Whatever happened to PC soundcards?

7th Feb 2010 | 08:00

Whatever happened to PC soundcards?

How this once essential component became a niche product

Where did all the soundcards go?

When I was a lad, it was all soundcards 'round here. Now a trip to your local PC emporium's a very different experience. You'll find a handful of cards pitched at pro-gamers, a couple of USB interface devices and lots of speakers. Speakers and headphones. Aisles of them stretching as far as the eye can see, like that bit in The Matrix.

Okay – we exaggerate – but only a bit. The PC audio industry has turned topsy-turvy. Where once the soundcard was an essential component in every system, it now seems like an afterthought – if it's included at all. Check out a cross section of ready built systems aimed at Joe Public; like Dell's Studio XPS range.

They're high performance desktop PCs aimed at power users, shipping with Windows 7 Ultimate and up to 16GB of dual channel memory, but with integrated audio by default.

Or there's the Mesh's Matrix Pro PII 955, it's great for gaming with 8GB of memory and 512MB ATI Radeon graphics but with 7.1 audio built into the Asus multimedia motherboard.

Where did the soundcard go?

The ability to upgrade PC hardware has long been one of the platform's most appealing aspects. Memory and storage can be slotted in at will. Even CPU upgrades are no longer the rocket science they once were. So what's happened to the soundcard? When did they become so scarce and why?

We already had some ideas of our own. The switch from XP to Vista then Windows 7 seemed to play its part. Integrated audio is looking pretty good these days, too. To confirm our speculation, we spoke to a panel of industry experts; bigwigs in the world of PC audio production. They paint a picture of an industry that's very far from being sent to the knackers' yard. In fact, it's looking healthier than ever.

For some, the shift in attitude towards PC audio can be traced back to the release of Windows Vista and DirectX 10 in 2006. In the previous versions, DirectSound: the API layer between the software on your machine and your soundcard directly communicated with the hardware through its drivers. In Vista, this functionality was radically altered so that DirectSound ran in emulation mode instead, as a software process.

The immediate result was that apps requiring hardware acceleration took a performance hit. Games with DirectSound3D sound went silent, DVD soundtracks didn't play back properly, mixing was glitchy and effects were dry.

Gamers' frustration

Reading through messages left on gaming boards revealed much more than leet speak and bad punctuation. There was a lot of frustration, not only with Microsoft, but with soundcard manufacturers for a response to the issue that was perceived as slow.

Considering that the Universal Audio Architecture deployed in DirectX 10 had been around on paper since 2002 – and had even been implemented previously in the 2004 release of Windows 2000 SP4 – that frustration may have had some foundation. Three years down the line, what's the state of play?

Microsoft hasn't budged on the issue. It's following a decade long plan to help standardise audio hardware support, after all. Windows 7 and DirectX 11 still emulate DirectSound in software. But, audio component developers have caught up and, more significantly, have even made strides to correct legacy game behaviour on Vista and Windows 7.

"When we transitioned from XP to Vista, we came up with a utility called Creative ALchemy that intercepted DirectSound calls and rerouted them to OpenAL APIs, which has direct access to the hardware," says Steve Erickson, VP of Audio at Creative Labs, "That solution is still relevant for Windows 7. We provided that as a free service to anyone who owns our (legacy) products, so that they would have a good experience going forward".

Good for the industry?

Some manufacturers even say that the change that began with Vista has been a good thing for the industry. Asus make discrete soundcards and motherboards with integrated audio, so are well placed to survey the market from the top and the bottom.

"In Vista and Win7 - everyone's at the same starting point," says Asus spokesperson, Iain Bristow, "Even in XP, the CPU resource required by audio is so little that the difference isn't noticeable". Referring to benchmarks that show little difference in response time between hardware accelerated systems and CPU reliant audio, Bristow says it makes little sense for gamers to chase nanoseconds of latency.

"The key to great gaming experience is sound quality, which Asus provides consistently throughout all of our sound products".

Altec Lansing is well known for its speaker solutions. Adrian Bedggood, who oversees PC audio for the company in Europe is in agreement with his competitors at Asus: "Windows Vista did make significant changes to the handling of audio within Windows OS. Over the long course, this will allow more integration of software with the sound system allowing new features and convenient function".

Integrated audio

Arguably, the changes in the PC audio market go back much further. There have been sound chips on mobos since the first PCs, but it wasn't until 1997, with the introduction of Intel's AC97 codec that it became feasible to drive game audio and music apps with an onboard chip:

"Integrated audio is a reality. It's been like that for over 10 years now," says Steve Erickson. Rather than seeing it as a threat to the soundcard, the Creative Labs VP thinks that integrated audio is just another segment of the market.

"If I'm going to play a first person shooter, I'm probably going to use a discrete soundcard, because the graphics load is still very high, to get a good game experience".

"We also deal directly with PC OEM producers like Acer, Asus, MSI. We provide them with the software stack that goes on their motherboards to give them functionality that's similar to our high-end soundcards, but that runs in software. From a consumer perspective it's good no matter what they have; it just depends on what their desire is".

Motherboard

Predictably, developers who have more of an invested interest in onboard audio are a little more bullish. IDT (Integrated Device Technology) make PC audio chips with up to 10 audio channels, with Windows Logo Program certification.

