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)


View All Comments

  • SkillS - Friday, June 13, 2008 - link

    Pleas Do not review audio cards here,
    your knowledge of the subject is highly limited,

    your testing methods with adapters for christ sake are more then questionable,

    your pairing of pro audio cards with "demands" like EAX are laughable ,

    and it all leads to one thing - Confusing Buyers,

    Please stop this nonsense.
    Stick to something you DO have a clue about.

  • NEVERwinter - Monday, April 11, 2005 - link

    so..., where's the roundup?

    I'd like to see these cards (compared to those already in the article):

    envy24 (terratec DMX xfire 24/96)
    envy24ht (terratec aureon universe, audiotrak prodigy 7.1, m-audio revolution 7.1)
    realtek alc850 onboard
    nvidia nf2 soundstorm
    turtle beach santa cruz?

    lynx, emu, motu and digi002 is also a good addition

    by the way, i read somewhere that revolution 5.1 has better DAC than revo 7.1. is that true?
  • flachschippe - Thursday, March 10, 2005 - link

    That should be "head-related *transfer* function" (HRTF), not "head-related transform function". The transfer function of a signal-transferring system is the reaction of the system's output signal to an impulse input signal. Reply
  • S0me1X - Saturday, February 5, 2005 - link

    For the pure digital out card, go with AV710 because it can be flashed with Prodigy 7.1 firmware. Then you can install Prodigy 7.1 drivers (which are much better than Via's OEM drivers). This gives bit-perfect digital out for only $25.

    Note that the AV710 only supports digital out via Toslink. So if your receiver does not accept toslink, then EMU0404 is the only choice.

    Link to AV710 on newegg

    Link to info about flashing to Prodigy firmware

    The AV710 has decent 2 channel analog out (in high res mode), but the EMU0404/1212 better.
  • DerekWilson - Saturday, February 5, 2005 - link

    Disdain for 2 channel?

    I actually mentioned that I prefered listening to the dream theatre dvd in 2 channel ... i prefer all music listening in 2 channel actually ...

    There are not many good 2 channel 24/192kHz DVD-Audio offerings out there ... does anyone have any good suggestions? Most of the stuff I like is mixed into 6 channel. Which just feels wrong for anything but techno or orchestral stuff that tries to put you at the prime listening point of a music hall or something.

    Also, note I used rather nice 2 channel headphones while the sonic quality of my surround solution was no where near as good. It was more to test compatibility.

    We are certainly open to suggestions on what and how to test to better suit our readers though :-)

    Derek Wilson
  • sparky001 - Saturday, February 5, 2005 - link

    #70 - S0me1X

    Thanks for the comment on what I should use. I thought I should clarify. I need two seperate PC's (HTPC's) one is for my room and needs analog out. The other is for a the lounge room and will use digital out into an Onkyo 701 reciever.

    What cards should I use for this?

    Correct I would like to see the reviews a little more accomodating to 2 channel audio. All CD's are stereo and they are still the dominant format.
  • Maleficus - Saturday, February 5, 2005 - link

  • CSMR - Saturday, February 5, 2005 - link

    Everyone's asking for so many things to be reviewed. It makes more sense IMO to do a general article on how to get good sound from a PC. Something for beginners, like the excellent articles on taking pictures which have appeared recently. PC audio is really quite simple; but you won't know how it works without digging for information. Reply
  • Gooberslot - Saturday, February 5, 2005 - link

    I'd like to see the AV-710 and the Revo 5.1 reviewed. That emu 0404 doesn't look too bad either.

    I do wish the reviewer didn't have such disdain for 2.x solutions. Not everyone has room or money for a surround sound system.
  • LocutusX - Friday, February 4, 2005 - link

    For those of you with Audigy 2's who want to get the highest quality possible from 44.1KHz sources - you don't necessarily need to spend the $$$ buying a new sound card.

    Instead, configure either Foobar or Winamp to resample to 48KHz in the output plugin. Both have versions of the high quality "SSRC" plugin available. For Winamp, you need to search for DirectSound 2.0 with SSRC output plugin. There is also an ASIO plugin with built-in SSRC resampling. The results of ABX double-blind tests seem to suggest that going this route is an effective substitution for one of the better Non-Resampling cards...

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