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PC Sound – The Evolving Sound of Battle in Combat Gaming - Part 3: Beginning of the End

By Andy Mills, 29 October 2012

Stunning the free world with a particularly-quick follow-up, Andy returns as the SOUND GUY™ for PC audio.

The Windows XP operating system, which was released in 2001, played a critical role in shaping the future of PC audio. Using a built-in reporting system, Microsoft was able to obtain timely and reliable user information on PC crashes-to-desktop (CTDs). As Microsoft analyzed this data, it discovered that accelerated audio was the number one reason for CTDs and a myriad of other PC issues.

A Question of Quality

By the late 1990’s most motherboard manufacturers were including integrated ethernet and sound hardware into their products. Onboard sound was implemented under the Audio Codec ‘97 standard which was developed by Intel in, you guessed it, 1997 (note: a codec is a software program that allows for the decoding of compressed sound files to produce audio). Over twenty vendors began producing onboard audio solutions, including companies like VIA, RealTek, Yamaha, C-Media, and Sigmatel. In 2001, integrated audio was still of poor quality, suffered from “dropouts,” excessive noise and a very limited feature set when compared to a discrete sound card. Aside from these disadvantages, the biggest problem with onboard sound was that it used performance sapping, host-based (CPU) processing to produce audio.

Gamers and gearheads alike realized that having a stand-alone sound card was the best option for quality audio. The biggest sellers were the SoundBlaster Live! and Audigy Series of cards (all 17 variants). These high quality parts featured dedicated audio acceleration hardware and digital signal processing. By offloading audio processing chores from the CPU, these cards allowed for higher video frame rates and increased overall system performance. Add to this combination a rich set of features (such as Dolby digital playback, 7.1 surround sound and an Input/Output drive panel) and it was easy to see why the soundcard was a superior solution.



Back in 2000 the author bought a newly released ASUS K7M. He discovered it was a high-performance motherboard with low-performance onboard sound.


The (Somewhat Ironic) Silent Revolution

Circa 2005 a silent revolution began to take place under the noses of most gamers. Due to a combination of factors, integrated audio began to silently capture an ever increasing share of the PC audio market. One of these factors was that integrated audio hardware had evolved to the point where quality was no longer an issue. Integrated audio was now “good enough” and most gamers couldn’t tell the difference between onboard solutions or a sound card. It was also not uncommon for integrated audio to have surround sound, a variety of input and output jacks along with other options that were previously only found on discrete sound cards. The introduction of powerful multi-core CPUs in later years rendered the issue of host-based dependency a moot issue. The move by motherboard manufacturers to decrease the number of PCI slots also worked against the use of sound cards, as the majority of Creative Labs products were still utilizing the PCI bus at this point. Integrated audio had finally reached a point where it had all the features that gamers (along with mainstream users) wanted and the cost was included in the price of the motherboard. It was a hard deal to beat.

Trust No One

I’m sure conspiracy theorists talk about Microsoft and the death of the sound card at all of their annual meetings – and they might be onto something. Many gamers believe that the tech giant wanted to eliminate sound cards because of the driver glitches that led to problems with their Windows XP operating system. When Microsoft released Windows Vista in 2007, it decided not to support accelerated audio. This move was a shot in the arm for integrated audio solutions and removed the only significant advantage enjoyed by discrete sound cards.

Tooth and Nail

The new Millennium was not kind to the sound card. The widespread proliferation of integrated audio carved a narrow niche for the former king of sound. Creative Labs, who almost exclusively owned the sound card market, attempted to maintain market share with a variety of new products, programming and hardware. Creative Labs worked with industry partners to create Open Audio Library (OpenAL) source code. OpenAL, was an application programming interface (API), which allowed creative products to use accelerated audio in non-supported environments. OpenAL also provided secondary support in the form of software-only sound processing if hardware acceleration was not possible. While Creative Labs was marketing OpenAL to game developers, it was also working to create stable drivers with EAX (Environmental Audio Extensions) and enhanced functionality. The last part of this three prong attack was to introduce the new powerful E-Mu20K1 chip. All of Creative Labs’ efforts culminated in a product called the SoundBlaster X-Fi. The X-Fi die was now cast and the future of the sound card hung in the balance. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.



The Sound Blaster X-FI with THX certification


The Hear and Now

Despite the best efforts of Creative Labs, the sound card has become a marginalized piece of hardware. OpenAL has not been updated since 2008 and EAX is a barely relevant technology. What remains of the sound card market is now mostly populated by variants of the SoundBlaster X-Fi and Xonar series from ASUS. While some gamers still swear by discrete sound, others swear at the driver problems associated with stand-alone cards. Most gamers now view onboard sound as the most convenient and cost-effective form of PC audio. Sound cards have become an optional item and these products are aimed at either the budget crowd who needs a sound card for some reason or high-end power users that don’t mind paying big money for a formidable audio processor. The mid-range card, which accounted for the majority of sales in the past, has disappeared. This is evidenced by the fact that popular PC gaming and hardware sites very rarely, if ever, review sound cards - a sure sign that the discrete sound card is now passing into the annals of gaming history.



High-end sound cards, such as those in the Sound Blaster Z series, cost in excess of $200.00


The Sound of the Future

The decline of the discreet sound card has left Creative Labs weakened and other companies are taking this opportunity to re-enter the PC audio market. Industry heavyweights like Astro, Logitech, Razor, Turtle Beach, and Sennheiser (who are well-known in the music production market) have all released high quality surround sound speaker systems and gaming headsets. The majority of these systems are designed to work with integrated audio, soundcards or stand-alone USB connections. Specialized speaker packages and gaming headsets, some with up to 8 internal speakers, are providing a convincing surround sound experience. These latest products also feature wireless connections, enhanced streaming capabilities and noise cancelling technology which has raised the bar in the battle for PC audio supremacy. The future of PC audio is sounding good for PC gamers!

Read part 1 here >>

Read part 2 here >>

Discuss it in our forums >>

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