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Discussion: Onboard vs Discrete sound, do you need it?

post #1 of 6
Thread Starter 
There seems to be a lot of misinformation here as of late so I will start a thread for people who know and people who think they know debate about the age old question, "Do I need a soundcard/DAC?"

This is also a very interesting read. It's completely unrelated, but it goes to show how people tend to overrate stuff.

SOURCE

I'm too lazy to type everything out so I'll just do a quote:

Quote:
Headphone Amps/DACs Explained

Prior to posting some headphone amp and DAC reviews I wanted to cover some issues that seem to be very common among reasonably priced amps and DACs. Some wonder if they need one at all. Others wonder which is best for them--an amp or a DAC. And, if you read reviews of devices like the FiiO and NuForce products, you'll find many complaining about audible noise and/or channel balance issues at the lowest settings of the volume control (also called a "tracking" problem).

IS AN AMP OR DAC NEEDED? The short answer is "probably less than people think". A lot of people have no real complaints with the sound they're getting without an AMP or DAC, but they buy one based on all the people who claim they make a huge improvement in the sound. Some buy one and don't notice much difference, and some claim significant improvements. Sometimes the perceived improvement is mostly psychological--a well documented phenomena much like how a more expensive wine often taste better than a much cheaper wine until you put them both in plain brown paper bags and the preferences often are reversed. But that's another article for a future post...

Some people have good reasons to not happy with the sound they get directly from their device. It might not get loud enough, or have audible noise, or some other audible problem they know is caused by the device (not their headphones or source material). For these folks an amp or DAC may indeed be worth exploring. But they're not some magic pill or cure-all. They can, in fact, create more problems than they solve.

A GENERAL GUIDELINE: If you have headphones that cost less than about $80 it's very likely the manufacture designed them to be driven directly from a typical device like an iPod. Using an amp or DAC with such headphones usually won't improve their sound much, and might even make them sound worse or create other problems like excess noise and channel balance issues. This is especially true if your headphones already get loud enough for your tastes.

AMP OR DAC? This is only a choice if you're only looking for better sound when you're at your PC or laptop. If you're going to use something else as your music source, like an iPod, you want an amp not a DAC. Some DACs can also be used as amps, and some only work via USB to a PC. If your PC's sound output already sounds clean, noise free, and perhaps just doesn't get loud enough with your headphones, you might be happy with just an amp. If your PC's output has other audible problems, than a DAC is likely a better option.

COMMON COMPLAINTS: Noise and channel balance tracking problems are both related to the same problem--using high efficiency headphones with an amp or DAC that has too much gain for the headphones. You need lots of gain for low efficiency high impedance headphones, but that gain becomes a liability if you have efficient headphones.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR EFFICIENT HEADPHONES: If your headphones easily get loud enough without an amplifier, you might want to strongly consider not using an amp or inexpensive external headphone DAC prone to channel balance problems. The main reason to use an amp with efficient headphones is if your device has a relatively high output impedance (more than 8 ohms or so). Unfortunately, output impedance is something manufactures rarely put in their specs, it's not measured by RMAA, and a lot of product reviews don't include or measure it. See my blog posting on the topic if you're interested: Headphone Amp Impedance

The output impedance of your device matters because if it's really high, and especially if you have balanced armature IEMs (like many Etymotic, Shure, and similar in-ear headphones), the varying impedance of your headphones will also cause the frequency response to change in audible ways. So using a headphone amp will change the frequency response--most report for the better but some might think it's worse.

The other reason to use a DAC, as mentioned above, is if your PC's sound output has other problems--like audible noise, etc. In this case an external DAC bypasses the internal "sound card" and should offer less noise and possibly better sound.

If you have efficient headphones, you ideally want a DAC or amp with relatively low gain, low noise, and a high quality volume control with good tracking (some use digital or electronic volume controls). If it's a DAC, you ideally want one that will let you also set the volume from your PC or Mac. Some do not. Being able to turn the volume down a bit at your PC lets you use more of the volume control range on the DAC which helps solve the tracking problem at low levels. It doesn't, however, help the noise problem if there is one. It also causes a loss of resolution in your music. Your 16 bit audio stream becomes 15 bit, 14 bit, or even less if you lower the PC volume from the maximum setting because the volume is being lowered in the digital domain.

