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Modern sound cards, what's all the fuss?

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First post, by Half-Saint

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Personally, I stopped using a dedicated sound card back in 2004 when I switched to Asus A7N8X-E Deluxe with its Soundstorm onboard audio which got pretty good reviews at the time. I noticed Creative and Asus are still making new sound cards today and I'm wondering, what's the point? Is there really a noticable difference in..let's say..watching movies or gaming with your regular onboard audio compared to Asus Xonar DX or Sound Blaster Z especially, if you're using a 2.1 setup or headphones?

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Reply 1 of 90, by alexanrs

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I know The Xonar DX has good ASIO support, which might be good for amateur musicians. Also, some people might want hardware DSP, and virtual surround on hardware. Also, EAX. With digital sound, much more powerful processors and onboard solutions having reasonably good DACs, offboard solutions aren't as useful as they used to be.

Reply 2 of 90, by Half-Saint

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My main motherboard right now is a ASUS P8H67 (Rev.3.0)... would I benefit in anyway by using a Sound Blaster Audigy ZS 2 or a Sound Blaster X-Fi? That's what I have atm.

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Reply 3 of 90, by y2k se

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On my gaming PC, switching from the onboard of the ASUS P8Z77-V + front audio on the case to a Sound Blaster Z made a huge difference in volume and quality for me. I'm using a Sennheiser PC350 headset. On my primary PC, I've never tested the onboard (I carried over an X-Fi from prior builds), so I don't know if it made a difference.

So, worth depends on lots of variables. The only real way to tell is to try it for yourself with your equipment.

Last edited by y2k se on 2015-01-01, 23:54. Edited 1 time in total.

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Reply 4 of 90, by King_Corduroy

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Personally I was dissapointed with my Sound Blaster Audigy. It was much quieter than the SBLive and just generally sort of meh.

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Reply 5 of 90, by Evert

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The problem with modern audio is that it's very subjective. Onboard audio has come a long way since the AC97 days and I would say that it is almost good enough for 99% of applications. If you produce or record music, then I would say that you have a very strong case for buying a discrete sound card. If you're a very competetive gamer, then I suppose buying a dedicated NIC and Soundcard to provide some off-load to the CPU will probably give you 1-2 frames per second extra. There are some things you need to take note of. No matter what sound card you are using, the internal HD audio header cable will act as an antenna and pick up EMF radiation which will distort the sound that comes out of the jack in the front of your case. The best advice is to try for yourself. I personally prefer my external USB DAC and amplifier.

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Reply 6 of 90, by y2k se

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Evert wrote:

No matter what sound card you are using, the internal HD audio header cable will act as an antenna and pick up EMF radiation which will distort the sound that comes out of the jack in the front of your case.

That's why I use the dedicated headphone output on the Z instead of the front panel connector.

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Reply 7 of 90, by Evert

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@y2k se: Best way to deal with it.

I've got a "modern" sound card myself - ASUS Xonar DG - in one of my older machines that only has AC97 and the difference is night and day. Since 2006 though on-board audio has been really good in my opinion. You can even buy X-FI MB3 which allows you to use EAX on your on-board sound card for older games.

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Reply 8 of 90, by PhilsComputerLab

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For my media PC (PC driving my TV) I got a Recon 3D because of the loudness slider. Realtek has something similar but it's on / off and you can't adjust the strength of the compressor. This was a must-have feature for me.

On my capture PC I use a X-Ti Titanium HD for one job: Capturing audio for all the videos I do.

On the desktop I got the Z purely for gaming / virtual surround over headphones.

But I agree the next time I might just stuck with onboard sound cards and save a bit of money. Especially if there are driver issues with new Windows version or something like that.

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Reply 9 of 90, by Evert

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This article has been doing the rounds on the internet for a while, but Tom's Hardware did a very comprehensive piece on modern sound cards and the state of audio on computers. You should definitely check it out sometime.

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Reply 10 of 90, by PhilsComputerLab

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Using world-class headphones, a $2 Realtek integrated audio codec could not be reliably distinguished from the $2000 Benchmark DAC2 HGC in a four-device round-up.

Wow quite the ear opener...

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Reply 11 of 90, by Evert

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Yeah, it's quite shocking how much you need to spend to get to the "next level" when it comes to audio. For me personally, I find that having a portable headphone amp (Fiio E11/E11K) and/or external DAC+AMP (Fiio E10) is more than adequate.

