Sound Cards: Worth Buying or Just a Niche Product?

Tran Bronstein

Posts: 9   +11
Fond memories of installing my original 8 bit Sound Blaster and then the upgraded Sound Blaster 16 card to get audio for Wing Commander and X-COM: UFO Defense. :)
 

mbk34

Posts: 422   +327
I can't stand headphones, hats, or anything on my head. It causes my Tourette to act up for some reason. I think it's a sensory thing. Makes me twitch like crazy. That's the only thing that does that.
I use a set of neck speakers - they're like a lightweight collar containing small speakers and bluetooth. I barely know I'm wearing them but the sound is fairly decent. If you want great sound then try the Bose Soundwear or the Sony SRS NS7. There's still sound leakage so you couldn't sit in an office with them but they're great for not annoying the wife, neighbours etc.
 

BogdanR

Posts: 12   +1
Older phones like the original iphone SE (2016) have horrible internal DACs …

Actually that is not true. The DAC/ Amp in the original SE was excellent. Measurably so. And it was capable of driving reasonably sensitive headphones with ease. My PSB or my HiFiMan for instance, even though the latter, being a planar, open design was not all that easy to drive.

I kept my old SE for exactly this reason: it works as a portable player better than most of the dedicated players of that era. You’re invited to drop by and give it a listen anytime you wish.
 

Gimp65

Posts: 81   +163
Will be putting my SoundBlaster ZxR in my next gaming build.

I owned quite a few soundscards, STX II, Soundblasters(all kinds), Yamaha etc etc. I gotta say that the soundblaster Z and ZxR was some of the worst, they color the sound way to much, pushing it away from the original sound, they went back after few days. Now im using onboard with an external Quad vena II DAC/amp via optical, pretty satisfied. Was also happy with the STX II + analog amp combo.
 

kinetix

Posts: 66   +59
Oh man, I still miss my SoundBlaster Live! and make it work even on Windows 7 with modified drivers. I still remember how for some reason a PCI line burned and I fixed it with a fine wire and solder. should have kept it in my hardware collection and not given it away like I did.
 
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To reject the noise from a free power supply (included with a cheap computer case) with a 50+ Plutonium rating, you will need a "quality" external DAC preferably using a fiber cable

A "quality" DAC can reject the noise even over USB cables up to 10 feet long
A lesser DAC will not reject the noise over USB (but some will)

External headphone amps should be using external DACs to reject ground plane noise

Headphone up to 300 Ohms require a dongle DAC like the Hidizs S9 (AKM DAC) or the Hidizs S9 Pro (ESS DAC) or a Fiio KA3 (ESS)

Older phones like the original iphone SE (2016) have horrible internal DACs as do certain older desktop computers
Newer phones and computers "generally" do not require an external DAC to run a high quality outboard amp and speakers "IF" the computers power supply is of high quality / low noise

Older operating systems like Windows XP require driverless DACs to operate within the USB audio Class 1 spec
or...
I could use a micca origin G2 DAC with XP drivers which gives me USB to optical conversion, allowing me to use a modern external DAC of my choice that does not have XP drivers

Fiio BTR3K Bluetooth DAC also works with Windows XP without drivers in USB audio Class 1 mode, as does the Avantree DG-60 bluetooth transmitter

There are hundreds of reasons for using a specific DAC with a specific setup for a specific use

It is not a one size fits all topic

I have a few systems that do not require external DACs
I also have systems that require USB DACs
I have systems that require Optical SPDIF
I have several systems that absolutely require driverless USB Audio Class 1 DACs
I also require quality dongles for headphones up to 300 Ohms

An internal sound card or onboard audio would meet only a small fraction of my use cases, so the very question you pose is pointless!
Okay there neck beard, I'll be sure to use obsolete TOSLINK cables, to connect my PC powered with it's "Plutonium 50+" efficiency rating PSU for the best results to "reject noise". Great advice... Please tell us more about all this digital noise rejection that's so problematic...
 

