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Lets talk PC Audio

Mussels

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#1
This has been tried before, this is my latest attempt and educating people on PC audio do's and donts, and clearing up a lot of myths surrounding the subject.

Out of arrogance i'm going to sticky this, because i think its worth it. :cool:



Dedicated vs Onboard + Analogue sound quality
This is an age old debate, and a good point to start.
The short version is this: onboard sound has most of the features of high end cards these days. you get EAX 2.0, 5.1 and 7.1 sound, dolby digital encoding (and DTS) on some motherboards, and even HDMI audio built into some onboard VGA.

The only real area they differ is analogue audio quality. If you have high end speakers or good headphones, you WILL hear a sound difference.

Just so you know, a budget dedicated card (for example, those budget X-fi cards) can often sound just as bad as onboard. do your research before 'upgrading'

Analogue Vs digital

Expanding on above, digital audio (usually via HDMI or SPDIF) does NOT differ in quality between sound cards. it relies 100% on the decoder in your speakers or amplifier, to determine how good it sounds. If you use digital audio for stereo, or your onboard has dolby digital or DTS encoding capabilities, dont bother with a dedicated card.

To answer a question asked in another thread, analogue can sound better than digital, if the DAC's in the sound card are better than the DAC's in your digital receiver. You'd have to test that, but usually you'd not notice a difference except on extremely high end speakers.

As Frederik S says here, the only time digital should vary at all from one sound card to another, is if its incredibly bad quality, or just broken.
On some motherboards the implementation of S/PDIF is so bad that the sound quality is impaired. But generally digital is digital so no quality difference.


DDL/DTS encoding
as stated above, these are technologies to let you get 5.1 audio over a single digital cable (optical or RCA connections using SPDIF), instead of the normal limit of 2.0 audio. Not all cards have this, but lately even onboard solutions can. So yes, in this case onboard can in fact do something cheap dedicated cards cannot.

SPDIF vs HDMI

SPDIF is an older method of getting 5.1 sound over a connection originally designed for stereo (2 channel) audio only. It uses compression to do this, but helps you bypass the digital to analogue conversion process in your sound card. Most older home cinema speakers/receivers use this, so its a good way to use those speakers on PC.
SPDIF only allows stereo or an encoded stream - which really means stereo or encoded (Compressed) 5.1 only.

HDMI is a new cable you should all be familiar with, that uses both video and audio on the one cable. I havent got personal experience with HDMI receivers i cant cover that perfectly, but i can say this:

Without a receiver with a HDMI input, you are stuck at stereo. The HDMI specs do not allow you to send the audio to your TV or monitor, and output it back out of the TV as SPDIF. If you think it does, test it yourself. You'll find out it doesnt work. (thanks DRM!)

Basically, you need to have the HDMI source go like this
PC -> Audio receiver -> TV, or you're stuck at stereo from the TV speakers, just like SPDIF.

The main advantage of HDMI over toslink is one less cable (well, its not really since you have to add a second one once you add a receiver), and upto 8 channels of un-compressed audio. It WILL sound better, with really high end speakers.

How to setup 5.1 sound
First of all, make sure your sound card software, AND windows is set to 5.1.

Here is how to setup your sound card in windows:



its really simple, but some sound card software does NOT change this in windows, and can cause weird behaviour. make sure they match up.

here is my auzentechs Cmedia based software (Realtek is very similar, and not worth showing)


In this image you can see the 'input' and output are seperate.
if i had input to stereo but output to 5.1, this would give me stereo sound, spread out over my speakers. For example, i would hear an MP3 played back, play out of all speakers.
If i set it properly to 5.1 (6 channel) on both as below:


Then audio only comes out where its supposed to. MP3's are only stereo, so the sound will only come out of my front left and front right speakers (and probably the sub too, due to bass redirection)

Creative soundcards have a CMSS3D option that does the same as what i said above with the upmixing - its BAD. yes it gives your MP3's that surround feel, but it destroys positional audio in games. ever wondered why you can never tell where enemies are firing from, even with 5.1? thats why.

