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Worklog: Hard-modding the X-Fi for better sound


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#1 hardnrg

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 03:15 PM

Ok, bear in mind that markie broke his soldering iron on this... I *BARELY* managed to desolder the capacitor with my 50W variable iron... Part of this mod is hard... and then the other part is REALLY REALLY annoyingly hard, lol

I was originally going to make this a guide, but since it was SO difficult, I cannot recommend that *anyone* undertake this mod. Therefore, the only people who will do this are the people who are so confident with their soldering ability that they will go ahead and do this anyway, despite the warnings and recommendations against doing this.

Just in case you missed it:

DO NOT DO THIS MOD AND BLAME ME WHEN YOU MESS UP AND RENDER YOUR X-FI USELESS

Ok, so now you got that in your mind (hopefully), on with the show :)

Note:
I followed the guide and following posts on the excellent thread/guide at Head-fi.org: Hotrodding the X-Fi: A Layman's Guide
Full credit to cotdt for making his guide, else I would not even have bought an X-Fi

Basically, there are four op-amps. These take the output from the DAC (digital-to-analogue converter). One is for the front left and right, the remaining three do the other six channels. Something like one is centre/side-right, one rear-left/side-left, one rear-right/sub.

For improving the main left and right channels you replace the op-amp circled in red, to upgrade any of the surround channels, you have to upgrade all of the remaining op-amps circled in green. It doesn't really make sense to replace just one of the surround op-amps because of the way the channels are assigned to each op-amp.

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The power filter capacitor on the X-Fi smoothes the voltage used by the card, so replacing it with a better quality capacitor will give better quality power, and in turn, better sound.

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Solder braid is essential for soaking up the solder around the op-amp

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So here is a stick of the new op-amps:

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And here is a bag of the caps:

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Ok, work begins, snipped off the main op-amp using micro side-cutters (the stock one, not the new one lol)

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Tada, no more op-amp:

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I could not for the life of me touch the leg of the new op-amp to solder it and not move it out of place (since it's a surface mount component it just slides around really easily), so I used some cunning masking tape. That showed it who's boss!!! :lol:

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Desoldering the capacitor really is as hard as everyone says it is. The PCB just takes away all the heat and it seems as though your iron isn't even on. Finally ending up at maximum heat and after some solder soaking with the braid and a bit of light pulling the capacitor on the other side and one leg came out nice and clean. After a lot of messing about the other leg finally came out but left a load of solder in the hole... this was SO hard to get out, every time you try and heat it to get it out, the board heats and so the solder just clings to the inside of the hole!!! If you had an iron bit tapered to a sharp needle point, that might work. I had to use my regular bit that tapers to 1mm, a 1.5mm drill bit (also some sub millimetre drill bits turned by hand could work here), an actual needle, flux, and a lot of beer!!! I drank the beer, it's not a secret desoldering chemical, just in case you go WAHEY and throw some beer on your card or something :lol:

Erm, where was I then, oh yeah, capacitor desoldered:

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Here's a little comparison of the old (small) and the new (big) capacitors... It's not really a case of bigger is better, it's more a case of Blackgate are some of the best capacitors in the world, and the stock one, well... isn't.

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You can only imagine how happy I was to take this picture of the new capacitor soldered in place. The op-amp took like 3-5 minutes including taking photos. The capacitor, I don't even know how long it took, maybe an hour, two hours? Probably more like an hour cos I had two glasses of beer or so. Quite a long time for one bloody component in anyone's book!

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Ok, and so here is the new cap in place on the board.

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Look back at the stock cap photos to see the difference lol. Remember, you shouldn't do this mod, but if you completely mental or just a soldering iron god, you can bend the capacitor over if you have clearance issues. You shouldn't have clearance issues mounting it like me, and keeping the legs as shorts as possible is ideal, but you're not going to do this mod anyway are you.

Are you? :lol:

So maybe you're wondering "what the hell? why go to all that trouble?". Well, if audio quality is really important to you (it is to me) then improving the sound of an X-Fi to match the sound reproduction of some really top-notch audio gear is definitely worth the effort.

I really don't want to ever have to desolder a capacitor like that ever again lol. Maybe if I had a 200 watt soldering iron or something :lol:

Maybe I should hardmod my soldering iron, hahahhahahaha!

Nah, I don't fancy an exploding ball of molten plastic in my hand and eyes in the middle of soldering lol.



The audio difference:

I haven't tested this yet with RMAA, but subjectively, the sound appears to be coming further from the left and right, it's noticeably clearer, kinda like if you had ears kinda waxy and then cleaned them out and it feels like you have Superman hearing, kinda like that. Not totally waxy or so bunged up like you got water in your ears, but meh... Hopefully someone knows what I'm talking about. It's sorta feels like I upgraded my ears. :)

The sound almost has a live quality about it now, I can almost see the music now, again the difference is semi-subtle, but definitely there.

I'll do some RMAA tests at some point to try and show some figures/graphs etc. :)

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#2 jammin

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 03:36 PM

I'm assuming you just went for replacing both of the parts at once and didn't do a listening test after just replacing the op-amp?

I would still quite like to give this a try. Replacing the op-amp looks pretty straight forward, but I'm not sure I have enough faith in my soldering skills (or soldering iron for that matter) when it comes to replacing the power cap.

