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Author Topic: Cheap sound cards  (Read 12002 times)

benn600

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Cheap sound cards
« on: June 24, 2007, 09:40:10 am »

From a quality perspective, what do you gain from a more expensive sound card?  Are add-on sound cards generally considered to be better than motherboard audio; even the cheaper ones?

For those who use FLAC, wouldn't you automatically require that they get a better sound card or the benefits of FLAC are destroyed?  What is a good sound card for getting the best sound quality--do you just have to keep spending more and more?  How expensive can sound cards get?

Would digital sound cards (optical) essentially all be the same and just pass the digital stream to the receiver--so no A/D conversion takes place?  .. thinking that digital doesn't care about the quality: cheap or expensive card.

Is the signal to noise ratio the key element in determining sound quality?  Why do some sound cards (mainly older ones) often overamplify the output to introduce incredible distortion when the volume is raised high?  Most now don't but they used to do that a lot.
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Listener

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Re: Cheap sound cards
« Reply #1 on: June 24, 2007, 11:47:03 am »

> Are add-on sound cards generally considered to be better than motherboard audio; even the cheaper ones?

Until recently, most on-board sound H/W followed the AC97 spec.  They re-sampled 44.1 KHz audio output to 48 KHZ (badly in most cases.)  Onboard sound H/W following the HD Audio spec doesn't resample everything to 48 KHz.

The quality of analog output circuitry was not good and the power driving the DAC and analog circuitry was not well filtered in most on-board sound H/W.

> What is a good sound card for getting the best sound

Some PCI soundcards:

  Juli@ - $ 1250 - 200 US
  E-MU 0404 - $ 100
  RME cards - ? $
  Lynx Two  (3 sets of stereo outputs) - $ 700- 800

All except E-MU have good drivers.  These soundcards are designed for the pro audio market.

USB connected "soundcards":

  E-MU 0404USB - $ 200  US (different internals from the PCI card with the same model No.)
  plenty of other USB and Firewire products from the pro audio market
  various tweaker products - up to $ 10,00 or more

There are some 5 and 7 channel cards with more attention to audio quality.  I think Onkyo, Azuntech and Medidian are some brand names.  The Oxygen chipset seems to be the basis for some of these products.  These chips support multi-channel home theatre and gaming uses.  $ 200 US or less.

> Would digital sound cards (optical) essentially all be the same and just pass the digital stream
> to the receiver--so no A/D conversion takes place?

You'd be bypassing D/A conversion in the soundcard.  Whether the D/A conversion in a receiver is any better is another question.

Differences may not matter as much.  You don't want the re-sampling done.  You also want a clean SPDIF waveform with low jitter.  And good drivers.

----
Audio Asylum's Computer Audio forum (http://www.audioasylum.com/forums/pcaudio/bbs.html) and Head-Fi's  Computer Audio forum (http://www.head-fi.org/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=59) are good places to get leads.  Just set your BS filter to high.

Bill

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Mr ChriZ

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Re: Cheap sound cards
« Reply #2 on: July 20, 2007, 04:27:18 am »

That was a good read, cheers Bill.

benn600

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Re: Cheap sound cards
« Reply #3 on: September 04, 2007, 12:12:31 am »

I just now got around to reading that!  Thank you!  I tend to post questions and then forget about them--especially if they aren't in MC12 or Other Hardware.

It's so confusing because, for example, Creative makes some higher end cards which I noticed you didn't list.  However, reviews say that they are horrible so I'm not surprised.  Price doesn't always mean it's good!

But about good drivers--lol.  I mean how do you know?!  I guess it would be nice if there was some studio nearby that I go listen to lots of different sound equipment to really let me tell the difference.  But then, there really isn't much of a top end price...you can spend thousands!  At what point is it good enough for me?  I definitely like good sounding music but do I know it when I hear it?  What would be some frequency differences between a cheapie card and those hundreds of dollars cards?  Better high ends?  Tighter bass?  Less muffling?

