Dr. Damage asks: integrated audio vs. PCI?

Ok, I have read darn near everywhere that the integrated AC'97 audio in Via chipset south bridge chips is inferior to a PCI card solution like a SoundBlaster Live! The reasons cited are almost always the same: higher CPU use with integrated audio, and lower sound quality. Such declarations are a hardware web site staple. I'm sure I've written about it myself.

But I have seen little in the way of proof.

As with many things, such as the SCSI vs. IDE debate, this issue seems clouded by a certain amount of prejudice and snobbery. Of course add-in cards are better, the PC enthusiast's mind tells him. But setting aside the issue of 3D positional audio in games—which, frankly, with SBLive! cards has never impressed me in the least—is there a substantial advantage to PCI card audio solutions?

The motherboards with integrated audio I've used have varied with respect to audio quality. Some had more bus noise than others. But so do PCI cards. And the very best on-board sound I've heard has no audible bus noise and a clean sound, overall. Many fairly nice sound cards nowadays are just AC'97 chips coupled to DSPs, after all, aren't they?

And, to filter out the junk, I'm asking for proof. Post a link to some real benchmarks, either for general use or for 3D positional audio in gaming. Show me some technical whitepapers explaining the difference, and back them up with proof that using that DSP is appreciably better than using a few clock cycles on my 1.5GHz Athlon.

Or are we just all pressing the lever to get the Creative-branded pellet out of habit?

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