Bullwinkle M

Posts: 849   +767
Okay there neck beard, I'll be sure to use obsolete TOSLINK cables, to connect my PC powered with it's "Plutonium 50+" efficiency rating PSU for the best results to "reject noise". Great advice... Please tell us more about all this digital noise rejection that's so problematic...
The free power supply that came with a $40 case that I spoke of has an efficiency rating of 60% and produces a considerable amount of noise

It is used only as a testbed for noise rejection of my DAC's over USB

Certainly optical connections will reject the noise unless the DACs power were suppied by the noisy computer in question

Noise is "generally" not problematic with quality brands of modern power supplies rated at bronze or above

I have never had a noise problem using a modern Corsair, EVGA or Seasonic of Bronze rating or above

I have many DACs that completely reject all noise from the test system over a USB connection even when using a 10 foot cable, and I have some DACs that do not reject the noise even over a short cable

For DAC's that do not reject all noise over USB, I use an optical toslink cable and a separate power supply that will not create a ground loop problem for the DAC

I never use a noisy test system for daily use
I only keep it for testing noise rejection of DAC's

How do YOU test for noise rejection?

By the way, Toslink cables are not obsolete!
 
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Bullwinkle M

Posts: 849   +767
Actually that is not true. The DAC/ Amp in the original SE was excellent. Measurably so. And it was capable of driving reasonably sensitive headphones with ease. My PSB or my HiFiMan for instance, even though the latter, being a planar, open design was not all that easy to drive.

I kept my old SE for exactly this reason: it works as a portable player better than most of the dedicated players of that era. You’re invited to drop by and give it a listen anytime you wish.
Actually, it IS true!
You are clearly wrong about its DAC quality

I still use the original iphone SE almost daily, but not for the sound quality

I also have HiFiMan Planars and several dongles to choose from

Even the $10 Apple Lightning Dongle is vastly superior to the internal DAC on the original SE

The lightning dongle drives more headphones, gets louder and has significantly cleaner sound quality with better detail

Even a modern free phone you get with cell service (like the Samsung A12) has a vastly superior DAC to the SE
 
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All in all nice(ish) article except for one point, there is no hardware audio processing since vista when microsoft decided to kill it. Every bit of audio on windows is processed by the CPU. You MIGHT have some channel mixing on the fancier (read the most expensive) soundcards but even then it's mostly done by the audio driver and the CPU muscle.
 
PC sound is one of the most annoying things I deal with, my rigs main job is playing movies first and gaming follows, for movies its awesome, hooked to a 65" tv and pumping audio through a 5.1 onkyo is epic.

BUT, the Kodi program handles the video and audio, it simplifies it and makes sure I'm getting that sweet sweet dolby or dts hd goodness.

games on the other hand are infuriating, for some silly af reason the gaming industry is addicted to cranking sound through headphones?! my audio sounds "fine" but a playstation or xbox beats this expensive pc because they can crank high def audio to a receiver easy as pie, just go into settings, check 1 or 2 boxes, boom, surround sound.

pc can and cant do that, at least not easily and after spending 10hrs googling through arguments on htpc forums. if microsoft just moved over whatever xbox is using for audio into windows I'd give them all the money, but for some reason sound just doesnt matter to them.

It's not microsoft's problem. You can easily output hight quality analog audio with a basic ALC1200 and a mobo that supports 5.1 or 7.1 outputs, or a fancier sound card. The key word is analog. If you want your audio through a digital output and a receiver you can have PCM but that's limited to stereo, anything else requires an encoder (dolby, dts...) which means you need to pay a license fee. You're indirectly paying that license on a console since it's basically included in the price.
 

neeyik

Posts: 2,419   +2,963
Staff member
All in all nice(ish) article except for one point, there is no hardware audio processing since vista when microsoft decided to kill it. Every bit of audio on windows is processed by the CPU. You MIGHT have some channel mixing on the fancier (read the most expensive) soundcards but even then it's mostly done by the audio driver and the CPU muscle.
That was true for Vista and Windows 7, but hardware processing was brought back in with Windows 8 onwards [source].
 

etempest

Posts: 62   +37
Hdmi from the gpu ftw let my prepro do the decoding.
Creative lost my business with windows xp upgrade. I had bought a brand new 300$ 5.1 card with the drive bay addon 2 weeks prior to switching from windows m.e to xp. the card never worked in win xp and caused all kinds of crashing issues in xp and even a few years later it still did not have upgraded drivers .I still have the card sitting in a box of old parts to remind me to never again purchase a creative labs product.

