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$50 Sound Cards Impress Versus Integrated Audio

timothy posted about 2 years ago | from the sounds-like dept.

Hardware 245

crookedvulture writes "Most PCs have audio integrated right on the motherboard. There's much to be gained from upgrading to a discrete sound card, though. This look at a couple of sub-$50 sound cards from Asus explores what can be found at the budget end of the spectrum. In blind listening tests, both cards produced better sound than an integrated solution. They also offered superior signal quality, but neither had an impact on gaming performance. The days of hardware-accelerated game audio seem to be behind us, with developers handling positional audio processing in software."

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Distance from the power supply (4, Insightful)

itamblyn (867415) | about 2 years ago | (#40954505)

Most of the improvement is likely due to increased distance between the amplification circuits and the noisy AC/DC power supply.

Re:Distance from the power supply (1)

O('_')O_Bush (1162487) | about 2 years ago | (#40954533)

That, and larger circuits/ higher power means noise impacts less.

Re:Distance from the power supply (3, Insightful)

ChrisMP1 (1130781) | about 2 years ago | (#40954541)

A decent ATX power supply really isn't bad. Distance from the noisy digital circuitry on the motherboard is important, though.

Re:Distance from the power supply (3, Interesting)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954649)

atx supplies are switchers. switchers are HORRIBLE.

you have to do a lot of filtering to make switching supplies sound good in audio. most good audio companies go out of their way to use analog (linear) regulator style supplies.

once you get noise in at very high freq's, its very hard to kill that later. really.

one reason usb to spdfi 'wins' is that the digital power supply matters very little and there is no analog signal to care about until your stereo/amp.

Re:Distance from the power supply (5, Informative)

ChrisMP1 (1130781) | about 2 years ago | (#40954747)

The switching frequency is well above the limit for audio frequencies, and a good quality PSU will do plenty of filtering. USB to S/PDIF is good for a few reasons: 1) The signal is kept digital, and either differential, balanced or optical for as long as possible. This makes it hard to pick up noise. Digital-to-analog conversion should be done as late as possible because digital signals are very noise-tolerant. 2) Optical connections eliminate grounding issues (less of a problem if you obey #1, anyway). 3) S/PDIF equipment tends to be built to higher quality because it's considered somewhat "high-end" (or, at least, more than a cheap motherboard audio chip). 4) D-A conversion is done far away from the noisy CPU and data buses. It has nothing to do with the SMPS.

You should hear the sound from the vacuum tube guitar amplifier I built. The high tension (300V) is generated by a crappy 50kHz switching boost converter I designed and built myself. The noise on the supply is absolutely awful - 1Vp-p even with only a light load. You can't hear it, though, because it's 50kHz. And that's really low frequency for a SMPS.

Re:Distance from the power supply (4, Informative)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954801)

with some amps, though, they are very wideband and you don't WANT high freq garbage up there. some good phones amps go flat to 100khz and higher. they want to more than more than cover the audio range and they don't 'like' protection or LP filtering.

so, that means you have to care. if you are a source box in front of their amp, you HAVE to care. just giving you some free advice.

keep the high freq stuff out of the audio chain and the guy in the next stage will thank you.

Re:Distance from the power supply (5, Interesting)

ChrisMP1 (1130781) | about 2 years ago | (#40954871)

Well, yes, that is true, it can be bad to drive a big amplifier with high frequency noise. Very bad, in fact - the excess load can do anything from distorting the output to causing extra heat dissipation and killing the transistors. (My guitar amplifier was meant to drive a speaker directly, and it had a low-pass filter between the gain and output stages. The tube was just for the clipping distortion sound; the output stage was a BJT class AB push-pull with a much cleaner power supply.) I was talking more in the context of this article, though - most people who own an amplifier with flat response to 100kHz are not going to be bothering with $50 sound cards, or for that matter even considering integrated audio.

Though, a couple questions (despite some vacuum tube stuff, audio is only a minor interest for me) - 1) What exactly do you mean by "don't like LP filtering"? I can't imagine how a low-pass filter could cause a problem in this case, especially if you just attenuate about 20-30kHz and up. 2) WHY do people even bother with an amplifier that has flat response to 100kHz?? That seems a bit excessive, unless you're playing music for your pet bat... Is there an advantage I'm not aware of?

Re:Distance from the power supply (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955221)

Yes, you are missing advances from the 1990s. It turns out that humans react to sounds up to 100kHz, even though they can't "hear" them. Double blind A/B testing confirmed that people with healthy ears could tell the difference between a circuit limited at something like 25kHz and one with overtones up to 100kHz.

Re:Distance from the power supply (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955349)

[Citation needed]. Seriously.

HF noise matters (1)

dutchwhizzman (817898) | about 2 years ago | (#40955353)

Because the HF has harmonics that are in the audible spectrum as well. Not only that, but it "dampens" the amount of dB you have left for signal/noise ratio. You can try and use a low-pass filter to filter it out, but since those are analog, they will also filter out part of the audible spectrum and not filter out all the hf noise, just dampen it.

Re:Distance from the power supply (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955291)

You're talking about $120 power supplies if you want reasonable levels of noise. That's very, very uncommon.

For examples, go to hardwaresecrets and compare the seasonic power supplies with crap like thermaltake and others. Orders of magnitude difference in noise... and they're generally conservatively specced by ~30%, while thermaltake are optimists - iirc their 700w psu craps out before it gets even close to 700w.