And how audio is usually described in it's KHz rating, does that simply mean what the highest frequency is that can be recorded in the audio data?  Are humans even able to hear up to 44 KHz?  I didn't think so.  Why would 48 KHz be better/more important and why would cards convert it to that?
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Listener

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Re: Cheap sound cards
« Reply #4 on: September 04, 2007, 05:42:48 pm »

> Creative makes some higher end cards which I noticed you didn't list. 
> However, reviews say that they are horrible so I'm not surprised. 
> Price doesn't always mean it's good!

Sound quality for music playback hasn't been important until recently in the consumer soundcard market.  Creative developed a soundcard architecture (with DSP engine) and a huge amount of driver s/w to support 3D effects in gaming.  Neither adds anything to high quality 2 channel playback. if fact, the less driver code that is involved, the better results will be.   (X-FI is for gaming, E-MU is for pro audio.)

> But about good drivers--lol.  I mean how do you know?!  I guess it would be nice if there was some studio
> nearby that I go listen to lots of different sound equipment to really let me tell the difference. 

Do your research before you buy.  See below.

> But then, there really isn't much of a top end price...you can spend thousands! 
> At what point is it good enough for me?  I definitely like good sounding music but do I know it when I hear it?

So start with something cheap and see whether it works for you.  Move up as it seems relevant to you.

Much of the discussion on internet forums is dominated by audiophiles who want to hear differences.  You need to decide whether hearing differences is a good hobby or do you want to make some decisions and move on to other things.  Like just listening to music without being neurotic.

I spent 20+ years writing real-time s/w including real-time kernels, network node s/w, Windows kernel modification and device drivers for audio, video and other devices.  I wrote my first real-time s/w to record and playback audio around 1980. I don't have access to source code for the drivers for the soundcards I might buy but I can apply what I learned from my work.  Some ideas:

- Decide what you want.  If you want the best quality sound, go with a pro soundcard that has one or more sets of stereo output.  If you want top quality gaming effects, you won't get the same driver quality or hardware quality for audio.  If you want 5.1 channel output, buy a soundcard that supports it.  If you don't need it, go for top quality stereo output instead.

- Read forums to see what experience other people have with drivers. E-Mu owners have lots of complaints.  Juli@ And Lynx owners report fewer problems. If lots of people report problems with a company's drivers, it is strong sign that the software developers who wrote those drivers weren't very good.

- Look at reviews and the manufacturer's web site.  Pro Audio reviews often have more quantative info than high end audio reviews.

- Is the company still active in designing in selling and supporting soundcards?  If a company isn't bringing out new products or actively marketing existing products, they won't invest much in Vista compatible driver.  Don't take the availability of Linux or mac drivers for granted either.

- Understand whether the kind of product you are interested in is new and perhaps buggy (some USB soundcards) or mature (most PCI soundcards.)  I don't think that there will be many high-quality PCI soundcards developed from this point on. 

Almost all USB soundcards use a technically inferior approach that does not let the soundcard control data flow.  This makes it harder to implement a very low jitter clock.  Microsoft generic USB audio class driver doesn't implement the right transfer mode so no chip manufacturer has implemented the right kind of USB receiver chip for audio.  This doesn't mean that USB soundcards can't be good but they could be better AND cheaper if they could use the right USB transfer protocol.  Maybe in a few years.

- Avoid Vista for now.  Microsoft changed the driver architecture rather late in the development cycle.  Soundcard manufacturers haven't caught up.  It's not their fault.

- Once you buy something, see whether it has good instructions on installation.  Does the installation go smoothly?  Once it is installed, does it coexist with the onboard audio on the motherboard?  Do you hear glitches in the sound?  Any new crashes?  Is it straightfoward to use the soundcard in practice?  If you read carefully, you can often get this info from reading audio forum messages.

If it feels like crap when you start to use it, it may be crap all the way through.

> What would be some frequency differences between a cheapie card and those hundreds of dollars cards? 
> Better high ends? 
> Tighter bass?  Less muffling?

No real difference in frequency response.  There can be real differences in sound from conventional distortion and jitter.  I don't think that the conventional high-end vocabulary does much to distinguish fact from fantasy.

