How much do sound cards help?

Sw1sher

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I game with a Sennheiser 558 and i was wondering how much of a difference would a sound card really make for gaming?
 
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Chipset performance varies. So a "sound card" isn't always better than the chipset on a motherboard. As well what other hardware is used and how it's connected. Most people drive headphones with a DAC and amp, in which case the audio chipset doesn't really matter.

A little research and/or reading other topics may prove very informational.
 

GotNoRice

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It really depends on what your goals are. There are several different things at play here.

1. The quality of the DAC (Digital to Analog converter). Everything that puts out analog audio has a DAC. That includes soundcards, onboard sound, and of course "external DACs". A better DAC will give you better audio quality. Some onboard audio solutions actually have good DACs these days. Soundcards also have DACs of various quality depending on the card. "External DACs" are popular because having the DAC outside of the PC can potentially reduce background noise and interference. That isn't guaranteed though, and there are still plenty of soundcards, and even onboard audio solutions with VERY good dacs on them.

2. Sound Card features. Features like CMSS-3D or SBX Pro Studio on creative cards can do things like downmix a 7.1 source into excellent virtual headphone surround, etc. There are many different features. It's up to you to decide how important these are.

3. Internal AMP. If you plan to power your headphones directly from the motherboard / soundcard / DAC, then the quality of the internal amplifier is a big factor. You can always purchase a separate amp and use that in conjunction with your sound source.

Note that all of these things are not mutually exclusive. You could, for example, have a soundcard where you utilize all of it's features, feeding out to an external DAC via S/PDIF, and then have the output from the DAC going into an external amp, taking advantage of the best parts of all three.
 
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DrDoU

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The onboard sound that I have is good enough that I do not need a sound card
 

B00nie

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One thing to take into consideration is also that integrated sound chips hog the cpu more than dedicated gaming cards.
 

spaceman

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If you use headphones, the Creative SBX pro studio is awesome for gaming.
 

Nenu

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I use external DACs for everything except the guitar tutor/game Rocksmith.
The only way to get low enough sound lag is using an onboard sound chip.
They state this in the instructions and they are right.

Using USB, optical or HDMI out, there is a disconnect between when I play a note and when I hear it.
Using onboard sound it is as close as dammit to instant and is the only way I can play Rocksmith.

Aside from that, no soundcard (onboard or PCI/PCI-e) holds a candle to my external DACs for sound quality.
The extra depth, detail and imaging is another realm, not a close contest.
 

GotNoRice

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Aside from that, no soundcard (onboard or PCI/PCI-e) holds a candle to my external DACs for sound quality.
The extra depth, detail and imaging is another realm, not a close contest.
Do you have anything to back this up that isn't entirely subjective? There are plenty of sound cards out there with VERY good DACs, so I'm genuinely curious about what makes your DAC so magical as to be able to make such generalized declarations.
 

Nenu

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Do you have anything to back this up that isn't entirely subjective? There are plenty of sound cards out there with VERY good DACs, so I'm genuinely curious about what makes your DAC so magical as to be able to make such generalized declarations.
My experience confirmed by colleagues, friends, family and fellow audiophiles.

I used to have an Auzentech Prelude which was a great sound card but its nowhere close to my DACs.
One reason I bought the Asus Z170 Maximus motherboard is because it has a cheaper version of the DAC chip (ESS Sabre 9023p 24bit) used in my main DACs (ESS Sabre32 Reference 9018s 32bit).
I wanted to see how it compared.
Its definitely an improvement on PC soundcards but not close to the detail and imaging of my external DACs.

My DACs are
Stereo - Eastern Electric Minimax Tube Plus (Tube removed, makes the solid state section exceptional).
Eastern Electric Tube DAC Plus Digital-to-Analog Converter
EASTERN ELECTRIC TUBE DAC PLUS REVIEW

7.1 - Oppo 105D.
Oppo Digital BDP-105D Blu-ray/SACD player Darbee Edition Review
Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray Player Review: The Universal Audiophile Dream Machine? (older version, the D is slightly better)

The sound of the Minimax Plus and Oppo 105D are very similar but the Minimax has the edge on detail and imaging.
Thats not to say the Oppo suffers, its phenomenal. It additionally plays 7.1 via HDMI or direct playback and 384KHz stereo media via PC USB, has a 32bit volume control, BD Player, USB drive input and a decent headphone amp.
They are both a world apart from PC sound cards.
 

rezerekted

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One thing to take into consideration is also that integrated sound chips hog the cpu more than dedicated gaming cards.