Re:Distance from the power supply (1)

darkHanzz (2579493) | about 2 years ago | (#40955473)

The surprising thing is that digital audio introduces it's own kind of noise:
The D/A converter derives the clock from the S/PDIF interface, which requires PLL filtering for a stable clock. PLL design is surprisingly difficult, so there are systems out there where the optical S/PDIF connection introduces clock-jitter and give worse quality than a halfway decent analog connection.

Re:Distance from the power supply (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955493)

Very high frequencies? Really the human ear can only hear to about 40KHz, and that is hardly very high frequency by todays standards. A power supply switching at about 100KHz would be undetectable by the human ear.

Now how about linear power supplies, well they have the issue that they are horribly inefficient. On top of that the linear supplies introduce a lot of inductance into the circuit, and waste a lot of copper on the transformer. And if computer supplies were as noisy as you say then, most or all of the components attached to them would not function. The reason you need to have a power supply sit before working on it is because of the high frequency filters they place on the supply. Though this kinda makes me want to take my Oscope to my supply now.

Re:40kHz? Really? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955547)

"Really the human ear can only hear to about 40KHz"

Yeah, right...

You idiot. I think you meant to bandy about the mythical "20kHz", but 99.9% of people can't hear that hight, 16kHz is far more likely, even 14kHz, it doesn't matter, because that isn't where the MUSIC is. You moron. 40kHz indeed.

Re:Distance from the power supply (5, Insightful)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954559)

sometimes the circuit (board) does this work.

case in point, ESI juli@ (hate the at-sign. how stupid!)

this card is lab grade (test gear quality) in its a/d and d/a. some people use it for RMAA audio gear testing. not kidding! this is a low noise floor that you won't normally find on internals cards, yet it IS AN INTERNAL card! blows my mind ;)

also supports balanced and unbal i/o as well as 'easy' i2s and very easy coax spdif i/o.

it needs a full height slot and generally is pci-only even though some new pci-e version is supposed to be out soon.

keep it in mind: if you find yourself needing to test audio amps, preamps, dacs, etc - the ESI julia card is about as good as it gets for under $1k or even higher. amazing for audio guys. stupid for gamers but we are not talking about gaming at all.

Re:Distance from the power supply (0)

epyT-R (613989) | about 2 years ago | (#40954589)

or better electrical filtering between the analog circuits and bus noise... if one uses the spdif out, that's no longer an issue if the digital stream from the application is passed unmolested to it, which isn't always a given. things like bad resampling algos in drivers used to overcome single rate DACS (48khz is most common), or analog mixing using cheap components (rare, but happens occasionally on really cheap onboard sound solutions) can ruin the sound..

I think the number one issue with modern onboard solutions is impedance mismatch between the output op amps and whatever they're driving. Many people mistakenly plug headphones into these thinking they have the current to drive them. This varies depending on the impedance of the phones, which vary greatly from model to model, but most of these onboard solutions were never designed to do this, resulting in terrible sound. In addition, many of those that have dedicated headphone outputs often suffer from the same cheap-as-possible philosophy.

Re:Distance from the power supply (2)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954643)

not so much Z mismatch at all, but just plain old power handling of the output amp and output voltage swing (which matters the most).

output Z is always low (low enough) on amp stages. even built in amp stages.

Re:Distance from the power supply (1)

epyT-R (613989) | about 2 years ago | (#40954701)

Aren't those all directly related? If the voltage swing is great enough, it'll clip, meaning insufficient current, which means impedance mismatch..

Re:Distance from the power supply (1)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954731)

impedance matters in transmission lines.

this isn't one of those, though.

no matter what your load is (high-z phones or low-z phones/spkrs) you want a low output z on your amp or 'final drive' stage.

at audio freq, its not a transmission line and matching z is not a thing you do or care about.

you do want as much voltage swing as you can get. and you want to be able to source as much current as you can. those 2 mostly depend on the psu architecture and implementation.

Re:Distance from the power supply (1)

epyT-R (613989) | about 2 years ago | (#40954873)

Of course, you want as much headroom current as possible, but my understanding was that most output op amps lack the current to drive most sets of speakers/phones because they were really meant to drive a line-in device like amplified computer speakers. If the impedance is low enough, the amps will clip (or create distorted waveforms even before then) because of current limitations.

Re:Distance from the power supply (0)

Tyler Eaves (344284) | about 2 years ago | (#40954603)

Almost certainly this. I've been been running a digital out from an integrated....something or other...(What ever is built into an X58 board)... via SPDIF to a proper receiver and it's, well, digital. No noise or anything.

Re:Distance from the power supply (3, Interesting)

Smauler (915644) | about 2 years ago | (#40954733)

Where do graphics cards that pump audio out fit in here? I only noticed my card (gtx460) was putting out sound when I changed my monitor to my TV, didn't connect the sound, and it made me jump out of my skin.

I've since just used the dvi-hdmi cable for everything - not bothered with the motherboard sound.

Re:Distance from the power supply (3, Informative)

epyT-R (613989) | about 2 years ago | (#40954887)

they act as a sound device with only a digital out. some cards include a cable to wire to your sound board's spdif out instead. There are no analog components for the system noise to interfere with (barring egregious digital noise that creates too much jitter).

can that possibly matter with optical digital cabl (1)

ClintJCL (264898) | about 2 years ago | (#40954905)

I use optical digital cables to connect my PC to my stereo. Could the distance really even matter at that point? It's a pure digital signal. Why are the blind listening tests not done with pure digital signals?

