Last month during QuakeCon near Dallas, Texas in the United States it became clearly apparent to me that computer audio has become somewhat of a forgotten component in the computer industry when talking to gamers and listening to companies at the gaming event.
When nVidia released the mighty onboard SoundStorm APU (Audio Processing Unit) back with their nForce chipset for the Athlon XP platform, gamers and general PC enthusiasts around the world were thrilled and thought they were in for a change for the years ahead as far as cinematic quality computer audio goes. It seems like they were wrong though as nVidia basically confirmed at QuakeCon that the hardware powered SoundStorm APU which is the only sound solution capable of encoding Dolby Digital (or AC-3) on the fly would not be part of the upcoming nForce4 chipset. When nVidia let this news out to gamers in the crowd, it was clear that the group was thoroughly disappointed.
Not only was the nVidia SoundStorm APU the only sound solution capable of encoding Dolby Digital on the fly (which produces true and accurate 5.1 surround sound via either optical or digital coaxial cable to a set of computer speakers supporting these connections or to an external amplifier), it was also hardware accelerated meaning it does not chew up precise CPU cycles like other inferior onboard solutions which in turn reduces frames per second and do not have the ability to send separate digital signals to anymore than two channels. You'll get 5.1 sound using three analog cables but this type of setup is nowhere near as impressive or realistic as what the SoundStorm produces.
But you might as well forget about high quality and impressive sound solutions such as the SoundStorm as nVidia and their motherboard partners in Taiwan don't seem to think this type of quality sound solution is important to consumers. If you can't justify spending hundreds of dollars on an external PCI sound card from companies like Creative, Phillips or Terratec (which is very understandable), also taking into account that all these sound solutions don't offer on the fly hardware encoding of Dolby Digital, you'll need to stick with the cheap and nasty onboard solutions from companies such as Cmedia and Realtek. While these onboard solutions have improved a little over the past few years as far as CPU utilization and general sound quality production goes, computer users deserve much better.
Steve (our news poster and resident SoundStorm expert) and I collected a total of five different sound solutions including onboard SoundStorm via the ABIT NF7-S motherboard, Terratec Sixpack 5.1+, Sound Blaster Live! Value, Sound Blaster Audigy2 ZS Platinum Pro and a cheap Cmedia 8738 PCI sound card. We have then compared the true real-world performance (as hard as it was) of all five sound cards in a bunch of today's most popular games over an entire weekend via an expensive high-end Onkyo digital receiver and 5.1 Jamo speaker system . We'll present the benchmark numbers to you and the struggles involved in doing so as well as provide commentary along the way on our thoughts of computer audio solutions and what should be done.
It's the forgotten computer component but we are hoping today we can help kick start the revival of computer audio for the better, highlighting a few key points which seem not important to most of the design and manufacturing leaders in the industry.
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