Saturday, 18 June 2016

MEASUREMENTS: Gigabyte GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 (Creative Recon3Di) - Motherboard DAC / Audio Output

A number of months back, I rebuilt my HTPC set-up to run the new Skylake i5 processor. I thought it might be interesting to measure the motherboard audio output of the Gigabyte GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 to have a peek at what a typical modern "gaming" motherboard's audio output performs like. Here's the back panel and a picture of the MoBo:
Rear panel - note the blue TosLink cable, beside it the analogue phono plug for stereo out...
As I described in that article, the Gigabyte motherboard forms the foundation for the the new build. Technologies built into the new "consumer performance" Intel Z170 chipset includes compatibility with the new Skylake processors of course, more PCI-E lanes, up to 10 USB3.0 ports, up to 3 M.2 interfaces for SSD storage, etc. As I mentioned previously, this motherboard also has HDMI 2.0 + HDCP 2.2 capability (firmware upgrade available now and ready to go), plus there's Thunderbolt 3 out from that little USB 3.1-Type C port - very cool.

If you look at the Gigabyte literature on the website, you see that they're also hyping up the audio output somewhat. Upgradable opamp, Creative Sound Core3D quad-core processor (for 3D positional sound), high-end capacitors (Nichicon MUSE MW "Acoustic Series"). After installation, the audio device is identified as the "Sound Blaster Recon3Di" [presumably the 'i' indicates "integrated"].

How good is the analogue output from a modern computer motherboard like this?

First, remember that we have to set things up so there's no extra processing being done to the audio. This means installing the drivers (which for this hardware is the "SBX Pro Studio" suite). I installed the newest version on Gigabyte's site; version "RC2" from Jan 2016.

SBX Pro Studio turned OFF.
Simple stereo speakers with no bass management. Headphones output setting off.
I have of course also checked to make sure the other settings like "Scout Mode" (probably some kind of compression DSP in gaming to detect nearby movement) is off, mixer not doing anything unusual, EQ off, and no "Advanced Features" activated. I also don't see any special BIOS settings or hardware switches that would be significant (I left the Audio Gain switch at the default 2.5x, there is the option of 6x for less efficient headphones on the motherboard).

So, we start with our usual panel of "microscopic" measurements:

Hmmm, that's our 1kHz 0dBFS square wave. ~1.5V peak. Good channel balance. The post-ringing morphology already hints at what we'll see with the 16/44 impulse response:

Sharp minimum phase filtering used... And the "Digital Filter Composite" says:

Yikes! That's not nice... As we can see from the "wideband white noise" FFT, it does implement a steep antialiasing filter with a good -40dB attenuation around Nyquist. The "digital silence" looks fine without excess noise. But the "19 & 20kHz sine" signal which consists of the twin pair of high frequency signals at -6dB is already causing some digital filter overload. I double checked that it wasn't the ADC clipping.

Okay... Let's see what RightMark makes of this.

First, a summary of 16/44 measurements using the Gigabyte motherboard compared to Microsoft Surface 3 laptop, and Apple iPad Air 2 analogue outputs. I've also included results from a good USB-powered DAC, the Light Harmonic Geek Out V2 connected to my Surface 3, and finally an "audiophile" network streamer, the Squeezebox Transporter RCA output:

Numerically, the Gigabyte motherboard doesn't look terrible. The frequency response hints at non-flat result, and the distortion measurements are higher than the other devices compared.

Keep in mind that by default, RightMark will analyze the frequency response starting at 40Hz at the low end... As usual, we have to look at the graphs to really understand what's happening:
Frequency Response
Gads! Holy bass roll-off Batman (comparatively speaking of course)! We're looking at -4dB at 30Hz and -6.75dB at 20Hz for the Gigabyte motherboard with the Creative Recon3Di analogue output.

Noise Level
60Hz noise peak for the motherboard is down at -105dB... Still low but it's the worst of the bunch.

