With the rise of high-quality audio hardware on most motherboards over the last decade, there has been very little demand for dedicated audio hardware. But recently we’ve noticed a few manufacturers bringing dedicated sound cards back, and there are even some new players on the market. HiFi is making a return to the desktop PC space, in part because a growing group of people are adamant that onboard audio is still not good enough. In some ways -- or at least some situations -- I agree. So when EVGA, a company primarily known for graphics cards and power supplies, announced its second Nu Audio sound card, the Nu Audio Pro ($300 at the time of writing), it was time to take one for a spin, see what it can do for your PC’s audio output and figure out who -- if anyone -- should invest in a dedicated sound card in 2020.
EVGA Nu Audio Pro Specs
|Audio DSP||XMOS xCORE-200|
|Dynamic Range (DNR)||Playback: 123dB; Recording: 121dB|
|Analog Playback Format||Up to 192kHz, 32bit (7.1/5.1/4.0); Up to 384kHz, 32bit (2.0)|
|Optical Playback Format||Up to 192kHz, 24bit|
|Recording Format||Line-in: up to 384kHz, 32bit; Mic-in: Up to 192kHz, 24bit|
|RGB Lighting||RGB Multi-Zone with Audio Reactive Lighting|
|Output Configuration||Analog: 7.1/5.1/4.0/2.0 channel Digital: 5.1 Channel|
|Signal-to-Noise||Playback: 123dB; Recording: 121dB|
|Headphone Amp||16-600 Ohms|
|I/O||Stereo out; Surround out (3x 3.5mm); Headphone Out (6.3mm); Line-In (3.5mm); Mic-In (3.5mm); Optical Out (TOSLINK Passthrough)|
|Interface||PCIe x1 Gen2, Mini DisplayPort|
|Power Connector||1x SATA|
|Supported OS||Windows 10 64-bit|
What’s Wrong With Modern Motherboard Audio?
If you’re buying a new motherboard for your PC today, chances are that it comes with onboard audio that’s at least pretty good. If it’s a higher-end board, it likely has audio circuitry that’s isolated from the rest of the mainboard, has Japanese capacitors, a very high signal-to-noise ratio, a headphone amplifier that can drive headphones with up to 600 Ohm impedances and a collection of invented branding terms in an attempt to convince you that this specific motherboard has all the audio hardware you’ll need. Marketing fluff aside, that mid-to-high-end board probably does have all the audio hardware required for good sound output.
For testing, I used the Gigabyte Aorus AX370 Gaming 5 motherboard, which touts a 120dB signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), dual smart headphone amplifiers, dual ALC 1220 DACs and Sound Blaster X-Fi MB5 software. All this is packaged into Gigabyte’s “Amp-Up Audio” branding.
The touted120 dB SNR is an impressive figure, and only marginally lower than the EVGA Nu Audio ($150 at the time of writing), which touts an SNR of 123dB. You can sometimes notice the difference between those two numbers. The ‘signal’ is the sound you’re meant to hear, with the ‘noise’ being unintentional noise made by the hardware, such as hissing, electrical interference, white noise or buzzing. If you’ve ever turned your speaker’s volume knob up all the way without any music playing, you’ll know what I’m talking about. At the aforementioned high SNR ratios, these ‘bad’ noises should be so silent that they’re essentially inaudible at normal listening levels
The problem, however, is that motherboard vendors measure their SNR figures under optimal conditions that are nothing like the way you’ll actually use the motherboard. There’s no graphics card or unnecessary components installed, as many features as possible are turned off, they use a power supply with the cleanest power delivery -- you get the picture. As soon as you use that motherboard in a real-life scenario you can suddenly introduce heaps of electrical interference to the system, which can slaughter the SNR figure. Put your graphics card under load by firing up a game and you’ll really be giving your onboard audio some grief. Think about it: The inside of your PC, electrically, is a very busy place which can cause audible interference.
The Cleanliness of the Signal
However, the Gigabyte motherboard used does a good job at keeping the signal clean, and when using it I’m hard-pressed to hear any noise through my headphones. I can turn the volume up all the way and get some noise out of them for sure, but that’s at volume levels that would make my ears bleed the moment I hit play.
