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Thursday, April 23, 2009

What the heck is up with sound-cards these days?

Time was, your Wintel PC needed a sound-card to do much more than make a thrilling little beep or click. Early sound-cards were pretty rudimentary, but they did the job. You got sound, and sometimes darn good sound.

More modern sound cards have all sorts of features, chief among which I would think is easing the sound-processing burden for the CPU, and really, that's the primary reason you'd go out and buy a sound-card rather than relying on the audio systems that are built into virtually every motherboard out there. The onboard sound hardware generally seems to rely on drivers that do most of the dog-work at the CPU end.

So, armed with a shiny new machine, I found it would really shovel. It handled pretty much every piece of software I threw at it, and usually on maximum settings. Memory and disk throughput was comfortably huge, and very snappy.

The onboard sound hardware, however, gave all the symptoms of an overworked software audio pipeline: Clicks, pops and stutters, when the system gets pretty busy delivering flashy frame-rates.

Not a great experience.

So, time for a dedicated sound-card to move all that work off onto hardware and give me a nice smooth sound experience. In this case, that was the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme Audio PCI-E.

Golly, was that ever a waste of money.

Plugged in, and running the latest drivers it delivers sound that is no better than the software-driven audio hardware on the motherboard.

But I can have advanced audio features with my clicks, pops and stutters.

Woo, right?

Not impressed. Honestly, I don't give a damn about the nifty audio features. I want something that offloads the work from my CPU to the sound-card hardware and keeps the audio system doing what it is supposed to do. Viz: Delivering smooth audio. I have a 10-year-old Creative sound-card that does just that, with efficiency and aplomb, and which never showed any trouble until I choked the system too hard for it to accomplish much of anything. Unfortunately, this system just doesn't have any PCI slots for it.

So, what is it with these newer sound-cards? Are they basically little more than life-support for a bunch of software features and brightly coloured output sockets nowadays?


  1. Creative quality isn't quite where it used to be, sadly. It seems to have changed ever since the CEO was no longer personally selecting the components and soldering the prototypes, let alone the actual products. :(

    I used to love my Sound Blaster. These days, meh.

  2. Forget Creative, get an M-Audio card based on Envy chip series, and you'll have something suitable for professional sound work. :)

  3. A quick glance at M-Audio's product listings suggests that they don't have any PCI-E gear.

  4. Are you running Vista? That might be the source of the trouble, as Vista has a completely-redesigned audio pipeline which may induce more overhead into the process...and, of course, has all the delightful little grenade-pins in it to keep you from stealing "premium content."

    But I'd have to agree with you; sound card design kind of reached its pinnacle with the Sound Blaster AWE32 and AWE64 designs, and has been going downhill ever since. I use a Turtle Beach Riviera card myself these days, which, unlike my motherboard's onboard audio, will work under Linux. Plus, Turtle Beach is owned by Voyetra these days, and I've used enough Voyetra products in the past to know that they work well.

  5. Just Windows XP. Hmm. I remember the Turtle Beach name from wayback. Never seen any of their hardware, though.


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