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Music Upgrades Hardware

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

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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  • Surely, It Depends (Score:5, Informative)

    by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @05:24PM (#47427209) Homepage Journal

    For the average user, onboard is just fine.

    For a power user (gamer/developer), onboard is probably good enough.

    If you're an audio pro and/or you're building a semi/professional audio rig, onboard isn't going to cut it 99% of the time.

    FWIW, plug in sound cards are actually more common than a lot of people think, because a lot of people seem to think that if it doesn't go into a PCI slot, it's not a sound card.

    The Rocksmith cable, with its built-in discrete audio unit, is a prime example, one that I use almost daily.

  • Back in the day? (Score:5, Informative)

    by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @05:27PM (#47427259)

    Back in the day, integrated audio solutions had trouble earning respect.


    Back in the day, integrated audio was the frickin' PC speaker that could only produce one square wave at a time with no volume control whatsoever, apart from software 'hacks'.

    And Creative Labs were far from the first ones, learn a bit of history [] and get off my lawn.

  • by ZorinLynx ( 31751 ) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @05:30PM (#47427293) Homepage

    Any money spent on a sound card is better off spent on speakers and a good DAC, which often come together.

    High end sound systems and speaker systems these days have digital inputs, thus an onboard DAC. If you're using a digital output on your motherboard to connect to a digital input on the speaker, the onboard sound card has ZERO effect on the quality of the audio. The bits are traveling directly, unmolested from the application generating them to the amplifiers in the speakers.

    Now, if you have audiophile-type equipment that uses analog inputs, then YES, the analog sound you feed into those inputs needs to come from a high quality DAC. High end sound cards tend to have good DACs, but you can get the same effect by using an outboard DAC, which has a digital input and analog outputs, and is also AWAY from your PC, so your analog audio is less likely to be affected by interference from the motherboard or power supply.

    You can get DACs with USB inputs, but USB adds latency so is best avoided for gaming. For music, go to town with a USB DAC; it won't matter there.

    The gist of it is, the most important component is the DAC. The DAC completely determines the quality. Everything else is just hype. :)

  • by AncalagonTotof ( 1025748 ) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @05:31PM (#47427303)

    After many problems with sound cards, sound cards drivers and video drivers, I removed sound hardware from my PC.
    I use the HDMI output of my video card, connected to an Audio Video amplifier and that's all. 5.1 when needed, in games or VLC.

  • by jenningsthecat ( 1525947 ) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @05:33PM (#47427329)
    My thoughts exactly. A discussion of the merits of add-on vs built-in sound hardware is worthwhile on its own terms; but basing the discussion on a specific add-on card, with the flimsy excuse of one company's 25th anniversary, strikes me as blatant shilling.
  • by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @06:13PM (#47427651) Journal

    2001 would have been before the capacitor plague hit hard. []

    If you look down to the industrial espionage part, I heard the story a little different. Instead of a worker stealing the recipe and copying it wrong, I heard there was a hacking incident and sabotages files were purposely placed in the areas the hackers were looking at. The faulty electrolyte recipe was supposedly on of them and they used it to pinpoint which manufacturer was trying to steal information. But that could have just been rumor.

  • by Rellon ( 28691 ) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @06:25PM (#47427733)

    Same here. That was the day that I said I would never, ever, buy a Creative Labs product again and I've stuck to it. Then again, they've made it so easy by producing products that were so bad.

  • by gman003 ( 1693318 ) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @06:59PM (#47427931)

    Which integrated audio is it comparing to?

    Let's use Realtek as an example, because they're a very common one. They have a variety of chips, ranging from the ALC231 to the ALC1150,

    The ALC231 is rubbish. Four output channels (two stereo outputs), four input channels, and a 97dB SNR on output. But even that is probably enough for most users.

    A good "middle-end" chip is the ALC861. That brings you up to 7.1 audio out, and a pile of sound-processing features (EAX, A3D, all that - including Creative's own standards). You still only have a 90dB SNR, but on a clean line that's tolerable. And it's cheap enough to be seen on sub-$150 motherboards.

    Their top-end ALC1150 is basically the same, adding a few more output channels for some reason, a second ADC, and a 115dB SNR. That puts you above the low-end SoundBlasters, and within spitting distance of the high-end ones. On an integrated chipset. For anyone not doing professional audio work, that's probably enough. And you can find it on motherboards that cost less than this discrete card alone - sometimes even with advanced features like swappable op-amps.

    It gets worse, because the main advantage of a discrete card is the SNR. Problem is, S/PDIF over TOSLINK is becoming a more common feature. And that means your computer's DAC doesn't matter - it's done on the sound system itself. Line noise isn't an issue, because it's fiber-optic. Every single Realtek chip I looked at supported this - probably not every implementation does, but it's something that doesn't cost the manufacturer any more than the cost of the connectors. That's another blow against them.

    This isn't like video cards, where integrated can handle light users but any remotely intensive task requires at least a low-end discrete card. Probably not even one in a thousand users will need a discrete sound card - the ones who need more than the low-end integrated chips, like gamers, will be buying mobos that already have a higher-end audio chip.

  • by Hamsterdan ( 815291 ) on Thursday July 10, 2014 @06:59PM (#47427937)

    "If you're an audio pro and/or you're building a semi/professional audio rig, onboard isn't going to cut it 99% of the time."

    True, but you won't be using a Soundblaster either, and that's where the article is wrong.

    There are way better cards at lower prices (Xonar, M-Audio)

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

    by KozmoStevnNaut ( 630146 ) on Friday July 11, 2014 @08:18AM (#47430299)

    There's no need to spend that much. A lot of motherboards have S/PDIF outputs, and with a good coax/TOSLINK DAC (like the ~$40 FiiO D3), pristine noise-free stereo sound is both easier and cheaper than buying an expensive sound card.

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