IMD+N Sweep
IMD+N again shows the Gigabyte motherboard to be the worst of the bunch.

Obviously, it's clear that this is not "high fidelity" we're dealing with on a relative basis even compared to a standard laptop output and the iPad, even at 16/44. It's also a demonstration of the importance of looking at the graphs rather than just the summary numbers to get a better sense of the nuances found between devices.

How about at 24/96?

Numerically, it's quite amazing to see that a cell phone like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 performs so well! Of course, it's all relative; a cell phone isn't going to replace a USB DAC like the AudioQuest Dragonfly or AudioEngine D3, or Geek Out V2. And the Logitech Transporter is in another class as a hi-fi component. As for the Gigabyte motherboard... As before, it's not so great...


The high frequency extension isn't bad but again like with the 16/44 result, the bass response is compromised. Same -4dB loss at 30Hz, and -6.75dB at 20Hz. Clearly this is not the kind of thing any bass-head likes to see :-).

Okay, let's finish this off with the noise level graph with a 24-bit signal:

Notice the strong 60Hz AC line hum among quite a number of other noise spikes compared to everything else... And likewise the performance on the IMD+N sweep:

As you can see, through much of the audible spectrum the Gigabyte motherboard performs worse than most of the other devices on the IMD test. It's bested by the 2009 MacBook Pro laptop I measured back in 2013 in the lower frequencies. Again the Note 5 cell phone did pretty well! Good audio devices like the Geek Out, Transporter (the best performing as expected), and AudioEngine D3 DAC perform well. Notice the rather surprising outlier - the AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2 which I had reported on back in 2014 with some disappointment.

I double-checked and confirmed that the motherboard chipset (Creative Recon 3Di) was incapable of 24/192:

Well, what can I say... The audio quality from this motherboard leaves a bit to be desired. Forget ads that talk about high quality Nichicon capacitors, op-amp switches and whatnot unless the ad actually specifically gives some clarity on the DAC quality. For example, the more expensive member of Gigabyte's Z170X line, the Gigabyte GA-Z170X-UD5 TH (quite a mouthful!) sports the Realtek ALC1150 chipset which is supposed to offer "115dB SNR" but gives up on the more powerful 3D positional processing of the Sound Core3D (mine is a "Gaming" motherboard after all). And for those who want it all - there's the Gigabyte GA-Z170X-Gaming G1 which has both the Sound Core3D for discrete surround processing plus actual Burr-Brown/TI PCM1794 DAC for an advertised "127dB DAC". Of course that's a pretty seriously priced motherboard at around $500MSRP!

After going through the measurements, you're probably wondering how the Gaming 7 sounds like... I hooked it up to my Emotiva XSP-1 preamp and played a few tunes off the computer. No surprise folks, it sounds like it's missing the lowest bass frequencies for music that reach down to those depths. Clearly the subwoofer wasn't being used as much as it should. Otherwise the quality itself in terms of nuance and detail sounds OK. Modern pop like say Lorde's "Royals" (Pure Heroine) is clearly "weaker" when it comes to those room-shaking notes emanating out of my Paradigm SUB 1. I can still feel it, just not as intense. Likewise, electronica like many of the tracks off This Is Dubstep: Anthems just aren't as "delicious" or "satisfying" compared to a truly high-fidelity DAC when you hit those "bass drops". Pity.

There is a way to improve the bass response though, turn on the EQ like the "Crystalizer" setting which adds a "smiley face curve" to the sound:


Okay, a bit more bass and treble with the midrange "scooped" down at -1dB. Not ideal, but certainly an improvement in the bass range. You could also play with the "Bass" settings in the EQ and adjust to taste of course.

Conclusion:
Well, if you have a motherboard using the Creative Sound Core3D chipset, that's the sound quality to expect. I suspect the quality is no different from the actual Creative Sound Blaster Recon3D PCIe board. I see the specs indicate this board is rated at 106dB SNR which is close to the measured result of ~103dB using a 24-bit test signal.

