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EVGA Nu Audio PCIe Sound Card Review: True Hi-Fi

Subject: General Tech
Manufacturer: EVGA

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.

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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.

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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.

Continue reading our review of the EVGA Nu Audio PCIe sound card!

Before we move on here are the specifications from EVGA:


Premium Components

  • 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

Specifications

  • 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
  • I/O:
    • 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

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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.

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And now a look around the card itself:

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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:

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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:

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And now a look under the hood:

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With the heatsink over the voltage regulators removed, here is a closer look at the board:

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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.

Software

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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.

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And while lighting effects with the upper logo are customizable, this can also be disabled using the software.

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Listening Impressions

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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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.

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Video News


February 11, 2019 | 04:38 PM - Posted by Moyenni (not verified)

Wish they did an external (USB) version, especially if that's the device "native" bus.

February 11, 2019 | 05:14 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

I asked this question at CES and they didn’t rule out a USB version. This is their first effort and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a future USB model myself.

February 11, 2019 | 06:03 PM - Posted by pdjblum

Thanks so much for the review of this awesome product

I am really excited about a USB version since I'm now building mini ITX with ryzen and have been using some excellent USB external dacs, but this hardware seems far better than any of them, or at least the ones within my price range

February 11, 2019 | 08:47 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

I’m with you there. My streaming PC is a Ryzen mITX box I built up last month. I’d love to be able to add this sound card, but of course my one PCIe is taken by the graphics card. Though I have given thought to using an M.2 PCIe riser board...

February 11, 2019 | 04:42 PM - Posted by Kiteman

So would you recommend this card for a gaming rig? It appears it can output 5.1 over digital. I still have an old Auzentech card which I bought in pursuit of high(er)-fidelity PC sound. Sound quality to me is just as important as high-res video, pricing aside.

February 11, 2019 | 05:22 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

For me that’s an easy yes, but I prefer 2-channel. The 5.1 digital output would require a DAC and amp and I wouldn’t get this strictly to pass through digital, honestly. As far as pure sound quality goes this is fantastic, but that is from the L/R analog output and headphone jack. Any attempt at using this for surround is going to depend on the DAC it’s connected to.

February 11, 2019 | 05:29 PM - Posted by FreeSample (not verified)

Maybe I'm being too critical but that front panel connector makes no sense to me.

Maybe the audiophile type wouldn't use it for noise/interference reasons, if that's the case then why have it? Maybe they could have included a nice sleeved and shielded cable extension for it.

Also if they were so aesthetically concerned as to need to put RGB lights on the top edge, then that front panel header is a bit of an eyesore, especially if there's some generic cable draped across your motherboard connected to it.

I'm assuming that placing it near the SATA power connector on the back edge of the card was less than ideal for SNR engineering reasons, but Front Panel audio is more about convenience than fidelity, right?

Seems like they need to make a decision on Audiophile-all-the-way or aesthetic functionality. That connector needs to be moved or removed either way.

February 11, 2019 | 08:46 PM - Posted by audiogeek (not verified)

don't you feel an audio product with a price tag like that should at least be measured to see if it indeed provides the fidelity it claims before giving it such high praise? there have been lots of products with great DAC chips in them proven to be extremely poor measuring products.

February 12, 2019 | 03:59 AM - Posted by Dark_wizzie

Yup. That's the problem with these kinds of reviews. Most of them on the internet are trash.

JDS stack is now only $200 and the new amp is quite a bit ahead of O2. Transparency is a solved problem

February 12, 2019 | 02:47 PM - Posted by Subsailor

In a perfect world, yes.
On PC Perspective, with an article written by a guy who likes audio and is not a professional audio reviewer, come on stop being so damn picky.

February 12, 2019 | 04:15 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

You can tell I’m not a professional audio reviewer because I did not use terms like “airy highs” and “transient response” in the article. The fact that I had a favorable opinion of the product is the problem here. I’m sure the other commenter has A/B tested the solution he suggests and knows it’s better.

