I did it. After too much messing around with cables and computer direct boxes of different types, I broke down and bought a USB audio interface for our church's presentation computer (ProPresenter, PowerPoint, etc.) in order to replace the PC direct box used to connect the unbalanced stereo audio signal from the computer's headphone output to the balanced input on the audio mixer.
No matter what we did with the new all-in-one computer (one that someone else picked out), the self-noise at the headphone jack (its only analog audio output) was simply more than I could bear. When playing music, the noise was not noticeable, but between songs (no matter the gain staging), anyone could hear just a bit of constant "hashy" noise, if they listened for it.
Some people blame this type of noise on electrical grounding, some on radio frequency noise from spinning hard drives, some describe it as clock noise. Whatever caused it in this case, it's not something that could be addressed by converting the unbalanced signal to a balanced line with a direct box, by proper system grounding, or by anything conventional, so I gave in and spent some of our fiercely-guarded budget money, and the noise is gone. There are lots of USB audio interfaces out there, but everywhere I look lately (even in places where we didn't sell them), we see the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or other Focusrite variants. The Scarlett 2i2 is a 2x2 USB audio interface that can be used to play back or to record audio. In most cases, people buy USB interfaces in order to record, but in this application, stereo playback is what we're after. And the Scarlett 2i2 does it really well.
We use the 2i2 for our SMAART system analysis setups, for recording and for playback. Focusrite interfaces are the perfect partner for Pro Tools, so Scarlett 2i2 comes with Pro Tools | First recording software, as well as Ableton Live Lite and a suite of software and samples so you can start recording straight away. As you’d expect, it works flawlessly with all major DAWs on Mac and PC. It's a handy device, for sure. And at $169.99, it may just be exactly what you need.
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