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Do You Really Need a Discrete Sound Card? 520

crookedvulture writes "Integrated audio has become a common freebie on motherboards, causing many to question whether there's any need to have a sound card. Tech Report took a closer look at the issue by testing the latest integrated Realtek codec against a couple of sound cards: Asus' $30 Xonar DG and its considerably more expensive $280 Xense cousin. Everything from gaming performance to signal quality is explored, and it's the blind listening tests that prove most revealing. The integrated solution is obviously flawed, and in a bit of a surprise, the cheaper Xonar is the one most preferred. Discrete sound cards certainly have their benefits, and you don't need to spend a lot to get something that sounds a lot better than the average motherboard."
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Do You Really Need a Discrete Sound Card?

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  • by Nukenbar ( 215420 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:02PM (#34310330)

    I don't think that I have put a sound card in a game rig in the past 5-8 years. Does anyone still use them besides people who have some some special need for them?

  • Yes, yes I do. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:02PM (#34310332) Journal

    I was plagued with choppy audio under W7 until I disabled my Realtek sound chip and got a Turtle Beach PCI card. Actually, IIRC, CoD4 refused to run at all with Realtek. Never had a problem with it under Linux though. Of course, YMMV.

  • Ghost Recon (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Monkeedude1212 ( 1560403 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:06PM (#34310370) Journal

    Years ago, I got Ghost Recon for Christmas. I had all the minimum specs of the game - and most of the recommended - but one thing never mentioned was a sound card. Now, for normal singleplayer gameplay there was almost never an issue. However, when playing online, where there could be anywhere from 16 to 32 sounds going at once, my game would slow to a screeching hault for the length of the gunfight - essentially making me useless online. I couldn't even play the support class because a full auto-machine gun tended to slow things down a bit, so I never went anything but the sniper and would always run to the flanks to try and avoid my game from hearing any sounds besides my own shots. Had to disable music and some ambient effects just to get that going.

    Since then, now that I'm older and I can afford things on my own - I've never gotten a computer for gaming without a soundcard. I never want to be in that situation again, and I figure dedicated hardware was the way to go (like a good Graphics card helps with the display of things obviously, so I naturally assume a sound-card provides the same assistance with audio).

    Now - whether that's still the case, could I go and grab the latest game, meet minimum specs, and have audio cause lag? I don't know. If so, I think soundcards are still necessary. Especially for the EAX effects and such.

  • by armanox ( 826486 ) <> on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:10PM (#34310406) Homepage Journal

    When I bought my last desktop (2008) I noticed a huge drop in audio quality and volumes going from my SB Live! in my Pentium 4 box to the Realtek HD onboard in the new system. A year ago I added an SB Audigy to my C2D box I noticed a huge jump in the sound output - I didn't have to crank my speakers up to understand speech, recording quality went up, and I started to notice the difference in 128Kb/s vs 192Kb/s (especially on percussion).

  • Re:Yes (Score:3, Interesting)

    by HermMunster ( 972336 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:12PM (#34310428)

    Actually, the built in sound cards are pretty decent, for virtually everything (games, music, videos, etc). The average person doesn't care.

    The built in cards are no more free than the on-board IDE/SATA/USB/network. It's part of the board and it has a component cost. Just because a component can be replaced with a PCI card doesn't mean that the on-board component is free.

  • by ZERO1ZERO ( 948669 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:15PM (#34310476)
    I remember in times gone by, a proper review of a video card would involve scoping the output and looking at the quality of the signal. Likewise with the soundcards, it's so hard to find any real info on them other than 'surround' and 'supports windows'.

    I have a m audio delta 2940 PCI card I bought on ebay and hooking it up to my Tripath 2020 amp with fostex full rangers literally (figuratively) blew me away. The quality of the output compared to the rear output on the SBLive (kx drivers) was night and day. Amazing. I got it to do some digitisation of old audio recordings.

    Does anybody have any quantitive measurements of the Apri 2010 Mac book pro As i'm interested in doing some recording with that wondered how good a quality I'm likely to get.

