EVGA Nu Audio PCIe Sound Card Review: True Hi-Fi
Dedicated 2-Channel Sound
In the audio realm something pretty special happens when you have the right mix of source material, digital-to-analog conversion, amplification, and transducers (headphones or loudspeakers). And I am just talking about stereo, as 2-channel audio has the potential to immerse as deeply, and even more so, than 3D positional audio can; but it does take more care in overall setup. Enter EVGA, a company famous for its video cards, power supplies, motherboards, etc., and no stranger to diversification in the enthusiast PC community. And while EVGA in recent years has expanded their offering to include cases, coolers, and even laptops, they have never attempted a dedicated sound solution - until now.
Coming as a surprise as the featured product in their suite at CES 2019, EVGA’s introduction of the Nu Audio card was exciting for me as an audio enthusiast, and this is really an enthusiast-level card based on the pricing of $249 ($199 for EVGA ELITE members). The Nu Audio is an all-new, designed from the ground up sound card with a true hi-fi pedigree and a stated goal of high-quality stereo sound reproduction. Just hearing the words “two channel” in relation to the computer audio was music to my ears (literally), and to say I was intrigued would be an understatement. I will try to temper my enthusiasm and just report the facts here; and yes, I understand that this is expensive for this market and a product like this is not for everyone.
The Nu Audio was created in partnership with Audio Note, a UK-based hi-fi component maker with a solid reputation and a philosophy that emphasizes component selection and material quality. In breaking down the components selected for the Nu Audio card it is evident that a high level of care went into the product, and it is the first time that I am aware of a computer sound card having this much in common with dedicated audiophile components.
Of course component choices are irrelevant if the Nu Audio doesn’t sound any better than what users already have, and proving the value of a quality 2-channel experience can be tricky as it generally requires the user to provide both source material and headphones (or amplifier/speakers) of sufficient quality to hear a difference.
Before we move on here are the specifications from EVGA:
- DAC: AKM AK4493
- ADC: AKM AK5572
- OP-AMP (Headphone): ADI OP275
- OP-AMP (Line Out): ADI AD8056
- Capacitors: WIMA, Audio Note(UK), Nichicon
- Power Regulators: Texas Instruments TPS7A47/TPS7A33 ultralow-noise power solution
- Audio DSP: XMOS xCORE-200
- Native DSD Support (up to x256)
- Output Configuration:
- 2 Channel (Analog)
- 5.1 Channel (Digital via S/PDIF)
- Dynamic Range (DNR) / Signal-to-Noise (SNR):
- 123dB (Stereo Playback)
- 121dB (Line-In Recording)
- Playback Format:
- Up to 384kHz, 32bit (Stereo)
- Up to 192kHz, 24bit (Optical)
- Headphone Amp: 16-600ohm (Independent Analog Control)
- Maximum Voltage: 8Vrms
- Maximum Current: 250mA
- Recording Format:
- Up to 384kHz, 32bit (Line-In)
- Up to 192kHz, 24bit (Mic-In)
- RGB Lighting: 10 - Mode w/ Audio Reactive Lighting
- Stereo Out (RCA L/R)
- Headphone Out (6.3mm)
- Line-In (3.5mm)
- Mic-In (3.5mm)
- Optical Out (TOSLINK Passthrough)
- Front Panel Header
- Switchable OP-AMPs: Headphone, Line out
- Interface: PCIe x1 Gen2
- Power Connector: 1x SATA Power
- Supported OS: Windows 10, 8.1, 7
The Nu Audio Card
With the card out of the deluxe packaging we find a couple of adapters (RCA L/R to 3.5 mm and a 1/4" jack adapter) and paperwork which includes information on swapping Op-Amps.
And now a look around the card itself:
I/O includes RCA L/R output jacks, a 1/4" stereo headphone jack, 3.5 mm line and mic inputs, and S/PDIF output. Around back we find that power is supplied via a SATA connector from the power supply:
The top of the card is not only a showcase for the optional RGB lighting effects, but also houses the card's front-panel audio header:
And now a look under the hood:
With the heatsink over the voltage regulators removed, here is a closer look at the board:
The Nu Audio card is at its heart a USB 3.0 device, bridged to PCIe via an ASMedia ASM1042A host controller. Digital-to-analog duties are handled by the AKM (Asahi Kasei Microdevices) AK4493EQ DAC, with analog-to-digital duties split between an AK5572EN (line in) and Cirrus Logic CS5346 ADC (mic in). Other components include the XMOS xCORE-200 DSP (U11690C20 chipset), ADI OP275 headphone (swappable) and AD8056 line output op-amps, and dual clock oscillators. The card's capacitors are variously from WIMA, Audio Note, and Nichicon, with Texas Instruments TPS7A47 and TPS7A33 voltage regulators.