Re:Distance from the power supply (2)

Mass Overkiller (1999306) | about 2 years ago | (#40955003)

AC/DC is supposed to be noisy! Man, Rock 'n Roll Ain't Noise Pollution!

Re:Distance from the power supply (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955095)

No it is not. Most of the improvement comes from far better D/A conversion. You are basically making an assumption and it was wrong.

You don't say... (3, Funny)

zonker (1158) | about 2 years ago | (#40954513)

$50 sound card produces better audio than a 50 cent onboard chip.... You don't say.

Re:You don't say... (4, Insightful)

MrL0G1C (867445) | about 2 years ago | (#40955417)

Actually their RightMark audio analysis's don't show this at all, frequency response, THD, noise, are all so close between devices that a human wouldn't be able to tell the difference between them, the ignoramuses at TechReport however don't know how to read the graphs/understand the limit of human hearing and came to erroneous conclusions.

Their section on different peoples opinion of the various audio devices does not state the result of the blind listening test and so is useless, why even bother with tests that are not blind?

Re:You don't say... (4, Insightful)

gazbo (517111) | about 2 years ago | (#40955487)

I think what's most telling about their analysis is on the 96kHz plots. The Realtek consistently drops to nothing around 20kHz, and yet apparently that didn't mean anything to them other than "look how well these results fit with out hypothesis". Anyone who actually knew something about didgital audio would think "either I've set this up wrong or the drivers/hardware are bust, because this thing is blatantly stuck at 44.1kHz".

The only other thing to be gleaned from the graphs is that running at 96kHz is pointless because the supposedly better cards' performance FUCKING SUCKS past 20kHz.

Re:You don't say... (2)

larppaxyz (1333319) | about 2 years ago | (#40955431)

And when using just digital output, there is no difference at all anymore.

Discrete sound (2)

ozduo (2043408) | about 2 years ago | (#40954525)

Is farting silently

Re:Discrete sound (4, Funny)

Gadget_Guy (627405) | about 2 years ago | (#40954963)

Discrete sound...Is farting silently

No, that is a soundless indiscretion.

Hypothesis Number Two: Is There a Cyber Stalker in (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954531)

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Re:Hypothesis Number Two: Is There a Cyber Stalker (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954665)

Do you have a newsletter?

usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (4, Informative)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954539)

there, done in one.

cheap cmedia usb sound dongles (not all dongles are cmedia, in fact most are not so you have to shop carefully) and also the burr brown PCM series all do a decent job of converting 44 and 48k audio (including dvd audio downmixed to 2.0) to spdif.

everyone's avr, today, has opto in. the sound card dongles send out usb audio over opto to spdif-in of your home stereo. if its 5.1 or newer, it will accept opto just fine. (aka toslink).

nothing else to care about, pretty much. let your stereo (or DAC) do the heavy lifting. usb audio is the way to go (for future, use UAC2, usb audio class 2 which works fine with linux and some hacks on windows at 24bit and 192k, personally verified to be bit-perfect).

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (2)

Tyler Eaves (344284) | about 2 years ago | (#40954613)

Going to an SP/DIF connection there shouldn't be any conversion at all - a DAC isn't in the circuit). It's pushing raw PCM data over the wire.

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (1)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954637)

in fact, its bit-perfect since there's no (almost never) a hardware mixer for usb audio. avoid software mixers and you always get the full raw non-scaled audio stream out of usb.

if you do select hardware mixer, the control will move but not change anything. which is good!

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (4, Funny)

Tyler Eaves (344284) | about 2 years ago | (#40954647)

I remember when I obsessed over such things. These days I mostly don't worry about it and spin vinyl. Sounds better anyway.

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (1)

epyT-R (613989) | about 2 years ago | (#40954667)

depends though.. some onboard sound drivers are known for crappy output.. they resample unnecessarily and/or they do it badly.

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (4, Informative)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954775)

these days, i'm not sure ANY onboard sound forces a resample.

soundcards 'offer' freqs to the sound system. back in the dinosaur days, they would offer only 48k and the o/s would have to resample.

but xp and win7 all deal with 44/48 split just fine. linux always has.

onboard audio (if its native spdif via jacks or headers) is usually bit perfect. its there to give 5.1 and even 7.1 digital out. the days of speaking 'only 48' ended 5yrs ago or more (I forget). a long time, at any rate (lol, any rate!)

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (1)

epyT-R (613989) | about 2 years ago | (#40954853)

I'm willing to bet they do, but it's hidden behind a software resample, at least for the dacs behind the analog outs.. I would hope that modern drivers do not resample for the spdif unless it's not a supported frequency/bitrate. I'm talking about the PCM standard here, not the raw output used for ac3/dts.

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (1)

adolf (21054) | about 2 years ago | (#40955159)

Meh. I doubt many consumer systems have bit-perfect outputs, these days -- it seems there's always something in the loop to screw things up (including volume controls, whether implemented in software or otherwise).

If it actually is a bit-perfect output, then you can take a DTS CD*, play it on the computer over S/PDIF to any modern(ish) AVR, and very simply get 5.1 channels of analog output without additional fuckery. It's a fun test, and I think you'll be surprised at the result: Chances are good that your "bit-perfect" S/PDIF out fails miserably.