In thinking about this audio chipset and considering that I have never seen this amount of bass roll-off before in any other device, I think it's actually quite possible that this is intentional. For gaming, especially first-person shooters when you're virtually running around looking for fragging opportunities, or taking precautions to avoid the adversary, positional audio could provide an "edge" in the competition. Maybe a bass roll-off improves the accuracy of 3D positional discrimination by reducing non-directional low frequencies? The software also has a "Scout Mode" which appears to be some kind of enhancement DSP to aid in the sensing when people are sneaking up behind. Maybe someone with some research interest in this or pro gamer can comment on whether this is true. Does low bass attenuation help during intense first-person shooting?

Having described the above, let's be honest... How many audiophiles listen to the analogue output from the computer motherboard anyways?! A serious audiophile would be using an outboard DAC fed a digital signal from computer audio. It's all good when you do that as demonstrated previously. I guess the bottom line is that if you really want a high quality audio output experience from a computer motherboard, just make sure to buy one like the Gaming G1 motherboard with specified reputable DAC, otherwise performance like what's described here is likely what you're going to get fidelity-wise.

Finally, remember that I've only measured the stereo speaker output here. It's possible though unlikely that the headphone output could be better. I noticed that the headphone output is rather strong and clips my E-MU 0404USB so I'm not able to get an accurate measurement (nor am I *that* curious to check :-).

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Hmmm... Doesn't seem like much is happening this week in the audiophile world. Maybe everyone is preparing to enter the summer holidays?

Enjoy the music & week ahead :-).

10 comments:

  1. "Digital Filter Composite"

    Hi Archimago

    This is a nice test, isn't it. ;)

    It was good reading your Odroid Volumio project.

    Juergen

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Juergen! Yes, fantastic insight in suggesting to put the various curves together into the "composite" :-).

      Hope you're having a nice spring/summer!

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  2. Hi Archimago,

    Great article as always!

    I've notice this motherboard has the "DAC-UP" USB ports made specifically for connecting an exteral DAC. Do you have any experience / measurements using these USB ports compared to regular USB ports on your DAC?

    According to the Gigabyte site:
    "GIGABYTE USB DAC-UP provides clean, noise-free power delivery to your Digital-to-Analog Converter. DACs can be sensitive to fluctuations in power from the other USB ports, which is why GIGABYTE USB DAC-UP takes advantage of an isolated power source that minimizes potential fluctuations and ensures the best audio experience possible."

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    Replies
    1. Smells like bovine excrement to me...

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    2. Good eye Jazzpor.

      I did try that port with both a Geek Out V2 and my TEAC UD-501. In neither case was I able to detect a difference down to the level of the measurement ADC. Who knows, maybe it does provide some extra low noise in the power line. But I'd like to know from Gigabyte which DAC is unable to filter out the noise and would benefit!

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    3. Indeed, with a good async DAC, I was not able to notice any difference in sound: I have a similar mainboard with DAC-UP.

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    4. Indeed, with a good async DAC, I was not able to notice any difference in sound: I have a similar mainboard with DAC-UP.

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  3. Thank you for taking your Gigabyte mobo's audio through the test procedure. It's interesting to see what hype like "audiophiles are able to experience crisp, ultra-realistic sound...the richest possible sound experience when listening to their favorite music and movies." actually gets you,even if I wouldn't use it for critical listening. The PC sites tend to just rehash the marketing speak, and rarely test anything but overclocking capability.

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  4. This is an excellent article about Gigabyte GA-Z170X-Gaming 7. You may also learn about different gaming motherboards here as well.
    http://listoftech.com/best-gaming-motherboards/

    ReplyDelete
  5. I just read your article and found it very helpful for those who are looking to buy a new motherboard for their gaming needs. Well, you are doing a nice job. If someone is looking to buy the best motherboard for gaming then I'd love to recommend this list of gaming motherboards. I bet you will find the best one for your needs.

    ReplyDelete