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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  • REMF - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    i would like to see how the Via envy24 cards stack up against the newer Realtek 880 and C-media HD chips, as well as against CL gear. Reply
  • bbomb - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Please read his remarks before you go off crying that this round up sucks and you didnt do this card or that card. Read some of the comments in the commetns section and Dereks response before you spew out the same crap someone else has.

    He stated 6 posts above you soupy that these were done to creat a refrence point for each segment for future reviews of sound cards.

    Perhaps you should remove the roundup part of the article title Derek.
    Reply
  • ElFenix - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    i'll stick with the santa cruz for a while longer, i guess. Reply
  • Damien - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    I was surprised to not see the nForce 4 compared, given that it is one of the newest onboard sound components to support the latest gravy.

    Damien
    Reply
  • soupy - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    no EMU cards? (0404, 1212). Those are some really hi-fidelity cards this review should've included. And yeah, there really has to be a good, solid sound system for reviews like these to be based on. All in all, this roundup was pretty bad. Reply
  • ProviaFan - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    #15 - Aardvark is dead. Sadly, because they made some good stuff, but they're not around any more, which means no driver updates, etc. :(

    For pro cards, you could try the MOTU 828mkII (maybe throw in a 24I/O or HD192 on the high end if you're going to cover that segment), the Presonus Firepod, and whatever Digidesign sells in that price range (comments on the Protools software would be required also if you're going to do that ;). If you wanted to go really high end, you could look at some Apogee D/A and A/D's... :D
    Reply
  • Jigglybootch - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    I'm surprised there was no E-mu 0404 reviewed. It goes for about the same price point as a plain Audigy 2 ZS, but blows it away in every category.

    Also surprised by no Revolution 7.1/5.1 review.
    Reply
  • segagenesis - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    #19 - I second that. However, I have not seen (or rather havent looked hard enough?) something since the soundstorm that does realtime AC3 out. And yes, please include at *least* the Revolution 7.1 in a future review. Maybe you should thrown in your stock AC97 on most boards you see now (Realtek 6 channel, not Intel HD Audio) just to show the difference between them and a $100+ card.

    I also fail to see the real benefit of Creative cards and hardware 3D audio when to me its always sounded like the game is in a cave or some other overdone (or underdone!) effect. Ok maybe you get a few extra fps but I have always played games using Miles Fast 2D/3D audio without complaint.

    YMMV
    Reply
  • mcveigh - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    you really should have had something with the via envy 24 chipset in there. there are so many boards out with one of those variants. personally I would have liked to see M-audio (or who ever they are now) revo 7.1 AND 5.1 as the new 5.1 is supposed to have better DAC's I've heard. Reply
  • EddNog - Thursday, February 3, 2005 - link

    Mr. Wilson, please don't forget to mention the importance of bypassing the Kmixer resample stage. ;-)

    With even a merely decent system, the difference is obvious.

    -Ed
    Reply

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