Your experience may vary, and the SNR is as much a function of the codec, in our motherboard’s case the Realtek ALC1220. as it is of the motherboard vendor’s implementation and the components used around it, and there are lots of complaints on various forums about users having issues with different motherboards using the same codec. On an aging Lenovo T440s notebook, I’ve often found that any load on the system will create audible noise. There’s even a specific noise associated with scrolling in a web browser.
A sound card like EVGA’s Nu Audio Pro takes the audio circuitry physically off the motherboard and shields it in a metal casing that’s effectively a faraday cage. The card also comes with its own power circuitry to clean up the power delivery to the digital-to-analog converter (DAC, which I’ll touch on shortly) and headphone amplifier.
What About Signal Quality?
The second problem with onboard audio is the quality of the signal. Even under ideal circumstances with a very clean signal, the quality or accuracy of the signal is dependent on the DAC. In most onboard audio solutions, there is some variation of a Realtek DAC, and our Aorus AX370 Gaming 5 uses the Realtek ALC1220, which is a very popular that’s used in lots of motherboards by many companies.
While the implementation on the Gigabyte motherboard keeps the signal pretty clean, there is better quality to be here. While this chip’s sound quality is much higher than it used to be for onboard audio, once you’ve heard audio from a high-quality source through a dedicated DAC for an extended period of time, you’ll realize that the ALC1220 just doesn’t bring music to life the same way. The highs don’t sound as crisp or clear, vocals lack a certain depth and realism, and bass can sound a little muddy. In contrast, a great DAC can bring out detail in music you hadn’t heard before, while the detail you could hear can present with further refinement.
To fix both these issues, you’ll have to use a higher-quality DAC or multiple DACs where applicable, a better headphone amplifier, use power circuitry that cleans up the provided power and shield the whole lot from external electrical interference. Of course, that’s no easy task to do on a motherboard, which is where the Nu Audio Pro sound card comes in.
I think the most likely person to buy a sound card right now is probably a streamer or somebody with a podcast.
Most the audiophiles I know would never buy a $200 sound card... It could be the highest quality thing in the world, but it would somehow sound too "cheap" for them.
Using optical out from the motherboard to the Amp.
Using HDMI from the GPU to an amp. Yes, I know that many stereo amps don't have HDMI in, there are good quality amps that do.
years ago i invested in a sound blaster Z + a 2nd hand audiophile headphones (philips Fidelio X2)
400$ CAN total and I have never been more pleased. beats out my old kit from like 15 years ago (creative megawork 550 + audigy ZS set).
good heaphones feels like the noise is coming from reality. it's doesn't feel like you are wearing a pair of headphones.
as for the review, i would have like to see it compared to say a sound blasterZ wich is 2-3 times cheaper.
Long time lurker (~10+ years).
What has happened to this website? It used to be the holy mecca of hardware reviews.
Who DOESN'T need a sound card?
Look at the board youre testing. Only manchildren buy these things (Yes, $200 boards are worthless). Everyone will see a substantial benefit with a sound card. Ive had Asus STX I for a few years now and it is a total game changer. Its amazing how you play it off as if a motherboard will EVER come close to a dedicated sound card - It wont. A sound card isnt priced out of peoples budgets. Nor are a pair of quality cans.
You spend 2-3x as much on a high quality video setup as you would with a high quality audio setup.
Changed? Sound cards haven't changed much at all. There haven't been many sound card releases whatsoever in the past ten years. What are you referring to? Pointless filler comments? What is this. How are you even an administrator on this website?
Totally incorrect. Have you ever even used a sound card? Or a motherboard? Or do you exclusively buy $200+ boards which I guarentee you still cannot come anywhere close.
Anyone that knows better will buy into a high quality audio setup.
This is because sound cards are typically reserved for games, and DACs are reserved for music. DACs are pretty much isolated from all electrical noise and I've never seen one set up for more than 5.1.
Sound cards on the other hand are able to drive 7.1, and are used for video games.
An "audiophile" isn't judging the sound quality based on a game. The game would more than likely be the limited factor in 99% of the case.
This seems like the only post thats worth reading. Even the entire article. Throw it out. Put someone in charge who knows what theyre talking about.
This website has really lost its credibility the last few years.
You may want to consider an AE-5. The white AE-5 is on Amazon for $135 over here, so there might be a source over there for them at a similar price point.
Cool story, bro!