When it comes to true positional surround sound, you do not want ANY upmixing. period.

If you are setting up digital audio for surround sound, its pretty much the same, heres a screenshot of my realtek onboard and auzentech set up to use it. Note how the realtek treats it as a seperate sound source/soundcard, while the auzentech/cmedia disables the analogue outputs to do it (notice how its greyed out - but i still had to select 5.1 input at the top)

When selecting your sound card in windows, apps or games it can vary based on what i said above. If i wanted windows to use the digital on my auzentech, i have to set it to come out the analogue outputs because that stream is being encoded and moved to the optical port - whereas on the realtek its treated as an entirely different sound card, and therefore you need to choose the optical output




Positional audio Vs Surround sound
This does need to be briefly mentioned, even though it is touched upon in the other sections:

Surround sound is kind of misleading, as any sound that surrounds you is surround sound. This could be 5.1 surround sound, upmixed stereo sound, or even virtual surround sound.

TRUE surround sound is positional audio, where each output device (Speaker, subwoofer, etc) has its own dedicated sound stream. Front left only plays audio that is to your front left, and so on. A good example of this is with movies, how voices only come from the center speaker unless they are trying to make it sound like someone is 'behind' you, or to the side.
Fake surround sound

As shown in my Cmedia/auzentech screenshot above, virtual surround sound exists. Basically, it gets 6 (or more) channels of audio, and then mixes it back into a stereo stream using audio effects to make you think there is more than just two speakers. Kind of how like muffling a sound can make it seem further away, only more advanced.

This is fine in many cases, if you only have stereo inputs to your device (speakers or headphones - but if you have true multi channel inputs, for gods sake use true surround sound and not this fake crap.

EAX in the modern gaming world
Some people seem to think EAX is all important, fancy, and required for all sorts of sound features like positional audio, reverb effects, audio occlusion and surround sound in general. None of this is true.
EAX may have added those features in on top of Directsound3D, but it is not the only way to do so, and the death of EAX will not stop those features from existing in games today.
The only reason people think these features were tied in, was smart marketing on creatives part - they DISABLED all those features on soundcards that didnt support EAX, just to make it seem like EAX did more than it really did.
A good analogy there would be games designed for Nvidia graphics that dont allow anyone on ATI/AMD or intel graphics to go above 800x600 resolution. We wouldnt accept that there, which is why no one liked it in the audio market, and creatives monopoly got toppled.


And a bonus: 16 bit audio vs 24 bit
read this to see that some people think 24 bit audio aint worth it. arguments abound on this one. Sticking your audio straight to 24 bit in the windows control panel may not actually give you better audio, test it and see for yourself.
 
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#2
Dedicated vs Onboard Analogue sound quality
You may wish to add that this also uses CPU cycles, whereas dedicated soundcards use less or none, depending on the application.
 

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#3
If your on-board supports DTS or DDL encoding over optical or digital, there may still be benefits to using a sound card or a different HDMI enabled audio device (such as modern ATI and nV gfx cards). Optical/coax connections still cannot do multi-channel PCM or any of the HD audio formats like Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio without loss of quality.
 

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#4
You may wish to add that this also uses CPU cycles, whereas dedicated soundcards use less or none, depending on the application.
thats not true any more, hardware acceleration via soundcards is basically dead. its all done in software nowadays (and its no performance loss at all, with multi core systems)

If your on-board supports DTS or DDL encoding over optical or digital, there may still be benefits to using a sound card or a different HDMI enabled audio device (such as modern ATI and nV gfx cards). Optical/coax connections still cannot do multi-channel PCM or any of the HD audio formats like Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio without loss of quality.
those are features you get by going HDMI, not by getting a soundcard. if you have a modern video card, you already have a HDMI sound device capable of those features. no need for a sound card at all then.
 