These days, most packaged PCs and motherboards include some onboard sound.  This can range from quite crappy to fairly decent.  (AC97 = worse, HDAudio = better.)  You might start by listening to output from your motherboard audio and getting familiar with its sound.  Once you understand how that works for you, consider getting a PCI or USB soundcard ($150 to $ 900) or an outboard DAC ($ 600 to $ 1300.)

If your onboard audio is AC97 based, I'd get a soundcard pretty quickly and before I got a DAC.

> And how audio is usually described in it's KHz rating, does that simply mean what
> the highest frequency is that can be recorded in the audio data? 

Highest sample rate for recording for audio input (ADC.)  Highest sample rate that can be played back for audio output (DAC.)  Since most material is CD derived, any sample above 44.1 KHz may not produce a direct improvement.

> Are humans even able to hear up to 44 KHz?  I didn't think so. 

44.1 KHz is the sample rate.  The highest frequency that can be sensed and recorded is (sample rate / 2).  22.05 KHz is a bit above the nominal range of human hearing.

Audio CDs all have material with a 44.1 KHz sample rate.

> Why would 48 KHz be better/more important and why would cards convert it to that?

Cards that convert everything to 48 KHz aren't better; they are worse.  That restriction used to allow a cheaper implementation.

Cards they can adjust their clock to fit a variety of sample rates are better.  The best implementations provide separate clock circuits or crystals for the important sample rates.  Or a high quality circuit to synthesize a number of clock frequencies.

---
I've followed a number of your posts for some time.  I have the impression that you have been acquiring a lot of gear.  I'd suggest that you go a bit slower in buying soundcards and DACs.  And really slow about spending multiple thousands on tweaky gear done by garage scale modders.

Bill

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JimH

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Re: Cheap sound cards
« Reply #5 on: September 04, 2007, 06:33:16 pm »

Really nice post, Bill.  Thanks.

Jim
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jgreen

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Re: Cheap sound cards
« Reply #6 on: September 04, 2007, 09:26:59 pm »

Just to echo JimH's appreciation of Bill's contribution to the knowledgebase of the Forum (I'm sorry, that was an unavoidable mouthful).  Not only does he have that high-powered BG, but he doesn't seem to assume very much.  He was the one that went out and manually verifed the superb ripping functionality of MC vs anything else.  Danke for that, etc.

benn--

As for soundcards, you should get a good one but you shouldn't spend too much.  Although you went budget on your server, you still spent a whopping pantload.  Spend a couple hundred bucks max on a soundcard and then start listening to your music (again echoing Bill).  It will take a year to figure out why you need a "pro" card, so save your money for then.

"Pro" cards cost a $1,000 and up.  As Bill mentioned, Op Amp mods can run into the ten-buck range, easy.  Before you write the check for this, carefully consider what $10,000 or even $1,000 can buy you in terms of a girlfriend for the night.  If there aren't any willing candidates in Iowa, take a road trip to Vegas.

I guarantee you that the difference between a $100 girlfriend and a $10,000 or even $1,000 girlfriend is FAR more significant than the difference between a $100 soundcard and a $10,000 soundcard.  Memories last a lifetime, benn, audio's gone in an instant.  Hope this helps. 

 
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Listener

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Re: Cheap sound cards
« Reply #7 on: September 04, 2007, 11:30:00 pm »


"Pro" cards cost a $1,000 and up.  As Bill mentioned, Op Amp mods can run into the ten-buck range, easy.  Before you write the check for this, carefully consider what $10,000 or even $1,000 can buy you in terms of a girlfriend for the night.  If there aren't any willing candidates in Iowa, take a road trip to Vegas.

I guarantee you that the difference between a $100 girlfriend and a $10,000 or even $1,000 girlfriend is FAR more significant than the difference between a $100 soundcard and a $10,000 soundcard.  Memories last a lifetime, benn, audio's gone in an instant.  Hope this helps. 

 

Jim and jgreen, thanks for the kind words.  jgreen that was a very vivid bit of advice.  I can't stop thinking about it!

So, benn, good luck with soundcards and high-end girlfriends.

Bill
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JimH

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Re: Cheap sound cards
« Reply #8 on: September 05, 2007, 07:19:26 am »

Bill, I've added your post to the FAQ.  Thanks again.
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