Summary: In one corner, we have Creative Labs newest audio card: Audigy 2. Audigy 2 offers 24-bit/96-kHz digital output, and also lists 6.1 surround sound and DVD-Audio among its list of features. In the other corner we have NVIDIA's nForce2 with SoundStorm audio. Used in Microsoft's Xbox console, nForce2 is still the only audio solution with built-in Dolby Digital encoding in hardware. See which product comes out on top in our review of the two hottest audio solutions currently available for the PC!
Sorting through the audio marketSo, you’re ready for a new sound card in the New Year and you want something good. You play a lot of games with 3D positional audio, so our recommendation of the Acoustic and Seismic Edge for 2 channel digital out is no good. You’ve read our Hercules round-up and decided that while they’re good, you’re willing to spend more but the exotic prosumer cards from Terratec or M-Audio are out of your range. This leaves just two high-end gaming sound cards left: the Creative Labs Audigy 2 and the NVIDIA nForce2 MCP with SoundStorm.
The $150 Audigy 2 Platinum is the flagship product from Creative Labs. Sporting 24/192 DACs on all six channels and true 24/96 analog playback and recording, the Audigy 2 is the gaming sound card that comes closest to the prosumer sound cards. 64 3D positional audio channels are accelerated in hardware and tweaked through EAX Advanced HD. The Audigy Drive completes the package for front I/O for your system. As a media processor, two 6-pin IEEE-1394 ports are also included.
The equivalently priced $150 nForce2 platform represents NVIDIA’s flagship platform processor. It also promises 64 hardware accelerated 3D audio streams, but claims to support 256 2D audio streams. Behind this processing power is Sensaura’s HRTF algorithms for positional 3D audio, considered by many to be the reference standard. Indeed, Microsoft considers the nForce MCP as the reference DirectX8 audio setup.
With its roots in the Xbox, the nForce2 SoundStorm features real-time Dolby Digital Interactive Content Encoding. Dolby Digital ICE is exclusive to NVIDIA at the moment since no other manufacturer has put the engineering effort to compete with NVIDIA at this level. Just like the Audigy 2, the nForce2 features IEEE-1394 connectivity. Our ASUS A7N8X one ups the Audigy 2 by offering a 4-pin Firewire connector for greater flexibility. Oh yeah, one more thing: The $150 nForce2 happens to include an ATA133 controller, USB 2.0 controllers, an AGP8X slot, and the world’s fastest dual-channel DDR AMD SocketA interface.
In a departure from our typical article format, we’re going to throw up all the numbers first and then talk.
SIDEBAR: Anyone remember the Gravis Ultrasound or Pro Audio Spectrum 16?
The Audigy 2 offers superior performance. This is interesting to us given the fact that the nForce2 was supposed to have support for more 2D audio streams. We fired up a DirectX test application and began to play back multiple streams of “chimes.wav.” Each time we added a stream, two buffers appeared to be used on the Audigy while only one was used on the nForce2. After 24 streams, the Audigy 2 only reported having 14 hardware-accelerated buffers. The nForce still had over 200 buffers available. We re-ran the DirectSound benchmarks and the Audigy 2 still had the lead.
DirectSound 2D benchmark with 24 streams in the background
When you compare the two sets of numbers, it seems that the nForce2 has about 3% CPU usage overhead (recall that this is on a Duron 950). As the number of streams increase, however, the nForce2 starts to catch up. This is akin to the “faster at high resolutions and high color depths” phenomenon. Since the nForce2 drivers are still in their earliest stages, we believe that there remains room for improvement. Even though more speakers can offset the need for high-quality HRTFs, clearly more speakers *and* high quality HRTFs will be better. We expect newer nForce2 drivers to incorporate Sensaura's 5.1 algorithms. There's no additional license fee, only addition engineering work -- that engineering work has been one on the Xbox MCP"
SIDEBAR: Wouldn’t it be cool if error beeps were positioned in 3D space depending on the location/size/state of the window? No? Err … Ok.
Again, we did not have our professional recording card on hand and so these numbers should be taken as relative indicators of performance.
Analog Performance (16-bit/48 kHz)
The Audigy 2’s analog input appeared to roll off the high frequencies significantly and so we opted to use our DigiFire 7.1 to measure the frequency response. Note this graph measuring the Audigy 2 Output, as you can see the Audigy 2 Line-In rolls off the high end significantly:
Here are the results you should really be looking at:
THD + Noise (-3 dB FS)
Digital Performance (16-bit/48 kHz)
We get equally interesting results when we compare the SPDIF output. We can see that the nForce2 rolls off its bass significantly. The Philips Acoustic Edge has the best digital output.
Neither the Audigy 2 nor the nForce2 provides native 44.1 kHz digital output.
Audigy 2 Digital Performance (24-bit/96 kHz)
SIDEBAR: If you’re only interested in 2 channel SPDIF output, and don’t care about CPU utilization, the Acoustic Edge is a strong contender.
