PCRECORDING.COM - - Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe Review
Manufacturer: Digital Audio Labs
In the digital age, particularly in the digital audio market, it is rare to hear the phrase "less is more" bantied about. Believe it or not, I have found an application for it. Many soundcard manufacturers have been in a mad scramble to add I/Os, MIDI, preamps, headphones and digital capability to their cards to stay competitive. Most soundcard manufacturers have also upgraded their A/D - D/A converters to 24 bit resolution and 96kHz sample rates. Digital Audio Labs has, with the CardDeluxe, concentrated on keeping their card simple with careful attention given to design and quality. The ultimate goal was to obtain the best possible sound quality for its users. I test this card in this review and this goal has been accomplished.
What is less about the CardDeluxe? One, there is less noise. Two, as is, the CardDeluxe features only two analog I/Os and two digital I/Os (S/PDIF). What is more is the CardDeluxe has sound quality superior to other cards. If more I/Os are required, the user can slave together several CardDeluxes at once. (Digital Audio Labs reports some users successfully using up to eight CardDeluxes at once in the same system). Frankly, for most applications, four inputs/four outputs should be sufficient anyway. The card features:
In addition, the latest posted CardDeluxe driver includes NT drivers that reportedly work fine in Windows 2000 and support for Dolby AC3 streaming. Lastly, the CardDeluxe has a new analog input dithering feature. The user can select several dithering options when recording at less than 24-bit. This will improve the perceived quality of sound recordings because remaining bits will be not truncated - - dithering "fills in" what would have been truncated, giving a smoother audio perception. The user can select from Triangular, Triangular with NoiseShaping ,Rectangular, Rectangular with NoiseShaping dithering.
The CardDeluxe's specifications are depicted in the table below. (published on their website). All measurements are set at +4dBu, 24 bit, 48kHz, at a bandwidth of 22-22kHz, and A-weighted unless otherwise noted.
I measured the soundfloor of the card to be -111 using Samplitude 2496 and recording silence. This is the quietest card I have tested to date. I asked Andy Smith of Digital Audio Labs why their card sounded so good and was so quiet. His reply was as follows:
"It's not much more than simply using solid design and layout practices, paying careful attention to details such as power and ground routing and filtering, and selecting quality components. Without care, it is very easy to cause even the highest quality converter to behave in a mediocre fashion. DAL takes every step to insure that we get the highest possible performance from the converters we choose"
Some people question whether you need a card that does 24-bit/96kHz? With the CD "standard" set at 16-bit/44.1, why bother to record at 24-bit which consumes more harddrive space and CPU resources? (Please see my harddrive page for more on this). The question is further compounded by the theoretical limitations of human hearing (20-20kHz in a child). People with slower systems or other resource issues may not be able to take advantage of the higher bit/sample rates. In my mind, it comes back to quality. I am able to detect a quality difference between 16-bit recording and 24-bit recording on my system. Even after a 24-bit signal has been mixed down to 16-bit for burning to a disc, it still sounds better. Is it better enough to warrant the higher resource consumption that results? That is a question that can only be answered by the user. The CD standard provides for exceptional sound quality as it is. So if you can do 24-bit, why not? Just keep in mind that if you use 24-bit for recording/playback, the number of simultaneous tracks you can run will be lower and the tracks will consume much more harddrive space.
All specifications and bit-rates aside, the litmus test for a soundcard is how it sounds. In my opinion, the best cards are indiscernible during a recording. That is, the user should not know the card is there. The card should be seamless and transparent. With the specifications published on the DAL site and my test results, I expected very good quality. I was not disappointed.
I used the CardDeluxe for a variety of reviews on other products on my site. The CardDeluxe was my benchmark card when I went to check the true sound of a product. The soundcard is simply very accurate and very quiet. For instance, while I was testing some microphones for clarity and sensitivity, the CardDeluxe was my card of choice amongst some very heavy competitors. Throughout, the card's reproduction of the sounds and instruments I was recording was accurate and full sounding. Importantly, there was no discernible noise from the card itself.