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#5
thats not true any more, hardware acceleration via soundcards is basically dead. its all done in software nowadays (and its no performance loss at all, with multi core systems)
As a composer where latency matters, I can tell you that it does matter.
Not a great deal for the average user, true, but when ASIO et al comes into play, there is a difference.
I even did a test with my own on-board sound compared to my X-Fi Elite Pro and after sampling a 4 minute track, the on-board timing was out by nearly 2 seconds.
The only way to compensate for this is by increasing the input buffer - do-able but highly annoying, as it depends on the length of the track you're working with.

Again, not really an issue if you're an average user, but for more dedicated sound or music related work, this makes a difference you can notice.
RFI from other mobo components are also more noticeable in ob-board than they are in a dedicated card..
 
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#6
As a composer where latency matters, I can tell you that it does matter.
Not a great deal for the average user, true, but when ASIO et al comes into play, there is a difference.
I even did a test with my own on-board sound compared to my X-Fi Elite Pro and after sampling a 4 minute track, the on-board timing was out by nearly 2 seconds.
The only way to compensate for this is by increasing the input buffer - do-able bu highly annoying, as it depends on the length of the track you're working with.

Again, not really an issue if you're an average user, but for more dedicated sound or music related work, this makes a difference you can notice.
RFI from other mobo components are also more noticeable in ob-board than they are in a dedicated card..
With newer gen systems, you don't need to go looking for sound cards for ASIO and almost 0 latency, you can pretty much download software that would allow you to use ASIO on your motherboard. I was using this to record drum tracks on my UD7 without a sound card or audio interface before and it worked exceptionally well but of course the sound quality itself wasn't as good.
 
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#8
With newer gen systems, you don't need to go looking for sound cards for ASIO and almost 0 latency, you can pretty much download software that would allow you to use ASIO on your motherboard. I was using this to record drum tracks on my UD7 without a sound card before and it worked exceptionally well but of course the sound quality itself wasn't as good.
True, but that doesn't help with the input lag.
And, as you pointed out as well, the result isn't of the best standard either.
It is true, however, that on-board sound of today, is far better than it used to be. Good enough for most applications in fact.
Just not for music creation purposes, unless we're talking really simplistic stuff I suppose?
 

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#9
thats not true any more, hardware acceleration via soundcards is basically dead. its all done in software nowadays (and its no performance loss at all, with multi core systems)



those are features you get by going HDMI, not by getting a soundcard. if you have a modern video card, you already have a HDMI sound device capable of those features. no need for a sound card at all then.
Not everbody has a modern sound card, or HDMI capable audio gear. These people can only get the most of their otherwise great surround setups via analog thru a sound card. I am one of those. ;)

Found a couple of other things to comment on as well:

I think the HDMI 1.4a standard does allow audio to go from tv to a supported receiver. Not sure in what capacity, or how exactly it works tho.
http://www.hdmi.org/manufacturer/hdmi_1_4/hdmi_1_4_faq.aspx#14

That article on 24bit is completely full of shit. First, it does not add noise at low volumes. Second, sure, not a lot will benefit from 24bit in today's loudness wars material, Most stuff is pushed to the walls, but you most certainly do hear a difference in properly mixed and mastered material if you have good enough equipment. I suggest finding a rip of the DVD Audio portion of NIN's With Teeth dual disc release, and listening thru an amped set of Grado SR225i's or some good, detailed IEMs, like RE0's. On the flip side of that, the DVD-A rip of The Downward Spiral shows no audible difference at all. The only benefit it had was the addition of a true 5.1 mix. lol.

I do agree with the sentiment that it is useless for the average listener on normal equipment, with cookie cutter major label garbage. So while, not typically able to be taken advantage of, posting it as a fact is misleading.
 
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#10
So what would be most important in order to have great sound? The receiver, the speakers or the sound card? I have crap PC speakers and a old receiver so don't know where I should start. :confused: Or is it a combination of all three.
 

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#11
True, but that doesn't help with the input lag.
And, as you pointed out as well, the result isn't of the best standard either.
It is true, however, that on-board sound of today, is far better than it used to be. Good enough for most applications in fact.
Just not for music creation purposes, unless we're talking really simplistic stuff I suppose?
no, this really wasnt inteded with music recording and creation in mind. More about playback and gaming, than input and recording.