Dolby Digital ICE
The Dolby Digital Interactive Content Encoder is the nForce2’s coup de grâce. When you want the best possible multi-channel performance for your PC, not even the Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 or VideoLogic Sirocco Crossfire is going to satisfy you. You’ll want a dedicated Dolby Digital receiver and some real speakers.
Free Motherboard with Sound Card
This running joke might be tired by now, but you have to remember that we’re looking at an integrated-into-the-chipset sound, not a high-end upgrade. The nForce2 is already a gamer’s favorite for having support for dual Ethernet on-board, USB 2.0 and Firewire, and a dual channel DDR memory controller. Granted, those of you who want a Pentium4 based system are out of luck …
Premium Quality Fidelity
While you might find prosumer audio cards from companies such as Terratec offering higher quality audio, the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 offers excellent performance that exceeded our measuring equipment. Subjectively, the Audigy 2 offers the most pleasant sound we have ever heard from a gaming sound card reviewed at FiringSquad. This is due in no small part to the quality 24-bit/192-kHz DACs being used.
While the nForce features real-time Dolby Digital encoding, important for 3D positional audio with your home receiver, the Audigy 2 features DVD-Audio support. We’re not currently aware of any other card shipping with a DVD-Audio player.
One key problem with DVD-A, however, is that audible watermarking technologies are a component of this format. There are some discs such as those designed for audiophiles that do not have this “feature,” but as far as we know, all of the popular and contemporary music on DVD-Audio contains watermarking audible on high-end systems to the trained ear.
Although the Audigy 2 Internal Drive is prone to audible interference, we like the infrared and firewire ports it brings to the front.
Low CPU utilization
The numbers speak for themselves.
nForce2: The Bad
Mediocre analog output
Although the nForce2 provides solid digital out, with the exception of rolled off bass, the analog output isn’t quite as impressive as that from high-end dedicated sound cards.
Rolled off bass
We’re not sure if the loss of bass will be a problem for the Dolby Digital stream, or if future drivers can correct this somehow. For most PC sound systems, this isn’t going to be a problem. Rolling off the bass may actually be good for your PC sound system since it will allow you turn up the volume without clipping your woofers. In the case of high-end home theater systems it is a major disappointment.
Audigy2: The Bad
Aesthetically unpleasing Audigy2 Internal Drive
We think if you’re going to have an internal breakout box, you should also design it to work externally. This is how companies such as ST Audio designed their drive-bay sized I/O cards. Easy front-panel access to things such as a MIDI port or the digital I/O also means that you’ll have cables dangling from the front of the machine. Thus, if you had a case with a front door or a stylish design, you’re in trouble. The Audigy2 still looks just like a LiveDrive or original Audigy drive bay. Maybe we’re digging for cons on the Audigy2, but it’s still bothering us.
The rear SPDIF out on the Audigy2 (for non Platinum models) is not a standard RCA coaxial plug. A stereo mini-jack to RCA will suffice, but this isn’t included. The rear center channel requires a somewhat difficult to find 4-pin plug that was not included in the package. You very much get the sense that Creative Labs have designed the Audigy2 around their own 6.1 Cambridge Soundworks speaker sets. Granted, the nForce doesn’t even have 6.1 output, but the Dolby Digital ICE means that you can have the 6.1/7.1 processing done on your receiver.
Not a true recording sound card
Although the Audigy2 is marketed by Creative Labs as being an ideal sound card for musical recording, we’d have to disagree. The SPDIF input shows an unwanted ripple in the higher audio frequencies, and there are no options to digitally output at 44.1kHz.
Our dream gaming card would obviously be an Audigy 2 with Dolby Digital Interactive Content Encoding… or would that be an nForce2 with better performance and a flatter frequency response curve?
You think we’ve gone soft with the Editor’s Choice awards don’t you? Giving out two on the same day and all, and refusing to take a stand on whether the nForce2 or Audigy 2 is a better product. Not quite…
Why you should get the nForce2
It says something when we’re comparing an onboard sound card against the flagship gaming card from Creative Labs. With Dolby Digital ICE, the nForce2 represents the best gaming platform for use with a stand-alone Dolby Digital receiver. Audio performance in Windows XP is good, and is better than most dedicated PCI cards although poorer than the Audigy 2. However, the money you save by going with the nForce2 rather than the Audigy 2 means that you can invest in faster RAM, a faster CPU, or faster hard drive.
Why you should get the Audigy 2
Though we talk about directing the money you save by going with an nForce2 to your CPU, memory, and hard drive, that’s meaningless if you’re got a 3GHz P4 or a Athlon XP 2800+, Corsair XMS DDR RAM, and Ultra320 SCSI drives. The Audigy 2 gives the best audio performance we’ve ever seen in Windows XP. Creative Labs has brought true 24-bit 96kHz playback support to consumer sound card range; before the Audigy 2, this was a feature limited to the likes of Terratec or M-Audio.
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