I don't think that is true anymore because Microsoft changed so the sound API since Vista. I use my XFi_Xtrememusic and can't say it is better than the sound on my mb, I just use it because I already had it since XP days when sound hardware acceleration mattered. It sounds a bit different only because of its processing features.
 

B00nie

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I don't think that is true anymore because Microsoft changed so the sound API since Vista. I use my XFi_Xtrememusic and can't say it is better than the sound on my mb, I just use it because I already had it since XP days when sound hardware acceleration mattered. It sounds a bit different only because of its processing features.
Games that use Miles Sound or Creative Alchemy still have hardware acceleration. Also the built in sounds are often linked directly to the chipset and system ram, causing interrupts to the CPU/Ram subsystem which basically make all your cores wait in idle while the sound is processed. Or so I've been told at least.
 

rezerekted

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I know about Alchemy and have it installed but is only useful in very old games and as for Miles I just read this.

"Miles also contains our Bink Audio decoder plug-in. Bink Audio is close to MP3 and Ogg in compression size, but uses around 30% less CPU than either, and with far less memory! We expect most customers to use this format - it's perfect for games! This is the same audio codec that we've had available in Bink for many years. Thousands of games have used it, and now its included in Miles!"

Sounds like the performance benefit is a feature of the software and not your hardware.
 

B00nie

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I know about Alchemy and have it installed but is only useful in very old games and as for Miles I just read this.

"Miles also contains our Bink Audio decoder plug-in. Bink Audio is close to MP3 and Ogg in compression size, but uses around 30% less CPU than either, and with far less memory! We expect most customers to use this format - it's perfect for games! This is the same audio codec that we've had available in Bink for many years. Thousands of games have used it, and now its included in Miles!"

Sounds like the performance benefit is a feature of the software and not your hardware.
Not so long ago I had an argument with a game developer about this subject and he claimed Miles still offers hw acceleration and direct3d support. Dunno.
 
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One thing to take into consideration is also that integrated sound chips hog the cpu more than dedicated gaming cards.

Yeah but that is going to be such an insignificant amount that it really doesn't matter. That is if you have a CPU that isn't 10+ years old.
 

B00nie

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Yeah but that is going to be such an insignificant amount that it really doesn't matter. That is if you have a CPU that isn't 10+ years old.
It's more complicated than that. Again, I'm not an expert on the subject but a game developer told me that an integrated sound card will access cpu and system ram differently from a pci or pci-e sound card. It will cause interrupts to the memory subsystem and this will lag down the cpu regardless of the amount of cores it has. The CPU cores share a common pipe to ram and this becomes a bottleneck.

Perhaps someone with more knowledge can chime in.
 

Nenu

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It hasnt mattered for years.
CPUs breeze through the processing with barely any impact.
The level of processing hasnt changed and is so low, CPUs and memory are now incredibly fast in comparison.
My E8400 was fine with a soundcard or onboard, I didnt notice a change in framerate or any stutters caused by either.
 

rezerekted

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When I installed my X-Fi back in I got more occasional sound stuttering issues with BF4 than the onboard had but that seems to have been rectified with patches from DICE.
 

jbltecnicspro

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Depends on your usage here. If you're using an Adlib sound card, versus a Roland MT-32, your sound won't be all that impressive.
 

rezerekted

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My first soundcard was a ProAudio Spectrum. My first PC came with no soundcard so bought a cdrom/soundcard kit and that is what the soundcard was. Came with Civilization too - Bonus.
 

