Who Needs a Sound Card, Anyway?

Actually some guy from AdLib, a company that went bankrupt in 1992(!), some of you might still remember them, already said that many years ago: “If Moore’s law will hold true for the next couple of years, it is only a question of time till a soundcard becomes just a piece of software and the only hardware involved will be a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) on your motherboard”. And he was right, I 'd say.

Today, a CPU can do in software what was only possible with dedicated signal processors a couple of years ago and it won’t even go beyond 10% load of a single core when doing so. The strange thing is, that people refuse to learn of the past: When I say today, that one day, a graphics adapter will be nothing more than a piece of software (meaning dedicated GPUs will die), I’m being laughed at; people actually get really upset and try to explain me why this cannot ever be the case and that I’m an idiot.

But let’s face it: Everything a dedicated GPU can do can also be done by a CPU. And dedicated GPUs get closer and closer to generic usage processors. Not too many years ago, pretty much everything was hardcoded in a GPU and it only supported the operations really necessary to bring some 3D scene to the screen. Today, pretty much nothing is hardcoded anymore, developers write vertex- and fragment-shaders (alias pixel-shaders), as well as whole fragment-programs. Actually using OpenCL, you can perform any kind of computation on GPUs just like you can on a CPU. On the latest CPUs, an OpenGL software emulation of OpenGL 1.0 can run faster than a real OpenGL 1.0 implementation was running on a GPU at the time OpenGL 1.0 was released!

GPUs are still significantly faster than CPUs today, since they are very limited (they support far less operations than a CPU, but those operations are optimized to the max) and they are optimized for parallelization (your CPU might have 4 cores, but your GPU might have 32 shader pipelines, meaning it can perform 32 calculations in parallel). However, they also run at lower clock speeds in general and with the increasing shader capabilities, the GPUs need to support more and more operations that cannot be optimized beyond a certain point (e.g. conditional jumps!) and may also hinder further parallelism.

CPUs catch up because they run at higher clock rates, their number of cores keeps growing (8 cores are available today, in a couple of years, 16 core might be normal for a consumer CPU) and they keep getting better instructions with each new CPU generation (SSE4.2 will soon be replaced by SSE5, further AVX is almost ready and will give CPU x86 a huge speed up). Sure, if the GPU development continues equally fast as the CPU development, CPUs won’t ever overtake GPUs… however, a company like AMD (who bought ATI and thus is the biggest competitor to NVidia) might say one day: Given the enormous speed of our CPUs, we stop GPU development altogether. And for many occasional players, a CPU that could render current DirectX10 games with all effects enabled completely in software and will achieve frame rates of 30+ FPS is all they need. And if you compare CPU to GPU speed comparisons, you’ll notice, that actually CPUs are catching up, because they are currently evolving somewhat faster than GPUs are (whenever GPUs have doubled their speed, CPUs have almost trippled their speed at the same time).

So like soundcards are only for sound/music-enthusiasts today, 3D graphics adapter will only be for hardcore gamers one day, for the rest, a software emulation on the CPU will cut it just as it does for soundcards today.

I completely agree. Built myself a grubDAC and have been amazed at the quality of sound, much more responsive, detailed, and the bass is punchier. All with the same amp and speakers.

I am building three more, one for work and one for my laptop.

At one of my last jobs I had a pair of Sony headphones, but they were uncomfortable wearing glasses ( good audio or readable text? ), an solutions?

Unfortunately I think I’m stuck with Creative cards forever, because I still have old games that can use EAX (under Alchemy), and I never want to go back to plain stereo.

Yeah… I would also agree with the couple people who’ve mentioned that if you’re ever recording in any serious capacity, you definitely need a dedicated sound card. I don’t have one, cause I’m cheap and I only ever occasionally record for my own amusement, but anyone who’s ever even thought about going pro (either as a musician self-recording, or recording for other people) would definitely want better equipment.

I also agree with the first post: I’ve never bought a 200 dollar set of headphones, but I’ve definitely bought “only” 75 dollar headphones a couple times. Both times they lasted maybe a year or two before something broke. These days I just use 20 buck earphones, and if they break, oh well, I’ll buy another pair. Can I tell the difference? Yeah, a little, but I’ll survive. Better than buying expensive stuff and having to replace it all the time.

Having a sound card for dedicated sound processing is missing the point entirely. For at least 5 years CPUs have been fast enough for that.

You want a sound card for these reasons:

  • High quality DAC (digital-to-analog converters)
  • Low noise level (no hiss in your headphones when not doing anything)
  • Low inteference (otherwise you can actually hear your current CPU and hard disk usage! Interesting, but irritating)

Onboard sound cards are probably still crap on all three points, especially inteference.

