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Old 08-06-2007, 09:58 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Hotrodding the X-Fi

Something I stumbled across recently. You can modify most of the X-Fi sound cards and give them higher sound quality in the process.
Hotrodding the X-Fi: A Layman's Guide (No 56k) - Head-Fi: Covering Headphones, Earphones and Portable Audio

Quote:
The X-Fi is without question the best gaming card, but the sound quality is average at best. As someone who is used to high end external DACs with discrete output, to me the sound quality of the X-Fi can be best described as "low-fi". But rest assured X-Fi owners, we can make it far better! I actually prefer the fully hotrodded X-Fi XtremeMusic over the Benchmark DAC1. Yes, that's what I just said =). It matches the dynamics and detail of the DAC1, but with a wider soundstage, less fatigue, and far more musicality it's not even comparable.

This guide works for sound cards in general and not only the X-Fi, but X-Fi is the most logical choice because of its versatility.

Tools needed:
Solder iron ($2) (I used Hakko 936 but any iron will work)
Solder wick (helps remove stock opamp)
Thin solder (only a little is needed)
LM4562 SOIC (free samples from National Semiconductor)
Blackgate 2200uF 16V (from parts conneXion - The authority on hi-fi DIY parts and components or Michael Percy Audio Ordering Information)
ERS Paper (from Partsconnexion or Percy Audio)
X-Fi card (which ones? http://www.head-fi.org/forums/showpo...&postcount=122)

A sound card consists of a DSP, a DAC chip, and an analog output stage that consists of opamps. Opamps and capacitors are the two worst offenders of sound quality. With any soundcard you can change these opamps to far better ones, remove capacitors no longer needed due to the better opamp, and give it more power by increasing the size of the power supply filter capacitors on the sound card. The sound card also sits inside a computer which is full of EMI radiation that introduces noise and degrades sound quality (especially treble). That's why audiophiles use external DACs. But now you have better shielding technology so it's no longer an issue. You can put a silicon carbide/nickel board on the back of the card. Alternatively, there is this thing called ERS paper that is much easier to apply. Basically, you can do what this guy did:
X-Fi EASY TUNE - Head-Fi: Covering Headphones, Earphones and Portable Audio

You should still mount the sound card as far away from the video card as you can. The lowest PCI slot should be used if possible. For music, use bit-matched playback in Audio Creation Mode.

Summary:
(1) Replace the stock JRC NJM4556 opamp with LM4562 SOIC
(2) Replace the sound card's power supply capacitors with larger ones that are at least several times the original value. Quality matters, especially specs like ripple current. Blackgates were chosen for this application, but Nichicon KG would also be an excellent choice due to its specs.
(3) Apply the ERS Paper onto the back of the sound card. You need a layer of insulating material between the sound card and the ERS paper since it's electrically conductive.


The mods make a HUGE difference. It's definately worth doing. And it's very easy to do especially with this guide. Takes less than an hour and doesn't cost much money.

Specs
X-Fi XtremeMusic, Platinum, Fatal1ty FPS, and XtremeGamer uses a JRC NJM4556 opamp for the main channels and three ST4558 opamps for the surrounds. They utilize the CS4382 DAC, which we will prove is a very good DAC. The X-Fi Elite Pro uses the JRC NJM2114 opamp for the main, three JRC NJM2068 for the surrounds, and the even better CS4398 DAC, which is the same DAC used in the Lynx, E-MU 1820, Headroom MicroDAC, Musiland MD10, Zhaolu 2.5C and other high end DACs. As you can see, these are good DACs. With these mods, even the "lowly" XtremeMusic will blow them all out of the water.

Impressions of the stock X-Fi XtremeMusic is that it is muddy-sounding, has a plasticky tone that lacks weight, lacks bass impact due to loose-sounding boomy bass. Background is fairly quiet due to a good board layout. Midrange detail is good but not great, while dynamics and soundstage leave much to be desired. I also have a hard time making out the notes when several instruments are playing. There is also not much texture to the instruments. Better DACs have a resonant quality to them that mimicks real life sounds, and the X-Fi lacks it. Still, the X-Fi is better than the vast majority of comsumer sound cards like low-end M-Audios and the Audigy series. It is also better than any portable player I've heard, but that's not saying much.

