Are sound cards still relevant?

Recently, I supplemented my desktop's arsenal of hardware with a stand-alone Asus Xonar DX sound card. This upgrade was something of a shot in the dark, fueled primarily by the sudden availability of the card, in conjunction with the excellent reviews and accolades bestowed upon the Xonar series. Heck, our own Geoff Gasior gave the thing an elusive Editor's Choice award a few years ago. For me, this upgrade would come after many consecutive years using integrated motherboard audio exclusively.

In my early days, you would have found me firmly entrenched in the Creative camp, having owned a battery of Sound Blaster cards that included the Vibra16, AWE32, Live! 5.1, Audigy, and Audigy2 ZS. After the Audigy series, I dropped off the sound-card grid entirely. Instead, I opted for the simplicity, front-panel connectivity, and "good enough" sound quality of the SoundMax ADI1988 audio chip found on my Asus M2N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard. I actually had a hard time perceiving any significant quality difference between the Audigy2 and the integrated audio chip when I made the switch.

Since then, I've swapped my speakers to a pair of Audio Engine A5s that remain the single biggest jump in audio quality I've experienced since upgrading from the AWE32 to the Live 5.1. These speakers sound fantastic. In fact, they even prompted an upgrade to my MP3 collection, which was previously made up of tracks encoded at 128kbps. My old speaker/amp setup muddied up the waters enough that one MP3 bitrate pretty much sounded like the next, but the A5s allow me to hear just how much is sacrificed by lower-bitrate encoding algorithms. I had to go back and re-encode or re-download high-quality VBR or 320kbps versions of many songs. I even took my Pandora addiction to the next level by subscribing to the Pandora One service for the sole purpose of exploiting its 192kbps audio streams.

With the Xonar in hand and a vacant PCIe x1 slot staring up at me, I decided to see if I could squeeze any more range and clarity out of the Audio Engine speakers. To be honest, I wasn't expecting a whole lot. If I couldn't really tell a difference between the 95dB SNR claimed by the SoundMax ADI1988 chip on my motherboard and the 108dB boasted by the Audigy2, I doubted the Xonar DX's purported 116dB SNR would blow my mind. However, when I was comparing the Audigy2 to motherboard audio, my speakers weren't as good as the A5s.

After popping the Xonar into my system, disabling my motherboard's integrated audio chip in the BIOS, and installing the appropriate drivers, the moment of truth was at hand. I fired up Winamp and played the last song I had listened to before installing the new sound card: Pray from Jay-Z's American Gangster album encoded in 320kbps MP3 format. I doubt it's part of any professional audio testing suites, but I find that this particular song has a great range of sound that makes it easy to distinguish differences in audio quality subjectively.

With Pray, I could hear a definite, albeit slight, difference between the integrated audio and the Xonar. The track sounded a little bit crisper and cleaner than before. The difference wasn't so great that I was wowed by the experience, though. Hoping for more, I loaded up a FLAC copy of Girl Talk's All Day album to see if lossless audio would bring that wow factor to the table. Again, the sound quality was good, but nothing Steve Jobs would drag on stage and tout as "insanely great."

In gaming, the story is very much the same. The Xonar software comes with a whole slew of effects, equalization sliders, positional audio settings, and surround-sound emulation options. With only two speakers, I find that kind of post-processing detrimental to the overall quality of the audio. Except for some minor equalizer tweaks, I ended up leaving the other effects disabled.

One of the major problems with my sound cards of yore was the lack of a front-panel audio header. Creative offered the Live! Drive as a solution, but you had to pay extra and dedicate an entire 5.25" drive bay to the cause. Even cards like the Audigy2 ZS lacked the standard AC97/HD audio connectors that most cases and motherboards have provided as standard equipment for some time. I use the front-panel headphone jack constantly, making the absence of a compatible header a deal-breaker for me.

Sound card manufacturers are finally implementing front-panel headers on their products, and one can be found on the Xonar DX. Just when I thought I was safe, however, Asus decided to test my patience. The Xonar DX is unable to detect when headphones are plugged in and mute the rear speaker outputs automatically. This is something that the cheapest of motherboards have been able to handle with aplomb for over a decade. Frankly, I don't understand this seemingly obvious omission. I now have to use Asus' Xonar control panel to select manually whether I want sound routed to the front-panel headphone out or to the rear speaker jacks.

At the end of the day, the Xonar DX's audio quality is just enough of an improvement over the old integrated solution to make me keep the sound card around. I can live with manually selecting the headphone jack, but I really shouldn't have to considering that an entire motherboard supporting this feature can be purchased for the cost of the $82 Xonar.

Getting back to the integrated-versus-dedicated debate, I think integrated audio really is sufficient for most purposes. My motherboard is going on five years old now, and the audio is still subjectively good enough that I wouldn't be heartbroken if the Xonar died tomorrow. After listening to both solutions consecutively, the thought of reverting back to integrated sound doesn't make me cringe at all. Those with higher fidelity ambitions than my own are welcome to disagree, but I think the cost of a discrete sound card outweighs the benefits for the casual listener. Invest that money in a faster CPU, GPU, SSD, RAM, or concert tickets for you and a special someone.

If improved audio quality is your goal, I'm convinced money is better spent on your speakers and amplifier first. I can't speak highly enough of the Audio Engine speakers connected to my PC; their impact on sound quality with my motherboard's integrated audio was phenomenal. If you already have decent speakers that outclass the output of your motherboard's audio jacks, then by all means grab a nice sound card. The jump in quality may not be huge, but you will notice the difference (or at least think you do).

Editor's note — Since we regularly recommend discrete sound cards, we can't let this one pass without voicing some dissent. Our audio coverage has included blind listening tests for quite some time, and our subjects have consistently preferred the sound of discrete cards to integrated solutions. Some of those listeners have clearly had better ears than others when it comes to detecting subtle differences in playback quality, though. Motherboard audio has also improved a great deal over the years—just as quality sound cards have become cheaper than the Xonar DX. Our current budget favorite, the Xonar DG, costs only $30 yet scored better in our listening tests than not only Realtek integrated audio, but also a much pricier Xonar Xense.

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