The great audio debate: over

In the wake of the argument over my last Dr. Damage asks episode about integrated audio vs. PCI, I resolved to reassemble the Shuttle AV32-based system and do some audio testing. I wanted to establish two things:
  • Does Via's integrated AC'97 audio sound as good as a decent PCI sound card?

  • How does the Via match up to the PCI card in terms of CPU utilization?
I hooked the system up to some moderately decent speakers with both the Via audio and an SBLive! Platinum card enabled and installed, then used the Windows control panel (and my hands) to switch between the two devices. I fired up an MP3 player and listened. It took all of about 60 seconds for me to come to two conclusions:
  • The Live! absolutely, utterly stomps the integrated audio's sound quality. The AC'97 doesn't seem too awful (at least in this implementation) until you hear it and the Live! back to back. Then it's over.

    Here, I made a graph:

    That pretty much settles that.

  • CPU utilization is a non-issue. Even if AC'97 audio's CPU use is a fair amount lower, you want the PCI card. Seriously.
Now, I've heard Guillemot's $25 MUSE card back-to-back with the Creative, and I think the MUSE sounds a little cripser. The Live's audio has a warmer, richer feel to it, which some may prefer, but I have no illusions about the Creative card's relative merits. Thing is, it doesn't matter. Integrated audio—at least in the latest incarnation from Via—is the PC speaker of the 21st century: good enough for system bells, bleeps, and bloops, but not up to snuff otherwise.
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