Enter the National Semiconductor LM4562
The LM4562 is a new opamp specifically designed for audio application and that's why it's a league above all other opamps for audio. Pretty much everyone I know who has used this opamp has been amazed by it. At the time of this writing, it's a league above the best OPA and LT and AD opamps I've tried. It has a PSRR (power supply rejection ratio) and CMRR (common-mode rejection ratio) above 120dB, so it doesn't care about the poor quality power that computer sound cards get! This will give sound cards that use them an edge over all DACs except ones that use an expensive discrete analog output.

From http://www.national.com/pf/LM/LM4562.html:
To ensure that the most challenging loads are driven without compromise, the LM4562 has a high slew rate of ▒20V/Ás and an output current capability of ▒26mA. Further, dynamic range is maximized by an output stage that drives 2k loads to within 1V of either power supply voltage and to within 1.4V when driving 600 loads.

One thing about the NJM4556 opamp is that it's a weird size longer than the usual SOIC opamp, but the card itself supports the smaller SOIC standard just fine. I cut off the NJM4556, desoldered the remains using a copper wick, and soldered on the LM4562. Make sure it's in the original orientation, which you can tell by the lettering.


Pretty small, but still easy enough to solder.


The NJM4556 has been removed. It's a terrible opamp and deserves to die.


Put the card back in and notice the massive transformation. There are too many improvements to describe for this one! If you use the surround sound, you can also replace those three with LM4562 as well. The M33078 is the input opamp, and that can also be replaced if you do recording.


Next up we will replace the power filter capacitor. The 470uF Jamicon that Creative uses has a record for failing and leaking brown crap. We will replace this with a 2200uF 16V Blackgate and hotglue it in place. Make sure the orientation is correct if using polar capacitors. Even if you're not a beleiver in changing power filter caps, the Blackgate has 1/5 of the ESR as other capacitors, excellent ripple current results, and is one of the only electrolytic capacitors that last nearly forever, as in dozens of lifetimes longer than other electrolytics. Nichicon KG would also be an excellent choice due to its specs. Anyway, the effect of this mod is tighter bass and greater warmth. I say that the choice of capacitor does matter. Take a listen before the next mod. This is essential because the next mod changes the sound signature and you may or may not like the change.


We will now shield the DAC chip, DSP chip, opamps, and the entire backside of the soundcard. There are many options, from Texas Instruments to ERS Paper. This is not snake oil. Shielding really makes a difference. I used ERS Paper, which is electrically conductive so you need an insulation layer between it and the sound card. This mod made the sound noticeably warmer and more analogue-sounding. The digital, hyper-detailed sound is now gone and some will miss it. You will notice it right away and would probably want to turn up the volume since now it is less fatiguing. Who would have thought that shielding makes such a big difference?

Update: After 20 hours, the sound has changed from the Blackgates burning in (previously it was too warm). Now I definately think that the shielding paper should be used. The LM4562 will eventually be renamed to the LME4986. Just giving you guys a heads up.

Other Mods:
The X-Fi uses Jamicon capacitors, which are known to either fail or deviate very significantly from their specs over time. A complete recap is not unreasonable. You can buy Panasonics from Digikey, or Nichicons from Percy Audio.

There are other mods but I don't have the schematics to the X-Fi so I don't know how to apply them. If others discover new mods I can add them to the list.

Short the 22uF caps near each opamp (there are 4 of them for each one). I definately recommend it as others beside myself also think that shorting improves the detail and realism, with no ill effects on the card. They seem to be decoupling caps, not coupling caps, and make the DAC more stable. Not needed though, it's perfectly stable without them.

hardnrg's Worklog: Hard-modding the X-Fi for better sound
http://forums.overclockersclub.com/i...howtopic=71127

OCWorkbench's X-Fi Mod
http://www.ocworkbench.com/2007/arti...-Fi-Mod/g1.htm

More pictures by Nicker:
http://www.head-fi.org/forums/showpo...&postcount=297

Professional Modders:
Contact me and I'll put your handle here as a professional modder.
soloz2
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Old 08-06-2007, 10:04 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Default Re: Hotrodding the X-Fi

