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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  • PrinceGaz - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    It's good to see soundcards and onboard audio being reviewed again here. The three products you chose were a good start (the Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro and Audigy 4 Pro are so similar that the small differences measured are almost irrelevant, which is no surprise as Creative rarely updates their hardware).

    I was surprised that high quality extrnal DACs and ADCs hooked up to a reference card with SPDIF connections wasn't used for the RMAA tests, as the way it was done seriously compromises all the results. There's no way to tell how good the output-circuitry and input-circuitry of each card is, and as the input-circuitry is usually the weaker on all but high-end cards, it was probably the main factor in your results. The possibility of a ground-loop also throws a serious question-mark over their accuracy. Retesting all three (or four) cards with high-quality external DACs and ADCs hooked up to a second card is essential for good reference results that can be used with future tests (which must also use the same improved testing methodology).

    The CPU utilisation results were more interesting and useful given the above, but why not use RightMark 3DSound to more thoroughly research the issue, rather than just the basic tests offered by RMAA?

    Anyway I look forward to more cards being tested (Envy24 based solutions for the low-end certainly) as well as onboard audio. Onboard audio will vary from mobo to mobo so unless every mobo Wesley reviews also undergoes an audio test, the mobo audio testing will only apply to the few select boards chosen (another board using the same audio solution could be much better or worse because the choice and layout of the analogue circuitry is critical).

    www.digit-life.com does some very thorough soundcard reviews covering almost every aspect (but unfortunately for only a lmited selection of cards) that are well worth taking a look at.
    Reply
  • S0me1X - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Oh yeah, don't visit head-fi: its evil. Reply
  • SDA - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Nice article! I'd like to see more cards reviewed, but the fact that the article doesn't compare every single sound card ever made doesn't bother me so long as we'll be seeing more things like this in the future :D

    Speaking of the future, I'd agree with #54 and whoever else said it: the E-MU 0404 and 1212m are definitely worth considering in future articles due to their excellent analog (stereo) sound output and wide feature set (well, mainly on the 1212m, but the 0404's not bad for the price). The cheap Chaintech AV-710 may also be worth a look, as its sound quality in "High Quality" mode (stereo only, again.. sigh) is surprisingly good for the price. Also, it has optical out. The Revo 5.1 and 7.1 are, of course, also worth considering.

    I'd also say that you might want to try other speakers and headphones out. I'm not saying you should use really expensive high-end stuff, mind.. what I AM saying is that synergy occurs to a surprising degree with sound equipment, and besides, it wouldn't hurt to try out other pieces of gear that might be within the price range of the typical computer hardware enthusiast.

    One last thing. I read this article while taking a break from building a power supply that just happened to use an LM1086. Creepy.
    Reply
  • S0me1X - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    While the Gina3G has an external DAC, it is doesn't look like it has its own power supply!? It is not a standalone DAC.

    I meant external DACs like this one
    http://www.benchmarkmedia.com/catalog/product_info...
    Reply
  • S0me1X - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Some very good cards for pure music playing are EMU0404 and EMU1212.

    External dacs can get quite costly, but you get the benefit of isolation from noisy power, and much better analogue output.

    I think Benchmark DAC1 is one of the best DACs for use with PC because its very jitter resistant, has fantastic DAC performance, can be used in many different ways (it has a decent built in headphone amplifier, it can be used in a preamp-less speaker system, etc.).

    Right now, I'm using a Benchmark DAC1 (toslink input from computer), Sennheiser HD650, Grado RS1, and a Dynahi amplifier (http://www.headamp.com/dynahi.shtml). The DAC1 sounds many magnitudes better than SoundBlaster.
    Reply
  • vaystrem - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    I understand people's concerns regarding subjectivity but lets have a go with that for a second. I use relatively high quality headphones with my laptop (Grado SR-225s) and I will be building another desktop system agian son.
    Something that I have noticed in my experience with audio is that some hardware is more 'fatiguing' than others.

    This 'may' to some degree show up in tests, distortion in upper frequencies, poor crosstalk, etc etc. But simply listening to the "source" (the soundcard) for a long period of time with as a previous poster pointed out 'well made' cables (DIY stuff is fantastic if you have the knack, I don't :) and a revealing good quality speaker can reveal this 'subjective' element.

    People see to varying degrees, I have poor sight others have very good sight. Some have good night vision, others have comparatively poor vision. Similarily audio sensitivity varies from person to person, and fatigue is important but subjective. Audio fatigue contributes to a negative music & gaming experience.

    A brief rant on the 'source first' school of Audio thought. Essentially audiophiles seek information preservation. We want to be able to hear the conductor drop thier baton, the violin tuned improperly, the subtle ebb and flow of underlying melodies. If any of this information is NOT transmitted by the source, the AMP, Cables, Pre-amp, and finally speakers. All contribute to information loss.

    The quality of the original information is therefore of the most importance, hence the importance of soundcard/source reviews in general. The other school of thought is that the source doesn't matter 'so much' or that all sources are roughly equal.

    As you've demonstrated, already, with the measurements in this small sample of soundcards. There is a variance in the quality of the soundcards and their measurable performance, with some of those differences being audibly different.

    So.... all to say. Subjective tests may be of some use. Especially if you begin, as I suspect you will, that soundcards will have a slightly different sonic character. In my own in house review of about 7 different CD players, determining what is different - was not a problem - determining which was BETTER, was.
    Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    CSMR is on the right track --

    though, I will say that we do want to find a balance between the audiophile and the computer enthusiast.

    Our goals in reviewing PC audio cards are rooted in our history as a computer hardware site, but we aspire to more than simply spitting out RMAA numbers and benchmarks.

    We do want to bring something for the audiophiles and musicians as well, so all feedback is appreciated. As usual, we will strive to bring coverage beyond what other computer hardware sites offer, so you can be sure that we will pay attention to what you guys have to say.

    Derek Wilson
    Reply
  • CSMR - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    A subjective element to the tests, with better hi-fi equipment, is not appropriate. It is not a competence of AnandTech; the sites you mentioned have much more info and reviewers there have greater experience and expensive equipment; moreover their readers are entirely audio enthusiasts, unlike AnandTech's.
    For those interested in audio cards, Head-Fi and the audio asylum are good places to go for info.
    Reply
  • lsman - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    may be get your hands on those for less noise signal?

    http://www.kuroutoshikou.com/products/etc/no-pci+....
    Reply
  • lsman - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    may be get your hands on those for less noise signal?

    http://www.kuroutoshikou.com/products/etc/no-pci+....
    Reply

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