For years, the soundcard looked as though it was headed to join the scrapheap along with the Ethernet card, USB 2.0 card, and Firewire card. Oddly, a recent renewed interest in soundcards indicates that this dog may still have a little hunt left in it. Creative Lab’s X-Fi has been the premier soundcard but entries from Asus, Auzentech, Razor, and others have recently been introduced for PC enthusiasts. Why run a soundcard instead of the “free” onboard stuff on your motherboard? The main reason is because it simply sound better. Onboard audio’s biggest weakness is sharing the same space as the other electrically noisy components on a motherboard. This leads to the snap, crackle, and humming that most people associate with bad audio. Onboard audio also has a weakness in that most motherboard companies’ strengths aren’t in making good audio; they just need to have it fulfill a checkbox on the packaging.
Today, gamers are faced with two choices: hardware audio-processing or host-based. There’s only one soundcard series with hardware support: Creative’s X-Fi (and Auzentech’s authorized copy). X-Fi cards will actually process the complex math for audio on the digital signal processor (DSP) on the card. Newcomers, such as Asus’ Xonar or Razor’s Barracuda AC-1 actually process the math on the CPU and use the soundcard as little more than a glorified I/O card to pass the audio signal out of the system to your speakers. The argument for the X-Fi cards is that they will put less of a load on the CPU and thus, theoretically, increase frame rates. For the most part, we’ve found this to be true. However, with quad-core computers becoming the norm, is the soundcard even really working that hard?
Host-based soundcards are actually quite good and offer features that DSP-equipped cards cannot, such as real-time encoding of content to Dolby Digital. For those looking to use the PC with a home entertainment system, a card like the Asus Xonar is a better fit than the X-Fi.
There’s also been a push to include ever more satellite speakers in soundcards with 5.1 going to 6.1 and now 7.1 audio. While additional speakers do help, we don’t find it practical to run seven speakers around our PC. Plus, support for 7.1 and 6.1 audio in speakers tends to be mismatched with not all systems working quite right. The sweet spot for someone looking for a good surround-sound experience is still a 5.1 speaker setup. The good news is that cards that tout 7.1 support also work fine with most 5.1 speaker sets.
If games are the main application you consider when it comes to sound, your choice remains simple: Creative’s X-Fi.
Q: What’s the difference between 24-bit/192KHz audio and 16-bit/44.1KHz audio?
A: 16-bit/44.1KHz audio is the specification for CD-quality audio, whereas 24-bit/192KHz sound is recorded at a higher bit rate, meaning it includes more information (or bits of data) about the sound than 16-bit/44.1KHz audio. With a higher bit rate, sound is produced with increased resolution and is able to convey more subtle nuances than with a lower bitrate. Unfortunately, it will be a while before 24-bit/192KHz media becomes commonplace, simply because 16-bit/44KHz is excellent sound quality by most people’s standards. Another roadblock to the adoption of 24-bit/192KHz audio is that if you play a CD that was engineered at 16 bits, it won’t sound better with a soundcard that’s capable of 24-bit resolution. Most 24-bit soundcards do let you record at that resolution, though, which is a nice feature if you do a lot of music recording.
Q: In specific terms, how badly might my 3D gaming frame rates suffer if I use a “host-based” card that relies on my CPU for audio processing chores?
A: Most onboard sound chips (and even some add-in soundcards) offload audio number crunching to the system’s CPU, which is generally bad. This is because, during a 3D game, the CPU has its hands full feeding instructions to the videocard, so the last thing it needs is more work. We know how it feels! However, by most benchmarks, the difference in frame rates for a system using a host-based card and an add-in card is usually less than 10 frames per second. If you have a monster gaming rig that has frames to spare, you can afford to send some more work to the CPU. However, if you’re running a “budget” system, an add-in card with its own audio processor is the way to go for maximum gaming performance.