A nice pair of headphones is a total waste of money with an onboard sound card, because the low quality DAC, high noise level and inteference more than negate the headphone quality.

I have a Xonar DG and it really does work. My onboard sound chip picks up a lot of EMI noise, and I’m not talking only-audible-to-audiophiles noise, I mean literally anyone can hear the static. The Xonar eliminates the noise, and drives my Sony MDR-V6’s noticeably better than the onboard chip, though not as well as a “real” amp.

At work though I use a Behringer MA400 (along with another pair of V6’s) which is a steal of an amp for $22, all made out of metal with really nice analog knobs. I used to think the whole headphone amp thing was snake oil but these Sony headphones, which are only about $75, have made a believer out of me. There really is a difference running them amplified.

I’ve never had any luck with the front TRS ports on a PC (in the event there are any). I use a USB headset for gaming-- trading “audio quality” for “don’t have to go messing around with the TRS ports.”

In fact, I think since I got my USB headset (a year or so ago, I think?) I haven’t had to replace it once, despite me hating TRS headsets for breaking so quickly after I get them.

For my phone (which is my MP3 player), I just have a fold-up pair of cheap headphones from Target. You don’t know how hard it is to find headphones that 1) fit over my glasses, and 2) don’t make my sinuses go crazy by blocking my ear canal. :confused:

Sometimes the onboard chipset sucks. When I was using onboard sound, my last PC used roughly 30% of one core when playing MP3s and would stutter if I tried to browse the web at the same time. Installing an el cheapo soundcard fixed it. I have no idea what the problem was.

My current PC still uses a bit more CPU than I’d like to play audio, but I haven’t bothered to look for another solution because it’s not a dorm room PC anymore and I rarely listen to music on the PC.

Total Bithead is a pretty darn awesome USB DAC plus headphone amp. $150 might seem expensive, but if you get good headphones, and you do some A/B comparisons, you should easily be able to hear the improvement. (If not, send it back, and they’ll refund you.)

There’s $30 DAC/amps on eBay, but it’s hard to tell if you’re going to get a bargain or a rock in a box. These days, I’m betting the latter.

Headphones: If you need to block out outside noise, and don’t want to spend a huge amount of money, there are three awesome choices:

  1. Beyerdynamic DT770 – under $200 street price.

Conventional over-the-ear headphones which are comfy and sound awesome. Coupled with a good audio source and quality music, you will listen to your favorite song and say, “I never knew there was a guy playing mandolin on that track!” (Absolutely true story.)

To get better sound, you pretty much have to go to “open” headphones (which don’t block as much outside noise) AND pay more.

  1. Fidelity Custom Earphones – about $300 ($250 plus an audiologist fee to get ear molds taken)

They go in your ear canals, but because they are custom-fit, you can sleep in them. (I have, many times.) Sound is, as the snobs say, “detailed” and “neutral.” In other words, if you want to listen to string quartets, they work great. And if you want to listen to dubcore, maybe add a little bass boost.

  1. Etymotic 6i or MC5 – well under $100.

These go in your ear canals, and are not custom-fit, so you have to push them well in, and you’ll want to take them out every hour or so. On the upside, there is NO better sound for the price. In fact, it’s hard to find sound even REMOTELY this good for two or three times the price.

Everyone here who posts about how internal sound cards are crap obviously never looked at the result of RMAA tests. I’ve done numerous tests of varied motherboard/internal/external(pro) audio hardware and I can assure you that Asus Xonars easily beat the crap out of a number of external pro audio interfaces. And contrary to your ears, these tests never lie. Also, I’m speaking about the cheapest Xonar (Xonar DS) here.

Just because Asus puts a load of useless gadgets into its cards (DolbyTrueSurroundMegaBassExploder and the like) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t put high quality components in them, too. Components which are described in detail on the Asus website (including complete references for the DACs and OPAMPs).

As for the noise: as surprising as it may sound, my tests show that interference from other components inside the PCs usually do not happen inside the case but immediately outside, into the audio cable (where the audio card cannot protect the signal). This means that the quality of the audio cables directly connected to the sound card if quite important, and I’ve seen surprising differences in noise floor between cheap RCA cables and more pricey ones.

This is somewhat on topic, but I’ve got a fantastic set of custom molded headphones now. Anybody who knows sound knows that you’d have to pay an arm and a leg to get even a chance to look at molded headphones, but I met a company at a convention that’s selling them for a paltry $159 ($169 if you want detachable cables). The other nice thing is that you don’t have to actually make an appointment with an audiologist to get the molds made, unless you want to but it should only be $20 bucks or so.

Either way, if you want some nice headphones that block out ambient noise, and give you the crispest sound you’ve ever heard give these guys a visit.