The volume control with Nu Audio features a separate analog level control for the headphone amplifier. Digital output and input filtering is also adjustable, with different roll-off options available.
And while lighting effects with the upper logo are customizable, this can also be disabled using the software.
A brief note here: listening to compressed audio (such as ~256Kbps streaming music) is not going to do this product justice, and I would hope anyone spending $249 on a sound card is doing so to get the most out of high-resolution files or at least uncompressed music and game/movie soundtrack audio. To this end EVGA is including hi-res audio downloads, available after registration.
I can say right off the bat that if you are coming from motherboard audio, you will likely hear a difference immediately when switching to the Nu Audio. There is some really good motherboard audio out there, and some high-end sound cards in the market already, but this card was on the level of dedicated external solutions based on my experiences.
My own listening sessions were conducted using either foobar2000 or JRiver audio players in Windows, both of which were configured to use WASAPI (Windows Audio Session API) for native file playback on the Nu Audio card. With WASAPI if your device does not support a file’s bitrate or sample rate, you simply can’t play it on the device since no re-sampling takes place. There were no files that the Nu Audio couldn’t handle natively, with dual clock oscillators (22.579 MHz and 24.576 MHz) to handle both 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz-based sample rates (no forced re-clocking from 88.2 to 96 kHz, for example), and native DSD capabilities.
Setting playback software to use WASAPI is key to extracting the best quality (JRiver pictured)
Using high-resolution source material the Nu Audio’s clarity and stereo separation are so much better than anything I have personally tried on a PC that the difference was instantly apparent. Details in even complex music tracks were noticeably better, and the overall sound signature is neutral - free of obvious coloration. The headphone amplifier supplies a lot of clean power, far more than I needed with the pair of 38-ohm Audio Technica ATH-AD700X headphones I was using, so powering a loudspeaker system was a better challenge with my setup. To this end I ran a pair of RCA cables directly from the Nu Audio to my integrated amp (a Calyx Audio CTI), and used a pair of Boston Acoustics A26 bookshelf speakers.
By far my favorite aspect of evaluating the Nu Audio sound card were listening sessions with an integrated amp and speakers. Output from the RCA line output was clean and distortion-free, and the quality was good enough to rival the output from a standalone DAC (and better than some I have heard even above this price level). Yes, for around $200 you can get a low-cost external pairing like the Modi and Magni from Schiit Audio, but for $249 you are getting higher-quality components and excellent analog-to-digital capabilities as well (up to 32-bit, 384 kHz conversion via line-in) from the Nu Audio.
Playing back DSD natively on the Nu Audio with JRiver
While most of my listening was done using 24-bit FLAC audio files ranging from 88.2 kHz to 192 kHz, I did try out the DSD capabilities as well. Native DSD playback has traditionally been uncommon among even dedicated DACs and digital audio players, and while more devices than ever support the format today, finding native support from a sound card is unusual and only adds to the value proposition here. Some hi-res music from the SACD era is still offered for download in native DSD, and I own a few albums in this format. Enabling DSD support with foobar2000 is a little more involved, and the paid application JRiver makes the process much simpler.
Choosing the Nu Audio card with WASAPI output I was playing back .dsf files without a hitch, and they sounded fantastic. Having the ability to listen natively without on-the-fly LPCM conversion is ideal, and while some SACD masters have been released as 24-bit 88.2 kHz files there is enough DSD content out there to make this capability worthwhile.
The Nu Audio card from EVGA is a bona fide hi-fi audio solution with superior analog output capabilities for both headphones and as a source for a dedicated amplifier and speakers. The sound is clean and detailed, and there is plenty of power on reserve for more difficult to drive headphones as well. I was particularly impressed with the quality of the line output, and using the Nu Audio as a source for my integrated amplifier made it hard to imagine the audio was coming from a PC sound card, and not a standalone DAC.
When you start comparing the quality of this new EVGA sound card to the dedicated components that would be required to best it, the $249 price tag starts to look a lot different. And yes, I understand that not everyone will be willing to spend this much on a sound card, but if you have even considered some of the high-end solutions for 2-channel PC audio then you owe it to yourself to give this a listen. You won't be disappointed.