View Full Version : The Future of Sound Cards?

06-20-2017, 09:02 PM
For years, if computer users wished to have the greatest sound quality on their machines, they would install a sound card into their computers, but, in recent years, the integrated audio components of motherboards have been advancing, so I am wondering about the future of sound cards.

Will sound cards remain an appealing option for users who seek the best sound for their computers? Will they be able to remain competitive with integrated audio? Also, I am wondering about the specific case of Creative Labs, my favorite manufacturer of computer audio products and one of the early pioneers of computer audio with their Sound Blaster line; what does the future hold for them?

What does everyone else say about this? What does the future hold for sound cards?

09-02-2017, 01:18 AM
Does anyone have anything to say about this subject?

09-10-2017, 10:17 PM
Motherboards have had decent integrated audio forever (AC'97 codecs since late 1990s, Intel HD codecs since 2004) but dedicated audio cards are still going strong and still being sold twenty years later.

The dominant brands for high-end audio cards in recent years are Creative and ASUS (Xonar). There are numerous other manufacturers, but their products are intended to only provide basic audio to platforms (motherboards) which lack it. Creative has always dominated the market (since their earliest SoundBlaster cards became the "de facto" compatibility standard through wide adoption by game devs) and is still widely perceived as being the "best" brand available.

Every modern PC motherboard (even the tiniest Micro-ITX mobo) has onboard sound these days and the premium (gaming) motherboards proudly advertise their "superior" audio qualities. They invariably use the same audio codec chip (Realtek ALC1150, ALC892, S1220, etc) that's used in dedicated audio cards. They usually enhance this with some dedicated components (some filter caps, op-amp parts, DAC chip, etc) to provide louder, cleaner, richer sound - on the front/headphone stereo audio outputs, anyhow - but not on all the other audio outputs used for surround-sound speakers.

Sound cards simply have more physical and electrical space for mounting audio components, but they're invariably built around the same Realtek codec chips and stuffed full of "bulky" capacitors/amps/etc which can drive more audio outputs with less signal degradation. Silicon keeps getting better and faster and smaller and mightier (and cheaper) but audio output always involves analog audio transducers (speakers and mics) and there's just no way to reduce the bulk of a capacitor or inductor or signal amplifier without diminishing its capacities, so sayeth the laws of physics no matter how awesome your engineering and technology. So the best dedicated sound cards can always do more (and have better specs) than the best integrated sound chips, in the end they will always be able to advertise "superior" audio capabilities than anything integrated onboard.

The consensus with many audiophiles* is that 24-bit/192KHz is capable of providing "perfect" audio quality/fidelity and going any higher (the best commercial DAC available today is 32-bit/288KHz) doesn't increase audio quality in meaningful ways the human ear can perceive.
* This includes many musicians, sound engineers, and other professionals. Who incidentally "master" audio with lots of digital tools/equipment rated at 24-bit/192KHz spec.

Although many other audiophiles argue that more bit depth and more samples will of course provide more accurate resolution so higher specs are automatically better. And there are still some audiophiles who argue that only analog audio** can truly be "audiophile-grade", while digital audio categorically cannot.
** But good luck finding any "pure analog" "audiophile-grade" Hi-Fi equipment these days. There's always digital tech inside, and the digital parts never have spec >24-bit/192KHz.

It's worth noting that external (USB) audio devices such as the JDS Labs O2+ODAC (https://www.jdslabs.com/products/48/objective2-odac-combo-revb/) or FiiO Olympus 2-E10K (http://www.fiio.net/en/products/27) typically have 24-bit/192KHz audio specs and are quite popular with (even designed by) professional audiophiles. I have an O2+ODAC - and while I like my music and have "decent" audio gear I'm certainly not an audiophile - and I'm of the opinion that (specs be damned!) it sounds better to my abused old ears than any ($250~$350) Creative sound card I've ever compared it against.

Gamers and musicians will always continue to demand the highest-spec sound cards they can buy "at any price". Even though gamers never realize that better audio won't assure more wins and musicians never realize that better audio won't make sucky music sound more appealing.
So manufacturers like Creative and ASUS will always keep on selling sound cards with ever-higher specs and ever-greater features - "at any price" - no matter how awesome the native motherboard audio functions and qualities might be.