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I'm looking around for new set of high-end speakers for my PC e.g. something like a pair of Audioengine A5's.

These have an analog input (3.5mm jack), but not a digital one. What I'm wondering here is if there is any perceptible difference in sound quality between digital input vs analog?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Most stereo monitors have analog inputs. The only way to accept digital input is to have a receiver/amplifier box for this simple reason: if you had 6 such monitors, how is every one supposed to know which channel to play? It's the receiver's job to split channels. (It could also be the soundcard's.)

Overall, for home theatre and pc surround sound all-in-one makes sense since the signal is expected to be digital and more than 2 channels, but they are not the be all and end all of the speaker world as walking at the Best Buy home theater alley would make you think.

The whole idea with powered bookshelf and monitors is that each have an integrated amplifier, so they can only make use of analog input unless... they come with a receiver box to split the digital signal and send analog sound to each of them. Am I turning in circles here?

Pretty much all studios with powered high-end monitors work on that principle: convert your digital away from the speakers. The sound quality then depends on your digital-to-analog conversion, which is done in your soundcard, or receiver, etc.

Analog input provides several benefits:

  • It's not limited to current digital formats (the few digital studio monitors that were marketed in the 90s probably serve as book weights today)
  • you can buy a better soundcard with quality higher than consumer-level receiver/amplifier without duplication of components (and money wasted for it)
  • you know care was taken in the analog inputs of your speakers
  • you can move your speakers easily and plug them to to other things, such as hifi cd players and turntables, super nintendos, ipods and whatever with an output jack you have at your summer bbqs.
  • You let many speaker companies do what they do best: speakers. The digital-surround-speakers companies are relatively limited and far from as diverse and interesting as traditional analog monitors/bookshelf speakers.

So.. any downsides?

  • I think a decent soundcard is in order for 200$+ speakers (even more so for 200$ PER speaker). A Creative card will sound better (clearer) than on-board, and you can check out prosumer stuff such as M-Audio and others if you're so inclined.

  • Are you planning to want surround sound in the near future? Surround soundcards don't come by the dozen, and neither do non-amplified receivers/splitters.

  • Unwanted noise from soundcards does exist, however. I've sometimes heard some strange noises when moving my mouse, moving windows and accessing HDDs. These are due to interference and voltage instability due to power supplies, motherboards, wall outlets, shaky components, but can be usually troubleshooted and fixed by changing or moving cables, power supplies, etc.

TL;DR: does analog input sounds worse than digital? No, sound always get converted to analog at some point. You choose where and how.

I've never heard of audioengine. Any good? I would recommend Behringers, M-Audio, KRKs, too.

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+1, pretty good explanation of the situation. a speaker, by definition, is a purely analog device. know how you can tell? because if it wasn't analog you wouldn't be able to hear anything out of it. :) – quack quixote Jan 26 '10 at 2:33
Audioengine speakers are apparently amazing going by every review I've read on them. Although I suspect there isn't a world of difference in terms of sound quality between Audioengine and Behringers/M-Audio speakers. I have an onboard sound card on my Gigabyte motherboard with 7.1 surround sound. The audio quality from it feels top-notch going by my ears. I don't really care for surround sound and I wouldn't want a whole pile of extra speakers cluttering up my bedroom. I would be using plug in the speakers into other devices, like MP3 players. So an analog input would be quite useful there. – SuperFurryToad Jan 26 '10 at 11:27

While some people will tell you that they can distinguish the difference, the vast majority almost certainly can't. There is much pseudo science and charlatanry in the hi-fi world.

Given that you'll be listening in less than ideal conditions (i.e. not in an anechoic chamber) if there is any it will be drowned out by ambient noise - not least from the noises your PC makes.

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That's what I suspect. – SuperFurryToad Jan 25 '10 at 23:26

Actually it can make a big difference if you have a really crappy soundcard on your PC. I've had poor onboard sound cards before that would pick up noise from the electronics in my PC, such that if my PC was under high CPU load I could 'hear' it doing things from my speakers. If it were a digital connection, stray noise like this would not be an issue.

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That's a definite plus on the digital side. But fortunately I don't have any interference or stray noise with my current soundcard. – SuperFurryToad Jan 25 '10 at 23:27

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