It’s been years since I’ve recommended using a sound card in a PC, except for certain niche cases. That doesn’t mean I didn’t use them, just that I didn’t think they were necessary for most users. This stance started with Windows Vista, which is when Microsoft decided to support only software audio, seemingly relegating hardware accelerated Windows sound to the scrapheap of technological history. The ostensible reason was support calls–at one point, Microsoft suggested that over 40% of their support calls for Windows XP were sound card related.
So the sound card faded away, albeit slowly. Creative Labs, the largest manufacturer of sound cards, soldiered on. They were still building their X-Fi cards, but putting a stronger emphasis on OEM deals, speakers, headsets and other gear. Most of the systems I’ve built in recent years lack sound cards, but the current crop of motherboard-integrated codecs aren’t perfect either. Anyone who has struggled with weird audio issues (mostly revolving around Realtek's audio codecs) knows what I mean.
Then I noticed something: the sound card was making a comeback.
It began with Taiwan’s Asustek, well known for its vast array of motherboard products. Asus began shipping a line of cards under the Xonar brand name. While some of the products were low cost cards, most were pretty pricey. I used a Xonar Xense for nearly a year, mostly because it came with a nice Sennheisser analog headset that I still use.
Sound Cards Go Upscale
You can still buy relatively inexpensive sound cards, but the only reason you ever should buy a cheap sound card is if the hardware codec on your motherboard dies. The real reason to buy a discrete sound card today is to improve the overall audio quality. In fact, the new generation of sound cards are designed to appeal to audiophiles, with features like high signal-to-noise ratios, replaceable op-amps and high end DACs (digital-to-analog converters.)
I’ve been testing two high end sound cards, the latest Asus Xonar Essence STX and the new Creative Labs Sound Blaster ZXR. They both have insanely high signal-to-noise ratios. Both claim a 124 dBA S/N ratio, extremely low distortion levels and flat frequency response out beyond the range of human hearing. Asus even supplies a test report inside the box.
Both cards are PCI Express x1 cards that plug into any available PCIe slot. The Asus card requires a dedicated power connector, while the Creative card does not. Here's what I found.
Asus Xonar Essence STX
The Asus card is built around the AV100 audio chip, which is designed around a C-Media audio processor. It’s capable enough, but some of the audio processing is still offloaded to the CPU. In the era of quad-core CPUs, offloading audio isn’t that big a deal.
The Essence is shielded to minimize interference from other PC components. It has a limited set of output ports, including quarter-inch jacks for headphone and microphone, and a pair of RCA stereo line outputs. An RCA-style S/PDIF connector is also present for digital audio output, which is the only way you’ll get multi-channel audio from the STX.
The Essence requires dedicated power from your PC power supply, in the form of a 4-pin Molex-style connector. Pins on top allow you to connect your PC’s front panel audio connector, if you use them. Asus does include an RCA-to-mini-jack adapter for connecting the output to PC speakers. If you’re using the quarter-in jacks, you’ll need to route the headphone and microphone cables to the back of the case.
The Xonar control panel has the usual set of audio modifications, including the (mostly terrible) environmental effects. You can also apply filters to your voice to make it sound different, in case you want to disguise your voice, or just for effect. The STX also supports Dolby Digital, Virtual Speaker and Pro-Logic II, but not DTS. If you want to use the card as an entry level card for recording and mixing music, the Essence includes ASIO drivers.
For gaming, the STX does support Direct3D, and even takes a stab at supporting Creative Labs EAX realtime surround effects. It works well enough, and no one should avoid the card for gaming. Note that if you’re a Windows 8 user, you’ll need to download drivers from the Asus website, as Windows 8 drivers aren’t included on the supplied CD.
Overall, it’s a competent enough card, but at $190, it may be a little too expensive for most users. While its signal-to-noise and headphone amps are excellent, in the end, the Essence STX is a pure sound card and nothing else.
Creative Labs Sound Blaster ZXR
Previous generations of Creative Labs sound cards have been criticized for fairly poor driver quality and bloated accessory software. Mostly, that criticism was well deserved. So when Creative Labs designed the new Z-series cards, they went back to the drawing board. The drivers seem robust, and the overall software package is pretty lean. The card itself comes in two parts; one plugs into an open PCI-e x1 capable slot and the other connects to the main card via a short ribbon cable (taking up another slot on the back of your case). Both the main card and daughtercard include a Sound Blaster Quartet multi-core DSP.