Then again, ASIO isnt anything about hardware either - its just the drivers being designed with low (near zero) latency involved. i've seen ASIO softmods out there for cards before, mostly older creatives.


So what would be most important in order to have great sound? The receiver, the speakers or the sound card? I have crap PC speakers and a old receiver so don't know where I should start. :confused: Or is it a combination of all three.
all of them, if you run analogue. sound card comes out of the picture if you run digital.
 
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#12
That's the answer I was afraid of lol! It looks like I have a lot to upgrade then.
 

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#13
That's the answer I was afraid of lol! It looks like I have a lot to upgrade then.
i dont think its off topic to ask for advice here, what receiver do you have? is it capable of decoding dolby digital and DTS?
 
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#14
True, but that doesn't help with the input lag.
And, as you pointed out as well, the result isn't of the best standard either.
It is true, however, that on-board sound of today, is far better than it used to be. Good enough for most applications in fact.
Just not for music creation purposes, unless we're talking really simplistic stuff I suppose?
Simple is all I know at this point :(, although I wouldn't think it would be a good idea to do actual compositions without an audio interface that would just be silly.
 
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#15
Simple is all I know at this point :(, although I wouldn't think it would be a good idea to do actual compositions without an audio interface that would just be silly.
True. But, with all the marketing hype of today, those new to music creation on a PC level might get a different idea about the capabilities of on-board sound.
As most new upstarts tend to be cash-strapped, saving big dollars on a decent soundcard might be enough to suade them from said purchase, if they believe said hype ;)

EDIT: simple is fine. I'm just referring to hardware capabilities here. ANY creation is good mate, regardless of opinion ;)
 

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#16
True. But, with all the marketing hype of today, those new to music creation on a PC level might get a different idea about the capabilities of on-board sound.
As most new upstarts tend to be cash-strapped, saving big dollars on a decent soundcard might be enough suade them from said purchase, if they believe said hype ;)
you really think someone in the audio creation or recording industry is going to read THIS and treat it as gospel, when those topics never came up? I find that hard to beleive. anyway, now that we've covered it in the thread those people who got here by looking up an unrelated topic have their answer - for recording or audio creation, get a high end studio card with low latency ASIO support.
 
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#17
i dont think its off topic to ask for advice here, what receiver do you have? is it capable of decoding dolby digital and DTS?
Its KENWOOD VR-8070 7.1 pretty old bought it a while ago seems like ages.
 
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#18
you really think someone in the audio creation or recording industry is going to read THIS and treat it as gospel, when those topics never came up? I find that hard to beleive. anyway, now that we've covered it in the thread those people who got here by looking up an unrelated topic have their answer - for recording or audio creation, get a high end studio card with low latency ASIO support.
No, it's not about those in the recording industry at all. Those that are, rarely use a PC anyway.
I'm simply referring to composition, to whit the PC is a great tool ;)
 

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#19
Not everbody has a modern sound card, or HDMI capable audio gear. These people can only get the most of their otherwise great surround setups via analog thru a sound card. I am one of those. ;)

Found a couple of other things to comment on as well:

I think the HDMI 1.4a standard does allow audio to go from tv to a supported receiver. Not sure in what capacity, or how exactly it works tho.
http://www.hdmi.org/manufacturer/hdmi_1_4/hdmi_1_4_faq.aspx#14

That article on 24bit is completely full of shit. First, it does not add noise at low volumes. Second, sure, not a lot will benefit from 24bit in today's loudness wars material, Most stuff is pushed to the walls, but you most certainly do hear a difference in properly mixed and mastered material if you have good enough equipment. I suggest finding a rip of the DVD Audio portion of NIN's With Teeth dual disc release, and listening thru an amped set of Grado SR225i's or some good, detailed IEMs, like RE0's. On the flip side of that, the DVD-A rip of The Downward Spiral shows no audible difference at all. The only benefit it had was the addition of a true 5.1 mix. lol.