Some DAC/amp manufactures don't specify the gain, but they often do specify the maximum output power. You can only compare power levels at the same impedance--i.e. 60 mW into 16 ohms is not the same as 60 mW into 32 ohms. But, in general, if you have efficient headphones, you want the lowest power amp/DAC that gets good reviews. The ones with lots of power will typically have more gain and you're more likely to have problems with volume tracking and noise.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR INEFFICIENT HEADPHONES: If you have some power hungry cans then you want to look for an amp/DAC that has a higher maximum power rating. You don't need to be as concerned about the volume tracking and noise issues but they could still be a problem is some really poorly designed amps/DACs.
...more at the source.

Some more good reads:

Asus' Xonar DG and Xense sound cards - Do you really need discrete audio?

Back the in good'ol days the reason for a discrete sound card was because onboard sound suffered from electronic interference from other devices on the motherboard resulting in hiss, noise, distortion, etc. Onboard sound also used up CPU cycles resulting is reduced performance.

Those days are long gone.

Yes they're still better but not a better that justifies the cost unless you have money to spare. Discrete sound is more a luxury item than a "need" that some say and adamantly believe.

How do you justify spending more money on your sound card than your motherboard? Marketing, just like how DeBeers got people to believe that diamonds and marriage are inseparable, the computer industry has gotten some to believe that sound quality and discrete sound cards are inseparable.

Onboard sound however has improved leaps and bounds over the old days of Realtek97 and is easily enough for most people. Only those with money burning a hole into their pockets or insist in the absolute best sound may want to look into getting themselves a discrete sound card.
Edited by AzO - 3/1/11 at 11:46pm
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post #2 of 6
I agree with most of your post, for most folks integrated audio is good enough. It has always been like this, it's nothing new. Integrated sound is good enough to provide the basic noise level that covers things like the washing machine... and in the recent years newer realtek chips have integrated enough technology to make discrete sound cards less appealing. I agree with most of what you've written except this:
Quote:
Back the in good'ol days the reason for a discrete sound card was because onboard sound suffered from electronic interference from other devices on the motherboard resulting in hiss, noise, distortion, etc. Onboard sound also used up CPU cycles resulting is reduced performance.

Those days are long gone.
... they are not long gone imho. It's a matter of perception maybe, but onboard sound still is more muffled, flat and in some cases just plain wrong. And there's the hissing. I could never put an equal sign between what I hear from my modded Augigy 24bit and the onboard Realtek, however similar they may sound in some cases (youtube, online radio, skype, etc).

My annoyance over the disabilities of onboard sound amounts to below 50$ though. I can easily found great soundcards within that budget that I find satisfactory. Some may be astonished other consumers buy 400$ soundcards, but then again some buy 1000$ CPUs and 500$ graphics cards - I agree these can be called luxury items, at least as far as PCs go.
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post #3 of 6
Simply from experience, I personally feel that a sound card does wonders for audio. It was never so apparent than for actual gaming. Plugging in quality headphones into my motherboard allowed me to hear sound, but plugging them into my sound card allowed me to have..."Super human" sound. What I mean is, before having a sound card, I thought sound was normal like as if I was right there and that's what I normally would be hearing, but I never had any of the advantages many people claim they had with a sound card. So I bought a sound card and the difference was enormous. CLARITY was the first thing that popped out to me. The second thing was that I could hear footsteps from 1/4 across the map. I could hear sneaking footsteps as well. This gave me a huge advantage in FPS games.

My motherboard's sound literally bottlenecked my headphones. I couldn't use the amazing sound stage the AD700s are noted for until I had a sound card. I went from using an old motherboard's sound, to using an Audigy 2ZS, to using a new mother board's audio, to using a Xonar DX. Everytime, I made the switch I immediately noticed the difference and longed for my sound card back.

There are also some notes in music that sound cards just hold better than on board. It sounds cleaner and again the clarity is much improved over on board. Hearing individual instruments that you wouldn't normally have heard in a mesh of instruments clashing was much more apparent.

I just can't agree that it makes a negligible difference. For music, at first, I didn't think Audio would sound better. It sounded perfectly fine to me without the sound card at first, but as soon as you hear it with a sound card it's...amazing.

