Do Sound Cards Even Still Exist? No.

Discussion in 'Computer Audio' started by Shattered (Gamer), Dec 16, 2017.

Do you feel like I actually explained why Modern "Sound Cards" are not actually Sound Cards?

  1. Yes

  2. No

  3. This is just rambles and did not make sense to me.

  1. Shattered (Gamer)
    This thread is going to be my answer to the Question "Whats the difference between a Sound Card and a DAC". Feel free to correct me, this is more of a brainstorm.

    This is important because its leads to the myths that Sound Cards improve PC performance by taking the complete sound process onto a separate device. This is was once true and is no longer. Which is why "Sound Cards" dont exist. Actually most gamer sound cards both PCIE/USB reduce PC performance, which Ill explain further under "Myth" if you want to skip ahead.

    So, My answer to "What is the difference between DACS and Sound Cards" would be "Sound Cards no longer exist". Sure as a marketing term. But as a Device, no. There are cards that produce sound, but no "Sound Cards". To make it simple, to be a Sound Card a device must do the digital processing. A DAC soley takes a processed digital signal and converts it to analog. "Blank Card" is used to define adding processing power/chipset for a specific digital task. Capture Cards adds a chipset to capture and stream videos, Video Cards add a GPU/RAM to manage graphics. Saying a DAC is a Sound Card is like calling a USB device thats solely adds a yellow analog out for old school tvs a "Video Card". It wouldn't be a "Video Card" because its simply converting the already produced Digital signal, not producing and converting.

    Sound Cards no longer process or produce the sound digitally, simply convert an already processed digital signal to analog. Moderns Sound Cards are D.A.C.s (Digital to Analog Converters) and nothing more. To be a Sound Card it would also need to everything else leading up to that point. Thats what the "Sound Card" was originally defined as. A device not to convert Digital to Analog, but a device that would add the ability to digitally process/produce a digital stream to your already built in computer DAC/speakers.

    Computers have always had D.A.C.s. If a computer makes a sound, it has a DAC. Even if its a single beep. The reason IBM's had only a few different beeps was on the digital side, not analog. IBMs DAC and Speakers where perfectly capable of playing music. The earliest CPU's could even run sound programs, but in a limited state with full usage of processing power. So a new device is introduced. A Sound Card. A add-on device meant to digitally process sound for specific tasks. A Card not meant to improve Analog sound or even produce an Analog signal. But a Card meant to relieve the CPU of digitally computing sound and run specific programs.

    So in the 80's early 90's you wouldnt buy a sound card to improve or add a Analog signal, but to process the digital info for your computers onboard DAC. That means the Sound Card would contain a chipset and ram, like a modern Video Card. Early CPU's just couldn't handle processing the digital aspect sound while running other programs. Because you could run PAC MAC on that hot new IBM, but can you play it with sound brah. Nope.

    But then CPU's got more powerful and buying a separate card just to do the digital side of sound didnt make sense. It made more sense to have a Graphics Card or Physics Card with sound processed by CPU. Sound Cards tried to stay alive by singing contracts with game devs for upgraded sound formats. It became "Sure your computer can now process sound, but can it process "(add marketing lingo) sound?"". Which many didnt see the need for, especially when given the option to improve video performance. Even so the extra options only able to be produced by the Sound Card chipsets quickly became programs for CPU's could handle.

    So Sound Cards became obsolete. Until someone in a Board Room during the early 00's said "What if we made something to improve computer audio not thru the digital process but thru Digital Audio Conversion." "We will call the Sound Card" their CEO said proudly. A tech in the room reminded him the device "Sound Card" had already been invented and clearly defined as something else. That tech was immediately fired and the "Sound Card" was reborn as PCI DAC.


    Sound Cards will add performance to your CPU. True. But a DAC wont and as I just explained Sound Cards dont exist. Modern Gaming "Sound Cards" will hurt performance. Because those fancy spatial, reverb, bass boost, equilizer, etc are not processed by the "Sound Card", like the 80's and 90's. These are processes for your CPU, bulky processes with tangible effects. Some coded horribly and eat-up alot performance wise, especially RAM. Check it for yourself. Turn all effects off and run Benchmarking Software, turn them on and run again. Compare the results and minus the ladder from the first. Just the digital process of creating sound with no extra software takes up alot of resources, especially RAM.

