I love listening to music at home. My preferred place to do that is usually at my desk, where I play it through my PC. I've been using a Beyer Dynamic DT770 for about 10 years now. I'm on my second pair. I've gone through a lot of peripherals in-between; I used to hook up the headphones to whatever pair of crappy PC speakers I had at the time, but a few years ago I bought a small headphone amp and after that I had been using a small mixpanel. Neither of those were strictly necessary, but they provided easily accessible volume controls and were able to drive my headphones at higher volumes than the motherboard could (I have the 250 ohm version). This all worked great, up until the end of last year, when I convinced myself I was going deaf.
From January onwards, for some reason, music started sounding.. 'duller', to my ears. I really don't know how to describe it accurately. I didn't even realize that something was 'wrong' until weeks or months later. It just seemed like I didn't get my usual enjoyment from listening to music, and I couldn't figure out why. For a while I just thought it was my ears, accepted it, and thought I'd lost one of the things in life that I really enjoyed. For a while. And then I started experimenting.
I thought that maybe it was my headphones. So I tried some other (pretty decent) headphones we had lying around the house and hooked those up to my PC for a while, but all I could tell was that the audio quality was worse, not better. There was nothing wrong with the headphones.
My next suspicion was the speakers. I had been using the cheapest Logitech speakers in the past, but because they did not allow me to control the headphone output's volume with the volume control knob, I always had the headphones plugged in separately via a mixpanel. Last December I bought a new PC with new speakers: they were the second-cheapest Logitech speakers, which did allow headphone volume control using the volume know. So I ditched the mixpanel and connected my headphones up to the new speakers directly. But could that be the difference?
In order to find out I enlisted the help of my wife to do a blind test (or should it be a deaf test in this case?). I hooked up both the speakers and the mixpanel to the PC, normalized the audio, and got my wife to swap the outputs while music was playing, while I tried to guess which one was which. I had tried doing this just by myself without the blind part of the test, but I wasn't confident that it made a difference. But the blind test proved fairly conclusively that there was a difference, and that we both preferred the sound through the mixpanel, albeit only very slightly.
I ran with this for a while, but ultimately still felt like I was missing something. I really ran out of ideas for what could be causing my lack of enjoyment of music, other than my own ears.. but there was one other variable that I had changed and not tested yet: the PC. With the PC came a new motherboard: the MSI B450M Mortar, with an on-board sound card, as all motherboards have these days. I've been using on-board audio for years and never had issues with the audio experience, so it seemed very unlikely to me that the motherboard could be causing this. But it was the last thing I hadn't tested yet.
One other thing that made me wonder if it was the motherboard is that I sometimes play racing games with a separate app playing music in the background. My old motherboard used to mix these just fine, but after switching PCs the new one always seemed to cut out the volume of one app or the other at certain input levels, which sounded extremely frustrating. For a long time I suspected Windows 10 of causing this (antoher variable change: my old PC ran Windows 7), with it's "mute background apps" functionality, but I had made very sure that that was turned off.
In order to test if the motherboard audio made a difference, I bought an external DAC: the Sabaj Da2 USB DAC. It's an external USB digital-to-analog converter, which turned out to be easily powerful enough to drive my 250 ohm headphones without an amplifier in-between.
Before buying the Sabaj Da2 I had been planning to set up another blind listening test, but it took me less than an hour of using it to realize that I wouldn't have to. The sound is subtly but unmistakeably better than the motherboard audio I had been putting up with for so long. It's hard for me to articulate exactly what makes it better though. It's as if I am much better able to focus on the smaller, subtler aspects of the music, rather than just being bombarded with just the main instruments. The music seems fuller, I guess. It's a small difference, but it's impossible to not notice once you've spotted it. and then you'll never want to go back. I now wish I had tried this a lot sooner..
The Sabaj also solved the issue I was having with music not being played at equal volumes when I have more than one app playing sound at the same time. I don't know if that's just crappy drivers or crappy hardware on the motherboard, but I don't care. I'll stick to dedicated hardware for audio from now on. Side note: the Sabaj gets really hot, I'm tempted to slap a small heatsink on it.
(Disclaimer: I did not get paid to write this article. I haven't tried any other USB DACs so I don't know how the Sabaj compares with similar DACs. All I know is that it's detectably better than motherboard audio.)