Ultimate PC Sound Setup: Primary stereo & secondary movies / gaming

It turned out to be much more of a challenge than I originally thought. When it gets to sound related components it can easy exceed the price of your car. Headphones of $50K, Reference speakers of $50K, A/V Receivers / Amps / DAC etc of another $50K and we quickly on our way to an Audi R8 or Tesla. Where do you stop?

I also do not want my study / computer room to look like Al Schmitt or Danny Duncan's recording studios. It must be one setup, and not a setup for A and another setup for B. If a speaker is designated stereo left and stereo right, then that must be the 5.1 font left and right as well.

We also know that a speakers purely design for movie / cinema setups, is not the preference for stereo music listening!

I do not even want to get into the connection types. You just think you found a solution with a pair of active monitors that can connect to the pre-out of the headphone DAC you want, just to find out that your have reached the endpoint of this setup and that their is no way to branch of to a 5.1 from here (without a secondary setup). Digital In / Out (optical or copper), USB In / Out, RCA, XLR, balanced / not balanced, HDMI (with or without ARC, which version of HDMI, HDMI pass through, HDMI audio out on your graphics card) is just some of the things you have to keep in mind.

The bare basic rule that you also have to keep in mind is not to take a signal at the source, then pass it through some "solution" that maybe decrease the quality, and then pass it on to a super fancy solution that is supposed to do its magic. For example:

  • Just plain stupid setup: Take USB for PC to $100 DAC, form DAC pre-out to $2000 A/V receiver. You just messed up the whole signal path!
  • Rather, take the PC USB, directly to the best place where you want to go analog / speakers and do not :down scale on your way there.
  • If the source start digital (most do, except for your LPs, and if you have a turn table and valve amps, then this layman article is not for you anyhow), stay digital and try keep the bits as it is until just before the speakers.
    (Keep the stupid setup in mind. I you used cheap soundbar with its own DAC, going digitally into the soundbar, then its the soundbar's DAC doing the final conversion to analog, and its this signals driving the speakers. Any fancy stuff you have in between does not really matter.

This is my draft design, music first

  • The music first path is in red, and the add-on path for 5.1 that follow later is in blue.
  • The route to the headphones is "my reference audio" path. Short and sweet route, with balanced pro headphones.

See below the diagram for a full rationale of this setup.

Rationale

  1. At position (1), I have my 1080 Ti graphics card connected to my primary monitor. This screen is in from of me and I'm focused on it 95% of the time. This is using the Display Port for connection.
  2. At position (2), we have the HDMI (sound and video), going to my secondary screen, which is a 4K monitor / TV (Dell 42") sitting above the primary monitor. This is for real secondary use, and not an extension of my desktop. I split this 4K up in 4 x 1920 x 1080 area where I monitor different apps (work related). It also doubles up as a 4K preview / playback while video editing.
  3. At position (3), we have the optical out of the on board sound card of the Asus Rampage VI Extreme, called. There is no need for an after market sound card with better DAC as my digital to analog conversion does not happen here.
  4. At position (4), I have the first connection to my reference sound route. Digitally out on the motherboard with USB directly to a Sennheiser HDV 820 DAC and Headphone Amp.

You may ask why I choose the Sennheiser HDV 820 DAC?

When you spend a lot of money on headphones like the HD800S, you want some kind of insurance that the headphone amp and headphones play nicely together. It is not a situation where you have several DAC's and several headphone and you can mix and match to find a combination that you like / "play nice" / perform as designed, nicely together. On top of this, I have to import stuff, and can not audition the equipment somewhere. Therefore, the "proven" Sennheiser HDV 820 and HD800S combination.

Another reason could be the impedance of the headphones. I you have heavy drivers (like 300 or 600 ohm) headphones, its important that the headphone can drive these.

My Reference sound route for music

As far as I know, the DHV 820 has drivers so that you can bypass some digital audio / media processing that is happening in Windows 10... but that is not so important. The bottom line is that you take the digital signal from the source, and pass it on to the external DAC. Form the DAC, to my headphones, either un-balanced or balanced (the chosen components allow both). This is my reference sound route for listening at music.

Secondary route for sill good quality stereo sound

The Sennheiser HDV 820 has pre-amp left and right out. This is already analog, so without having to mess around with the sound, my first route would have been straight to a pair of active monitors (speakers) (i.e Yamaha HD's). But this will not work, as I have reached and end-point. How do I ever get 5.1 re-using the same components? Its not possible without building a whole secondary system. Therefore, I  have to go to a A/V Receiver / Amps.