    To give you an example of how much resources Sound Programs use up my Andriod Phone has a separate chipset to digitally process the Dolby effects on sound. That would be considered a "True Sound Card" because it actually relieves my phones cpu of a complicated task, not just convert to analog. The task of soley digitally manipulating sound uses so much resources it still gets its one chipset in some devices.


    I have found one device that could loosely count as a "True Sound Card". As it does add performance to your computer. This is because it processes Bass Boost and Spatial Sound analogue not digitally. Thus removing the need to for your CPU to digitally manipulate the sound. If you dont use Bass Boost or Spatial Sound it wont improve performance because those are the only process it will take it on. So even though the device does not have a designated chipset its still able to do a digital process via analogue saving resources. Even tho, the performance gains are minor at best.

    Im not going to link to it or mention it by name. I dont want to give the appearance this thread is for product placement. I hate advertising like that. "10 Myths about Audio" is actually a 30 minute paid-infomercial on why you need a certain product.
  2. BrightCandle
    Actually cards like the Soundblaster Z do contain a DSP and it does do processing digitally of the audio signal. So the effects the card can add and change are processed on the card with reduced latency and no CPU overhead. There are some things they do that aren't done by the DSP (As far as I know SBX Pro is CPU driven) but that isn't to say they aren't actually sound cards that do processing, they are and they do. Considering you can still play old games with EAX and have the card process that with the special driver support is pretty important to some people as well.

    To the counter the Sennheiser GSX 1000 exposes 7.1 speakers to the computer and then it has a headphone mode on board for its binaural mode. So while most people would consider it an AMP/DAC its actually got processing onboard to do that conversion and its the best of its type currently available and supported. It is a soundcard, but its also plugged in via USB.
  3. gregorio
    Sound Cards do exist. The flaw in your thinking appears to be the erroneous assumption that to convert a digital signal to analog does not require any DSP. It does: The stereo signal has to be de-interlaced into it's two channels, these are then typically oversampled and a reconstruction filter applied. All this occurs in the digital domain BEFORE being output as two analog signals and by definition is Digital Signal Processing (DSP).

    Until the mid-90's or so, computers which had sound capability built-in had 8bit DACs, which were not much good for music replay, so when required, dedicated sound cards were used, which were capable of 16bit. Round about the time consumer computers routinely contained 16bit ADCs/DACs, the music industry had moved on to 24bit audio, again requiring a sound card. The vast majority of sound cards during the '90's and even today, are not just DACs, they're also ADCs and are used by amateur and pro musicians as well as by recording studios/sound engineers. Historically, very few sound cards have ever provided DSP resources for use beyond the internal DSP required for conversion. Certainly none I've ever heard of were/are capable of providing anywhere near the DSP resources required to produce (mix/process) music and it was never the primary (or in most cases, any) concern of the sound card to remove DSP requirements from the host computer, only to improve higher quality conversion and provide more functionality (in terms of inputs/outputs). The DAC chips used inside computers these days are audibly the same sound quality as those used in sound cards, so in terms of audio quality there is far less (and often no) reason to use a dedicated sound card for music playback than there used to be but there are still some reasons why one might require an additional/external sound card, for example:
    A. To provide additional functionality; the support of more input/output channels and/or the native support of certain audio formats for example.
    B. The implementation of DAC chips inside some computers may not be optimal, in terms of noise isolation from the computer's other components for example.

  4. stalepie
    The HRT microStreamer was described on its product page as an "external sound card" but is more commonly thought of as a "dac amp" now.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2017
  5. suburbanite
    Sure they do- if it's a card and it produces sound, you've got yourself a sound card, which includes your motherboard/card which has its (onboard) DAC and AMP.

    I think this question is less about whether sound cards exist- spoiler: they do exist- but whether anyone would bother buying one. That's generally determined by (1) how good or bad your computer's onboard sound is and (2) how fussy you are about sound.

