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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  • EddNog - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    ProviaFan, take a look at the Paradigm stuff, or if you've got decent multichannel power, I also feel that Magnepan's smaller speakers give good sound for the money (MMGs for example). I'm not sure if a Magnepan setup is in your budget (definitely worth the money if you can afford it, though, and comparably cheaper than many other audiophile HT solutions), but Paradigm's midrange (i.e. not Reference series) stuff should be pretty affordable. It's probably no cheaper than Magnepan to outfit your HT with Paradigm Reference, though.

    Of course there's plenty of other options out there. On the more affordable end, perhaps try some Cambridge Newton Series sats/bookshelves in conjunction with a Velodyne sub.

    -Ed
    Reply
  • Jigga - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    #26 is right on the mark--need ALC850 and Envy24 reviews STAT! Reply
  • ProviaFan - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Response to the audiophile that just posted: Yes, good cable is important, but good cable can be made at home for not terribly large amounts of money... Anything that costs hundreds of dollars per foot is not necessarily bad, but is nonetheless a terrible waste of money, because _there is no difference_. If you hear a difference between a $4 cable and a $40 cable, there probably is a difference. If you hear a difference between a $40 cable and a $4000 cable, it's in your head.

    With that said, I'd like to know of what to look for in a _good_ 5.1 monitor speaker setup (not consumer gaming quality, but not break-the-bank "audiophile" monitors based advertised with endless pseudoscience), as I might be in the market for something like that. :)

    Oh, and if Derek has any extra spare time (yeah, sure ;), I would be interested to see where something like the M-Audio Delta 1010LT sits between the consumer cards and the other pro cards that he mentioned in one of his latest posts (MOTU, Digidesign, etc.).
    Reply
  • vaystrem - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Other than Ed I think I'm the only audiophile to post on this and this is my comment regarding your multichannel setup.

    You used professional monitors for the 2 channel listening, fine Sony isn't great but its ok.

    And you used a consumer level speakers, Logitech, for your multichannel experience.

    You could hear differences on 2 channel... but not multi channel. What has changed most significantly is... your speakers. As you state, speakers are what introduce the highest levels of distortion.

    You can believe me, or not, but on my setup I can hear differences between CD players (Arcam 73t, Cary 308, Creek CD50, Roksan Kandy mkIII, Rega Planet 2000, Cambridge Audio Azur 640c for the curious), cabling and amplifiers.

    You need to have better quality speakers for evaulating multichannel. I'm not arguing the speakers are even the most important component, I'm a source first kind of person. But I think that having better evaluatory tools would be helpful.

    You absolutely have the right idea of having a 'reference'. Do not change it often. This is something Anandtech has always been good at with your other reviews. You use the same hardware/software tests over a longer period of time than other sites to ensure 'long term comparability'.

    Including a subjective element to the tests would be interesting. Some sites to look at.

    www.audioasylum.com Post a request on recommended testing methodologies and it might be helpful.

    www.uhfmag.com (comparative reviews panel of listeners generally non blind)
    www.hifichoice.co.uk (active use of blind listening panels here)
    www.stereophile.com www.sixmoons.com
    www.soundstage.com (does lots of measurements good comparisons)

    Those might be useful.

    Also, using some high quality headphones, Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Grado might be useful as well.
    Reply
  • CSMR - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    There is a general ignorance the basics of what audio systems are composed of. A receiver has a completely different purpose to a PC audio card (Griffin powerwave excluded). You need three things: an analog line-level signal (from a DAC), amplification, and speakers. (Exception: digitally-controlled class D amplification.) A $200 receiver will not have as good dacs as those in for instance the EMU 1212m. A receiver is often a DAC and an amplifier. Sound cards generally do not contain amplification. Reply
  • dev0lution - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    I second that. While it's nice to know how the audio solutions stack up in testing, some real world advice & comparisons would be a lot more helpful. For example, using the Intel/Realtek onboard solution with quality optical cables straight to a Dolby Digital receiver with home theater speakers versus using an Audigy card to a set of mid-high end 5.1 computer speakers.

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

    I use SPDIF outputs to hook up my computers to external equipment, a receiver and set of "real" speakers. IMHO a $200 receiver sounds superior to any PC audio card. I get real DolbyDigital and DTS decoding, low CPU overhead. Maybe I miss some of the audio effects in games but I always thought that Creative EAX is way overhyped anyway and most of the time I'd have it turned off because the sound was just plain weird. I think as more games have support for Dolby 5.1 and better EAX will become less relevant.

    Zak
    Reply
  • CSMR - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    The review's title should be: audio for gaming. Apart from gaming you have very many audio cards: E-MU, Ego Systems, Edirol, RME, M-Audio, etc.. For audio playback and recording these are the cards to consider; for gaming the reviewed cards are the ones to consider. (Not that they are bad: the Audigy 4 Pro is a good audio card, but around the level of the emu 0404, which costs less.) Reply
  • Slaimus - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Including older cards is a great idea as many people are looking for an upgrade. Something I would like to see included personally:

    - classic SoundBlaster Live using the kX driver and swapped outputs.
    - DFI's Karajan audio module with ALC850 compared to the standard implementation
    - SoundBlaster Live 24-bit with the Wolfson DAC
    Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    #37, bbomb, Good suggestion ...

    Title changed :-)

    I'll add an updated to the conclusion as well that ties together what we were trying to do with the article and explains the point a little better ... I do applogize for the confusion on all this.

    For the future, here are some chipsets and cards we want to include in the future:

    envy24 boards (maudio and terratec)
    realtek alc850 onboard
    analog devices onboard
    nvidia nf2 soundstorm

    pro:
    lynx (l22)
    emu
    digidesign (mbox or digi 002 rack + protools)
    motu
    rme

    It does look like there's a lot of demand for older Turtle Beach and Creative cards, so we'll try to take a look at those as well for reference.
    Reply

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