I'd quite like to try the EMI/RFI shielding out as well, as that's obviously even more straight forward (no powered tools involved :) ). It's just getting hold of the material that might be tricky.

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#3 hardnrg

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 03:49 PM

Yeah, I didn't have the patience to install the card after doing the op-amp. The consensus seems to be that the op-amp makes a big difference and the capacitor is more subtle.

You n Markie got first dibs on the two spare op-amps I have, so it's a op-amp and a cap for each of you... Jack was too slow so he can just get a slap :lol:

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#4 Iggy

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 03:55 PM

That's really sweet, I think I know what I'm doing with my next paycheck. :D
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#5 jammin

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 04:00 PM

Yeah, I didn't have the patience to install the card after doing the op-amp. The consensus seems to be that the op-amp makes a big difference and the capacitor is more subtle.

You n Markie got first dibs on the two spare op-amps I have, so it's a op-amp and a cap for each of you... Jack was too slow so he can just get a slap :lol:


I'd probably be similarly impatient to be honest :lol:

I'll still take that cap off you, so that if I pluck up the courage I still have the option.
Payment in cash or beer, whichever you would prefer :)

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#6 Andrewr05

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 04:06 PM

Pretty darn good mod there nrg ;)
I plan on doing some "modding/building" within the next few months, its just a bummer that I lack the patience to do a write up...

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#7 jack_of_java

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 04:14 PM

I'm sitting here reading this thread about the work you've done to this card Hard - very impressive that you can do such things. However, I do wonder what the real-life advantages are of using this card? I read the other thread as well, and it seems that those that do this mod are mostly doing audio work with their computers (either HTPC, encoding, etc). I am a wanna-be audiophile, but I don't know if this mod would be for me. I use this particular computer for nothing more than playing games. It is fun to be able to hear people across the map and "soundwhore" the hell out of them. In the end though, I'm just wondering if this would really be worth it for that purpose?

I think Tim Allen said it best, "We have the only blender on the block that can chew up a brick!"

(btw Andrew...excellent coffee now slogan :thumbs-up: )

Edited by jack_of_java, 20 May 2007 - 04:15 PM.


#8 hardnrg

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 04:18 PM

its just a bummer that I lack the patience to do a write up...

Have a camera either with fully charged NiMH batteries in there, or use an AC adaptor, and keep it nearby when you're working, it's fairly easy to take a bunch of pics when the camera is right next to you, usually it's just a case of: turn on, macro mode, click to focus, click-click-click-click (poor light means slow shutter speed, handheld means its hard to avoid blurring, multiple shots usually helps me anyway :)), then turn off, continue working... easy peasy

jack, i guess you gotta ask yourself "am I that particular about audio?"... the sound quality won't really benefit games since the source is usually very poor (game audio is compressed, low-sample-rate, etc etc)

I have two of my computers connected to my amp, I spent several hours making a custom silver/copper cable the other day... I have spent way more on music (records, cds, tapes) and audio equipment than I have ever spent on computers... A lot of my music collection is now digital on my main rig, some of it lossless (flac, ape, wavpack, muspack)...

I care, but I don't think many others would care... would you buy a tape deck for $320? or headphones for $350? or $140 for speaker stands? Do you arrange your room for the best acoustical postioning?

I do. I care. Thousands wouldn't :lol:

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#9 jammin

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 04:19 PM

Well the mod is aimed at improving the playback sound.
For games I'm not sure if it's worth it. It depends how fussy you are and how good your speakers/headphones are.

The main reason I will be doing it is because I listen to a lot of music.
So I want it to sound as good as possible.

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#10 jack_of_java

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 04:33 PM

I only use headphones for gaming...one pair is the Koss Pro4AAT and the other pair is Sennheisen 595's. I love both of them, and I find that each one has particular games they excel better at in quality. But I do accept the compression part. Even with the increase in decoding engines, increase in EAX for example, this doesn't make a difference? Or am I not understanding this too clearly?

Edited by jack_of_java, 20 May 2007 - 04:34 PM.


#11 Andrewr05

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 04:38 PM

Have a camera either with fully charged NiMH batteries in there, or use an AC adaptor, and keep it nearby when you're working, it's fairly easy to take a bunch of pics when the camera is right next to you, usually it's just a case of: turn on, macro mode, click to focus, click-click-click-click (poor light means slow shutter speed, handheld means its hard to avoid blurring, multiple shots usually helps me anyway :)), then turn off, continue working... easy peasy

Yea, my problem is that on the rare occasion that I actually start a mod/project etc... I like to have no distractions of any sort, If I start taking pictures I'll lose my train of though because I'll spend 15 minutes trying to get the perfect shot.
I like to just power through with as little the amount of distractions as possible.

I'm a little unique, if you wanna call it that...

(btw Andrew...excellent coffee now slogan :thumbs-up: )

Thanks
I feel like crap and I'm all foggy if I don't get my coffee (12 cups or more) during the day... :ph34r:

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#12 hardnrg

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Posted 20 May 2007 - 04:41 PM

If you drive the headphones directly from the soundcard, this mod is definitely not for you.

I play games on my main rig, and I generally use my Sennheiser HD280Pro's, but from the headphone output on my amp...

Basically, it *will* sound better for everything, but music will be much more noticeable... I'll fire up some games at some point when I have time and see if it sounds noticeably different :)

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