Right now I'm trying to get my hands on some LM4562 MA OpAmps from here

I have replaced the 220uf power capacitor with a 470uf one (yes, my card actually came with a 220uf one), but I'm planning on getting a Nichicon 2200uf aluminium one (I can't seem to get Blackgate capacitors in Australia, but the Nichicon ones seem to be almost as good)

I'm not sure if I'll make a shield for it though. It does keep EMI out, but I've heard that it also keeps EMI in, aswell. I may at least try it to see what the change is though.
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Old 08-10-2007, 09:13 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Default Re: Hotrodding the X-Fi

Okay, I've got 3 x LM4562 MA's and 3 x LME49720 MA's being shipped right now. I'm getting them as free samples (you can get up to 3 as free samples), with no shipping cost either
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Old 08-13-2007, 06:17 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Default Re: Hotrodding the X-Fi

I've successsfully replaced all of the output OpAmps: the top 3 with LME49720's, and the bottom one with an LM4562
I also replaced the capacitor (again) with a 16V, 2200uf one, for smoother power.

the LME49720's have slightly lower distortion, so I used them mainly.

When listening, distortion seems to be nonexistent, though I haven't tried full volume yet (I rarely use full volume with my Z-5500's anyway - People don't like it when my speakers can be heard in a separate building, at the far end)

One thing I have yet to do is make a shield for the card

*edit*
I can also have software volume turned up higher before sound wave clipping occurs
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Old 08-13-2007, 06:45 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Default Re: Hotrodding the X-Fi

Crazy, who found this out anyway?
Ive got a Xtreme audio, and thought id get a Xtreme gamer last week but didnt notice any difference, in fact it was worse sounding because for some reason i got sound ok from 2 front left and right speakers and the front centre, but the two rear speakers the sound was coming out delayed, therefor it sounded terrible, no idea what was wrong, just installed the software and that was it, so i took it back and installed my old card which works perfectly, without that problem
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Old 08-13-2007, 06:58 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Default Re: Hotrodding the X-Fi

Haha, overclocking your sound card!

That's pretty funny.

What's next, overclocking NIC's? Haha!

Okay...seriously though, that's pretty sweet. How much does it actually help? Do you think its worth the effort?
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Old 08-13-2007, 07:25 AM   #7 (permalink)
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Default Re: Hotrodding the X-Fi

Quote:
Originally Posted by CrazeD View Post
Haha, overclocking your sound card!

That's pretty funny.

What's next, overclocking NIC's? Haha!
overclocking is increasing the frequency. I just replaced the OpAmps, and power capacitor.

Quote:
Originally Posted by CrazeD View Post
Okay...seriously though, that's pretty sweet. How much does it actually help? Do you think its worth the effort?
Well, how much it helps is largely subjective. Each person has different ears, and some people are more sensitive to differences in sound quality than others.

IMO, it was definitely worth it. firstly because I didn't even have to pay for the OpAmps I got, and it was about 80c or so for the capacitor it's now using.

So far I've played some music, and played CS:S
CS:S had the best improvement, IMO, there was NO percievable distortion.

The music I played didn't have as big improvement, but it was still noticable. but I am using compressed music files, so there's only so much a sound card can do.
I'll try playing music uncompressed, from a CD.
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Old 08-13-2007, 07:29 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Default Re: Hotrodding the X-Fi

Did i just type in invisible text? i must have!
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Old 08-13-2007, 07:48 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Default Re: Hotrodding the X-Fi

Quote:
Originally Posted by jonny_uk View Post
Did i just type in invisible text? i must have!
Did you type something? I can't see any text.

just kidding.
Quote:
Originally Posted by jonny_uk View Post
Crazy, who found this out anyway?
I don't know
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Old 08-13-2007, 11:39 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Default Re: Hotrodding the X-Fi

Quote:
Originally Posted by Apokalipse View Post
overclocking is increasing the frequency. I just replaced the OpAmps, and power capacitor.
I was just being a smart ***, lol.
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