Hot!Nu Audio Review - 2.1 Speakers & Studio headphones for Gaming & Music

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2020/06/24 13:20:41 (permalink)
This is a purely subjective review, as with taste, sound is also quite subjective, especially when you don’t know the first thing about professionally calibrating and testing audio equipment...  If you stumbled across this looking for a review with charts and graphs of stability levels and such, look elsewhere.  If you want to read a review that might relate to some other products or a setup that suits your needs, this might be it.
Sorry in advance, this is going to be pretty long to provide context.
Yes, some people still want internal audio cards. The Nu Audio Card is a fantastic internal audio card IF you are buying it at the sub $150 price point and if your goals include running any of the following:
- Powered 2.1 speakers via RCA out
- High impedance headphones via ¼” TRS jack paired with a 3.5mm or USB mic
- Using the optical out to a surround AV system
Any price point over $200 should steer you to an external DAC\AMP.  If you want to attach a self-powered standalone surround speaker system, look elsewhere.
-          Great sound, quality construction
-          RCA outputs
-          integrated headphone amp that can drive up to 600 ohm
-          no built-in support for 5.1 or 7.1, but that’s not what it is designed for
-          Aesthetics: no RGB sync to other EVGA products, no rear back plate
-          Crazy Expensive at MSRP, sub $150 price point is excellent value
The Details:
Bottom line, I play games and listen to all sorts of music, somewhat of an "audionoobiphile".  I like decent sound, but am usually content with something a little more than bare minimum, typically constrained by budget.  I've built many rigs over the years for myself and others. Mine always have a sound card installed because it always makes my "rattle can" Logitech Z623 speakers (I miss my old Z2200’s) louder, usually something from Creative Inc.  I was never much into decent headphones, until now…
I refreshed my circa 2011 rig (Phenom II 965 BE eventually upgraded to a FX 8350 + EVGA 780Ti) during March\April 2020 PAUSE orders and replaced everything except for the PSU, case, and existing drives. I transferred my trusty PCI-E Sound Blaster X-fi Titanium as I always do.  I noticed some corrosion on some jacks, and remembered the occasional fits of distortion it would have on boot up which carried over to the new build. 
Build in its upgraded state, before I focused on audio:
Mobo: MSI B450 Tomahawk Max
CPU: Ryzen 9 3900x - Cooler Master Hyper 212 BE with dual fans
Ram: 32 Gb G.SKILL Ripjaws DDR4 3600 (2x16 Gb - 16-19-19-39)
Audio: Creative Sound Blaster X-fi Titanium
Speakers: Logitech Z623 2.1
Headset: LucidSound LS20
PSU: Corsair HX 850W 80 Plus Gold Modular Active PFC
Storage: WD Black SN750 500Gb NVMe, PNY 1TB SSD, (2) WD20EARX 2TB 7200RPM
So began the thought process, do I still need a sound card in 2020?? Is onboard audio now capable enough that I don't need a dedicated card? I decided to do a quick test between the onboard Realtek ALC892 Codec and my X-Fi. You'll have to take my word for it, but there is no comparison, even a 12-year-old gimmicky gaming sound card, with all the digital enhancements turned off, can drive my Z623's better than onboard audio.  More bass, more sound stage, and higher attainable levels while maintaining general clarity. While the age of hearing speaker hiss when moving your mouse around is long gone for the majority of onboard audio codecs, a dedicated DAC will always do better if you have anything louder than a battery powered portable Bluetooth speaker. The idea that you only need a sound card installed a PC if you do professional audio work is misguided at best.
I decided nonetheless, an audio upgrade was in order. I did some light googling to try to find the general market consensus.  I lurk everywhere, but never contribute much.  After I sifted through all the naysayers swearing by their onboard audio, it seemed the market had clearly shifted to external USB DACs paired with USB Mic amps. I would be fine with it if that’s the best I could do, but I have enough desk clutter and cable management problems as it is to REALLY want to throw external sound devices into the mix. 
Purchase Goals:
1. A DAC/AMP with RCA out and ¼” TRS jack, because I am tired of 3.5mm connections
2. Some good high impedance headphones, I went with Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro 250 ohm Open-back Studio Headphones.
3. A mic solution, either ModMic Uni 3.5mm attached to the headphones and plugged into the sound card or a USB Blue Snowball Ice.
Hooking up a self-powered 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system is not something I plan to do, but if I did it would be via optical out to a proper AV receiver.  Not having the standard surround sound 3.5mm audio jacks is no concern to me.
