Introduction

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.


The Anatomy of a Sound Review (Electrical Analysis)
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  • KingofL337 - Friday, February 4, 2005 - link

    All, I want is a review of a sound card that does realtime SPDIF DTS/DD encoding not just a card that only does it in DVD's. You find one and I'm gonna go buy it. Reply
  • leliel - Friday, February 4, 2005 - link

    i'm still using philips seismic edges (philips tbird avenger chipset, PSC705 model) in my boxen because creative can't put out a decent product. i wouldn't mind seeing the new ultimate edge (PSC724) or aurilium (PSC8xx) reviewed. happy with what i have except the latest drivers for these things are about three years old and games like WoW and republic commando aren't happy with them =P Reply
  • EddNog - Friday, February 4, 2005 - link

    MrMarbles; check out the card I have, Echo Audio Mia MIDI. Its sample rate is completely controllable, including full lock to 44.1, with zero resample as long as you bypass Kmixer by either using any of the time critical transports (for example, kernel streaming) or even a special proprietary Kmixer bypass for regular wave audio output that's included in the drivers called Purewave. When I bought it, you could find the card for just $200, and it was over a year ago.

    -Ed
    Reply
  • MrMarbles - Friday, February 4, 2005 - link

    I'm interested in buying a soundcard for playing back highquality (if you can call MP3's that) MP3 files. I got an Audigy2 now. Very happy with the low distortion, has a very clean sound on my B&W Nautilus 805 speakers. But, they also have a very wellknown problem with 44.1khz 16bit stereo playback. So looking to upgrade. I'm a bit of a audiophile, but I can't spend too much. Gaming is not something do a lot of anymore. Reply
  • Pandamonium - Friday, February 4, 2005 - link

    Missing chipsets:
    Envy 24HT
    nVidia Sounstorm
    Reply
  • Maleficus - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    THANK YOU, seeing audio on the front page again is AWESOME. Reply
  • LocutusX - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Oh, and the ALC850 is pretty horrible. I used a TB Santa Cruz from 2001 to 2004 (3 years) and noticed the difference straight away when I switched to the on-board sound on my new Athlon64 rig.

    Later, when I bought an Audigy 2 ZS for Xmas, I noticed the difference on that the moment I popped the card in. Nah, don't waste your time on an ALC850 when there are more worthy things to review;

    - VIA Envy24HT cards
    - the various Audiophile-ish stuff already mentioned
    Reply
  • LocutusX - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    From what I've read @ Hydrogenaudio, it's impossible to "bypass" the resample stage with an Audigy 2 ZS (when dealing with 44.1KHz source).

    Someone posted a wave file which contained a particular sine wave. When played back on hardware which could natively handle 44.1KHz, it sounds fine.

    When played back on hardware which resamples 44.1KHz to 48KHz, lots of weird distortion could be heard - sirens, alien noises, etc. On the Audigy 2 ZS, even if you used ASIO or Kernel Streaming output, this behaviour was observed. Only when you did a high quality (SSRC) resample to 48KHz did it sound fine.

    BTW I don't see the point in reviewing the TB Santa Cruz. While a good card for its time, that was more than 2 years ago. It's been EOL (end of life) for 2 years now, and there won't be any new drivers made for it. It won't work in future OS's (XP64) and even the most recent XP32 drivers had issues with various games.
    Reply
  • vmajor - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Question for Derek, why was Audigy 4 judged better than the Audigy 2? It costs more and was just as bad (or worse)as the Audigy 2 in the objective tests.

    Regarding the audiophile incursion into Anandtech - just please beware that Audiophilia nervosa is contageous...

    ...when you start hearing differences between $40 and $4000 cables, power cords, volume knobs (yes, knobs, not pots), 'demagnetised' CDs, etc... take a long holiday.



    Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    #58, PrinceGaz,

    Thanks for the feedback. We will explore some of these options.

    We did, however, use RightMark 3DSound for our CPU Utilization tests. :-) There wasn't much more detail we could have gone into. We could have reported standard deviation for CPU usage, or even shown the graph over time for each card (which looked roughly the same in every case). The only test we really didn't include there was a test of the maximum number of audio channels on each card, though 32 happened to also be the max channels for the Realtek solution (64 channels for soundblaster 128 channels for gina3g).

    There's not much more information that RightMark 3DSound provides than what we showed. Unelss there's something specific you would like us to explore with the program? The effect of custom audio files?
    Reply

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