  • I don’t work for these guys, and they haven’t given me anything for this, I’ve got a pair and they’re amazing, so I wanted to share.

Sony mdr-7506 headphones (yes i hate sony to). Can be had for 85 dollars. they are so cheap because they are basically an industry standard and everyone uses them, and so they are volume priced. They easily out perform most $300.00 headphones Read the reviews, there is very little reason to buy any other set of headphones, minus niche or specialty uses.

It’s surprising how few people realize that the speakers are dominant factor in sound quality. I’ve seen engineers proudly buy a $1000 amplifier and push the sound out of some no-name $10 speakers. A rough rule of thumb to get the best bang for your buck is that you should aim to spend about 5 times as much on your speakers as you do on an amplifier so your $30 sound card going into $200 cans is about right.

Of course as with anything audio the only real test is whether you think it sounds good.

“You’ve never had the motherboard interfere with the sound card? I get noise whenever the CPU and/or bus do anything intense from both of my most recent desktop onboard sound chips. It’s audible through headphones when the music is below averagely silent or when there is no sound at all. I usually wait for another song to begin before I scroll down a long webpage :slight_smile: That’s reason #1 for me to own a sound card.”

Same shit here. Back audio is fine, front audio makes a buzzing sound. I watch HD video, game casually, and am a serious audio nerd. I will be investing in a sound card come next desktop.

My headphones/earphones aren’t expensive, but they get the job done.

Totally agree re: headphones.

As for soundcards, last time I checked (admittedly, in 2008) the popular audio APIs did not support software HRTF-based 3D audio. In uni, I worked on an audio based augmented reality project[1] using FMOD for audio and the software-mode did not cut it (3D was not very easily localized) while using hardware mode with a X-Fi soundcard (the ones with hardware HRTF - the Xtreme Audio did not support it, despite advertising CMSS-3D) had pretty good results. Perhaps FMOD (and OpenAL) have got better software 3D support now.

I do agree that we now have the processing power that HRTF could be done in software (and afaik adding the functionality to FMOD through effects plugins should be possible), but I don’t know if anything exists yet - at least, it didn’t back in 2008.

[1] http://dublindan.posterous.com/things-ive-worked-on-1

I got an Emu-1820m sound card with Sennheiser HD650’s headphones. I made the mistake(?) of spending a ridiculous amount on a HiFi, and I can say, without a doubt the headphones + sound card (~£500 total) match the quality of my hifi which costs well over 10x that. Apart from not having such a great sound stage, everything else is pretty much equal in detail, clarity and quality. I absolutely love my headphones and sound card.

One benefit of a good quality soundcard is it blocks all interference from your hardware. Without a good soundcard, you might hear a hissing, whirring when your hard drive is spinning up and other such interference. Good sound cards are designed to block this out.

I think as a gamer, surround sound is more important than fidelity. With that in mind, most built-in sound cards do not support dolby digital live. Hence I very recently invested in a Creative X-Fi 5.1 to use in conjunction with an Astro MixAmp and Turtle Beach HPX1 cans. Granted it’s a bit convoluted, but it’s awesome.

As far as I understand Jack, a good pair of headphones will have as good of soundstage or surround sound as a pair of gaming headphones and should have higher fidelity obviously depending on the price you are paying.

Theres also the subject of gaming headphones sounding worse for music since they have multiple smaller drivers. Also there are virual 5.1 gaming headsets which are just two drivers with a higher markup price. (5.1 headsets in two cups is a weird way to market this to me in the first place)

Anyone in the discussion feel free to correct me on info, always happy to learn.

+1 about headphones being one of the most fragile components of my PC. My wife makes fun of me on a regular basis about the sheer number of them that I’ve broken over the years (she herself has broken none). I really want to find a pair with a metal frame. And decent sound, although an $80 set is fine for my tastes and budget.

But what really puzzles me is your statement about “the very fanciest of 3D sound algorithms and HRTFs.” Is the CPU really enough for that? And are games really using it for sound effects? Because it seems to me that, although EAX and hardware accelerated sound is truly dead, there has been nothing to replace it. It’s like the game developers collectively decided that fancy sound effects are just not worth it. Which is, honestly, sad, because I still remember the difference in sound in Neverwinter Nights 1 with and without EAX. It was astounding! EAX really made a HUGE difference.

It is my opinion that, just like there is always room for more improvement in 3D graphics, there is also always room for improvement in 3D sound. And a custom silicone would be very well warranted if game developers actually started exploring that realm. But there are currently some marketing rules in play here (game budgets are limited; most people care more about graphics than sounds; sound is harder to do than graphics; few people have custom sound hardware; etc.) which have all but eradicated efforts in this direction, and returned us to the place where we were nearly 15 years ago, before A3D and EAX.