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Music Upgrades Hardware

Ode To Sound Blaster: Are Discrete Audio Cards Still Worth the Investment? 502

Posted by timothy
from the won't-fit-in-my-phone dept.
MojoKid (1002251) writes "Back in the day (which is a scientific measurement for anyone who used to walk to school during snowstorms, uphill, both ways), integrated audio solutions had trouble earning respect. Many enthusiasts considered a sound card an essential piece to the PC building puzzle. It's been 25 years since the first Sound Blaster card was introduced, a pretty remarkable feat considering the diminished reliance on discrete audio in PCs, in general. These days, the Sound Blaster ZxR is Creative's flagship audio solution for PC power users. It boasts a signal-to-noise (SNR) of 124dB that Creative claims is 89.1 times better than your motherboard's integrated audio solution. It also features a built-in headphone amplifier, beamforming microphone, a multi-core Sound Core3D audio processor, and various proprietary audio technologies. While gaming there is no significant performance impact or benefit when going from onboard audio to the Sound Blaster ZxR. However, the Sound Blaster ZxR produced higher-quality in-game sound effects and it also produces noticeably superior audio in music and movies, provided your speakers can keep up."
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Ode To Sound Blaster: Are Discrete Audio Cards Still Worth the Investment?

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  • Re:No. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PIBM (588930) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @05:26PM (#47427243) Homepage

    Onboard sound is fine, but a lot of motherboard don't have support for creating dolby digital live output. In fact, I am currently in the market for a lowly priced card that would do just this. For once I could simply move my card to the next computer, no matter which motherboard it is.

    Is there a correctly priced (30$ perhaps ?) sound card that only do optical and coaxial output, with dolby digital live support ? We have very good surround received, I see no reason not to use those DAC and power amplifier with our nice speakers to get the sound out.

    No I don't want to use HDMI; the video feed cause problem, and my monitors are too high res for hdmi anyway (not 2.0, but they don't support it either).

  • Re:Boycott Creative (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 10, 2014 @05:31PM (#47427299)

    Citation: http://www.wired.com/2008/03/c... [wired.com]

  • Re:No. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mjwalshe (1680392) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @05:47PM (#47427455)
    on-board tends to have problems with noise - a problem that an external shielded sound card massively reduces also pro or semi pro cards have better zero latency drivers.
  • Re:No. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sumdumass (711423) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @06:03PM (#47427585) Journal

    I stopped buying high end discrete sound cards a long time ago. I still buy and use discrete cards when I build a system and sometimes when trouble shooting them though.

    It might be more out of habit since I started buying and building computers when sound was almost always an add on. On Board sound probably wasn't even invented then. One thing that always annoyed me was on board devices going south and not enough expansion slots to add a card in. This used to be common with on board sound and network devices. It's also so much easier pulling a card to trouble shoot hardware issues than turning one off in the bias and hoping it actually disabled the chip. I've seen some plug and play happenings turn the devices back on once the OS booted.

    I cannot tell a big difference in sound quality or CPU overhead any more either. But I guess habits are hard to break.

  • No (Score:4, Interesting)

    by goldcd (587052) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @06:27PM (#47427755) Homepage
    I was once horrifically stung (what I realize was a very long time ago) with an Abit "audiomax" soundcard that came with my motherboard. Quite horrific interference amongst the many problems. In a fit of pique I bought an Asus Xonar that solved all my problems immediately.

    Since then, I've been through a few motherboards, but plugged that Xonar in, and it's definitely 'better'

    Now if I didn't have that Xonar, then I'd be as happy as the proverbial Larry with my on-board sound I can get today. On-board sound is quite definitely 'good enough' now, but seems a shame for people not to realize (if they care) they can make it a great deal better for a pretty low price.

    And, I've carried this card with me for quite a while as my GPUs have come and gone. The price I've paid for my slightly better sound is now practically nothing per year.

    I think people still care about sound, but it's just another check-box on your slightly more pimped mobo - in much the same way as a I got a deluxe board with an Intel network adaptor in addition to the Realtek.

    It doesn't really matter that much, I don't expect most people to care, but to say that on-board is good enough for all simply isn't true.