*: Yes, these exist. They're fairly neat.

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 2 years ago | (#40955529)

I don't know about SPDIF playback, but I do know that I've never found a way to do a bit-perfect SPDIF record on Windows 7 - something, as a few people have now said, always gets in the way. On Windows XP, on the other hand, it is possible.

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954777)

Or hdmi from the graphics card to the receiver (nvidia/ati and even intel onboard these days support hdmi audio). Toslink is limited to either 2 channel PCM or compressed DTS/AC3. You could encode 5.1 on the fly to DTS, but with HDMI you can just stream multi-channel PCM.

I think the point is for people without stereos (2)

Sycraft-fu (314770) | about 2 years ago | (#40954843)

Many people use headphones straight on the system, or PC speakers. For that, a soundcard can be a cheap benefit. Is a receiver better? Sure, but then they are more expensive. You can always find better for more money. I'm quite partial to my 7.1 setup on my computer but I'm not going to suggest it to most people on account of the extreme cost.

So if you are a headphone type, a cheap soundcard can be a very worthwhile upgrade.

Also if S/PDIF is your thing you've no need for an external soundcard in most cases, generally the onboard ones have it these days. Since that bypasses any converters, there's no reason not to use it if that's all you want.

Further if you've a newer receiver that can do LPCM audio over HDMI most new systems can too. All the newer Intel, nVidia and AMD videocards can do that.

When you've a receiver, there are many choices. However for those that don't wish to spend the money, $50 on a soundcard (internal or external) is money well spent.

Re:usb to spdif, then to your home stereo (1)

thegarbz (1787294) | about 2 years ago | (#40955213)

Why USB?

Every motherboard I've ever owned or bought has had S/PDIF outputs available. My previous motherboard did so via an onboard RCA, and my current one via a set of headers that I've seen on every motherboard made in the last 5+ years. Personally I just run from this header to a socket on back of the computer, via a 4m long cable to a DAC. Sound is perfect.

If I was spending $50 (5, Insightful)

slackware 3.6 (2524328) | about 2 years ago | (#40954545)

it would be on a cheap video card before a sound card. I never bought any sound cards after they started puting them on the mobo. Sure the sound could be better but I have a stereo for playing tunes and if i'm playing games at night I'm using headphones anyway. A better soundcard is a non-issue for most users.

Re:If I was spending $50 (2)

phluid61 (2501032) | about 2 years ago | (#40954623)

Except that I can still hear my mouse through every on-board sound system I've used recently.

Re:If I was spending $50 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954685)

then you probably have a ground problem with your house wiring

Re:If I was spending $50 (1)

slackware 3.6 (2524328) | about 2 years ago | (#40954783)

Those big plexi glass windows some people have (i got a box that has one to) really suck is you have any kind of radio transmitting in the house. Has something to do with the steel case shielding your box and also preventing your box from interfering with other devices and you computer is grounded through the power supply so AC has a point.

Re:If I was spending $50 (1)

wierd_w (1375923) | about 2 years ago | (#40955375)

It was my experience (Especially with nasty horrible SoundMAX integrated audio before the integrated HDA bus audio) that the audio channel would pick up AM radio frequencies produced by various components inside the chipset itself, and produce funny "Birdie" noise when the processor was doing things, and especially when the PCI bus was pushing a lot of bits. This caused serious issues when playing video games. The only solution I found was to disable integrated audio, and switch to a cheap CMedia PCI card.

Worked like a charm.

Re:If I was spending $50 (1)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954757)

that's a good reason to go digital. including toslink (fiber opto). no ground or even power connections between your stereo (or set of spkrs and an amp) and the pc. that side gets solved easily.

let the pc be as noisy as it wants. square waves galore! wheee! and it should not affect the sound system.

go with some card that gives toslink fiber out. then bring that to your stereo. you should no longer hear any 'clocking' junk.

Re:If I was spending $50 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955237)

"That" has nothing to do with "digital" and has everything to do with circuit isolation.

Re:If I was spending $50 (1)

twosat (1414337) | about 2 years ago | (#40955335)

I discovered this "feature" a few years ago when I bought a computer with an integrated sound card. It was quite noticeable, but I found that by turning up the master volume and turning down the volume knob on the speakers it ceased to be a problem.

Re:If I was spending $50 (3, Informative)

Smauler (915644) | about 2 years ago | (#40954763)

Many video cards now put audio out too - I've got an old DVI to HDMI cable from the back of mine, and it's spitting out audio happily.

Re:If I was spending $50 (1)

Mashiki (184564) | about 2 years ago | (#40954975)

Heck, any videocard that runs over $170(really anything in the previous generation and marked down now that the nvidia 6xx and ati 7xxx series are out) have a HDMI connector on them just for that. The only real complaint most people have about them? The audio can be a real pain in the ass to get working, once it's working not a problem.

Re:If I was spending $50 (1)

antdude (79039) | about 2 years ago | (#40955127)

How good are those video cards' audio compared to onboard and sound cards?

Re:If I was spending $50 (1)

Mashiki (184564) | about 2 years ago | (#40955361)

Depends on what they're using for a coprocessor but in most cases they're on, or above quality to most of the Yamaha stuff.

