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Music Hardware Games

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 ElMiguel ( 117685 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:01PM (#34310324)
    As opposed to what? Continuous sound card?
  • 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?

    • 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: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by nxtw ( 866177 )

        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 cod

    • by HermMunster ( 972336 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:19PM (#34310516)

      Sound cards used to be sold because their ability to decode sound was done on the card rather than having the CPU doing it, which would slow down the gaming performance (somewhat). I'm sure that sound cards also have other features not found in on-board chipsets, but most of those are for things like high end gaming.

      About 7 years ago I remember getting an on-board NVIDIA chipset that had hardware decoding of mp3 files. The CPU utilization of the system without the hardware decoding the CPU jumped to about 45% continuous while playing back the mp3 file. On the rig with the NVIDIA chipset with hardware decoding the CPU utilization was nearly imperceptible. It became to expensive for NVIDIA to offer those for long so they replaced them with generic sound chipsets.

    • I might be the special need, but yes, I do. The reason is because I have my PC hooked into my entertainment center. The last time I bought a motherboard, I could not find one with the socket and memory type I wanted that also had a digital-output for the sound on the motherboard. I finally just picked up a used Turtle Beach off Amazon, and now I got surround from my computer again.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Luckyo ( 1726890 )

      My own machine still has audigy2 I bought long, long ago, and that has been in at least 2 other systems before. My parents, who usually get my "hand downs" use ancient SB live!

      Both machines have realtek on board audio, and even my father, who is not audiophile by any stretch noticed a difference in spite of using some crappy 50€ speaker+mic set on that machine after I put SB Live in (his words were something among the lines of "whatever you did to our computer, it sounds different. I like it more that

    • Sure (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 )

      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 thi

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

    by Hatta ( 162192 )

    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.

  • by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:04PM (#34310348) Journal

    Only if what you listen to requires discretion.

  • Well... (Score:5, Informative)

    by CSFFlame ( 761318 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:04PM (#34310352)
    I would like it point out that a good card lets you recieve certain inputs that a normal card would not, such as both coax and optical SPDIF. I also would say that much of the audio quality comes from the DACs and Sampling rate conversion.
    • Re:Well... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by afidel ( 530433 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:21PM (#34310536)
      My motherboard has optical SPDIF in and I'd never use a DAC in the PC environment, it's just too noisy. If you need high quality DAC you need to do it in a breakout box so you're either looking at a midlevel USB/Firewire card or a high level PCI(e) card. As to sample rate conversion does SB still incorrectly do automatically upscale on incoming SPDIF?
      • 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.

        • by afidel ( 530433 )
          I guess it's possible, I just never got acceptable results with any of the prosumer cards I tried until I started using external break out boxes which was either a very high end feature for internal cards or available on midrange external cards so the choice to use the external all in one boxes was a no brainer for me =)
  • No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BitZtream ( 692029 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:05PM (#34310362)

    I don't.

    But I don't do anything that revolves around audio.

    Of course 99.5% of the people who claim to be audiophiles and claim they can 'tell the difference' don't need one either. Its just a different type of epenis.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      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 tha

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by dgatwood ( 11270 )

        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 diame

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          ... Gold is a poor conductor ...

          Gold is a superior conductor to aluminum and not much worse than copper. I'm guessing its cost has more to do with aluminum winning out on low end shielding. :)

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by DarthBart ( 640519 )

      I put my PC into a wooden case so the bits would properly resonate before being sent to the speakers.

  • 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.

    • Re:Ghost Recon (Score:4, Informative)

      by dunezone ( 899268 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:53PM (#34310932) Journal
      Back in the day a decent sound card would have its own on-board processor. This processor would take over the work of processing sound and relieve the burden from the actual CPU of the machine which was needed for other critical activities same concept as a GPU. Sounds to me the processing of the sound was different from single-player to multiplayer, maybe there was extra over head to process where the sounds were coming from within the environment. That extra overhead was put your CPU over the edge. Of course disabling the sound helped your game play. But today with multi-core processing and fast processors this is less of a concern and doesn't create the bottle neck like it used to. Heck, we might be seeing CPU/GPU combos on the same chip in the near future, I believe AMD and ATI were working on that?
  • Sometimes Yes You Do (Score:2, Informative)

    by sanjacguy ( 908392 )
    I have a MB with a built in RealTek sound 'card'. I also run Windows XP 64, cause I'm crazy. The RealTek system for XP 64 is notoriously unstable. When I played Champions Online, the game would disable the sound because it could and would crash the program. Borderlands took it the other route - you can run the program, but you will always crash when you hit level 10, due to the special level 'ding' sound for level 10. Solution? Get a sound card, or a new OS.
  • Realtek's sound chips / drivers don't play nice with a few games I enjoy, namely NWN1 & other Aurora Engine games.

