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Counter-Strike: Source audio performance explored

Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor Author expertise
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OVER THE PAST WEEK we’ve seen a deluge of Counter-Strike: Source performance articles. For the most part, coverage has focused on graphics cards, but there’s more to the Counter-Strike: Source performance story than pixel-pushing power. In addition to higher polygon counts, bigger textures, and fancy shader effects, CS: Source also features a surround sound audio engine that wraps in-game audio around five speakers.

Unlike the DOOM 3 engine, which currently processes positional audio on the CPU, the Source engine appears to take advantage of hardware 3D audio acceleration. In theory, leveraging sound card resources to crunch positional audio calculations should free up CPU resources and improve overall performance, but is there really much of a performance difference between audio implementations? We’ve rounded up nine different sound cards to find out.

Before we begin…
I’d like to thank TR reader Timm Stokke for getting the ball rolling. Timm pointed us to a couple of threads over at Shacknews suggesting that CS: Source runs at much higher frame rates when sounds are disabled. Of course, no one wants to run a game with no sound, but it raised the question: do some sound cards perform better in CS: Source than others?


Nine audio cards compared

To answer that question, I combed the Benchmarking Sweatshop and came up with nine sound cards to test. I’ve also thrown in some integrated motherboard audio—the VT8237/VT1616 south bridge/codec combo found on Abit’s KV8-MAX3—for good measure. (Note to SoundStorm fanboys: Yes, I’m aware I didn’t test with your beloved SoundStorm. Because SoundStorm requires a dated Athlon XP/nForce2 platform, I left it out of this comparison. As far as current Athlon 64 platforms are concerned, SoundStorm is dead. Get over it.)

When testing 3D audio performance, it’s important to make a distinction between audio implementations that offer true hardware acceleration and those that emulate hardware acceleration in software. Emulating 3D acceleration in software dumps positional audio calculations back onto the CPU, so cards that offer true hardware acceleration should consume fewer CPU cycles than cards that fake hardware acceleration in software. Here’s how the audio implementations we tested stack up in terms of hardware acceleration:

Hardware audio acceleration Software audio acceleration
Creative SoundBlaster Live!
Creative SoundBlaster Audigy
Creative SoundBlaster Audigy2
Creative SoundBlaster Audigy2 ZS
Hercules Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1
Hercules Muse 5.1
M-Audio Revolution 7.1
Mad Dog Multimedia Entertainer 7.1
Philips Ultimate Edge
VIA VT8237/VT1616 integrated

As you can see, Creative and Hercules are all over hardware audio acceleration. The M-Audio, Mad Dog Multimedia, and Philips cards all use variations of VIA’s Envy24 audio controller, which lacks hardware acceleration for 3D audio. VIA’s VT8237/VT1616 south bridge/codec combo also lacks true hardware audio acceleration, as do most integrated motherboard audio implementations.


A screenshot from the CS: Source demo we used for testing

 

Our testing methods
Our test system was configured like so:

Processor Athlon 64 3200+ 2.0GHz
Front-side bus HT 16-bit/800MHz downstream
HT 16-bit/800MHz upstream
Motherboard Abit KV8-MAX3
North bridge VIA K8T800
South bridge  VIA VT8237
Chipset driver VIA Hyperion 4.53
Memory size 1024MB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair XMS3500 DDR SDRAM at 400MHz and 2-7-3-3 timings
Graphics GeForce 6800 GT 256MB
Graphics driver ForceWare 61.77
Storage

Western Digital WD360GD 10,000RPM Serial ATA hard drive

Operating System Windows XP Professional
Service Pack 2 and DirectX 9.0c

We used this CS: Source demo for testing. The game was tested with CS: Source’s high-quality and “5 speaker” audio settings. Because my ancient SoundBlaster Live! only supports four-channel audio, it was tested with CS: Source’s “4 speaker” audio setting. I’ve marked the Live!’s results with an asterisk to highlight this difference.

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at a 75Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

 

Results
To approximate real-world frame rates, I ran our test system at the highest in-game graphics detail levels, 4X antialiasing, and 8X anisotropic filtering at a relatively high resolution of 1280×1024. Dropping the display resolution down to 1024×768 and turning off antialiasing and anisotropic filtering didn’t really improve frame rates, so our graphics settings aren’t going to be the bottleneck here.

This one’s all Creative, folks. Led by a couple of Audigy2 cards, the four Creative cards offer better in-game performance than any other audio implementation we tested. With new cards like the Audigy2 and Audigy2 ZS, that’s hardly shocking. However, it’s a little embarrassing that the original Audigy comes out ahead of the rest of the pack. Getting beat by an ancient SoundBlaster Live! would be embarrassing, too, but since the Live! is only capable of four-speaker output, its score isn’t directly comparable.

Trailing just behind the Creative posse we have Hercules’ Gamesurround Fortissimo III, which, despite its age, manages to knock off all of our newer Envy24-based cards. Of the Envy24 cards, the Mad Dog Entertainer offers the best in-game performance, followed by Philips’ new Ultimate Edge. The M-Audio Revolution 7.1 brings up the rear with our VT8237/VT1616 integrated audio; both are more than 10% slower than the Audigy2 ZS.

Our three Envy24-based cards—the Entertainer 7.1, Revolution 7.1, and Ultimate Edge—all share the Envy24’s lack of hardware 3D audio acceleration, so it might seem a little odd to see them score differently in CS: Source. However, I should note that each of the cards uses a different driver. M-Audio and Philips offer their own drivers for the Revolution 7.1 and Ultimate Edge, respectively, while Mad Dog uses VIA’s reference Envy24 drivers. Each driver may deal with 3D audio a little differently, which would explain the slight performance differences between the three cards.

 
Conclusions
What can I say? Creative may not be popular among PC enthusiasts, but it’s hard to deny the Audigy and Audigy2’s prowess when it comes to hardware 3D audio acceleration, at least in the Counter-Strike: Source Beta. Then again, Creative doesn’t have much competition when it comes to 3D audio. Hercules hasn’t updated its sound card lineup for over a year and a half, and SoundStorm apparently won’t reach beyond the aging nForce2 platform anytime soon.

M-Audio, Mad Dog Multimedia, and Philips’ Envy24-based audio solutions are all relatively recent products. Unfortunately, they’re all afflicted by the Envy24’s lack of hardware audio acceleration, which at least in the Counter-Strike: Source Beta, can knock up to 10% off in-game frame rates. VT8237/VT1616 doesn’t look so hot when it comes to in-game frame rates, either, but it’s hard to expect anything better than software audio from an integrated motherboard solution.

Although the performance results are clear, this comparison has left us with a few questions about Source’s audio engine. We’ve fired those questions off to Valve, so expect to hear more about this subject soon. 

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Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor

Geoff Gasior Former Managing Editor

Geoff Gasior, a seasoned tech marketing expert with over 20 years of experience, specializes in crafting engaging narratives that connect people with technology. At Tech Report, he excelled in editorial management, covering all aspects of computer hardware and software and much more.

Gasior's deep expertise in this field allows him to effectively communicate complex concepts to a wide range of audiences, making technology accessible and engaging for everyone

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