Sound cards: Is it worth buying or just a niche product?

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Simple Question, Simple Answer?

So, you have reviewed the checklist of components that you want to purchase to build a new PC. You have read all the reviews and carefully selected the models suitable for your budget. Each part seems to be in place, but then you notice something you didn’t pay attention to before — a sound card.

Obviously, what does this product do, but is it worth buying it? If they were as important as video cards, then surely they would be advertised and appreciated much more. Well, read on while we put on deer hunter hats and try to solve the riddle with the sound card.

A quick trip down History Lane
Silicon chips designed to create sound have existed in home computers for many decades. The popular Commodore 64, which flew off the shelves in 1982, was equipped with one of three separate generators. Each of them can create several different signals and supports ring modulation, filtering and digital audio playback.

IBM PC computer users at the time were stuck with a much simpler sound chip that could barely emit a square wave. As the PC became more popular among home users, expansion cards with chips from companies like Yamaha and Philips that could play the right sound and music began to appear in the industry.

Sound Blaster: The one that started the 33-year-old brand.

But it was the gaming industry that really aspired to something better, since early sound cards were largely designed for use in specific applications.

By the early 1990s, the best-selling expansion cards for PCs of almost any type were produced by one manufacturer: Creative Labs. Their Sound Blaster card marked a defining period in the field of PC audio, and thanks to Microsoft’s support, the card and the name became synonymous with computer games.

For more than a decade, home computers around the world have contained some variant of Creative’s extensive product line or something cheaper from an OEM supplier. The Audigy and X-Fi Sound Blaster models were extremely popular due to their many features and sound quality.

Sound blaster live! A PCI sound card circa 1999.

However, today, if you go and buy a desktop PC, you almost certainly won’t see a dedicated sound card included. Many vendors don’t even offer it as an option, although for those who do, it’s almost always a Creative model.

And there is no shortage of other sound cards. Looking through the online stores of PC components, you will see that Creative dominates the market, offering dozens of different options to choose from.

$4,000 and still no sound card?

Companies like Asus, EVGA, and countless other copycat brands also have a variety of products available, but most of them seem to be nothing more than symbolic efforts. So what’s going on? What happened that sound cards fell out of favor?

Join the low-cost audio
As with everything, everything rested on money. System developers will strive to reduce costs in all possible aspects in order to maximize their profits. And motherboard manufacturers helped them in this endeavor. With the transition of the calendar into the new millennium, PC motherboards began to be equipped with audio output connectors in addition to the usual set of parallel and serial ports.

To power these audio outputs, basic codec chips from vendors such as VIA, Avance Logic and Realtek were used. The last two are important because Realtek acquired Avance in the mid-90s before fully integrating it a few years later.

A common phenomenon on modern motherboards is the Realtek ALC1200, hidden under a metal screen.

It’s hard to find a mass-market motherboard these days without a built-in sound chip, and it’s almost always a Realtek model.

Like AMD and Nvidia, Realtek is a semiconductor company with no manufacturing capacity — this means that it does not physically produce its own chips, but uses many other manufacturers for this. If you browse the websites of Gigabyte, Asus, MSI and other motherboard manufacturers, you will see two very common Realtek products: ALC1200 and ALC1220.

Both are decent codecs (the latter is particularly good) and offer a feature set that wouldn’t look out of place with a high-quality sound card just a few years ago. However, it’s not just the built-in audio chips that have displaced sound cards from the spotlight.

No card, no motherboard chip, no problem
Let’s just imagine that you have a new computer, and for some strange reason there is no audio chip and sound card on the motherboard. You may think that your car will be silent until you buy the last one, but this is not necessarily the case.

If you look at some of the best gaming headsets, you’ll see that they come with a device that connects to your PC via a USB port. The headset is then either physically connected to the device or uses a wireless system to transmit to it.

Others just have a USB adapter for wireless communication – without a base unit, without wires, just insert a.e PC into it and turn on the headset.

Many gaming headsets like this one don’t require a sound card or built-in sound.

It may seem that there is no audio chip in such systems, but there is one. Either in the headset itself, in the form of a simple digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and an amplifier, or in a more complex chip in the base unit.

Regardless of what is being used or how it is connected to the computer, these devices receive a digital stream (created by a game or media player) and convert it into an analog signal for transmission through the headset.

Any fancy sound improvements are performed by the PC itself — instead of special equipment performing processing, the CPU is used for this. And for millions of people around the world, this solution is more than enough.

Which brings us to the point of this article: is it really worth buying a discrete sound card?

A simple question, a simple answer?
This is not the first time we have raised this issue. Back in 2013, we demonstrated the approach of audiophiles to this issue, and the final answer was “maybe not”, although with some reservations… namely, that the computer enthusiast deserves it.

But in the semiconductor world, progress is almost constant due to consumer demand and fierce competition. What was then considered acceptable in terms of aspects such as signal-to-noise ratio, frequency response spectrum, or the amount of crosstalk will be immediately rejected today.

The best hardware codecs that can be found on motherboards today are not just secondary thoughts — they can be quality products in themselves.

After almost a decade, the question may have become even less clear, and for one simple reason. If discrete sound cards were much better than embedded codecs or USB systems, then a typical computer gamer or enthusiast would regularly buy them.

Playback of 7.1-channel, 24-bit audio with a frequency of 192 kHz is a common feature of motherboards.

OEMs will also benefit from this by ensuring that their best models support the most expensive sound cards and then charge a premium for them, as they do with processors and graphics cards.

Based on this, it may seem that sound cards are a very niche product and do not deserve the attention of the vast majority of people.

It’s not so elementary, Watson.
However, there are several counterpoints to all this. Think about how many PC users are completely satisfied with their 1080p monitors with a frequency of 60 Hz at home or at work. They may think that such screens are all they will ever need, but when compared directly to a high—resolution monitor with a high refresh rate, they pale in comparison.

The same applies to discrete sound cards. The insides of computers are very noisy from the point of view of the electrical interface, and despite all the efforts of motherboard manufacturers to isolate the built-in audio chips from everything that surrounds them, they are often located next to huge video cards.

Powerful video cards can potentially cause sound problems.

These components, due to their huge current levels, high frequencies and constant switching, can significantly affect poorly isolated codecs. Despite all the efforts of motherboard manufacturers to protect embedded chips from electrical interference, it is impossible to test all possible component configurations.

Of course, external USB audio devices are not susceptible to such problems, but they and embedded chips have another problem. Most of the signal processing in such audio systems is done via the CPU, especially when virtual sound effects or spatial enhancements are enabled.

Dedicated audio chips take over all this work, unloading it from the CPU. This, in turn, gives more opportunities for faster execution of other tasks. Modern CPUs are exceptionally powerful, so the difference may be only a few milliseconds, but for some people it is significant.

And the last thing to consider is that people may simply not realize how bad their audio output is.

Just as a good video card needs a high-quality monitor to demonstrate its true capabilities, a good sound card can only stand out in combination with excellent headphones or speakers.

Such high-quality speakers can highlight the shortcomings of the sound chip.

 

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