Radeon R9 290X Review: AMD's Back In Ultra-High-End Gaming

TrueAudio: Dedicated Resources For Sound Processing

We covered TrueAudio in AMD Radeon R9 280X, R9 270X, And R7 260X: Old GPUs, New Names. What follows comes from that piece, with one important correction: AMD let us know that its R7 260X features three HiFi2 EP Audio DSP cores, rather than two. The higher-end R9 290 and 290X also sport three cores.

If you followed along with AMD’s tech day webcast, then you sat through a lot of TrueAudio discussion. In fact, given the amount of time dedicated to TrueAudio, the feature seemed like it’d be the day’s emphasis.

At the event, we were hearing the partner demos across eight channels, and the positional audio was certainly discernable, if not overwhelmingly busy (on purpose, no doubt). But we all know that 7.1- and even 5.1-channel sound setups outside of a home theater are very uncommon. Two- and 2.1-channel configurations, including headsets, are far more common. Unfortunately, it didn’t sound like anyone tuned in over Livestream was hearing the same output over stereo.

For anyone who was around in the late ‘90s to hear Aureal’s and Sensaura’s technologies, before both were acquired by Creative, you know that the head-related transfer functions used to create effective positional audio over two channels are not new. The point of TrueAudio is to facilitate more complex sound effects (those HRTFs aren’t computationally free) without burdening the host processor. Today, AMD says that audio gets as much as 10% of a game’s CPU utilization budget, limiting what developers can do. But with TrueAudio, AMD wants to guarantee the availability of real-time processing resources specifically for sound, and regardless of the host CPU you have installed.

This is achieved through the Tensilica HiFi2 EP Audio DSP cores mentioned on the previous page. In the R7 260X, there are three cores integrated on the Bonaire GPU. The higher-end R9 290 and 290X will also feature three DSP cores dedicated to TrueAudio. Those DSPs employ Tensilica’s Xtensa ISA with fixed- and floating-point number support, which AMD says is equally useful for high-end gaming and embedded applications. Because the DSP is programmable by nature, you can really feed anything you want into it, so long as there’s a decoder available. To that end, the professional audio software vendors are purportedly showing an interest, eager to see what dedicated hardware can do that host-based processing couldn’t.

The real-time nature of audio in a gaming environment means that fast access to compute cycles and memory is imperative, even if the cores themselves aren't particularly powerful. Each one includes 32 KB of instruction and data cache, along with 8 KB of scratch RAM. A fast routing interface connects the DSPs to 384 KB of shared internal memory organized in 8 KB banks. The local resources are fed by a multi-channel DMA engine able to keep the cores busy. And up to 64 MB of frame buffer memory is addressable through a low-latency bus interface shared with the display pipeline.

One of the first questions that came to mind upon hearing about TrueAudio was, “will game developers, already strapped for time and money as they get their titles to market, put resources into sound when there’s so much going on in graphics, physics, and AI?” AMD seems to think that the impact on ISVs will be minimal, though. Because a majority of developers are utilizing middleware for their audio, TrueAudio needs support from those companies first and foremost. Once you get support in Audiokinetic and Firelight’s FMOD, detecting and utilizing TrueAudio becomes much easier. From there, the feature exerts its influence before getting handed off to a codec, and is consequently compatible with any output type.

What about the fact that AMD is only making TrueAudio available across three products, two of which aren’t even available yet? Representatives say that AMD has to start somewhere with TrueAudio, and this is simply the first public airing. I’d add that high-end graphics cards, destined for high-end PCs also don’t need audio effects acceleration as much as less powerful platforms. But you can guess where this is going: expect the same technology to start showing up in AMD’s APUs and mobile GPUs, which are less powerful and might even realize power benefits from accelerating audio.