  • Re:Yes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Pojut ( 1027544 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:18PM (#34310500) Homepage

    In my experience, the only time it's worth having a discrete sound card is if you have a kick-ass set of headphones (or speaker setup). For the average $100 set of headphones/$400 speaker setup? Totally unecessary. Now, it's worth it if you want "surround" virtualization with headphones, but otherwise, again, totally unecessary.

    Of course, if you truly care about sound quality, you'll just use a digital output (either through USB or Optical) and buy a nice external DAC, thereby completely bypassing any potential electrical interference generated from a sound card.

    Note: I run an ATH-AD700 off my built-in sound card and I think it sounds great, so no accusations of audiodouchebaggery on my part, please.

  • Re:No (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:29PM (#34310628) Homepage Journal

    I've gone through various cards and I can definitely tell a difference between grades. The gold shielded $1000 cables are bullshit; but an obscenely thin aluminum cable will destroy sound and video quality (there are truly shit products out there), and the solution to that is a $12 RCA cable (audio/video/stereo) instead of the chinese crap that came with your game system.

    A low-end SB Live! or SB Audigy card, however, works wonderfully. The Emu10k1 chipset in the audigy clearly provides a higher grade than a Yamaha card (the YMF724 chipset is horrible, I've had 3 and the lowest grade one would play 128kbit/s MP3s sounding like 16kbit/s by some ungodly magic), and in a less dramatic fashion provides a clear improvement over an on-board AC97 Via or Realtek. It's to the point that they both sound fine; but if you listen to both you'll pick it up easy, and if you're used to one or the other then switching will generate a shocking "wow that's good" or "wow that's bad" reaction.

    One thing that surprised me was when I switched to using my Motorola Cliq (shitty phone) for an MP3 player. I figured it would have the same (or worse) sound quality as my 64 gig iPod, but when I plugged the headphones (that I was using for the iPod) into it I was immediately surprised by the massive improvement in sound quality. There was a less dramatic difference between the iPod video and USB-stick (i.e. 512M) Shuffle; the Shuffle was vaguely better, but not much.

    It's there. It's not game-setting, but it's there.

  • Re:Well... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pz ( 113803 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:29PM (#34310630) Journal

    My motherboard has optical SPDIF in and I'd never use a DAC in the PC environment, it's just too noisy.

    I used to think the same thing too. Amazingly enough, you can engineer your way around the noise and create a very good sound card, at least from my informal experience with a handful of different cards. That said, most motherboard solutions (including laptop versions, unfortunately) are nearly worthless because of the price optimization pressure.

    Some years ago, I had an undergraduate student design an audio I/O card for a research computer we were developing. She did a remarkably good job. Despite being buried in the middle of an environment with a fair bit of electrical noise, the card produced quite good sound that was essentially as quiet as it would be as if it were in a separate enclosure. She had proper power supply and ground isolation, local re-regulation, and ran all signal traces on internal layers with ground/power planes on the external faces of the PCB. Worked great.

  • Re:Yes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by HermMunster ( 972336 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:35PM (#34310680)

    I've been in the industry for about 25 years. And I can tell. I have a media center set up with about 15 speakers in all. I definitely can tell. I don't disagree with you that sound quality and features are better with an add-in card. I just don't agree that sound quality is that bad with on-board audio.

  • by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:44PM (#34310802)

    I prefer language to be understandable in both its written and spoken forms.

    It is, but that's why we have separate dialects for speech and for writing. There's no need to compensate for the weaknesses of one in the dialect used for the other.

  • Re:No (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:49PM (#34310878) Homepage Journal

    Gold shield? I've never seen any cable that used anything for the shield other than either aluminum foil (with a drain wire) or a braided copper or silver shield. Even the expensive cables almost invariably use copper in one form or another. Gold is a poor conductor and would make an awful shield. It's only used to coat connectors because it doesn't oxidize.

    Cheap cables can degrade the sound, mostly by having too small a wire gauge for the main conductor. Thus, on average, judging cables by their diameter tends to result in a better metric for sound quality than any other factor you could pick....

    Regarding the Motorola phone versus an iPod, that's probably an impedance matching issue. Different pieces of hardware are optimized for driving headphones with different impedance ratings. If the headphones have too low an impedance, you'll load the output down too much and sound quality will suffer. This suggests that the Motorola phone probably has lower output impedance. If you used a pair of higher impedance headphones, you probably wouldn't hear much, if any difference between the same two devices. (Either that or you have an EQ setting set wrong on your iPod.)