    Obviously, many of the people who hang out on head-fi are the fussy types, myself included, and have and can listen through our computers' onboard sound but we don't want to because, being the fussy types, we just don't like it. We want the sound coming out of our computers to be more (insert desired characteristic here) so we pay to get it.
  6. Sterling2
    This is somewhat of an abstract discussion. For me, I've just perceived the "sound card" all along as simply a means of bringing sound to and from the personal computer experience. Today, I use the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD to take digital sound from laptop to home stereo and to bring digital sound from home stereo to laptop. That's it, problem solved. No need to overthink it. The product gets the job done. Interestingly enough, I also use an Apple Airport Express today for movement of sound from computer to home stereo, since Airplay technology eliminates the wired usb to S/PDIF conversion from laptop to home stereo, giving me convenience, as well as remote control capabilities with iPad or iPhone. One more thing, my laptop does not have analog inputs or outputs so, of course, I need products like the Airport Express and Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD for computer sound to home stereo and/or for LP to CD ripping. BTW, I paid less than a hundred bucks for each of these products. The X-Fi HD delivers at up to 24/96 and the Airport Express up or down samples files to 16/44.1. While I think the X-Fi HD sounds best, I'm not absolutely sure about it. I am sure the sound experience for both is the equivalent of SACD pleasure.
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2018
  7. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    DAC-HPamp(-Preamp) like the AudioGD NFB series has precisely just those - a DAC circuit and a headphone amp circuit (and maybe a preamp).

    A proper soundcard (which by this point is practically any soundcard) has at least a DAC and maybe a headphone amp, but more importantly, the reason why there is such a thing as a soundcard is because it has a DSP. The Digital Signal Processor tweaks the sound before it gets to the DAC chip depending on what the user needs. Nowadays the most common use of soundcards - whether internal or external units (ie external DAC-HPamps that have a DSP, which is why some are called "external soundcards," which sounds kind of stupid since it isn't an expansion card, but that easily distinguishes it from DAC-HPamps) for mITX or mATX SLi systems - is to give gamers Virtual Surround. In many other cases they're for recording but external USB/Firewire interfaces have taken over for those who record through mics rather than line signals as these have better mic preamps.

    DSP means "digital signal processor." Soundcards have this chip to enable such features as virtual surround (which is often the only one getting used - ie by gamers for games as well as movies).

    That said this is not the only way to get that. Some motherboards have an audio circuit built into them that includes DSP. On most of them plus nearly any laptop that isn't for gamers these may have a chip or at least software that can do virtual surround for headphones on movies. Some get the soundcard because they need it for games.

    What invalidates the need for (but not the existence of) the expansion slot soundcards are most Z87 and newer gaming boards that include that DSP (along with a decent DAC and HPamp circuit), helped along by liquid cooling as in the case of the Asus Maximus series' mITX which literally has the audio still on a "card" close to the CPU socket that gets in the way of a tower cooler. At the same time the output impedance on the headphone amp circuits on the soundcards are high anyway so might as well pay an extra $40 for a red motherboard (they're coming up with these in white and all black now) and not have the expansion slot or airflow to one graphics card blocked. Current Sound Blaster AE-5 however has low output impedance and RGB so that's two reasons to get one.

    At the same time virtual surround and EQ can be done by the CPU using software apps but for example I couldn't get Razer Surround to work on movies. Some games have their own virtual surround headphone mode built in, but again, won't work on movies, and some games don't have it at all just yet.

    As for marketing terms the big problem is that soundcard marketing is full of BS that doesn't have anything from the Engineering Department and was just dreamed up by Marketing to appeal to anybody that doesn't understand how these things work. For example instead of plain "High Gain" some soundcard suites label that as "Extreme Pro Competition P4WnD IbangedyourMomlastnight Headphone Mode, >64ohms."

    D. S. P. They have DSP. They don't just offload this to the CPU using only software. If that was possible someone would have already hacked the Creative or Xonar suite to work without the soundcards or the proper motherboards that have the DSP.