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Reply 12 of 90, by jwt27

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The only reasons to get a dedicated sound card are extra or better quality recording inputs, MIDI, and propietary 3D sound like EAX/CMSS-3D. For line-out sound quality, there's not much difference anymore aside from noise levels.

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Reply 14 of 90, by dogchainx

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I like the software on my SoundBlaster Z as well as some of the gaming and surround features. I could only tell a slight difference in sound quality on some titles compared to my older SoundBlaster Titanium (sound seems deeper and more vibrant).

Its definitely not night and day difference like 8-bit to 16-bit sounds, or mono to stereo.

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Reply 15 of 90, by obobskivich

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Agreed on them being for I/O and other features - not quality. Honestly even since Audigy 2 ZS vs SoundStorm and similar I've felt that way - the quality between them was basically identical, but the Audigy had more connectors, and driver features. The other "advantage" if you will - that Audigy card still works and can be "moved" to different systems (it's installed in my dual Xeon right now), the motherboard with the SoundStorm died some years ago. Personally I like being able to "drag and drop" a familiar device with the same features as I upgrade other hardware, versus dealing with new drivers, software, ports, etc blah blah everytime a motherboard changes. I've also had a number of experiences with onboard audio having really awful bundled drivers/software, which makes me lean towards a familiar soundcard as well.

Reply 16 of 90, by LunarG

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For most people, the speakers (or headphones) will always be the weakest link. I find it funny how many people discuss these things on youtube, claiming that a $50 basic Sound Blaster card is night and day compared to their integrated one, and the speakers they use are cheap Logitech or Creative multimedia speakers. Also, I'd argue that for testing the quality of sound cards, using headphones is a bad idea. Generally I find that good quality hifi speakers provide a much better listening experience than headphones. The positioning of the different sounds stand out much more clearly in the sound image when using a good quality amplifier and speakers. It's all a matter of preference of course.
And if you EVER find you want to use the bass/treble controls (or much worse... Loudness *shrug*) then forget about the quality of your sound device anyway, cause you're not after natural "clean" sound in the first place.
That, I think, is probably the essence of sound in general. People like different things. Some people want super heavy bass that makes their floor shake, others want clear midrange and open highs that provide a detailed and "airy" sound image with clear holography... Neither is "right" or "wrong". Only different.

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Reply 17 of 90, by PeterLI

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It is really difficult for some people to use good speakers. I have 2 kids, a wife and MIL in the house. Whenever my volume goes up this causes all kinds of issues. And I dislike headphones. So I just use a Bose iPhone dock speaker set or Roland MA-8 speakers with my retro boxes and the built in speakers in my W520. 🙁

Reply 18 of 90, by HighTreason

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These days dedicated sound cards are useless as the operating system no longer supports advanced features such as real-time pass-through of Mic/Line inputs, you can only record from one input at a time and the Stereo Mix is gone. I have to run an old Win98 box next to the newer machine now to compensate.

Also, I swear the audio quality is lower in Windows 7 for some reason. My Audigy 2 ZS Platinum gets this weird muffled chorusing going on in Win7... Can't speak for Windows 8 because I don't own anything that meets the minimum spec for it.

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Reply 19 of 90, by LunarG

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PeterLI wrote:

It is really difficult for some people to use good speakers. I have 2 kids, a wife and MIL in the house. Whenever my volume goes up this causes all kinds of issues. And I dislike headphones. So I just use a Bose iPhone dock speaker set or Roland MA-8 speakers with my retro boxes and the built in speakers in my W520. 🙁

"Good speakers" doesn't mean "loud volume". You can play just as loud with a pair of cheap Creative GigaWorks speakers as you might with a pair of Wilson Audio WATT with Krell amplifiers.
I'm not suggesting that people need to use expensive equipment, just pointing out that with most peoples speakers (myself included), the speakers are likely to be the weakest link.
That being said. I still prefer cheap speakers to cheap headphones 😉
For me, headphones will always be a "special applications" device.

WinXP : PIII 1.4GHz, 512MB RAM, 73GB SCSI HDD, Matrox Parhelia, SB Audigy 2.
Win98se : K6-3+ 500MHz, 256MB RAM, 80GB HDD, Matrox Millennium G400 MAX, Voodoo 2, SW1000XG.
DOS6.22 : Intel DX4, 64MB RAM, 1.6GB HDD, Diamond Stealth64 DRAM, GUS 1MB, SB16.