We've long been critical of integrated motherboard audio, which typically doesn't measure up to the quality of even budget sound cards (at least when using halfway decent analog headphones and speakers). Onboard solutions continue to improve, though, and high-end boards are taking integrated audio to new heights. Gigabyte's G1.Sniper Z87 is the latest example. It debuts at Blizzcon today, and it's loaded with more audio goodness than we've ever seen on a motherboard.
Instead of relying on a Realtek codec, the Sniper is equipped with Creative's Core3D audio processor. The chip promises "high-performance hardware audio processing," and it comes with a bunch of SoundBlaster software in tow. The surrounding circuitry is isolated to prevent electromagnetic interference from messing with the audio signals. As one might expect, fancy electrical components are part of that circuitry; Nichicon MUSE ES capacitors are attached to each audio channel.
Output is fed through a socketed op-amp that lets users swap amplifier chips. Op-amps have different acoustic characteristics, and they can have a big impact on audio output. There's no word on which op-amp comes pre-installed, though.
Speaking of amplification, the Sniper has switches to enable 2.5X and 6X boost modes. The extra amplification should appeal to folks with high-end headphones. Too bad the port cluster lacks 1/4" analog jacks.
If the Sniper's integrated audio doesn't excite you, perhaps its gold-plated USB 2.0 port will. The blinged-out "DAC-UP" port has an isolated power source that purportedly delivers cleaner power to USB audio devices. That seems a bit gimmicky to me, but audiophiles can be extremely sensitive to minute differences—both real and imagined.
In addition to its fancy audio, the G1.Sniper Z87 has a Killer NIC. Surprisingly, though, Gigabyte hasn't gone overboard with extra USB 3.0 and Serial ATA controllers. The Sniper sticks to the six SuperSpeed USB and 6Gbps SATA ports provided by the Z87 platform. There's no fancy PCIe switching, either. Only two PCIe x16 slots hang off the CPU, limiting CrossFire and SLI to two-way configurations. Those concessions seem prudent, especially if they allow the Sniper to undercut Gigabyte's $400 G1.Sniper 5. That board loads up on extra peripherals, Wi-Fi, and PCIe slots, but its integrated audio isn't as exotic.