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Soundblaster X-Fi or onboard audio?

  • Tom's Hardware
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Last response: in Home Audio
May 13, 2009 6:08:24 AM

Hi Everyone,

New to Tom's Hardware, hope you can help with this question on onboard audio vs. SoundBlaster X-Fi Extreme Music.

I just purchased a Core i7 920 and an Asus P6T (no deluxe, no V2, just the plain P6T). I am running Vista 64-bit Home Premium with 6gb GCZ DDR3 triple-channel RAM. I believe the mobo comes with the Realtek ALC1200 audio chip. However, I have a 3-4 year old Soundblaster X-Fi Extreme Music card. The question is, which should I use?

The mobo has digital out, while the Soundblaster uses analog connectors. I realize the onboard audio might compromise CPU cycles whereas the Soundblaster would clear the CPU to do it's thing without providing audio, right?

The real question is, if you had my two options, which would you use? Realtek onboard digital audio or the Soundblaster X-Fi with analog outputs? I'm not a big gamer, but I play music nearly 100% of the time I'm using my computer for Photoshop and Lightroom, so CPU cycles might be more important to me than digital??

Thanks in advance for your advice!


More about : soundblaster onboard audio

May 22, 2009 12:59:13 AM

I have the same soundcard as you do and I'm planning to buy the same system as yours, give or take (P6T + I7 with 6Gb ram and so on). Also I'm a big fan of music, that was the main reason for me giving 125€ for that soundcard 3 years ago. Although recent boards bring near over-the-top soundcards it will always be an on-board chip so as little as it might be you'll probably have a gain in performance if your sound is processed by an external (non-board) chip as is a PCI soundcard.

And bear in mind that the X-Fi is still the current standard in Creative soundcards. In terms of specs I don't know which has a better sound but in a personal opinion I'd stay with the X-Fi because it's just amzing for someone that spends hours listening to music on a PC (as I or you do), so for me it's worth keeping the X-Fi in spite of it probably isn't PCI-E but plain PCI!
May 22, 2009 3:29:37 AM

Thanks for the reply Androdion, much appreciated! I've just finished building my system, and am listening to some beautiful live guitar in 5.1 sound. I have a computer desk that circles around me, so the rear speakers are just behind each ear and all speakers are the same distance from me. It's a wonderful thing!

And I'm playing it through my X-Fi Extreme Music :) 

You're right, PCI or PCI-E really shouldn't matter, it's not a graphics card or anything, you know?

Best of luck with your system, and thanks for the advice!
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May 22, 2009 11:06:09 AM

You're right, PCI or PCI-E really shouldn't matter, it's not a graphics card or anything, you know?
In the end it's all about a small difference in bus which is faster on PCI-E as it should be. But yes in a soundcard I don't think you'll find many performance issues for being "old" PCI instead of PCI-E.

Cheers, Júlio
July 3, 2009 5:23:37 PM

I consider myself an audiophile, but admittedly I'm not a pro and I don't pretend to be one - I can tell you though that I'm not entirely sure that it's a black and white issue at all. A mediocre soundcard, even if it's expensive or a good brand, can sound flat and give problems, whereas a good quality onboard sound chip can be superb! I use an X-Fi XtremeGamer and I recommend it highly, only because it meets my needs perfectly! Keep in mind, too, that a soundcard is only one piece of the puzzle...the speakers, wires used, equalization settings, etc also play a role. Good luck!
July 3, 2009 10:03:52 PM

Sure, the soundboard is just a part of the equation. But as to what was asked and given my personal experience (I use an X-Fi Extreme Music for over three years now) almost any, if not all, onboard sound chips will probably fall a bit short to it. Even if that's not noticed in playback as this soundcard gives you more than just playback, you can turn your PC into a recording/editing machine for audio samples, be it pro or amateur stuff! It's fact that an onboard chip requires some CPU effort to work (since it's onboard), and that the same chip in a PCI or PCI-E card will release the CPU from the effort of processing the audio engine. Ok we already have I7s running a gazilion operations and that shouldn't be noticeable, at least for playback, but what if you're working on music samples?! IMO it's always better to have a separate card/chip than an onboard one, no matter how good an onboard chip can perform. As I said before it will probably fall short every time. And as to having either an onboard X-Fi chip or a separate PCI/PCI-E X-Fi chip for me it's always better the second. Of course money could be an issue but that wasn't what was asked.

Oh and BTW, equalization is different for every person in the world, some like it sharper, some with more hiss, some with more emphasis on graves or high notes...So equalization always depends on who's listening! In terms of better performance it's more the output device that influences the sound. In this case some good speakers. Alternatively you can have the best speakers in the world and a not-so-good onboard sound chip and your sound will still be far from perfect! ;) 
November 27, 2009 8:51:22 PM

:D  The Truth SB Doesnt want to hear

I will try to put eveything together as much as I can.

First, if anybody wants to use their PC as a HTPC and listen music thrugh their high quality receiver and speker system (I have Harman Kardon Receiver and Infinity Speaker system) I would say dont waste your money with any add on sound card. When I get the sound from my SB Audigy 2 ZS (supposedly has a very good DAC) to receiver with 5.1 analog input, it sound just crapp. Of course if you listen from cheap multi media speaker you will never notice the difference. Any good quailty receiver has way better DAC then those overpriced SB sound cards. All you need to do get a optical cable ( I have AMD785 chipset motyherboard) and use your onboard audio for music application. It will not use any CPU power at all.

For the games, the story is a little bit different. Unfortunatelly I made a mistake and didnt get the motherboard with DDL encoding feature and dont have chance to compare it. Now, I have to use Audigy 2 ZS on Win XP for games and I am not hapy with the result. The sound quaility is far from perfect as some people claim. If I get the sound throgh onboard SPDIF output I can get way better sound quaility but miss the surround. Hopefully we are going to built another rig for my friend and I will use a motherboard with DDL encoding feature and check the difference. I know the onboard card will not support newer EAX's but it is almost a history anyway.

For the people who are concerning with the CPU utilization, I would say it is overly exaggerated. Most games cannot use more than 2 cores anyway and you are going to have 4 cores in your system and worry about sound card CPU usage.

Finally, If you are using anolog output on sub par speaker system, I would say yes SB card are ok. If you have a good receiver and speaker system I would say think twice before using their crapy analog output. Just stick with onboard digital output for music and movie application. The truth; any decent receiver has all the way better DAC than add on and onboard sound card and you can basicall transfer the info through optical, coaxiel or HDMI throuh to you receiver.