Having owned the M Audio FW Audiophile, I believe this is the weak link. I moved on to the Wavelength Audio Brick, and now the Cosecant; both are a major step up and should beat the CD playback.
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Your usb dac is a weak link, I play mine through a slightly modified Scott Nixon dac and it is wonderful. I've also heard good things from friends who have heard the Wavelength, but I have not heard it myself.
Have you bypassed windows kmixer with an asio plugin. If not it will sound as you have described.
Wish I bought a U24 when it was still available :(
The U24 is a great device. Keep an eye out on Ebay or in some of the headfi forums. The U24 will change your way of thinking in terms of your original post. I got mine on Ebay for $40 and am certainly satisfied enough in keeping this in my system until the technology matures. There are other devices, however I like the array of available input/outputs and it's ability to be utilized for other applications.
Just the analog outs straight into my preamp blew me away initially and forced me to be more serious with the "PC as a transport" gimmick. Since then I've been able to aquire an EAD DSP-7000 MkII, Museatex Melior and Cal Alpha DACs to audition utilizing the U24 strictly as a 44.1 khz pass-through device (lossless files fed through Foobar/ASIO.dll). I must say that a good DAC will remove any hint of digital glare that the U24 may be conveying. I found the Museatex to be extremely detailed, the Cal Alpha to be the most analog sounding and the EAD to sound almost as if it were a hybrid of the other two DACS. Still trying to decide...
Bottom line, I believe that in terms of strictly Redbook you can't go wrong with the U24 and a bargain priced older DAC. I think that since jitter reduction is inherent to the "PC as a transport" option, then perhaps these older DACs can do a better job of just being a DAC. I think you'll be changing your view in very short order, and for little investment be enjoying music in an exciting new way. Have fun.
I bought a used U24 on Ebay.
Its SPDIF output is much better than the one of M Audio Firewire Audiophile.
Haven't tested the analog out of the U24 though.
If I was to rank the different setup, it would be:
1) PC - Foobar (Asio) - U24 - Stax Dac - PM15S1 - Met 7.7
2) Micromega Premium DVD2 - Stax Dac - PM15S1 - Met 7.7
3) Micromega Premium DVD2 - PM15S1 - Met 7.7
4) PC - Foobar (Asio) - M Audio - Stax Dac - PM15S1 - Met 7.7
5) PC - Foobar (Asio) - M Audio - PM15S1 - Met 7.7
More listening is needed to "rank" option 1) and 2), but it's so nice to hear a huge playlist without having to change CDs or sacrificing sound quality.
Anyone wants to buy a M Audio? :)