The Quartet DSP is capable of hardware accelerating most audio, but since Windows doesn’t directly support hardware acceleration, Creative needed to create a modular driver architecture to directly support hardware acceleration in applications (like games), but also work as a standard Windows sound source.
The headphone amp is pretty amazing, and will blow out your ears, so watch the volume control.
The Z-Series cards come in three flavors: the basic Z, the ZX and the ZXR. The Z and ZX are essentially the same card. Both have 116 dBA S/N ratios, low distortion levels and flat frequency response out beyond human hearing. Each includes a single Quartet DSP. The ZX includes one of the best audio accessories I’ve ever used, a volume control knob with a built-in beam-forming microphone. (The Z doesn’t have the control pod, but includes a separate mic.) More on the microphone in a bit.
The ZXR is different. The card is rated at a 124 dBA signal-to-noise ratio. It’s got full Burr-Brown DACs throughout, and TI 6120A2 headphone amplifier rated at 120 dBA. The headphone amp is pretty amazing, and will blow out your ears, so watch the volume control.
The main card includes a pair of RCA analog stereo output jacks. An adapter that terminates in a female mini-jack connector is included for connecting to PC speakers. If you have a PC surround sound speaker setup, two additional mini-jacks are on the rear panel for connecting the surround speakers and the subwoofer. The secondary card is for digital audio input and output, and includes both a TOSLINK optical in/out and RCA in/out pairs. Windows 8 drivers are included in the box, as well as Windows 7 drivers. There’s no support currently for Windows XP or Vista.
Also on the main card are a pair of quarter-inch jacks. You can, if you choose, directly connect headphone and microphone to the card. But you really don’t want to do that. Instead, you want to connect the audio control module.
This control pod feels very solid–it’s machined from a single chunk of metal. It extends the two quarter-inch jacks to top top of your desk, and also includes a pair of mini-jacks, in case your headset uses those instead. But I almost never use a headset any longer, because the control pod’s built-in beam-forming microphone is pretty incredible.
I have this sitting adjacent my right stereo speaker on my desk. I use the Sound Blaster Pro Studio control software to narrow the input beam so it picks up my voice, but not the stereo speaker. The setting is under the CrystalVoice tab; just check the “Focus” radio button and adjust the input wedge angle. It works very, very well. I rely on it for Skype and in-game communication. There’s never any feedback from the speakers, and people on the other end just hear my voice, not the audio coming from the speakers. The control pod with beam mic is a thing of beauty.
You can do all the usual stuff with the control software, including modifying your voice, setting up surround sound, adding DSP effects (mostly not very good). One interesting oddity is “Scout Mode”, which amplifies audio cues in a game so you can actually hear enemies further away than you should. It’s actually a kind of cheat, so I just leave it off.
Upgrade Your PC Sound
Which card should you get? The Asus card works great if you’re looking for a pure audio card; it’s a good fit for home theater PCs. But it does require extra power, and the output connections are somewhat limited. The ZXR offers a wider range of features and flexibility, but also costs more, at roughly $250 (versus $190 for the Asus card.)
Of course, if you’re willing to give up a little on the signal-to-noise ratio (116 dBA is still pretty good), you can get the Sound Blaster ZX, which includes the desktop control pod and microphone, but not the digital audio daughtercard. You can find one of those for $150.
What about CPU utilization? I fired up each card in synthesized surround sound mode, the fired up Borderlands 2 on a Core i7 3770K system with Windows 8 Task Manager’s performance monitor running in the background. As I suspected, CPU utilization in games doesn’t really matter. Overall CPU use during extended gameplay never really got much higher than 10% for all gameplay, so any CPU used for audio processing wasn’t all that much a factor. If you’re running a really slow CPU, it might matter a bit, but only a bit. There are other reasons to get a sound card; improving your CPU utilization isn’t one of them.
Sound quality with either card is noticeably better than with an integrated solution. Having lived with hissy audio coming from built-in PC sound, the clean sound from either the Asus card or the Sound Blaster ZXR is a breath of fresh air.
So now I’m running a sound card once again. If you’re a gamer, that beam-forming microphone is almost worth the cost by itself, provided you don’t need to use a headset for privacy reasons, or because you share your room. I haven’t had an audio driver crash, the software is simple to use and the audio output is amazingly clean through both speakers and headphones. Overall, it’s a clear thumbs up–if you’re willing to pay money to upgrade your PC sound.