I do agree with the sentiment that it is useless for the average listener on normal equipment, with cookie cutter major label garbage. So while, not typically able to be taken advantage of, posting it as a fact is misleading.


As you pointed out to me, i missed this post so i'll comment on it now.

If HDMI 1.4a finally allows us to output our sound from the TV, awesome. Its useless for most however, because it means we need to go get a new TV to make it work.

That article is something i linked to out of interest, because i saw many similar articles saying how 24 bit is worthless. You say you've noticed a difference on some very high end hardware, which contradicts that article. i'll edit the post to reflect that.


No, it's not about those in the recording industry at all. Those that are, rarely use a PC anyway.
I'm simply referring to composition, to whit the PC is a great tool ;)
I honestly have next to zero knowledge in that area. Its not something i ever expected to come up as a discussion in this thread, hence not covering it at all.
 
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#20
Anyone here have any opinions towards the Crystallization effect or similar? I am having mixed feelings about it at the moment, sometimes it can be a bit too much for some sound effects but it also makes a number of them sound much more refined and clear.
 

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#21
Anyone here have any opinions towards the Crystallization effect or similar? I am having mixed feelings about it at the moment, sometimes it can be a bit too much for some sound effects but it also makes a number of them sound much more refined and clear.
Its really no more than an equaliser.
From what i read, Creatives crystaliser compresses the sound into ranges that speakers can more easily handle - as a not quite accurate, simplified explanation, it moves the bass up into a higher frequency and the treble lower, so that cheap speakers are less likely to distort. This can result in 'better' sound, by working around common flaws in cheap speakers/headphones, but overall audiophiles dislike it, especially with decent quality equipment.
 
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#22
I honestly have next to zero knowledge in that area. Its not something i ever expected to come up as a discussion in this thread, hence not covering it at all.
NP mate. Perhaps I was being a bit picky myself about it.
Music is rather dear to me and the amount of crud about audio fidelity that floats around is quite astonishing (not saying you're part of that crowd at all - I spotted you in the Logitech section ;))

Anyone here have any opinions towards the Crystallization effect or similar? I am having mixed feelings about it at the moment, sometimes it can be a bit too much for some sound effects but it also makes a number of them sound much more refined and clear.
This has its place in some areas - it *can* enhance the effect where some of the audio in question may be less than decent, but an already decent sound needs no crystallisation :)
 

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#23
Anyone here have any opinions towards the Crystallization effect or similar? I am having mixed feelings about it at the moment, sometimes it can be a bit too much for some sound effects but it also makes a number of them sound much more refined and clear.
I hate it. Use high quality source material, like 320 mp3/aac, q7 ogg vorbis, or flac, on decent equipment, and it actually makes things sound worse. It is really only intended for low bitrate, crappy sources.
 
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#24
Its really no more than an equaliser.
From what i read, Creatives crystaliser compresses the sound into ranges that speakers can more easily handle - as a not quite accurate, simplified explanation, it moves the bass up into a higher frequency and the treble lower, so that cheap speakers are less likely to distort. This can result in 'better' sound, by working around common flaws in cheap speakers/headphones, but overall audiophiles dislike it, especially with decent quality equipment.
This has its place in some areas - it *can* enhance the effect where some of the audio in question may be less than decent, but an already decent sound needs no crystallisation :)
I hate it. Use high quality source material, like 320 mp3/aac, q7 ogg vorbis, or flac, on decent equipment, and it actually makes things sound worse. It is really only intended for low bitrate, crappy sources.
:twitch: the answer is now clear *turns it off* :toast: :laugh:
 
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#25
I hate it. Use high quality source material, like 320 mp3/aac, q7 ogg vorbis, or flac, on decent equipment, and it actually makes things sound worse. It is really only intended for low bitrate, crappy sources.
Provided it's not the dreaded joint-stereo :p
Otherwise, absolutely true :)