FnordMan

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My first soundcard was a ProAudio Spectrum. My first PC came with no soundcard so bought a cdrom/soundcard kit and that is what the soundcard was. Came with Civilization too - Bonus.
Oh gods... I was stuck with one of those for a while. Utterly sucked due to the blasted driver that had to remain in memory at all times. Had a rather hard time getting everything shuffled around for enough low memory for some games.
 

rezerekted

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Oh gods... I was stuck with one of those for a while. Utterly sucked due to the blasted driver that had to remain in memory at all times. Had a rather hard time getting everything shuffled around for enough low memory for some games.

Yea, memory management was a chore in Dos for sure. But a friend bought a book on memory management so I read it, he never even read it, and I got pretty good at it so was able to run any game. I had a multi-config with about 6 differnet configs and for games that came on floppy I would have a config with no cdrom driver loading, etc. The trick was the order you loaded the drivers so that you didn't shortchange a driver on memory at the bottom of the stack.
 

tungt88

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My first was a ProAudioSpectrum 16; got it in a Staples. Was quite happy with it, but still nothing like the "Holy Grail" of a Roland MT-32 or LAPC-1, let alone a nice Gravis Ultrasound (one of my cousins took pity on me in the mid-90s and gave me his Gravis Ultrasound ACE once he moved onto a Sound Blaster AWE32). I sure don't miss those DOS editing days (Config.sys and Autoexec.bat) to get sound and other stuff working in games!
 

tungt88

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My experience confirmed by colleagues, friends, family and fellow audiophiles.

I used to have an Auzentech Prelude which was a great sound card but its nowhere close to my DACs.
One reason I bought the Asus Z170 Maximus motherboard is because it has a cheaper version of the DAC chip (ESS Sabre 9023p 24bit) used in my main DACs (ESS Sabre32 Reference 9018s 32bit).
I wanted to see how it compared.
Its definitely an improvement on PC soundcards but not close to the detail and imaging of my external DACs.

My DACs are
Stereo - Eastern Electric Minimax Tube Plus (Tube removed, makes the solid state section exceptional).
Eastern Electric Tube DAC Plus Digital-to-Analog Converter
EASTERN ELECTRIC TUBE DAC PLUS REVIEW

7.1 - Oppo 105D.
Oppo Digital BDP-105D Blu-ray/SACD player Darbee Edition Review
Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray Player Review: The Universal Audiophile Dream Machine? (older version, the D is slightly better)

The sound of the Minimax Plus and Oppo 105D are very similar but the Minimax has the edge on detail and imaging.
Thats not to say the Oppo suffers, its phenomenal. It additionally plays 7.1 via HDMI or direct playback and 384KHz stereo media via PC USB, has a 32bit volume control, BD Player, USB drive input and a decent headphone amp.
They are both a world apart from PC sound cards.

Awesome stuff, I don't know how I could justify spending that much for quality sound, but grats to you! My sound card (in sig) uses an ESS Sabre32 ES9016s as its DAC, so I'm ok with that.
 
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tungt88

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It hasnt mattered for years.
CPUs breeze through the processing with barely any impact.
The level of processing hasnt changed and is so low, CPUs and memory are now incredibly fast in comparison.
My E8400 was fine with a soundcard or onboard, I didnt notice a change in framerate or any stutters caused by either.

To some extent, I think this depends on what kind of game people are running, and even what kind of sound card/sound card driver they are using. Just several years back, when I was running a Intel I5-750 OC'd to 4.0Ghz + Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer, I would get very noticeable stuttering in STALKER: Call of Pripyat (the same happened with onboard sound). Replacing the XtremeGamer with a Sound Blaster Z solved the stuttering problem.

I agree that with more modern hardware and software (at least, than I was using at the time), it shouldn't be an issue.
 
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FnordMan

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Yea, memory management was a chore in Dos for sure. But a friend bought a book on memory management so I read it, he never even read it, and I got pretty good at it so was able to run any game. I had a multi-config with about 6 differnet configs and for games that came on floppy I would have a config with no cdrom driver loading, etc. The trick was the order you loaded the drivers so that you didn't shortchange a driver on memory at the bottom of the stack.
I ended up just doing a bunch of trial and error. I also had a multi-config boot floppy, was easier than mucking around with the config set for windows (3.1) on C. Though it's too bad I didn't have anything like cutemouse at the time, that uses a bunch less memory.