    My current on-board is wired to my desk speakers for the day to day stuff I want to listen to, and the Xonar is connected to my silly-number-of-speakers gaming headset.
  • Re:No. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by IronChef (164482) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @06:30PM (#47427767) Homepage

    I am not sure even gamers need sound cards any more... at least not those who don't use headphones. I have a 7.1 movie surround system hooked to a PC, and the Windows itself magically mixes sound bits into the HDMI stream coming from my Nvidia GPU. In games, I get as many discrete sound channels as the game software supports, plus I can push most any kind of bitstream (including DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD) from media files.

    With a complete digital path, what does a sound card have to offer me? I guess AMD is making some sound co-processor stuff that might make neat effects at low CPU usage, but I'll need to see some really killer apps for that before it looks remotely attractive.

  • Re:No. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Technician (215283) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @07:05PM (#47427977)

    Many of the earlier SB cards were known for a fixed clock, regardless of what the software was set for. This limited clock rate was the issue of many complaints of those looking for full 20-20K without artifacts. Once this reputation was cast, the line was considered as consumer grade and not better. Same applied to bit depth. The driver would accept many settings beyond the 16 bit DAC. Other cards had higher clocks and bits, and testing for the card performance showed the true limits.

    Link below shows some of the real testing on this card beyond just golden ears. Look at the frequency output of noise and note what is NOT reproduced. Then scroll down a look at the extended frequency response of the cards in the test. SB hit a wall way before the competition.

    http://www.clarisonus.com/Rese... [clarisonus.com]

  • Re:USB DACs (Score:5, Interesting)

    by harrkev (623093) <kfmsd@harrelsonf ... minus physicist> on Thursday July 10, 2014 @07:13PM (#47428019) Homepage

    A USB audio interface also lies outside the electrically noisy interior of a PC chassis.

    Strong caution with USB audio. There is a metric buttload of cheap USB adapters, While they technically work, they typically lack analog filtering that gets rid of higher harmonics. If you look at the output on an oscilloscope, instead of a smooth wave, you see the actual steps. Better audio hardware should have filters to smooth this stuff out.

    Another MAJOR thing is inducing noise into the output. This is not just for USB cards, but all audio solutions. You need some pretty good filtering between the digital and analog power domains -- yet another area where cheap sound can skimp. Hey, let's shave $0.05 off by dropping this capacitor and inductor!

    The original article really touches on two separate areas:
    1) Audio processing
    2) Higher quality audio circuitry

    SoundBlaster (and other gaming-oriented cards) typically do both. However, do you really NEED both? The audio processing stuff is supposed to provide an API that games can use to make thing sound more realistic, or offload audio processing from software to hardware, or both. It can typically decode various dolby flavors, and do some other fancy DSP-ish type stuff. Do you really NEED all of that? If so, then maybe a gaming card is for you.

    However, what if you want the best sound possible, the lowest noise possible, and don't really game or use the various audio enhancements? You just want a plain-vanilla sound card, but with the highest quality audio. Where to do? Skip the computer store, but go to your local MUSIC store (not the ones that sell CD's, the ones that sell GUITARS). Those cards skip all of the DSP bells and whistles, but have the best-quality DACs and filtering that you can find. You can find some really good USB solutions that will blow on-board audio out of the water for about $100 or so. Of course, you can go crazy and spend $500 or more if you want. If it is good enough for a music producer to use in a studio (who makes his or her living off of the sound), it is probably good enough for YOUR music and movies.

  • Re:No. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Desler (1608317) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @07:20PM (#47428075)

    Why do you lump Klipsch in with Monster Cables? The founder of Klipsch is renown for debunking many crap claims made by many speaker makers similar to the nonsense claims that Monster makes. Perhaps you mean "No highs. No lows. It's Bose"? K-horns, for example, have always been solid speakers.

  • by Zaelath (2588189) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @08:11PM (#47428337)

    It was this for me: http://gizmodo.com/373748/crea... [gizmodo.com]

    They had a weak point about the donations, but what they were really pissed about was not being able to force Vista users to buy a new sound card...

  • Re:USB DACs (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 10, 2014 @09:14PM (#47428649)

    Everybody listen to Harrkev.
    Working as an audio professional, and electrical design hobbyist who has designed many audio circuits, I agree 100% with his statements.

    USB in particular is some noisy shite if it's not done properly and corners are cut, it can also be really great for the price if done right.

    And yes, spending $100 on a used pro audio interface at a music shop can get you the quality of a brand new $500 interface if you know whats what.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 10, 2014 @10:04PM (#47428859)

    I thought you used them to build a cheap Oscilloscope...

    http://makezine.com/2007/11/24/turn-your-soundcard-into-an-os/

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