Using the Audix SCX-One and the Marshall 2001 microphones, I tried to capture some normal "sounds." I recorded my fingers snapping, hands clapping, my keys jangling and rustling paper. The card effortlessly captured these sounds in full detail. Regarding the paper, I flipped through the pages of some manuals. I was able to discern not only the rustle of the paper edge crossing my fingertips but the sound of the paper hitting the previously flipped pages.
I recorded a variety of instruments, my flutes (Native American, variety of bamboo), acoustic guitar (alternate tuning and slide), harmonica, and vocals. The card captured all instruments clearly and accurately. Especially notable was the way it recorded the overtones on my steel string acoustic and the timbre/resonance of the flutes. Lastly, I played back, at volume, drum samples using the Drag and Drop Drummer kit. The card robustly pounded out the beats of these samples. Very nice.
As I noted in my review of the Terratec EWS88MT, this card was more dynamic and responsive during A/B testing than the EWS. The card played back a bit louder and fuller than the EWS, even at the same recording/playback settings. I believe the use of 1/4" cabling over RCA cables is in part responsible for this. 1/4" cables are generally better quality, unless the user has specifically purchased special RCA cables.
Overall, this card simply did not have any "effect" on the sound. It just accurately recorded whatever sounds were there. It was pristine and smooth. I cannot ask any more of a card than that.
The CardDeluxe user can access the cards configuration software by selecting Settings>Control Panel>System>Sound Devices>CardDeluxe>Properties. A set of panels comes up with which the user can select bit data mode, master clock settings, and monitoring settings. In the configuration window (seen below), the user can also choose the digital output modes and the special analog dithering options described above.
I wish to return to the analog input dithering mentioned above. As you can see in the image above, the user can select input dithering types in the panel. You may ask why is analog input dithering significant? Input dithering will allow the user to take full advantage of the CardDeluxe's 24-bit capability before the signal is dithered down to 16-bit for transfer into the software. The resultant dithered 16-bit signal should have superior sonic quality than that of a truncated 16-bit signal. This could be useful for software applications that accept only 16-bit signals and for systems that cannot accomodate 24-bit recording levels. Of course, if the users software supports 24-bit, and the DAW is capable of handling the greater resource demands of recording/playback at 24-bit, then it would be better to record at 24-bit and then dither down to 16-bit for CD burning. However, with the resource issues that surround the 16-bit/24-bit debate, even if a user chooses to record at 16-bit, this feature will provide for a better 16-bit input signal than a truncated 16-bit signal.
Moving on to other useability features, in the monitor window (seen below), the user can select analog and digital input/output levels.
I did not have to contact support for any problems with the card or its installation. However, Digital Audio Labs has a robust maillist program for its users where posts can be mailed and shared across the internet via email. I reviewed many helpful hints from this list during my review and posted a few of my own. The subject matter extended beyond CardDeluxe issues. Most importantly, the list was monitored and posted to by actual Digital Audio Labs technicians. There is nothing like having direct access to the techs that helped design the card and its drivers.
I initially thought it odd that the user must use jumpers to set the playback/recording levels at either -10dB or +4dB. This may prove inconvenient if the user has a mix of professional and consumer equipment necessitating removal of the PC case to change these settings. As explained to me by Digital Audio Labs, they feel that using software-based gain settings results in signal degradation. Hence, the hardware jumpers on the card. I would suggest that it is feasible to use dip switches that are accessible from the exterior to accomplish this same task. Thus, the user would not need to remove the PC case.
In addition, the card does not have some of the advanced patch options seen in some of the other soundcard reviews on this site. Simply, the card has fewer I/Os and no MIDI capability. Thus, for one card, advanced routing and patching may not seem necessary. However, if the user has several CardDeluxes in the system, routing/patch options would be a plus - - if there is a way to do this.
If the user is looking for multiple I/Os, MIDI and all-in-one features on one card, this card is not it. If the user is looking for very high-fidelity recording capability and robust support, this card is the one. In this case, less is more.