  • Re:Phirst phoast (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) * on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:50PM (#34310900) Journal

    If you record audio, yes. If you don't, no.

    Absolutely right, but not only if you intend to record new audio. If you intend to podcast or make music with your computer, whether with MIDI instruments, or by using found sounds or with a microphone and guitar, you'll want to have a discrete audio adapter.

    And it can be done very cheaply with professional results. USB audio adapters, with included pre-amps for mics and direct instrument connections, can be had for well under $100. And once you get the audio into the computer, you'll want to be able to hear it loudly and accurately, using the outputs on the adapter. Though many home music producers say it's absolutely necessary to use a pair of high-quality (audio) monitors to mix down the sound, a lot of passable work can be done with a good pair of headphones (though you'll have to make some adjustments to compensate), especially if you're doing electronica or dance music.

    I designed the computer music lab at a major university, with a big fat budget, and I've helped students get off the ground with a few hundred bucks (including a midi controller).

    Commercial-quality audio production has never been more accessible, and that makes me happy if for no other reason than that it can cut the major record labels out of the chain from idea to finished product.

  • Re:Yes (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zuzulo ( 136299 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @06:25PM (#34311266) Homepage

    BTW, in my experience going with any onboard sound card is not the best way to go these days. I used to use lots of different high end sound cards, but now that new high end DACs (digital analog converter) actually have USB input, the best way to get sound out of a computer/digital device is the same way you get it off a high end turntable or CD transport - go from source to DAC, then convert it. The device drivers that allow you to treat an attached USB device as a digital audio device are very good, available for all platforms, and quite simple.

    So forget the sound card completely (and definitely dont use the onboard sound), go with a DAC that has USB and you will be amazed. Can also pick and choose a DAC that suits your requirements and pricepoint without messing about with your system config ... Like i said, this is a huge deal for folks who like to use computer based audio sources. Least it has been for me ...

  • by nxtw ( 866177 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @07:01PM (#34311692)

    When I bought my last desktop (2008) I noticed a huge drop in audio quality and volumes going from my SB Live! in my Pentium 4 box to the Realtek HD onboard in the new system. A year ago I added an SB Audigy to my C2D box I noticed a huge jump in the sound output - I didn't have to crank my speakers up to understand speech, recording quality went up, and I started to notice the difference in 128Kb/s vs 192Kb/s (especially on percussion).

    I have used many systems with integrated audio, mostly with Realtek codecs, and have never had any of the problems you describe... except when using Linux and ALSA. Things were fine when using OSS4, Mac OS X, or Windows.

  • Sure (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @07:47PM (#34312060)

    One reason is simply quality. The built in soundcards are fine, but they are optimized for cost, not quality. I had that problem at work. Figured I'd use the built in soundcard since I wasn't doing anything really critical. However it had an audible hiss with my headphones plugged in. It couldn't handle the low impedance load well, and an audible hiss was the result. Really annoying.

    Another can be compatibility issues. Sometimes internal cards fall over on certain things for whatever reason. I again had this problem at work with a newer system. The quality was acceptable, but it kept skipping, dropping audio, and so on in certain circumstances. Had to do with using pro software that talked to it via kernel streaming. It supported that (all WDM soundcards do by definition) but had problems. Getting another card fixed the issue.

    Yet another is features. Perhaps you want outputs not supported by your card. Most internal soundcards don't do Dolby Digital Live or DTS Interactive meaning only 2.0 sound out via S/PDIF. Well maybe you want to do 5.1 digitally to your receiver (since most receivers don't do any advanced processing on analogue signals). So you get a card that does support it.

    Games would be still another reason. There are a lot of games out there that use hardware sound acceleration if available, and some that demand it. While that means confining yourself to cards with Creative Labs processors (cards from Creative or Auzentech) lots of people go for that. In some cases it is just a minor speed increase and not really worth it, in others the game demands hardware to give you good quality sound.

    So while it is far from universal, it isn't all that uncommon either.

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