With just a power amp, you  open up the choices of bookshelf speakers you can use, but you still did not solve the 5.1 problem. For this you need the A/V Receiver. This is a study / computer room, so if you do not want to scatter it with audio equipment, then a combination A/V Receiver with Amp is your pick.

The challenge of speakers on your computer desk

Either its tiny little thing which looks very weird next to a 38" and 42" computer monitor setup, or the sound is tiny to average. You do not want to waste you DAC + Amplifier solution on little Logitech or cube speakers.

But, some of the bookshelf speakers you may have chosen, are 300 to 320 mm deep, and pushing them up to the wall is also a bad idea as they have base ports. So now you already used 400mm of your 800mm desk depth. You go calculate, how close do you want to sit to the speakers and your screen!

So how do you solve this?

You browse and read the specs of all well reputed manufacturers' bookshelf speakers and find those not to deep, and that still fit the rest of you setup. If you want stereo music to be your thing, then start at their stereo speakers and stay away from cinema and surround sound solutions at first.

I found what I was looking for at Teufel, with a pair of their Concerto Piccolo stereo speakers (Theater 500S). They only 22.8cm deep and their ports fire downwards! So having them just 8cm from the wall sould not be a problem, and then you can have your monitors (sound and video) 300mm from the wall and you till have 500mm desk space on a 800mm desk. The need at minimum 50W power, continuous use 90W, and peak 120W. (the power rating msut be kept in mind, becuase you still need the A/V Receiver / Amp to drive these speakers.


The Receiver

You now need a receiver & amp that can handle your Stereo AND 5.1 sound coming for the source(s). You  therefore need:

  1. Something where you take the output form your DAC (pre-out), and
  2. Boost the amps to drive your stereo speakers

    and also if you want to include 5.1 later

  3. Take a digital or analog signal(s) from the source (PC), and
  4. Boost the amps to drive all 5 speakers and the sub.
    (it must use the same 2 left and right speakers as in the stereo setup)

Lucky Teufel offer a Receiver that qualify for all your requirements.

Do not get me wrong - a lot of receivers, DACs and hybrid solutions was researched before I came to this solution and speaker choice. So by now I  knew what was mandatory, whats optional, what is the bonus features.

The receiver form Teufel, called the Power Play 3.0 (Impaq 8000 Blue-ray Receiver), has all the HDMI, Aux, Optical inputs required and can drive 5.1 speakers at the required power needed for the stereo speaker choice made above.

Going to 5.1 for movies and games

From here it is easy. All you need to extend your music first, stereo setup, is to buy 4 more speakers. A center channel, two surrounds and a sub. Staying with Teufel, you can also find them all here (with matching design color, specs of your current L and R speakers). Its the Theater 500 Center, Theater 500 Surround Dipoles and the T8 Subwoofer (or even one of their other subs).

Switching

  • Choose Aux as your input on the receiver, and you in stereo mode. (USB sound out on your PC)
  • Keep the receiver off, USB sound sound out on your PC, and you in  your headphone music mode.
  • Choose HDMI (or optical) in on the receiver and either optical out or HDMI Sound out on Graphics card and you in PCM or full 5.1 surround mode.

Summary

Both good quality music either through headphones or speakers and 5.1 surround in one system. For non audiophiles this is a high end and expensive solution. For those audiophiles out there, yes, I know, you can do better, but with much more equipment and at a price tag far exceeding this solution. Be thankful I'm not recommending a soundbar for stereo music or a computer gaming 5.1 speaker setup.

If you have any better solution for less money within the scope of all that you have read above (music first, space, computer room, etc) let hear from you.

Alternative

Importing product could be an issue as there are no local support. Alternatives, available in South Africa:

  • Marantz NR1608
    • Be careful of speaker choice. Amp 50 Watt in 8 ohm
  • Marantz SR5012 (better choice)
  • Marantz HD-DAC1
    • Issue 1: Headphones 800mW / 32 ohm (will not ftive my 150 - 300 ohm headphones)
    • No balanced headphone output.
    • Get a Schitt Audio DAC
  • Speakers maybe: Definitive Technology Mythos XTR®-40 Wallspeaker
  • or Paradigm MilleniaOne 5.0 System with MilleniaSub 
  • or Focal Sib Evo Dolby Atmos 5.1.2 Speaker System
  • Quad Z1