Re:If I was spending $50 (2)

Mashiki (184564) | about 2 years ago | (#40954771)

Seriously? A good soundcard will last you across multiple generations of hardware. Heck my old Soundblaster Live lasted from 2002 right up until 2011 when the ports on the back finally failed, and I simply gave up on trying to solder in new ones. You know for 8 years for a PCI card that cost me $80, that's a pretty good investment. With the new PCIe jobs? Same deal. Though I have an Asus Xonar DG(picked it up on sale for $29 last year from newegg), I should easily get 5-6 years from it.

I figure sometime next year I may get a new PCIe soundcard to replace this one if I build a new rig. Skimping on a soundcard is silly, especially when you can get them on sale.

Re:If I was spending $50 (1)

slackware 3.6 (2524328) | about 2 years ago | (#40954803)

I still have my Soundblaster Live its in a box with my Diamond Monster II just because they were so cool and in case my onboard sound craps out but i don't want to use it in case I break it (to many memories of Quake related sounds from that SC).

Re:If I was spending $50 (2, Insightful)

TaoPhoenix (980487) | about 2 years ago | (#40954797)

I'll reply to you.

In Personal Computing in the true sense of Personal and not corp-crap or netbooks or whatever, if you're gonna buy a goddamn comp, spend a few hundred bucks to do it right. No one except the media wins with these "budget parts" stories.

So forget the $50 sound card. What can you get with $80?
Forget the $50 video card. What can you get with $80?
Spend an extra $20 on the fan. Spend an extra $20 on a key cable. Spend an extra $60 on a better HD that has capacity to better meet your growth.
Spend an extra $40 on a better casing. I added a special extra chip for data conversion like Audacity Sound Processing 30% faster.

So yes, it adds a few bucks cumulatively. But you help mitigate stupid "cheap crap failures" that risks years of useful life. 6 years later into my op life I think I have a medium grade HD problem, but it's still ticking, so I have some time. Not like a total crash yet when some dumb part blows the whole board.

Re:If I was spending $50 (-1, Flamebait)

fm6 (162816) | about 2 years ago | (#40954971)

You have a computer that's 6 years old? How quaint!

Re:If I was spending $50 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955507)

Six is still pretty new. I just spent the evening installing Xubuntu 12.04 on an original 1.2GHz Thunderbird Athlon from 2000. It took forever coming off of DVD, the motherboard is so old it doesn't support USB booting. It makes a fine MythTV box for playing back music in the garage and light web browsing.

Re:If I was spending $50 (3, Informative)

lowlymarine (1172723) | about 2 years ago | (#40955113)

The problem is that if you spend $700 on a video card today, you will get the same Vsync-capped performance you would have gotten out of a $350 card, and six years from now, as you suggest it should last, you would have a brick that can't handle anything remotely modern while the hypothetical other guy would only have a three-year-old $300 card that beats your $700 six-year-old card into the ground.

Six years ago, the Core 2 Duo X6800 and GeForce 7950GX2 were the top-of-the-line parts, costing a grand and $700, respectively. Within two years, both were getting clobbered by parts that cost half as much. Today that $1700 combination wouldn't even be competitive with a $75 A6-3650.

Sound Blaster is dead (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954547)

I dumped my Sound Blaster Live! 5.1 for Realtek ALC888 and never looked back. I never heard such clarity until I went with this onboard chipset.

Also, I tried to compare a $99 Razer Barracuda AC-1 with the ALC888, all I could make out is that the back channels get more bass than the front. I'm guessing there's a placebo effect in play here with the little DSP cards...

Re:Sound Blaster is dead (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955347)

The Realtek may be better than the Soundblaster Live!, but I still have an Audigy 2ZS Platinum card in my PC simply because it is, in my opinion, much better than any on-board sound chip to date.

Re:Sound Blaster is dead (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955533)

As a frer game developer I'll never voluntarily give money to Creative. TFA points out that Creative's environmental audio didn;t get support after 2008. Want to know why? As soon as the hardware could support shadow maps, Creative could no longer use the 'Carmack reverse' software patent as a bludgeon to get game developers to support their crap. Good riddance.

Given that Realtek et al can't make a good chipset (1)

sethstorm (512897) | about 2 years ago | (#40954555)

I'm not surprised that the integrated chipsets (usually Realtek) get beat by even $50 hardware. They're usually from companies that can't sell a chipset of any type unless it is included with a manufacturer due to not being able to make any provision for performance.

Those companies couldn't make a good chip to save their lives. Or even an acceptable one.

Re:Given that Realtek et al can't make a good chip (1)

LeperPuppet (1591409) | about 2 years ago | (#40954805)

They can't write decent software either.

I switched to a $35 Asus card and was pleasantly surprised. Better quality sound and no more flaky drivers.

Re:Given that Realtek et al can't make a good chip (1)

sethstorm (512897) | about 2 years ago | (#40954909)

I know that too well given the W520's use of it. The software stack in that can't even handle volume correctly compared to the T6x-era brethren that last used a decent sound chipset + stack.

Re:Given that Realtek et al can't make a good chip (1)

Mashiki (184564) | about 2 years ago | (#40955363)

They can't write decent software either.

They can write a driver? I thought all they did was throw some kid fresh out of highschool that passed their pascal test, and said here's some Jolt.

$50? Try a $250. (3, Interesting)

X0563511 (793323) | about 2 years ago | (#40954577)

I have this for studio purposes [m-audio.com] , but this thing sounds beautiful.

If I chose to, 96khz 24-bit. 2-in, 2-out, SPDIF support if I chose to use it. (technically 4 in 4 out, but that's mono.)

