expert but which reproduced the sound the best, for which the answer is almost an objective one or at least the claim is. Putting the real thing in there in the list of comp is just a good way to see that if someone did not put that has number 1, the ranking of speaker in quality of sound system reproduction is quite dubious to say the least.
There are so many variables to take into consideration there. First, how were the speakers placed? Were they located where the violin player was performing? If not, the sound is going to be totally different due to different acoustics. Second: What kind of a microphone setup was used? Was the violin direct miced or was the performance recorded where the listener was?

If the latter, the acoustic signature of the room would be doubled on playback, producing an effect a bit like adding reverb to your sound production (generally perceived as a good thing). If not, the microphone would pick the sound much closer to the origin and the playback will have more bottom end and richness, again not fully depicting the actual set up in the room.

The problems relating to the test are not so much with the speaker quality but the recording setup, was it done in a truly neutral way for the playback. The main challenge with speaker design is that a speaker always interacts with the room. An ideal speaker would deliver an unaltered copy of the performance recorded but unfortunately this is impossible due to sound propagating to the surfaces of the playback area (unless played in an anechoic chamber). Even a relative weak speaker design often sounds remarkably good in the anechoic chamber because the early reflections that plague a normal speaker playback are not there. It's pretty trivial to design a 2-way speaker that has pretty much flat frequency response, but to design one that has the phase and power curve required to sound fantastic inside a typical room - extremely demanding if not impossible. At minimum it requires the use of wave guides or horns.

For those who do not know so much about speaker design, a speakers power curve is a calculated graph of the total energy released in the room per frequency. A good design usually shows a flat curve that descends a few decibels towards the high frequencies where a poor design has peaks and troffs, indicating some frequencies emit more energy in the room than others. This is caused by the physical properties of the speaker drivers, a drivers radiation is determined by its surface area so a small tweeter will radiate 180° in low frequencies but perhaps 80° on high frequencies. Then again the bass speaker will generally radiate 360° on low frequencies and perhaps 120° on the crossover point. This alters the total sound heard by the listener in a radical way. Early reflections produce a comb filter effect (nasty) and late reflections bring 'air' to the sound. Generally pleasant, but not if the proportions are off. So in order to make the sound balanced, the designer has to find a way to either:
a) Find a tweeter and woofer which match eachothers radiating pattern at the crossover frequency (pretty much impossible) or
b) Design a wave guide or a horn to shape the radiation pattern in the desired way.
 
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daglesj

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The thing that always makes me chuckle is hi-res fans that when you ask them what speakers they use, you find they don't go above 21KHz.
 

B00nie

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The thing that always makes me chuckle is hi-res fans that when you ask them what speakers they use, you find they don't go above 21KHz.
Even funnier is that most adults can't hear anything above 17khz :)
There are many speakers that use super tweeters that go to 40khz but it's about as useful as trying to listen to your ultrasonic cleaner.
 

daglesj

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Even funnier is that most adults can't hear anything above 17khz :)
There are many speakers that use super tweeters that go to 40khz but it's about as useful as trying to listen to your ultrasonic cleaner.

And then those that can tell a bit error by listening. "Oh it's not bit perfect!"

Luckily a lot of those old muppets are dying off.
 

B00nie

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And then those that can tell a bit error by listening. "Oh it's not bit perfect!"

Luckily a lot of those old muppets are dying off.
Well technically speaking if your bitstream has enough errors that the playback algorithm starts to dither, you can hear it as a lower playback quality. But that's severely degraded then.
 

daglesj

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Well technically speaking if your bitstream has enough errors that the playback algorithm starts to dither, you can hear it as a lower playback quality. But that's severely degraded then.
Yeah I'm talking about 1 bit error in 65000 a second here.
 

B00nie

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Yeah I'm talking about 1 bit error in 65000 a second here.
That is fully covered in the internal error correction mechanism so it doesn't affect the sound in any way - and this can be proven both mathematically and by measurement :) But I know many people believe they can hear a difference. Same as with high end hdmi cables.
 

fist003

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I use iFi Zen DAC (there's a newly released v2), connecting via USB to my PC. for speakers, it has RCA and 4.4mm output. can get a 4.4 to XLR adapter to use with the suggested JBL 306 above.
 

daglesj

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I use iFi Zen DAC (there's a newly released v2), connecting via USB to my PC. for speakers, it has RCA and 4.4mm output. can get a 4.4 to XLR adapter to use with the suggested JBL 306 above.

I like iFi stuff too. My Black label Nano has always had a faulty IEMatch port (I didn't use it so no biggie) and I finally got round to contacting iFi wondering about fixing it. They just emailed me a return label and it was back in my hands within a week.

I suspect they just changed the entire internal board as it came back with the previous firmware on it. All works perfectly, Very happy too cos it was out of warranty by a month. Thanks iFi! Will buy again!
 
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