  • 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.

    They reveal the authors insistence on going into excruciating detail on everything. Maybe his attention to detail makes him a better audio engineer/evaluator, but honestly we would have been fine with "The subjects preferred X card for Y music by a substantial margin"...

  • If you buy a set of not-too-expensive surround speakers (I have the Edifier 501s - a bargain at $150 a few years ago) then you should go for a discrete soundcard imho. If you're just going to pipe the sound through a couple of $5 speakers, then don't bother.

  • Vinyl (Score:4, Insightful)

    by drumcat ( 1659893 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:14PM (#34310466)
    People like vinyl better than digital audio sometimes. This isn't new. Leave discrete cards to us professionals and audiophiles. You iPod earbud wearing types, feel free to use integrated stuff. It's much better than it used to be. It's not external, but anymore it doesn't need to be. It's "good enough". Why is this a debate?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by KiloByte ( 825081 )

      Vinyl is strictly worse than any semi-modern solution when technical merits are concerned. The only reason you can have vinyls that sound better is because of the bastard recording industry and their loudness war [].

      • Re:Vinyl (Score:5, Insightful)

        by radish ( 98371 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:29PM (#34310624) Homepage

        Or because people prefer the sound of vinyl, coloration and all. You can measure the performance of a medium and determine which is the most neutral (or the "best" from a technical pov), but that doesn't always equate to the one which people think sounds "best" to their ears. I get into this a lot with audio fans who say that their $xxxx gear sounds "better" than something much cheaper, despite the test results saying the cheaper one is as good or better from a transparency pov - our ears don't always like transparent (tube amps are great evidence of that!).

  • 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.

  • My HTPC uses my ATI card as the soundcard - HDMI audio. Which is nice because it does support the necessary protected path audio so I can play my blu-rays and send the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio over HDMI.

    My laptop has a USB dongle that encodes 5.1 audio into a DTS or DD stream so I can play games with surround. Again, not likely something to have onboard anymore (the old nVidia chipsets used to have a DD encoder).

    And there's also the music (though usually they go for Firewire or USB interfaces?)

    • Which is nice because it does support the necessary protected path audio

      The protected audio path is suddenly "necessary" and "nice"?!?

      What the hell... man, please get an audio player software that disregards DRM (Blu-Ray DRM has been defeated) and you'll be able to send this to any sound card no matter if it degrades to the protected audio path or not.

  • it depends on what you buy. i bought a creative x-treme music card years ago. its sound quality (coupled with an altec lansing fx6021 speaker set) is "beyond". i have stopped using our family's beloved 5 rack pioneer set with its expensive speakers.

    both x-treme music card and altec lansing fx6021 were rather cheap. no, you really dont need to spend $400 on a hipster-labeled 'Beyond gameRx SuperCardBrand', but, you should spend some if you want to get some.

    unfortunately both xtreme music and fx6021 are
  • That question really seems to depend on your budget and your motherboard...

    If you are in the really cheap seats, you should probably spend whatever audio money you have on speakers or headphones that don't utterly suck. OK speakers/headphone drivers are still much trickier than OK silicon amps and DACs. On the other hand, a lot of today's fancy motherboards are happy to output S/PDIF in your choice of optical or electrical, which lets the DACs and amplification in your receiver, which can be of virtually
  • by alen ( 225700 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:21PM (#34310544)

    used to spend $250 or so on a sound card in the old days but in the last few years the onboard chips have become good enough. the worst part about the old Audigy cards was you had to install all the crappy software that most people didn't use

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:22PM (#34310550)

    How am I supposed to gloat about how awesome my sound setup is if I don't have a discrete sound card? Instead of wasting time with blind listening tests, they should go to a bar, walk up to a woman and say:

    Hey, baby, wanna come home and listen to my 7.1-channel, 24-bit, 192kHz Xense sound card while I rock you all night long?