Maybe my motherboard's audio just isn't on par with some of the on board nowadays? But I bought my motherboard in summer 2010. It uses an Realtek ALC 1200.
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post #4 of 6
The biggest difference I noticed when upgrading was that the bass on my speakers suddenly became a lot more clear. No more did explosions sound like muffled farts. Though I feel like I was an isolated case, the onboard sound developed a constant CPU load dependent background noise. Not something I expected from an X38 board. At the time I was using a pair of rescued Aiwa shelf speakers and a T-Amp Gen 2. It amplified that interference really well.

The problem I see with sound cards is that they follow a weakest link in the chain rule. The only really start to fly when you give them some nice shelf speakers, a decent amplifier to power them, and some lossless audio to feed them. Break that chain and you can be left struggling to hear the difference.

Another point to consider. With how slow the audio market moves relative to the rest of the PC market, that high end sound card should last as long as you can still install drivers for it.

Though I still agree, that for the average bear, onboard solutions are certainly enough. A person who has had a taste of high end audio will likely be disappointed.
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post #5 of 6
For me, it was extremely simple: when I upgraded from my EVGA 680i SLI's onboard audio to the Audigy 2 ZS, the improvement was noticeable. It wasn't a big deal, but I noticed it and enjoyed it. However, when I upgraded from the Audigy 2 ZS to the X-Fi XtremeGamer, the difference was massive. The low end was significantly cleaner and it was much deeper. The highs and mids were also a huge improvement.

Where once my subwoofer used to distort, it was finally clean and sounded like the low end in a very nice THX Certified movie theater. The highs are literally crystal clear now, and the mids are finally wonderfully punchy when they're supposed to be.

I can't even get this with my newer board, the EP45-UD3P.

Now, do I need a discrete sound card? Absolutely not. But I most certainly can't live without it now that I know better!
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post #6 of 6
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by dragosmp View Post
... they are not long gone imho. It's a matter of perception maybe, but onboard sound still is more muffled, flat and in some cases just plain wrong. And there's the hissing. I could never put an equal sign between what I hear from my modded Augigy 24bit and the onboard Realtek, however similar they may sound in some cases (youtube, online radio, skype, etc).
My annoyance over the disabilities of onboard sound amounts to below 50$ though. I can easily found great soundcards within that budget that I find satisfactory. Some may be astonished other consumers buy 400$ soundcards, but then again some buy 1000$ CPUs and 500$ graphics cards - I agree these can be called luxury items, at least as far as PCs go.
Discrete SC tend to have a better SNR, frequency response, and less susceptible to system noise/EMI compared to onboard therefore explains the reason why people experience cleaner sound and "better" sound. However that gap has been closed significantly with modern onboard sound and motherboards.

Realtek ALC889 Hardware Specs

# Hardware Features High performance DACs with 108dB signal-to-noise ratio (A-weighting)
# High performance ADCs with 104dB signal-to-noise ratio (A-weighting).
# Meets Microsoft WLP3.10 and future WLP audio requirements
# Ten DAC channels support 16/20/24-bit PCM format for 7.1 sound playback, plus 2 channels of concurrent independent stereo sound output (multiple streaming) through the front panel output
# Three stereo ADCs support 16/20/24-bit PCM format, multiple stereo recording
# All DACs supports 44.1k/48k/88.2k/96k/176.4k/192kHz sample rate
# All ADCs supports 44.1k/48k/88.2k/96k/176.4k/192kHz sample rate
# Primary 16/20/24-bit SPDIF-OUT supports 32k/44.1k/48k/88.2k/96k/192kHz sample rate
# Secondary 16/20/24-bit SPDIF-OUT supports 32k/44.1k/48k/88.2k/96k/192kHz sample rate
# 16/20/24-bit SPDIF-IN supports 32k/44.1k/48k/96k/192kHz sample rate

ALC889 Datasheet

ALC889 headphone amp output supports up to 32Ω, therefore it will support ATH-AD700 and similar impedance headphones perfectly fine.

There are a few reasons behind hissing, popping, noise issue. System bus, PSU (power delivery) and drivers.

The disadvantage is that soundcards depend on computer's PSU for clean power. This is a real problem because computer PSU are not built with clean audio performance in mind. PC PSU, along with many digital IC's inside the PC spew out RFI/EMI which is not an ideal situation for any DAC, including soundcards.
The problem with system bus interference has been pretty much eliminated with most modern motherboards.

I want to make my stance on the subject very clear. I am not here to say onboard is better than discrete or vise versa. I want people to clearly understand the facts behind modern onboard sound and the long way it has come and make a informed decision before moving on to discrete sound.
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