Re:$50? Try a $250. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954851)

I have a $20 sound blaster audigy SE that can do 96 KHz*24-bit in 7.1 and sound beautiful.

Re:$50? Try a $250. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955185)

Sorry, the soundblaster is a nice general-purpose card but is not very well fitting in a studio environment. It has no (very) decent ASIO drivers, and the latency is not that great. It is doable, but for real quality mixes you need a better card.. really. You see - the Soundblaster cards are nice, but have build-in filtering for game purposes (EAX to name something). This gets in the way if you want "clean" untreated sound - witch is extremely important if you want to make a good balanced mix.

There are some good (relatively) cheap cards like the M-audio Audiophile 2496 or the ESI Maya or Juli@, or external ones like the M-Audio FastTrack or Focusrite VRM box (good for virtual speaker systems). They are a bit more expensive than the Soundblaster, but are great for studio purposes.

At the other hand - a studio card is not well fitted for gaming purposes (no EAX), so you can use the on-bord card for that (most games do rely more on effects than on sound quality).

Ensonic Soundscape (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954611)

I still have Ensonic Soundscape Elite sitting here. If only there was a motherboard with enough room (and the right bus) to plug it in ;)

I had some cheap ass PCI soundcard that had a Yamaha chipset on it about 10 years ago and it was the best sounding soundcard I ever had. I'd still be using it if there was Windows 7 drivers for it.

Avoid Asus AT ALL COSTS (-1, Offtopic)

gman003 (1693318) | about 2 years ago | (#40954625)

Just an FYI - avoid Asus products if at all possible.

I have had no end of trouble with them with my most recent laptop. It took them four months to actually send it to me - between marking the specs incorrectly, parts being on backorder and it being shipped by 7-day UPS Ground, it was literally months before I had my hands on it.

And literally three hours before it broke, completely. Total system failure - either the CPU, or motherboard, was completely dead.

Their support is even more of a joke than their sales and shipping. I sent an email that night, receiving a message that I would get a response within 72 hours. It took them a full week to even *start* on their robotic "have you tried rebooting/resetting/etc" checklist - although I had by that time contacted them more directly.

It took five weeks for them to repair it. Yes, repair, despite the fact that I told them from day one (and on days two through twenty) that I would prefer a full replacement, which would be both faster and more reliable. After three weeks of no status updates (still "awaiting parts"), I began demanding a refund, as they obviously had enough stock to keep selling it to new customers. After a full month, I began threatening to take them to court.

And when I finally got it back? They fucked up AGAIN. I had, at their insistence, put everything back into the original packaging, from the warranty card to the power cable. I got it back in a poorly-fitting box with far too much bubble wrap, minus most of the paperwork and the detachable cord from the power supply (thankfully it's a standard PC power cable, as I *still* have not gotten that back).

Oh, and as if that isn't bad enough? Now the sound system is going out. The speakers sometimes cut out completely - sounds like a wiring issue.

I ordered it in May. I have, in total, had it in my possession for perhaps a month and a half. You do the math.

I used to be an Asus fanboy. My previous laptop was great - it was a good medium-end gaming laptop for the price of most company's low-end gaming laptops. The one time it needed servicing, they replied quickly and had it back to me within a week. Such was their specialty - good, but not the best, products, at reasonably low prices. Perhaps not the best-looking, and the experience was never "luxury" (drivers had Engrish problems, or odd issues), but the price was worth it. I recommended them whenever asked for laptop suggestions.

But now? After all this? I am not buying from them again. Ever. I'd get a fucking Alienware or Apple before I buy from Asus. I'm practically on a crusade against them at this point, considering how often I tell my story any chance I get.

Particularly sound devices. Their audio drivers, at least on their laptops, are terrible. Half the time it can't even get the "if headphones are plugged in, disable the speakers" part right, even sometimes cutting it back on well after the fact for no discernible reason, or randomly re-disabling any other sound outputs if an HDMI cable is plugged in.

Re:Avoid Asus AT ALL COSTS (0, Offtopic)

gman003 (1693318) | about 2 years ago | (#40954787)

How is this off-topic? The article, even the summary states that this is about Asus discrete audio cards. And I address not just general reliability concerns, but also audio-specific problems.

Honestly, sometimes I wonder if /. moderators are paid shills, or just really, really dumb.

Re:Avoid Asus AT ALL COSTS (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954889)

religious rants are offtopic in this discussion.

Re:Avoid Asus AT ALL COSTS (5, Insightful)

spauldo (118058) | about 2 years ago | (#40954937)

Just a guess, but I'd say it's because there's stories just like yours for every manufacturer out there*.

Case in point: hard drives. Ask 20 people what hard drives they've had trouble with, and you'll find they pretty much average out as all of the companies having issues. I use Seagate, but you'll find a lot of people here who swear they're the worst drives on the market.

Another example: T-Mobile. I had nothing but trouble with them. They would, for no reason, forgo the automatic draft from my Visa and then shut me off for non-payment. Their customer service was horrible. When I called them at the end of my contract and told them I wanted my service cut as soon as the contract was over, the sales drone threatened me that if I didn't pay the final bill, they'd sue me. I hadn't said anything about it up to then, so this was just out of the blue. (Of course, I knew he was full of shit, and intentionally didn't pay my final bill because of it.)

With all that, T-Mobile has an excellent reputation for customer service and very few people I know have issues with them. Go figure.

