I recently built a PC setup for all my home entertainment. I use a 50" plasma TV for a monitor, have a blu-ray drive on the PC, but I mostly play games and listen to music (FLAC and mostly high-bitrate mp3), rather than watch movies, and I no longer even bother cable.
Currently, my audio is handled by my on-board Realtek ALC889 audio codec, which I send via optical output to a nice (though pre-HDMI) Denon 7.1 channel receiver. Because I'm living in a small attic apartment (with slanted walls), I don't actually use my surround speakers, Rather, I just use a very good set of B&W stereo speakers and a subwoofer. The total cost (new) of the receiver, speakers, and subwoofer was about $3600. So, very good, but not absolute top-of-the-line stuff. (I know I sound like a retard for having audio equipment like that while living in an attic apartment, but I'm a victim of divorce-based foreclosure.)
The Realtek audio is pretty good; way better than onboard audio on previous PCs. Here are a few specs from the Realtek website:
- High performance DACs with 108dB signal-to-noise ratio (A-weighting)
- High performance ADCs with 104dB signal-to-noise ratio (A-weighting).
- Meets Microsoft WLP3.10 and future WLP audio requirements
- Ten DAC channels support 16/20/24-bit PCM format for 7.1 sound playback, plus 2 channels of concurrent independent stereo sound output (multiple streaming) through the front panel output
- Three stereo ADCs support 16/20/24-bit PCM format, multiple stereo recording
- All DACs supports 44.1k/48k/88.2k/96k/176.4k/192kHz sample rate
- All ADCs supports 44.1k/48k/88.2k/96k/176.4k/192kHz sample rate
- Primary 16/20/24-bit SPDIF-OUT supports 32k/44.1k/48k/88.2k/96k/192kHz sample rate
- Secondary 16/20/24-bit SPDIF-OUT supports 32k/44.1k/48k/88.2k/96k/192kHz sample rate
- 16/20/24-bit SPDIF-IN supports 32k/44.1k/48k/96k/192kHz sample rate
What I need to know is, what's the real benefit of a sound card? From a spec soundpoint, a $100 Creative xFi Extreme Gamer (109 dB S/N, but max 96kHz sample rate, though that's unlikely to matter) appear at least partly inferior to my onboard audio. I mean, historically, a discrete sound card was immeasurably superior, but I'm not sure that's still the case. I guess I don't doubt that at some level, a discrete card is superior, but how much do I have to spend to improve significantly upon what appears to be enormously capable on-board audio provided by the onboard Realtek ALC889? Specific recommendations are welcome, though I should point out that much above $70, I'd also want to be getting good surround performance, as I won't be living in the attic aprtment forever.