'Killer Gaming Motherboard’ screams the packaging for the G1 Sniper5 from Gigabyte, Taiwan-based manufacturer of computer hardware.
Well that’s nice, but why come to an audio magazine with such computerware; why would we be interested?
Because, it transpires, Gigabyte has found itself focusing firmly on audio with its latest range of gaming motherboards. Just as gamers are interested in high-quality video monitors to display their high frame rates and chase every assassin from the shadows, so they are interested in accurate audio, including surround, to enjoy the big gaming soundtracks, but also to discern the detail of a rear rustle that might reveal an incoming sniper bullet.
Of course all computers have at least stereo analogue outputs and usually a headphones socket, but in most cases these will be built only to an absolute minimum-possible cost. Traditionally this has been addressed by adding a high-quality soundcard adjacent to the motherboard which, in hi-fi terms, includes a DAC and associated circuits to furnish both digital outputs and analogue circuits to provide line-level outputs for stereo and surround sound.
With a separate soundcard you can budget as you like for improved audio quality. And there are some pretty snazzy soundcards around. But if audio is so important, why not deal with it at a more fundamental level, and integrate the sound circuits right within the motherboard itself?
That’s what Gigabyte has done with its latest G1 motherboards, including this G1.Sniper 5, a Socket 1150 board designed for fourth-gen Intel chips while also treating the audio circuits with new respect. So there’s a high-powered headphone stage included, and there has been special attention paid to component selection, including
Nichicon MUSE ES series and MW series audio capacitors (not their very finest grade, but certainly specialised for audio use). You can even tweak the sound by popping out an eight-pin op amp and replacing with others — there’s an idea that could get tweak-happy hi-fi geeks on side. And it might take something special, because until recently the idea of using direct computer connections into a music system was, well, heresy for a hi-fi fan.
As many readers will recall, there has always been a clear hi-fi thought-line that computers were simply bad hi-fi. All that EMF interference flying everywhere — in earlier days hi-fi gurus banned computers from listening rooms entirely (along with telephones, televisions, and people with negative auras).
There’s little hope of maintaining such separation in today’s world of computer-based music and smartphone system control, but the distrust lingers. Ardent audiophiles may now be coming to accept that the proper software and a good DAC can deliver some pretty nice noises to their hi-fi of choice, but you’ll have a hard time persuading them to plug their computer audio straight into their jealously-guarded amplifier line inputs.
Even with Gigabyte’s attention to detail, there are limitations. The stereo audio output is a minijack socket, which makes the use of high quality cables to your hi-fi difficult. The outputs for centre and surround channels are minijack sockets as well, although we reckon few will use them, partly because AV receivers with multichannel inputs are a rare breed these days, but mainly because the HDMI output will be much more convenient.
But it’s certainly worth connecting the stereo output to your hi-fi direct, so you can hear what the Gigabyte card can do with music. It proved rather impressive.
On our Mac we normally listen through iTunes with an Amarra Hi-Fi plug-in. Here we had a frightening first encounter with a Windows 8 PC (which Gigabyte Australia had kindly built and supplied to us), so we stuck with old reliable VLC. Preceding this in the replay chain was the audio driver which came installed — the rather worrying Creative Sound Blaster Recon3Di, which was keen to add all manner of EQ, fake surround, all the kind of stuff we were trying to avoid. We turned everything flat or off, of course; we tried turning the program itself off, but the minijack didn’t work without it; it seems an inherent part of the actual driver.
Our first listening notes show surprise at how little noise could be discerned from the output; it required absolute cranking to dangerously high levels before slight noise was audible, and even that might have been down to the lower-quality-than-usual cable and connectors we used to accommodate the minijack output rather than RCAs. (A slight mechanical buzz did emanate constantly from the board itself, however, from the area of ‘Dominators’ and ‘Master Cooler’.)
Into the music and starting with a toughy, Naim’s 192kHz remaster of ‘Night Train’ by Antonio Forcione & Sabina Sciubba, we set up direct A-B switching between the Gigabyte output and our Mac playing through the DAC section of Oppo’s highly-regarded BDP-105AU. (Both outputs were amplified by Musical Fidelity pre-power amps into JBL 4429 Studio Monitor speakers.) The comparison showed the Gigabyte’s quality, with very little to pick in the handling of transient guitar plucks and soundstaging, just a slightly less rounded tone and more natural vocal from the Mac/Oppo. Differences were even less discernable with more upbeat material, the Gigabyte making an impressive showing from bopping Beatles back to some delicate high-definition Diana Krall.
What about this swapping out of different op amps? Hi-fi fans certainly love tweaking, but messing with the circuit boards? Scary! But in we went with the supplied plastic tweezers (see right), swapping out the original (Ti OPA2134PA) for the one extra op amp that comes with the board, an LM4562. While the PC boot time here is superfast, the necessary power down, change chip (a fiddly task) and restart made A-B compari-son a slow and discontinuous process. We think we marginally preferred this second chip. Three more were supplied in a Premium Upgrade Kit — a Burr-Brown OPA2111KP, Linear Technology’s LT1358CN8 and Analog Devices AD827 JNZ. We liked the Analog Devices chip’s slightly brighter more engaging sound too, although comparison was soon made even harder by the near-invisible writing on each chip preventing us telling one from the other. But hours of circuit fun for sure.
So an interesting diversion, this test — we’re not about do declare that computer outputs have now evolved into hi-fi, but we ‘re happy to say that this particular one has certainly done so. While coming at it from a gamers’ perspective, the company has aimed for accuracy in a way hi-fi designers would approve, working from the motherboard out, and achieving results that are highly musical. Backing this up are the usual digital outputs and HDMI for surround. We can’t claim to understand it all, but our listening tests proved it audibly worthy. JF www.gigabyte.com.au