Etc.


— 1:18 AM on August 26, 2004

Man, Diss really stepped in it with his comments about SoundStorm in our Counter-Strike: Source audio article. I guess the owners of motherboards with SoundStorm audio (or more likely just the NVIDIA APU) didn't appreciate his dismissal of their preferred audio solution. I can understand why some folks might feel that way, because NVIDIA did one heckuva job hyping that audio solution. They used all the right words and pressed all the right buttons to get enthusiasts' heartstrings vibrating.

However, I, too, can't get too excited about SoundStorm anymore, in part because we know that NVIDIA won't be updating SoundStorm any time soon. The reasons why they're not doing so are clear. Very few mobo manufacturers actually implemented the NVIDIA audio solution competently enough to get a SoundStorm certification, because Taiwan is way too cost conscious to give up 50 cents per unit in order to improve audio, that red-headed step child of the PC multimedia revolution. You just don't find quality DACs on motherboards these days, and the number of folks with SPDIF inputs mated to quality DACs in their receivers or amps is relatively quite small. (Moving the crappy DACs out to the amp is no answer, by the way.) Mated to an ALC650 codec like it was on the Asus A7N8X Deluxe and other popular nForce2 boards, the NVIDIA APU sounded roughly on par with other generic south bridge AC'97 solutions. No matter how heroic the APU chip might have been, that Realtek DAC and the electronic environment of the motherboard severely limited analog output quality, as it did on heaps of other motherboards.

Don't get me wrong. I think quality integrated audio on the PC should happen. I just don't think it's very likely that NVIDIA or anyone else can make it happen without lots more customer demand for it. I'm not just making this up, either; I'm hearing it from chipset companies and hearing it in the mobos we review. Even Intel, with its High-Definition Audio, has struggled. We found lots of noise and interference on the 915G-based Shuttle SB81P. It's sad.

But back to SoundStorm. The major reason I can't get too excited about SoundStorm anymore is the same for me as I presume it is for Diss. Through extensive motherboard testing and especially through a series of sound card reviews anchored by side-by-side listening tests, we've come to realize some realities about PC audio. I learned, to my surprise, how truly and deeply messed up most PC audio is, its growth stunted by years of neglect. Although we're slowly getting higher definition in terms of datatypes, signal-to-noise ratios are typically woeful. Just getting a clean basic sound stream out for music seems much harder than it should be much of the time. After hearing the audio solutions presented back to back in one of our listening test sessions, I decided I just didn't care about hardware acceleration of 3D positional audio anymore. You can have those 10 frames per second back; just give me good, clean audio with decent mixing of streams, and I'm happier with that. At least the best cards based on VIA's Envy24HT chip, which utterly lacks hardware 3D acceleration capabilities, can meet that requirement reasonably well.

Sure, I'd like better performance through hardware acceleration, but not at the cost of decent sound. I can get better frame rates on my graphics card without anisotropic filtering, but you won't see me turning it off, because without aniso, visual fidelity is severely compromised. For the vast majority of us who use the analog output ports on our PCs, an ALC650-equipped "SoundStorm" mobo will struggle to provide the audio fidelity necessary to drive a good set of speakers well. If you want that sort of audio competence, you've gotta get an Envy24-based card, and if you want to combine that fidelity with any sort of DSP acceleration, you've gotta get an Audigy2 card.

Maybe SPDIF outputs and fancy component stereo receivers are the salvation of us all from Creative's monopolistic tyranny, but somehow I doubt it, especially since Creative bought up the only real provider of 3D positional audio on the PC, Sensaura. Creative now owns the IP that gave SoundStorm its positional audio prowess.

No, too many things in PC audio are owned by Creative, and not coincidentally, too many of them are suffering from stunted growth. All of which leads me back to the original reasons many of us were excited by SoundStorm: its promise, not how it worked out in practice. What PC audio needs is for a real semiconductor company, like an NVIDIA, to move in and start reinventing, fixing, and cleaning up everything: the hardware, the APIs, the drivers, and the standards. They all need serious help. If a decent audio solution got one twentieth the attention that the GeForce series has, PC audio would be miles ahead of where it is now, and moving forward at a comparatively stunning pace. That hasn't happened yet, and I see no reason to pretend it has.

 
   
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