Winter Audio Reference: On-Board, Consumer, and Pro Solutionsby Derek Wilson on February 3, 2005 12:05 AM EST
It's been quite some time since AnandTech has tackled an audio review. With Intel feeding higher bandwidth to onboard solutions and ever more data available to add-in cards through PCI Express, we could start to see some changes in the way that the industry approaches audio. We already have DVD-Audio and SACDs on current storage formats. With HD-DVD or Blu-ray coming down the pipe shortly, we'll have larger storage devices to feed the bandwidth-hungry PCs of today. That means even better quality media.
Our drive in life is to stay ahead of the curve and help as many people understand and ride the wave of upcoming technology as possible. When AnandTech got started, the AMD/Intel war was just getting going and 3D hardware was just beginning to take off. Before the advent of hardware 3D graphics acceleration, the video card was basically used as a rasterizer that drew a 2D image to the screen over an analog output. When talking about image quality, all rested on the DAC, which took the image of the screen in RAM and converted it from a digital grid of color values to an analog signal that the monitor could understand. Back in the day, Matrox started getting fancy and accelerated 2D windows function calls so that the CPU didn't have to draw everything itself. Slowly, more and more drawing was handled by the graphics card until we ended up moving complex 3D functions onto the graphics card and removing overhead from the rest of the system.
Over the years, a much slower trend has been happening on sound cards that parallels the graphics card industry. We have 3D positional audio and hardware DSP effects that manipulate audio in order to make it sound like it's contained in an altogether different environment.
Some of the key factors have kept the audio industry from advancing as fast and furiously as the graphics industry. First, our ears are easier to fool than our eyes. In general, people just don't care as much about hearing things where they are if they can see it. But there are mold breakers. Games like Doom 3, Thief 3, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, are aurally quite beautiful and the sound quality not only adds to the experience, but is essential to gameplay as well.
There hasn't been enough emphasis placed on more than a 2-speaker 3D positional audio yet. In our opinion, applying HRTFs (head related transform functions) to 2-speaker setups is on its way out. Solutions like Doom 3's 5.1 channel surround implementation are doable and sound more natural. As the average end user for any given game begins to have a 5.1 surround system rather than a 2 or 2.1 system, we will start to see more and more developers use better sounding techniques.
The minimum quality for PC speakers is way too low. The speaker is the weakest link in the audio chain, and there's no need to buy an expensive sound card if you're going to have a cheap set of speakers connected to it. As people start to understand audio more, they will start to embrace it. The more realistic visuals become in games, the more obvious problems with audio will become. If by no other factor, we will see audio quality improve on the PC.
Today, we are going to take a look at a cross section of the audio industry. The lineup includes two cards from Creative (the Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro and Audigy 4 Pro), the Realtek Intel HD Audio solution, and the Echo Audio Gina3G. With these cards, we are covering our bases for the consumer add-in market, professional recording, and onboard audio solutions. Over time, as we review more audio solutions, we will compare against these cards as well.
Before we get to the cards and tests, we will need to take a look at what it is exactly that we will be doing. First, we will look what goes into an audio solution, and then we'll take a look at RightMark Audio Analyzer. As most of our analysis will be based on RMAA, understanding what all its tests mean is of the utmost importance.