Creative made great hardware, but their drivers typically sucked after the Windows 9x era. "Daniel K" came along and made unofficial drivers using creative's official driver's to fix a lot of their issues and restore features Creative tried to artificially remove from certain configuration. The only time I saw creative care about their drivers was when they were competing with Aureal (RIP).
 

Neutronman

Posts: 15   +14
Interesting post.
Like everything IT, the law of diminishing returns applies!
I built pc's with and without sound cards over the years, favoring Creative until I got fed up with their crappy, bloated drivers. After this I tried various onboard solutions in high end motherboards. The DAC's were OK, but the headphone amps were terrible. So my go to solution for sound these days is a reasonably priced external DAC/AMP and headphone combo. I use this for gaming, watching video and listening to music.
Currently I have a Topping DX3Pro+ and Hifiman 400SE which I paid $320 in total. The DAC/AMP was $199. I auditioned other DAC/AMPs costing 4 times more and $600 headphones, but to be honest really could not tell the difference between my cheaper solution and the more expensive solutions. Perhaps my old, hairy ears are the limiting factor, or the actual source of music etc!!!

Can you get away without a dedicated sound card? Sure you can, but will it give you a premium experience?
 

Neutronman

Posts: 15   +14
Aging myself somewhat here, but for my first PC I added a SoundBlaster card because I needed a serial port (game port) that would work with my Sidewinder force feedback joystick. My on-board VIA chipset would not recognize the stick.
Ahh, those were the days :)
 

Ludak021

Posts: 775   +590
Things are becoming wireless. Even my $200 receiver has BT support, so it becomes harder and harder to justify the cables, especially if you like rearranging your room often.

We should be seeing lossless, low latency BT audio in the coming years, at which point it'll be utterly pointless to bother with dedicated sound cards anymore, except if you're a producer or sound engineer. For the consumer, big fat nope.

Well, if that sound quality is good enough for you -great!
For me, that's trash.
 

RudyBob

Posts: 892   +913
The only sound card that excited me was my Aureal Vortex. It was so good...then Creative messed them up. I hope Creative chokes on silicon to this day. I use headphones 99.4 % of the time
 

BogdanR

Posts: 12   +1
Actually, it IS true!
You are clearly wrong about its DAC quality

I still use the original iphone SE almost daily, but not for the sound quality

I also have HiFiMan Planars and several dongles to choose from

Even the $10 Apple Lightning Dongle is vastly superior to the internal DAC on the original SE

The lightning dongle drives more headphones, gets louder and has significantly cleaner sound quality with better detail

Even a modern free phone you get with cell service (like the Samsung A12) has a vastly superior DAC to the SE
Yes, newer hardware is a little better, especially the inexpensive dongle which measures well, no dispute there. That however doesn’t make the original SE poor.

“Vastly superior“ you say. Care to back up this claim with some measurements?
 

Bullwinkle M

Posts: 849   +767
“Vastly superior“ you say. Care to back up this claim with some measurements?

What for?
Most of us can clearly hear the difference

Maybe I should have said CLEARLY superior but you'd still likely gripe

The combination of improvements I described add up to a huge improvement overall, so the word "vastly" was accurate

Measurements alone would not tell you what the improvements were....
The $10 dongle supports a wider range of headphones and gives improved Volume on harder to drive headphones
Greater clarity and detail as well

If you cannot appreciate the vast improvements then I am sorry for your hearing loss
Now, is there anything else I can help you with today?
 
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Hodor

Posts: 418   +301
Selling the original Sound Blaster, the old school of audio output. For people who have oldtimer cars, old computers, old houses, etc. Price can be negotiated. Which old wine do you have in the wine cellar?
 
I just bought a Sound blaster G6 three months ago and I am still loving it even I am switched from gaming headsets to mid-end hifi headphones
 

toooooot

Posts: 1,827   +983
Integrated sound cards used to be soooo shitty.
That is why I used one. Also, when one on the mobo dies, it is also a good reason to get one.
I used a beautiful HT Omega Claro, a beautiful sounding card. I still have it because my hand refused to throw it away.