It seems that to make the harshly critical happy - well, at least less than completely dissatisfied - would be to obtain extremely expensive professional measurement equipment (an Audio Precision analyzer) and act as some sort of validation laboratory. The value of subjective criticism of an experience is based on trust, and if you suspect the reviewer of being biased than there is nothing left. And pleading my case is a waste of time.

February 12, 2019 | 10:47 AM - Posted by WayneJetSki

Looks interesting.... Will need to investigate to see if/how it works in Linux.

February 12, 2019 | 11:20 PM - Posted by Stangflyer

I have a Creative Z card in my Asrock Z370 Taichi. If I use the toslink for gaming I get a delay in sound because of the DAC. Very annoying in FPS games. What I do is use the three analogs to my receivers multichannel analog inputs like you would with a DVD Audio or SACD player. No delay at all. Love it. The problem now is most lower end receivers no longer have multichannel analog inputs. I use my Onkyo TX-SR606. Receiver came out in 2008. The next generations model the 616 no longer included those inputs.

Without 5.1 analog this card is not appealing to me.

February 13, 2019 | 12:56 AM - Posted by mashwell (not verified)

A bit of a shame that it's basically just an USB DAC (admittedly, a really good one) in a PCI-e form. USB audio usually has a inherent latency disadvantage (varies depending hardware and drivers; usually ~50-100ms) which isn't really suitable for 'competitive' gaming.

EVGA, if you're listening, make the v2 interface directly through PCIe or at least have a specially crafted driver with less than 5ms latency, and for extra gamer points (tm), have an additional customizable HRTF software for surround sound simulation (like HeSuVi.)
Gamers care about audio quality too!

I'm still bitter that I can't use my nice USB DAC for playing rhythm games :(

February 13, 2019 | 02:44 AM - Posted by Colonel Faulkner (not verified)

Nice review. I wonder if I should upgrade from my old, but gold, STX I PCIe - given the fact I just and only use it in conjunction with my old, but gold, Sennheiser HD 800 ...

Curious if the sound would be "better" or even the headphones amplified output is more powerful ...

February 13, 2019 | 08:36 AM - Posted by Nos024 (not verified)

It's better. I have the STX I 5 years ago, and upgraded to STX II. There wasnt that much of a difference between the two. But there was an instant improvement switching from the STX II to the Nu Audio. Better imaging, soundstage and instrument ssounds natural.

February 13, 2019 | 10:41 AM - Posted by Colonel Faulkner (not verified)

Hard times for me: could buy the EVGA card or an used ASUS Essence One w/ 4x TI-OPA2132 ... The Essence would cost me roughly €40 more (~€245 EVGA vs. €286 ASUS). Common sense might be that an extern solution is to be preferred, but still I am unsure which side to flip the coin to ...

February 14, 2019 | 01:52 PM - Posted by Shadowarez

Is there even any tosslink capable headphones on market anymore? Last pair I had was Tritons A1's had a breakout cable decoding box you put the heqphones6intonit the tosslink to the sound card was amazing.

February 16, 2019 | 08:21 PM - Posted by Tony (not verified)

Nice review, I would like to see this compared to the sound blaster x ae-5 since I have the ae-5 and I want to know any difference between the two in terms of sound quality.

Thanks

March 12, 2019 | 08:55 AM - Posted by Dart (not verified)

I purchased a AE-5 recently and I was very disappointed with it. The Software is riddled with bugs, sound would stop, would need to reboot my PC. I'm going to give this a try.

If you look at the specs, it is very similar to the AE-5, one thing that would set them apart for me is the stability of the Software.

February 25, 2019 | 08:51 PM - Posted by Kaihekoa

Left a comment thanking the writer for the review that was deleted, nice.

February 26, 2019 | 02:40 PM - Posted by Jeremy Hellstrom

Apologies, with the current flood of spam I have accidentally caught a few good posts

 

March 10, 2019 | 09:42 AM - Posted by Moac (not verified)

I have active speakers, Kef LSX , and am connecting them to my PC via Toslink.
Would getting this Sound card benefit me at all given that I use active speakers?
my current sound card is an old ASROCK GameBlaster.

appreciate any feedback.

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