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I'm having trouble with my studio monitors (headphones as well). They are JBL 104s, which are pretty affordable entry level speakers. I've got a handful of headphones, typically between 32 ohm and 64 ohm.

It came with a 3.5mm TRS to 2x RCA, which connected fine to my standard PC output (Realtek ALC892) and also worked with a cheap USB headphone DAC (Fiio K1).

I'm not sure what spec is relevant to this, but the USB DAC is 100 dB SNR for reference. The Realtek ALC892 seems to be 95 dB SNR.

It seemed fine at first, but I typically had to set the volume knob at 60% minimum. The volume seems low in general, and I'm not sure if this is normal. I routinely have to go to 60-80% volume. And I noticed the speakers produce some form of harmonic distortion at high volume levels, which is absolutely not acceptable for mixing as it's making me see clipping where there is none.

I'd prefer if the monitor provided sufficient output at around 30-50% volume level.

I ended up getting a PCI-e soundcard, Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus. Albeit intended for gamers, it seemed to have a better DAC than my onboard or even my Fiio K1. It even had ASIO drivers (although, they seem to be a bit buggy). The soundcard's DAC has a 122 db SNR. This translated to my speakers being slightly louder, although not as much as I would have liked. Significant harmonic distortion still occurred around 80% volume on the JBL speakers.

When connecting headphones to my JBL monitors, they were significantly quieter compared to my headphones being connected directly to the soundcard. This was a bit troubling, as it seems to imply a sort of "de-amplification", i.e., signal strength is lost somehow.

So I'm not sure if it's these specific studio monitors that are just not good, or if I need some sort of dedicated audio interface with a proper pre-amp. I've looked at the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4, but it's USB powered entirely; is that really enough to pre-amp a professional studio monitor and headphones simultaneously?

Are my expectations unrealistic, or am I just not paying enough for proper gear? Does using balanced audio cables instead of unbalanced make a big difference?

I'd appreciate a technical explanation of any sound concepts related to what I'm noticing, such as SNR, gain, amplification, THD or anything else.

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Your first priority here should be your own hearing. Check the actual sound levels in the room.

Listening to anything over 75dB for prolonged periods (as we doo with music and sound design) WILL cause permanent damage. Here's an article from the WHO about safe listening levels and hearing protection.

You can use a sound level meter on your phone to get a good idea of what level you're listening at - not super accurate but close enough - I use the Bosch iNVH app (free) but there are plenty of others out there, both free and paid.

Sweetwater calibrate their studios to around 70dB although they also have some at 85db. It should be noted, however, that these are professional studios: usually larger spaces with LOTS of acoustic treatment to prevent the sound from bouncing around and causing artificially louder frequency peaks from standing waves and with working standards that enforce listening breaks for the engineers.

If you are not mixing in a professional grade studio with tons of acoustic treatment and mandatory breaks then I would strongly advise mixing at a lower volume to give yourself the chance of a longer career in audio.

In order to make sure your signal is at the best SNR you need to set it as high as possible without clipping throughout your chain. If your sound car is rated at 95dB SNR then you should be aiming for around the 90-92 mark coming from there. You'll also need to allow for the different frequency biases of all the equipment along the chain and in your room (a frequency sweep test from 20 to 20,000hz while watching a sound meter should help to find any hotspots here) and adjust downwards to compensate. the last bit of reduction to a reasonable listening level should happen right at the end of the chain - in your case; the monitors where, as outlined above, you should set the whole thing to comfortable and safe level. In my studio everything goes through the mixer, eq, etc as hot as the equipment will allow without clipping and the only control I use to lower the volume in the room is the one on my monitors.

There's no 'right' answer here because your room is going to be different to anyone else's and therefore have different acoustic properties and so different frequency peaks to watch out for when setting a listening level.

I may be a little out of touch here but I don't think even the most modern built in soundcards are the best things to be running high quality audio through - I don't think you need to break the bank for these things but I do think you'd be better off getting something aimed a little more at the professional market to help rid yourself of some of the internal noise from your PC. This noise is not in coming from the card itself so the manufacturer can tell you that, running on their specialised test rig, their card has a 95dB SNR but in the real world, running things inside you PC can get noisy from all of the other things in there such as the CPU and GPU fans or mechanical hard-drives. A more professional card will be protected agaist things like that.

I hope that helps

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  • I appreciate the advice on calibration/acoustics, I'll keep that in mind! I do intend to work at low volumes for mixing. But for some tasks such as sound design/effect adjustments, I need medium volume for clarity. I'm simply confused with how to drive speakers or headphones optimally. Basic "onboard audio" may not provide enough "gain" to the speakers or headphones, and might even cause interference or subtle noise in some cases.
    – bryc
    Jun 30 at 18:12

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