I do remember getting dos 6.22 at one point. I carefully backed up my hand-tweaked configs and ran memmaker. It rather screwed things up to basically no surprise.
 

delita

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I've been using an X-Fi Titanium HD for about 5 years and just switched over to an external DAC this week. I built a new PC, reused the X-Fi, everything else new, and bought a headphone amp for my Denons. I found that the sound card was causing noise through the headphones from electrical interference. Bought a Schiit Bifrost DAC ($399) and I have to say -- wow. I was always under the impression that moving to an external sound card would give me marginal differences, as I had seen people state online. But it was night and day. Mind you -- I'm still using the X-Fi as as Toslink passthrough, as optical connections are less prone to noise over USB or RCA connections. If you have higher end headphones, a nice DAC really opens them up. I had no idea what I was missing. Definitely won't go back to internal PC sound cards.
 
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rezerekted

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I ended up just doing a bunch of trial and error. I also had a multi-config boot floppy, was easier than mucking around with the config set for windows (3.1) on C. Though it's too bad I didn't have anything like cutemouse at the time, that uses a bunch less memory.

I do remember getting dos 6.22 at one point. I carefully backed up my hand-tweaked configs and ran memmaker. It rather screwed things up to basically no surprise.

I used memmaker for a bit in the beginning then I was asking a friend who was a computer scientist why my mb bios settings were all gobbly gook that was unreadable and he said it was caused by memmaker so uninstalld that pronto.
 

thesmokingman

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I have a RIVE and my onboard died randomly. I mulled over the Zxr vs STX I/II then finally went with Zxr for the price and the remote volume/mic/phone controller. Gawd, I love that thing. I've since modded the opamps, and would not turn back to the onboard.



Asus STX II Vs Creative ZXR - Page 11
 

krotch

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Back in the day I had an Audigy 2 ZS and it was loads better sound quality than onboard sound. Nowadays, onboard solutions are amazing. I don't use onboard, since my onboard, while sounds good, simply can't power my headphones. Right now I use a Sound Blaster X7 Limited Edition. Not sure what makes it Limited Edition, as they'll sell as many as they can.
 

revenant

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the SB Recon 3Di on my Gigabyte Z170x gaming 7 is really quite nice sounding. Some of these new mobos have very good onboard sound.
 

tungt88

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the SB Recon 3Di on my Gigabyte Z170x gaming 7 is really quite nice sounding. Some of these new mobos have very good onboard sound.

Depending on which codec/DAC/sound chip is on one's motherboard, yes, they can be quite good -- varies by model, of course, so YMMV. My mobo's sound was slightly above the bad Realtek crap that was common for it's time -- it's an Analog Devices AD 2000B audio chipset (but, still, considerably inferior to any halfway decent sound card/DAC), so I went for good quality, reasonably priced (for me, $100-$250 USD range) sound cards. No regrets. Might move to a Sound Blaster X7 (or the LE variant) in the future, or get a high-end system. We'll see.
 

Pillars

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Sound card was nice (I still have a PC using an STX w/V5s) but the biggest upgrade was going Schiit Bifrost/Asgard2 and HE-400i's. If you've got cash, that's a wonderful way to blow it. Use optical out from your PC.
 

Dayaks

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Oh lord help me now I want to upgrade my sound. Just when I thought I was done.
 

delita

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Sound card was nice (I still have a PC using an STX w/V5s) but the biggest upgrade was going Schiit Bifrost/Asgard2 and HE-400i's. If you've got cash, that's a wonderful way to blow it. Use optical out from your PC.
Agree here. I thought internal sound cards were about as good as it gets but then I upgraded from my SB X-Fi Titanium to a Schiit stack (Bifrost/Asgard) - if you have headphones that are worth a damn the difference is night and day.
 

Pillars

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Agree here. I thought internal sound cards were about as good as it gets but then I upgraded from my SB X-Fi Titanium to a Schiit stack (Bifrost/Asgard) - if you have headphones that are worth a damn the difference is night and day.

I still keep my STx for LAN parties and HTPC duty, but there's nothing like going back to the stack after using that :D
 
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