The article was about the difference between soundcards and integrated sound, and just happened to use Asus cards for the testing. Your last paragraph was on topic, but the rest of your post wasn't.

* There are a few manufacturers that have earned widespread derision, like PC Chips for its fake cache chips or SCO for judicial douchebaggery. Asus isn't anywhere near that level.

Re:Avoid Asus AT ALL COSTS (1)

Mashiki (184564) | about 2 years ago | (#40955399)

I use Seagate, but you'll find a lot of people here who swear they're the worst drives on the market.

I can remember when that was true. Back in '99, the shop I used to work for would order drives by the case from Ingram Micro. Still sealed from Seagate with the security seals in place. Every drive we'd put in, would be DOA out of the box. We switched to Maxtor, about a year later it started happening with Maxtor, where about 50% of the drives were DOA. I know makers can have serious batch run issues, but the problem with Seagate was beyond stupid.

It sure was nice when you had the option of more than a couple of manufacturers on the market.

It varies by service centre, and country I'd say (1)

dbIII (701233) | about 2 years ago | (#40955137)

Where I am ASUS seem to have the quickest turnaround (1-3 days) but the service centre is local and I've dropped items there in person. That's only from about three items over a few years though.
With others it's been well over a week at least and about three to five months in one case for a video card (eVGA, but when the replacement finally came it was a much better card worth about $200 more). If the stuff isn't dealt with locally it might even be a week or two before it's even shipped out. I'd say if I lived in a different city I'd think Toshiba are wonderful instead of the slow as shit impression I have, and probably think that ASUS are crap

Re:Avoid Asus AT ALL COSTS (1)

robbie73 (2650527) | about 2 years ago | (#40955259)

Dude, I think you have static electricity (charge) issues or you are just unlucky. I have had several Asus boards before, none of them had issues. I have an Asus ultrabook, I am listening to music on it while typing this... PEBKAC = Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair

solder 3 wires and get good toslink out (5, Interesting)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954629)

a DIY I wrote on how to open up a cm102 (cmedia usb audio dongle) and find the 3 solder pads you need to connect in your own toslink (TOTX) opto transmitter for your home stereo:

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4086/5052505190_07d7ec5903_b.jpg [flickr.com]

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4148/5052506250_c71b26586a_b.jpg [flickr.com]

it was just that simple. there was already an onboard cheap-o toslink sender but I prefer the standard square block style.

the TOTX part is a dollar or so at digikey or mouser (suppliers). the usb dongle is $15 or less, often much less. make sure its cmedia and cm102. it will work very well then.

usb powers it and you know its working when you get the red light out of the toslink end ;)

I'm not sure it passes dts or dolby digital but its fine for 44.1 cd audio (and mp3) as well as 48k dvd downmix to stereo 2.0

Re:solder 3 wires and get good toslink out (0)

thegarbz (1787294) | about 2 years ago | (#40955225)

Why go optical? In terms of digital transmission the conversion from electrical to optical and back introduces possible jitter. While some of this is likely audiophile wank there's a measurable reduce in signal jitter by omitting the optical component and going straight down a short run of cable. Optical does help with potential grounding issues though which may arise from an earthed computer chassis being connected to often single ended floating DACs followed by earthed amplifiers.

Arsehole!!! (-1, Troll)

Sleen (73855) | about 2 years ago | (#40954677)

Stop reposting Ars articles. It is not funny and only arseholes submit content from Ars. The article concerns a few loser soundcards, not worth reading to begin with. Seriously? Is this actually possible? Or is Asus stuffing bills into panties around here too? Native drivers in Linux?

Anyone know about laptop sound quality benchmarks? (1)

KuRa_Scvls (932317) | about 2 years ago | (#40954695)

Anyone know about any laptop sound quality benchmarks?

I'd love to know how my laptop's integrated sound fares against my friend's

Re:Anyone know about laptop sound quality benchmar (1)

TheGratefulNet (143330) | about 2 years ago | (#40954743)

search on rmaa (rightmark audio).

a lot of us use it to measure our own hardware builds and designs. its quite good even though its not a $10k package that those that have deep wallets use.

you can do loopback tests of your analog system (line in to line out, short wire that you buy or build) and it will show your worst case. you can do digital loopback too, if you want. or digital out (to a dac) then analog in to a good a/d box, so you measure outboard dac performance.

like always, you need better gear to be able to measure lower end gear. the a/d and d/a matters, of course. but you don't need to spend a lot. m-audio firewire audiophile works well. the emu 0404usb box also is test-gear quality. those work with rmaa and get you going on-the-cheap.

Let me be the first to say... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954703)

*DUH*

Haven't we known this for years and years?

Not really impressive review (4, Interesting)

gweihir (88907) | about 2 years ago | (#40954865)

These are not audio people and did not have an audio-expert look at their write-up. Why. They got the very well known very-low-cost / not-very-good audio OpAmp NE5532 P wrong as NE55329. No audio-expert would make that mistake. It is not a number, it is an identity that experts immediately recognize.

I have to say that this puts a big question-mark on the whole test for me.

Re:Not really impressive review (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40954941)

NE5532 is pretty well respected as the cheapest decent headphone op-amp. Something 10% better than it will cost 300% more.
 
  link [blogspot.com]

Re:Not really impressive review (2)

jmak (409787) | about 2 years ago | (#40955253)

Also, according to their measurements, the conclusion should be more like "There's almost no point in spending $50 on a sound card, if you care only about playback, not recording."