All the typical internal gaming sound cards eliminated themselves from contention, due to utilizing 3.5mm connections. When I first saw the NU and was intrigued, but not at $250 price point. I almost dropped $230+ on a Schiit Stack (Modi 3 and Magni Heresey), but then the Nu went back on sale for $150 before any other discounts. So, I found an associate’s code and pulled the trigger, $145 all in.
Build Construction: The construction of the card is quite nice, a rear back plate would be nice for aesthetics, to avoid seeing bare PCB, and the inclusion and positioning of the front panel connector detracts from the overall design.  I would avoid using the front panel connectors with any card, let alone one this nice. 
Driver UI: The driver application is pretty nice, and a stark difference coming from a driver suite that is bloated and barely compatible with Win10 anymore.
Some things I wish I could do with the driver:
  • assign hot keys to adjusting headphone volume, or a way to lock the master volume at a specified level, while tying windows volume to the headphone level when the EVGA Nu Audio software is in headphone   only mode.
  • RGB integration with EVGA Precision, they should be able to be synced
Volume Calibration:
I found an older thread on these forums with some feedback from member ChaobSiroc and moderator EVGATech_LeeM, and used a combination of their methodologies for setting the headphone levels.  Settled to 95% master volume and 80% headphone level for a loud listening level.  Settled to 90% master and 50% headphone for lower volume listening. Both allow me some flexibility on the master volume.  100% Master volume was pretty good, but as ChaobSiroc mentioned, there are some subtle differences I appreciated when amplifying the digital signal slightly.
The sweet spot for my Logitech's was 90% master volume. While the difference between the X-Fi and the Nu with these speakers is pretty negligible, I feel I have a bit more clarity at higher levels, and digital enhancements add less distortion, but I usually leave these off.  Sound stage with music is where this card really shines, when compared to the X-Fi the high notes and depth are so much more pronounced on the Nu.
Headphone Amp: I have nothing equivalent to compare the NU paired with a BD990Pro to, but OH MY GOD, what an upgrade when compared to a crappy gaming headset on a low impedance jack. Even my wife who could care less about things like audio quality said she heard things in music she had never heard before.
Gaming Audio: It does the job, games sound just as good as they ever did. One game in particular, Halo Master Chief Collection, performed much better with the Nu. Not sure why, but some portions of the audio, like radio chatter that never sounded right on the X-Fi, sound perfect on the Nu. Perhaps this can be attributed to the Nu not being over 10 years old, and having better compatibility with more modern games. I am looking forward to spending some more time appreciating the higher quality headphone audio in games.
Mic In: On my X-Fi under Win10, I could never figure out how to eliminate mic monitoring on the output, I could always hear my own voice over my speakers or headphones. I picked up a Blue Snowball Ice and Antlion ModMic 3.5" Uni mic locally before anything else arrived. 
I setup VB-Audio VoiceMeter to a custom profile to use the virtual output with both mics for recording. The Blue recorded much better than the Modmic did on my X-Fi; less signal noise.  I was predisposed to thinking that I would feel the same way with the Nu, and would be returning the ModMic.  While the Blue recorded a bit richer, it picks up a bit more room noise, as expected.  With the Modmic on the Nu, any discernable signal noise was not present at the volumes I recorded at.  Other reviews have indicated some signal noise is detected more so higher levels on the Nu, but those extremes are outside of my purpose-based testing. 
Ultimately, I kept the ModMic, and will likely return the Blue Snowball Ice.  For my gaming purposes, the Nu Audio’s mic out paired with a ModMic Uni provides acceptable recording clarity for gaming chat and results in less desk clutter.  Recording professionals or streamers may prefer bypassing the audio card and using a more high-end USB solution for best recording fidelity and to minimize the possibility of any signal noise.
Line In\Optical Out: I did not do any testing with the line in jack, but it should do the job if I decide to convert any vinyl to lossless. Same story with the optical out, it should do the job if you want to send signal to a proper Surround AV system.
TLDR above summed it up, but if you can get this card for under $150 it goes toe to toe with any of the popular external 2.1 DAC/AMPs and is cheaper.

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    Re: Nu Audio Review - 2.1 Speakers & Studio headphones for Gaming & Music 2020/06/24 13:58:24 (permalink)
    Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I'm sure this will help some in their purchasing decision. Here is a Blue Ribbon for your efforts.

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