    Excuse me, miss, would you like to come home and listen to my integrated sound card while I cry about my ex-girlfriend and prematurely ejaculate?

    This is what I call real-life testing scenarios.

  • Dude, I remember back in the day when I got a Creative AWE 64 Gold card. That's right, the ISA one with the gold-plated RCA outputs, expandable RAM, and general kickassery.

    I still have the shiny plastic bit that came on the front of the box! It's sitting just to the left of the framed Fuckwad Theory print [].

  • Despite Creative's very rocky buggy drivers early on and design issues with early X-FI's The Fatality Tittanium card has been incredible compared to my built in audio on my intel board.

    I could NEVER get line in to work on the realtek stuff. It was always flakey, the drivers first said it wasnt possible due to a design bug, then a year later they updated and line in was there... but it barely functioned right. I use line in because I have 2 workstations next to each other.

    So I went and bought an XFI... think

  • It's the noise (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Chemisor ( 97276 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @05:29PM (#34310634)

    The main reason to get a discrete card is the noise. Onboard audio always puts out white noise to the speakers, which you really can hear in a quiet environment. My Xonar D2X puts out no noise at all; you can put your ear right to the speaker and hear nothing. This way I can leave the speakers on instead of having to turn them on each time I want to watch a movie and turn them back off again to avoid the damn noise grating on my ears. The card's sound quality is excellent and Linux fully supports it.

    • Even more relevant: the *recording* noise. On-board microphone inputs usually pick up more noise from the CPU & other chips than the signal you actually want; line inputs are not much better. Even for speech applications like skype, msn etc. it's very annoying if you hear the constant rattle from your PC or the other side. If you want to do even moderately serious sound recording, a discrete card is a must.
  • I do lots of stuff with DSP, playing with various sorts of digital modulation and demodulation. While the crappiest sound interface can capture everything there is to capture from a communications-quality audio signal, it's handy to have some extra signal-to-noise ratio or sampling rate for particular applications. I've played with PSK31 [], HF weather fax [] and weather satellites [].


  • Not as opposed to unsound engineers... but my Sax teacher (I'm learning tenor sax) has a 'dream rig' that he's configured, which involves an Audigy card or some such. He's pretty set on it, and knows what he's talking about (did a Sound Audio Engineering course).

    So yes, sometimes.

  • Naturally this answer will vary depending on job-type requirements, but in general, if you're playing games or playing back music, the answer is now a pretty cut and dry "No".

    For many years integrated sound sucked. I would purposefully look for boards that didn't include it when motherboard shopping (didn't want unused ports on my board). Lately though, integrated sound - and network, has gotten to the point where it's good enough for anyone not wanting to indulge in a specialty/niche action.

    Sound cards j

  • DDLive/DTS Connect (Score:3, Informative)

    by otis wildflower ( 4889 ) on Monday November 22, 2010 @06:09PM (#34311128) Homepage

    If you want digital surround sound for a HTPC, you want Dolby Digital Live or DTS Connect to transcode into DD/DTS bitstream into your HT receiver.

    AFAIK there are currently ZERO onboard sound chips that do this.

    Yes, you could run 6 cables from the back of the HTPC into the analog preamp ins on your receiver (assuming it isn't a skinny modern HTPC-in-a-box that only has SPDIF or HDMI in) but you'd likely also end up with hum and other strange sound artifacts from the chintzy DAC..

    These days, I'd _REALLY_ prefer a dump of 5.1 LPCM over HDMI, and it's technically probably easier to do to boot, or at least less license-y..

  • by ModelX ( 182441 ) on Tuesday November 23, 2010 @04:57AM (#34315346)

    PC audio testers always forget to test for the influence of power supply on output noise. I noticed simply changing the power supply makes a big difference to the output noise level. Also some ventilators and other PC components draw current in bursts so there are nice clicks on transitions. This will affect both on-board sound and internal audio cards. I can tolerate a few decibels of white noise, but I don't like to feel like a doctor listening to PC internals. So I'd like to know how an audio component performs in worst case power supply scenario.

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