"Even for demanding gamers, the integrated audio on modern PCs is normally more than adequate," says Pietro Polidori, an IDT Vice President overseeing Europe, the Middle East and African markets, "The IDT High Definition Audio products are developed specifically for major PC manufacturers, who then integrate them onto their motherboards. It's hard to understand the need for a separate soundcard for any mainstream app".

The growth of USB audio

The difference between the graphics and sound markets is at its most pronounced in the field of I/O devices. Sure, there are discrete devices and specialist cards for getting sound into PCs, but they're not as mainstream as the market for USB audio.

"We've seen a huge insurgence of people wanting USB," says Steve Erickson, "People want 5.1, for instance, but they can't get it out of their laptop, or they want to have an optical connection, or they want an extra line control or an extra headphone jack. Sales for USB headsets in gaming are definitely growing, too".

"That plays into the type of games that are really popular today, the MMO type stuff, World of Warcraft, the FPS high-end graphics stuff these are more of a headphone experience". In the music sector too, USB break-out boxes, audio interfaces and external sound modules continue to be popular.

Plantronics

Creative Labs identify home recording hobbyists as an important sector driving demand for these devices. "That's really a connectivity thing. It's quarter inch versus eighth inch, digital I/O versus analogue. That we do see more and more growth in".

The same can be said of more casual users; people who might want to route their PC through their hi-fi or digitise their collection of 80s vinyl records. USB connectivity offers them a convenient way to get audio in and out of their PCs. Unlike gamers, many of them are more reluctant to build a special rig dedicated to a single purpose. USB can offer ports that onboard audio just can't.

Reading between the lines, we're getting a picture here of a market that was once in thrall to the soundcard in the same way it is to add-on graphics, but that is now fragmenting. It's breaking up into power users and mainstream punters; pros and hobbyists. The soundcard is becoming specialist kit.

Beyond stereo

This wasn't supposed to happen. The soundcard was supposed to get more sophisticated at the high end, with volume producers churning out basic boards at the bottom end. Our PCs were supposed to become media centres, serving video and multi-channel audio to every room in the house.

While this is still the vision of the industry (just look at those new Windows 7 adverts) it isn't something consumers have been adopting. We still have discrete PCs for different jobs. And, although 5.1 and 7.1 are built into many PCs, gamers are in broad agreement that 3D stereo is all they need.

"And I would say that for gaming that's not necessarily a bad thing," says Steve Erickson, "We're able to do stuff with multi-channel virtualisation that's really amazing. We can make the brain think that sound is coming from behind it, just with stereo headphones".

As for anything higher than 5.1, Erickson is sceptical about how useful that is. "It's funny, there's always the feature thing you have to do – 7.1 has always been that. I think Creative, Logitech and a couple of others had a 7.1 speaker system at one time, but no one's really sold one for the last two or three years".

For Erickson, who admits that home cinema has "stayed flat" for Creative Labs, the motivation for offering 7.1 and higher multi-channel audio isn't a quest for the ultimate sound experience: "It doesn't really cost anything, you just add an extra output," says Erickson. "In reality, users gravitate towards 5.1, whether it's for watching movies etc".

Altec Lansing, with a great deal of continued investment in surround sound and multi-speaker audio, have a different take: "Sometimes high volume, late night gaming is best enjoyed 'privately'. However, high SPL (Sound Pressure Level) audio is more than just an experience for the ears," says Adrian Bedggood,

"The entire body experiences sound, and the ear itself uses many cues from the room, reflections and the body to shape the sonic experience. While headphones do provide a terrific experience of isolation, we think projected sound at all the SPL levels with a loudspeaker provides the ultimate in 'immersion'."

Market demand

Adrian says there's still a lot of innovation to come in the surround sound market, citing height channels as one particular feature that gamers should be embracing: "There are now a wide variety of surround schemes with as many as 9.2 channels".

X-Fi champ

Overall, the industry experts admit that the demand for soundcard upgrades is on the wane. They just disagree about the reasons why. Creative Labs are still leaders in the sector, with most of the gamers we spoke to sporting Creative kit in their systems; the majority choosing one of the company's Vista and Windows 7 compatible X-Fi models.

"I would say the demand for discrete soundcards has gone down, but USB solutions have climbed about the same rate, says Steve Erickson. "The overall number of units is about the same – it's just that the mix has changed".

Integrated chip maker IDT would like to lay a greater claim to the decline in the soundcard market though. It is, they say, because onboard sound is now just as good. "The demand for soundcards has fallen because the quality of integrated solutions has increased dramatically," says IDT Vice President Pietro Polidori.

"This hasn't happened with graphics, as there is no sign of integrated graphics providing the performance of add-in cards, but for PC audio it's game over: there's no need for a separate card".

Whichever camp you side with, a cursory look at online stores tells you that there are fewer soundcards available than there were five years ago. Fewer manufacturers too. But that doesn't mean PC audio is dead.

Our experts suggest that there are now more types of user, all with different demands. Gamers and home cinema enthusiasts, music fans and home recording hobbyists. These, in turn, are subdivided according to spending power and enthusiasm into smaller and smaller groups, each with their own tailored part of the market.

When a sector fragments to this extent, two kinds of developer survive: volume producers and high-end, niche manufactures. Companies like Creative Labs and Plantronics are able to dominate the market with their size and financial clout. As for everyone else? They're around to mop up the gravy.

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First published in PCFormat Issue 235

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