It's worth it if you listen to music (0)

DogDude (805747) | about 2 years ago | (#40954943)

If you listen to music... not compressed pop crap through itunes or something similar, but actual music, I've always found it worthwhile to get a good external sound card of some kind. Right now, I use Echo's Indigio IO that makes a LOT of difference going into my big Yamaha stereo receiver, and out through my pair of 4' JBL's. It's not an expensive setup, but a few hundred bucks at the PC, from my experience, eliminates the audio quality bottleneck that I've found on every standard PC/laptop with integrated audio.

No.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955019)

I don't think so.

When every motherboard started comming with all kinds of audio. I was still dragging around fairly high end sound card hardware.
I thought it mattered. It does not.
For most games and normal use using headphones and small powered speakers. The onboard sound chips work fine.

A sound card is not worth the power it wastes in most cases.

Looks like some audio makers are trying to drum up business now that they're almost dead.
And as for creative labs... hahah. fuck you and your mess.

I used to use Creative soundcards... (1)

antdude (79039) | about 2 years ago | (#40955073)

... And they (original, 16, Live, Audigy 2ZS, etc.) were still better than the onboard audio IMO even with my poor hearing (wear an analog mono hearing aid). I also have a Logitech I used to game a lot so I wanted hardware EAX. I had to dump Audigy 2ZS because of the lack of old PCI slots on the newer motherboards/mobos., so I decided to try onboard RealTek audio. I also don't game these days. Well, onboard's quality and subwoofer's bass were less on my Logitech Z-2300 speakers (2.1 setup and analog).

I still have not found a good one to buy that was fully compatible for Linux and Windows after 1.5 years. I just listen to MP3s, watch TV/television, movies, videos, etc. Onboard is OK if audio quality is not important.

HDMI Sound works better. (1)

bejiitas_wrath (825021) | about 2 years ago | (#40955171)

I use a large screen with HDMI input and I can output sound over the HDMI cable as well, this removes a lot of the noise that the integrated sound suffers from on my machine.

Sound quality = bass (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40955241)

At least to most people these days. That and the loudness wars have gotten so bad that I distrust any mainstream test on audio quality. I've got a Clip+ and a pair of Beyerdynamic cans and someday I'll get myself a decent DAC.

PSU and THX (2)

MrL0G1C (867445) | about 2 years ago | (#40955341)

I bought a nice 520W Corsair PSU has lasted well for years now, only audible if you stick your ear next to it.

With a ASRock Z77 Extreme4 - has THX certified sound out, which I was a little skeptical of but it does seem to eliminate motherboard interference noise

Previously when using a cheap mobo audio, a browser page being scrolled up and down would cause noise, maybe not noticeable with small speakers but very obvious when connected to an amp + large speakers.

Not a cheap mobo / you get what you pay for.

Dumped the Realtek for a Xonar (1)

DrHappyAngry (1373205) | about 2 years ago | (#40955351)

Ever since I bought this motherboard, Asus P8P67 Deluxe I had crashes with pulseaudio. Almost always if I tried to play multiple sound sources, like not stopping a video or music with you tube playing or something or running smplayer and audacious at the same time. This was under both Ubuntu, and later when I jumped to Fedora. Decided to bite the bullet and get a Xonar DSX, and no more crashes. The one thing is to configure it as 7.1 card in in the pulse settings, even if you're only using a 5.1 speaker setup, otherwise your speaker arrangement will be off. The other caveat is that the card requires a 4 pin floppy power connector. It comes with a molex adapter, though. Apparently a 1x PCI-E slot supplies less power than a PCI slot, so it needs the extra power. Nothing that can't be worked around, so I'm happy with mine. Totally worth it. I had stockpiled a bunch of old SB live and audigy cards for a long while, but since I dual boot for games, win7 didn't play as nicely as linux with those old cards. Those old EMU10k1 based chip cards were so awesome under linux. Actually had fantastic ALSA drivers that could do hardware mixing with no sound server, but don't get me started on that. I could go on all day about how the real problem with sound under linux is crappy drivers and we shouldn't need a sound server. But I digest... The xonar has been a great upgrade. I disabled the realtek in the bios, and the card was detected by fedora without having muck about with loading modules.

Outputdev? (1)

theshibboleth (968645) | about 2 years ago | (#40955403)

OK, maybe this is a technicality but it seems to me that this really belongs in inputdev and not the tag I see. In this case the input-generating machine happens to be a computer and this input is travelling to the sound card. The sound card then sends it to some other device after some processing. At this point the sound card becomes an input device for whatever is receiving the information. It is an acceptor and a generator. And any device that is a generator mentioned here is more likely to be a generator + acceptor than solely an acceptor.

If you have a receiver and Linux (2)

egork (449605) | about 2 years ago | (#40955409)

this will give you the highest return on investment if your receiver is capable of 24/96 and 5.1. No hardware changes necessary.

sudo vi /etc/pulse/daemon.conf (this is Ubuntu)
and change following entries this way:

default-sample-format = s24le
default-sample-rate = 96000
default-sample-channels = 6

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  • br
  • a
  • ol
  • ul
  • li
  • dl
  • dt
  • dd
  • em
  • strong
  • tt
  • blockquote
  • div
  • quote
  • ecode

"ecode" can be used for code snippets, for example:

<ecode>    while(1) { do_something(); } </ecode>