    And soundcards also have headphone amp and mic preamp circuits, though the latter is usually not any good if you want your insults to come through loud and clear starting with an AKG condenser mic or even a high sensitivity Shure SM58.

    Specific tasks like virtual surround is still a thing. Though again some motherboards already have the DSP chip that has the same features that work on everything (ie laptops and most prebuilt desktops only have virtual surround for movie apps; they don't work with games), but again that depends on use case.

    For example, given a choice between a high output impedance motherboard and a soundcard, might as well pay $50 more for a gaming board than $60 on a soundcard to take up space inside the case and block multiple GPUs or airflow to one GPU. Or PCI-E storage. Now with teh Sound Blaster AE-5 you get low output impedance on the headphone amp output and to some, RGB is another bonus. Depends really. I'd wait for a lower tier model without RGB but still has the same or comparable amp circuit. In some other cases people might buy an ASRock board for the better cooling but the ones with DSP might not come in the form factor they want (ie mATX), so if they don't need SLI, might as well get a soundcard.

    In any case it's not meant to relieve the CPU, only to do certain things better.

    Games back then didn't have virtual surround or even surround sound either.

    I haven't heard anybody buying a soundcard to help the CPU perform better, they're buying it for the DSP or because the headphone amp circuit on their motherboard sucks.

    As for sound's not even the sound formats like Dolby or whatever. Just Dolby Headphone. Others have something else but basically it's for virtual surround than the format. That's also why some are surprised that certain surround sound on movies don't make it out of the soundcard that can't process it because people don't double check that.

    DSP chips again are a thing. And while the PC has a DAC it may not have the DSP features needed by some users, and in some cases, the headphone amp or even line output sucks on some motherboards and more so laptops that have an output stage that is neither here nor there in terms of powering headphones providing a clean line out (though in the laptops' case a DAC-HPamp will suffice, not a soundcard with DSP).

    They will be once games all come out with virtual surround headphone mode on the sound options, at which point movies' virtual surround can also be handled by software. IIRC some player apps have it, just not sure how much better it is vs dedicated DSPs, but then again, motherboards also have DSPs now. And the low output impedance on a newer card like the AE-5 isn't a problem for higher impedance headphones so one option I'd go with on my next build is just skip the AE-5 and keep using my HD600, use the money on new pads or something. Even if I get the HD58X or HD660S 150ohms isn't as big a problem as with 32ohms.

    Whether the card has a DSP chip on it or you just run software running these apps it doesn't lower your FPS, but some people play better on FPS games with virtual surround. Or just to enjoy immersion. Either way, a benchmark on a game is not the same as a hardcore CPU load benchmark when

    1) Nearly all games have the GPU as the bottleneck.

    2) Even Total War which is CPU-intensive (especially sieges that have to render a lot of environmental elements like walls and buildings that take damage) will not be hurt by running virtual surround, and even if the FPS drops (and you have to repeat the benchmark several times to make sure it's consistent and not margin of error), it's not going to happen on just any CPU. You'd have to be on an i3 or something. It makes no difference on my i7-2600K 3.8ghz (ie OC is basically just permanently running at its boost freq, which gets smoother and more consistent frame rates on TW) and that's from 2011.

    Soundcards might function differently and yes you can go with the correct motherboard but that depends really. When I built that rig in 2012 DSP on motherboards were limited to Dolby Headphone for movies. And again the soundcard wasn't affecting my FPS which was what I used it mostly for other than HDR photo editing, and getting a soundcard was cheaper than a new motherboard. Got a GTX 980 in it after those went on sale when the 1080 came out so it might last me another year before I switch to AM4 and maybe Vega once they sort out the quirks, but by then I might get a motherboard that has the DSP. Even if it has no dedicated chip either since, again, not like my FPS will drop off a hexa-core, multi-threaded CPU running at 4.0ghz with 16gb 3000mhz DDR4. Or maybe I'll go 32gb since some games are already recommending 16gb.

    PM me which one it is and if it has virtual surround and a decent headphone amp I'll short list it on what I'd get for my build next year.

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