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  • beta212
    That's incredible. Especially at high res, I wonder how they do it. But the low price alone is enough to blow the competition away. Seriously think about it, it's around half the price for higher performance!
    - AMD: We're not aiming for the ultra high end.
    I think Nvidia just got trolled.
  • slomo4sho
    Great price point. This card has already broken world records just a few hours after release!

  • esrever
    2 of these for 4k looks amazing but Im a little disappointed by the power consumption when you crank up performance.
  • aznguy0028
    I was thinking about hopping on the 7970ghz when it's on sale, but after seeing this, it's time to break apart the piggy bank for the 290x, what value!
  • Benthon
    Like the conclusion said, you just can't argue about aesthetics and thermals at this price point/performance. Well done AMD, lets see team green's response! Go consumer!
  • tuklap
    This is awesome for us ^_^
  • Shankovich
    Wow, and it's pegged at 73% too. Even if nVidia's "780ti" beats the 290X, it probably won't beat a 290X running at full power. And if mantle does make some big performance boosts, nVidia is going to be in a really tight spot. Looking forward to what they'll do. In the mean time, loving this competition! We all win in the end.
  • julianbautista87
  • anxiousinfusion
    Wait the 290 X... X? is going to be $550?! Forgive me, padre for I have sinned.
  • Darkerson
    Good job, AMD!
  • jkhoward
    I just purchased this card from Newegg.
  • CaptainTom
    Wow AMD. GG! You exceeded every possible expectation! Have fun with your GTX 780 Ti Fanboys!!!!!
  • ilysaml
    Time to Upgrade my HD 6950 to 290X, and my 1080P to 2500x Monitor.
  • lt_dan_zsu
    I've never been more blown away by a hardware review. Never have I seen a gpu beat another gpu at just over half the cost.
  • DarkForce_256
    So what's the deal with the 290?
  • shin0bi272
    it always tickles the hell out of me when an amd card ties or about ties an nvidia card in one game then in an nvidia physx game the amd kicks the crap out of the nvidia card... Of course if you know why that happens in metro you know its more of a fault of the coders not physx but its still funny.
  • jimmysmitty
    $550 is not bad for the fact that it beats the 780 easily and even pressures the Titan.

    Most of the higher resolution gaming wins come from the larger memory bandwidth and of course more vs the 780.

    That's a good sign. Maybe NVidia will drop prices and push this to $400-$450 and I will pick one up when there is a Vapor-X version of course,
  • markbro89
    Where to buy?! Newegg still says coming soon D:
  • DarkForce_256
    So what's the deal with the 290?
  • BigMack70
    Thank goodness AMD had some sense with the pricing. Finally, at long last, Nvidia can stop raping consumers' wallets due to lack of competition.

    This is win-win-win for everyone (except maybe Nvidia).

    Hope we never have to deal with a $1000 single GPU fiasco again. Good riddance.
  • harmaatukka
    I'm not sure if this is meaningful or not when it comes to benchmarking, but in real world running Skyrim over 60 fps breaks the physics of the game. The game becomes unstable with objects flying randomly around and things falling from the sky. The game may CTD as soon as in the starting sequence because you may fly out of the cart.
  • haro87
    Ill wait for the better cooling solutions to come out... seems like to get the most out of the cards cooling is the key
  • richmondHeights
    $550 for the R9 290X... You go red team! "Om nom nom"... that's the sound of Jen Hsun Huang eating his shoes. He's had 7 months to reap in profits for the high end gamer market. Now it's time to lower prices across the board. I'm hoping the GTX 780 gets lowered to $500 and Titan lowered to $650.

    Where will the GTX 780Ti fit? We'll be watching you for the the response nVidia. It better be good or you'll get creamed.

    It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!
  • designasaurus
    As usual, AMD has a poor reference cooler. Also as usual, I expect the non-reference boards the manufacturers come up with to solve this issue handily. Sapphire, Asus, etc. will solve this card's weaknesses and charge $0-20 extra for the privilege - still a good deal if you have the patience to wait a bit.