Buying A Sound Card
Being an audio geek and all, I feel that this guide is long overdue. There is just so many misconceptions flying around on how to select the right sound card. Before I start though, I am going to emphasize two schools of thought here :
- gaming, where the frame rate (frames per second or fps), directional accuray and environmental sound effects in a game is paramount, and
- audiophile, where sound quality and high fidelity comes are the most important factors.
Now that we have that cleared up, let's get on with this piece!
Ahh, audio performance has to be the most subjective thing ever. Even worse than wine tasting or snail racing, although I might be wrong about the latter! Let's start with audio performance in gaming.
Frames Per Second (FPS)
This is the measure of how fast the game visuals are rendered on your monitor, literally the number of frames displayed per second. If this number is low, your game will feel more like a slideshow than an actual game. If this is high, the game will feel much more fluid and more realistic. For competitive gamers, high frame rates could mean the difference between fragging someone and getting fragged.
So how does a sound card get mixed up with such "graphic" issues anyway? Take a look at it this way. Audio signals need to be processed by the processor. The more time a processor spends on processing audio signals, the less time it has to make the game go really, really fast! Sound cards with dedicated audio processors help alleviate this by taking over audio processing, lightening the load on the poor processor and helping your game go even faster.
Now, how do we see if one sound card is better than the other at improving your FPS? Well, where else is better to test game frame rates than the games themselves? Just run them and compare their frame rates with and without the sound card. Games tested should have full support for the sound card you're planning to buy, because not all games use the DirectSound API which is required for hardware-based audio processing. Half-Life 2 is a good example of such a game.
Other than games, you can also use 3DMark's built-in sound card benchmark to get an FPS score. Alternatively, just check out the sound card reviews online. Many reviews will list an FPS scores, especially for sound cards targeted at gamers.
This number tells you how much CPU cycles (in percentage) is used by the sound card to process the audio data. For this, I use one of my favourite sound card benchmarking utilities - Right Mark Audio Analyzer (RMAA). To be exact, I use its Right Mark 3DSound test suite.
The Right Mark 3D sound results should come in peak percentages. Obviously, the lower the number, the better. This means the sound card is offloading the task of processing the audio data from the CPU. If your sound card has a high CPU utilization, the more work is being done by the CPU. For an example of the test results, take a look at our review of the Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card.