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View Full Version : USB Sound Cards - anyone use one?



trjp
05-06-2012, 01:09 AM
I've persevered with the onboard Realtek crap on my mobo but I'm getting more and more tired of weird game-related sound issues and that ever-present high-pitched 'whine' which is the product of all that interference they're not bothering to deal with (esp annoying for music through headphones).

A PCI soundcard is out as the only spare slot I have would put it bang-up-against a graphics card (and the cooling issues which come with that)

A PCI-Ex soundcard is possible but they're WAY too pricey

So that leaves me with the USB soundcard route - or nothing...

I know Creative do a few USB devices (X-Fi Go, Connect Hifi and some HD solutions which cost rather a lot) but I'm super-wary of anything they produce mainly due to the MASSIVE amount of shovelware and crap their hardware always seems to require (the last Soundblaster card I installed required just under 400Mb of crap downloaded just to make it work!!)

Asus do a device (the Xonar U3) but I've no experience of Xonar kit at all other than some not entirely flattering anecdotal tales...

I'm just looking for a simple stereo setup (2 speakers on the desk) and headphones - don't care about surround/3D/all that jazz but it would be nice to have a MIC connection next to the HEADPHONE socket for my headset.

Anyone using anything which works and didn't require a CD's worth of shovelware and 10 restarts just to get it to beep? :)

Mistabashi
05-06-2012, 01:29 AM
Never used one, but I gather they're pretty crap as a rule (certainly more likely to be problematic than onboard audio).

Do you by any chance have a digital audio output on your motherboard?

trjp
05-06-2012, 02:11 AM
Never used one, but I gather they're pretty crap as a rule (certainly more likely to be problematic than onboard audio).

Do you by any chance have a digital audio output on your motherboard?

Nothing so remotely exotic, sadly...

I understand the problem with USB soundcards is that USB relies, to an extent, on the CPU and thus if your CPU is busy, your soundcard doesn't get the data it's expecting. I have a USB headset which - whilst OK for chat, is appallingly naff for music and simply tragic for gaming (sounds out of sync or simply not there at all - not sure if it's a sync problem of just naff sound hardware).

soldant
05-06-2012, 06:25 AM
Honestly I wouldn't recommend a USB sound device. Anecdotally people claim they do better than some of the onboard solutions (particularly with laptops) but otherwise I wouldn't waste the money. Save up and get a PCI-Express card.

Last time I had a Creative card I didn't have to put up with too much bloatware; the days of the old SoundBlaster crapware ended a while ago (probably when Vista came out and made much of Creative's stuff practically useless). I currently use a Xonar DX, and while the sound quality is great I'm not a fan of the software or drivers. It works well but I don't think it's a significant improvement over the Creative offerings.

Then again I'm not an audiophile, maybe you are and have everything in FLAC and can tell the difference.

trjp
05-06-2012, 01:56 PM
No audiophile leanings here - I just want music without background whine and games which actually make the sounds they're supposed to make without coughing-out-their-guts (which many games do with Realtek onboard sound).

djbriandamage
05-06-2012, 03:33 PM
As a gamer and musician I've had great experiences with USB audio. I used to use a Creative Sound Blaster Extigy which was reliable and had great quality. I bought it because I had some electrical interference in my PC case which was causing a high-pitched whine through my speakers, and isolating the sound card fixed that right up.

The only things that have really changed since those days is that USB audio has become much more common, the components are much smaller, and components are often virtualized via onboard CPU (in the USB device chassis) rather than with dedicated, more expensive parts on the PCB.

When in doubt, buy the thing from a store with a return policy.

Are PCI-E sound cards really that pricey though? Last time I looked (2 years ago) there were at least a dozen of PCI-E 1x sound cards between $40 and $100, and the more expensive ones came with a front bezel panel to conveniently change settings or plug in a headset.

But anything, ANYTHING, is better than those Realtek AC'97 onboard dealies. The only thing I use my onboard sound chip for is Ventrilo, Skype, and the like. It's very handy to have an isolated sound device for that stuff so that I don't have to screw around with my game\music settings.

shaydeeadi
05-06-2012, 09:45 PM
I looked a while ago and saw this thing SteelSeries (http://steelseries.com/products/audio/steelseries-siberia-usb-soundcard) have brought out, which seems like a nice little solution, I have a Firewire 410 but it's a bit of a pain to set up for voice chat, looking to grab one of those in the near future for myself.

trjp
06-06-2012, 03:17 AM
There are cheaper PCI-Ex cards - but they're old-generation cards (X-Fi or early Xonars) which come with the tonne of shovelware and still cost more than my last X-Fi PCI did (it was under 30) about 6 years ago!!

I think I'm going to have to try one of these USB doodahs - the Steelseries one would fall behind an Asus or Creative one simply because I suspect it's based on a generic USB sound device (check eBay for 100s of identical looking units for a fraction of the cost of a branded Steelseries one) - it's either that or Steelseries copied the generics in looks, as they've been around for at least a year (when I first started looking into this!!)

If I managed to source a decent one, I'll pop back and post findings of course...

djbriandamage
06-06-2012, 03:16 PM
I just checked a bunch of local PC stores and was surprised how hard it is to find a low-priced PCI-E sound card. I guess the prevalence of onboard sound has forced manufacturers to reduce the number of models. I did see some for $70-90 Canadian, as well as some USB ones for $30 (crappy little dongles) or $65 (full blown external Sound Blaster).

Bobtree
06-06-2012, 06:10 PM
"Interesting" audio gear virtually always have iffy driver issues (and odd performance problems) because they don't get the testing and scrutiny and obvious quality feedback that graphics devices do. Realtek is the de facto standard, and you're taking a risk with anything else. Games tend to do necessary mixing and effects themselves, instead of via drivers, because these kinds of issues are so common! Fancy audio acceleration and hardware mixing is basically obsolete, and all you really need are output buffers that work right.

Here are some non-obvious audio tips for mysterious quality issues (line noise, interference, etc).

Try disabling environmental effects on your audio device, especially if you have volume issues (like on a laptop). Disable extra audio device gear you don't need (like digital outputs).

Mute the channels you aren't using, especially extra inputs (like front-mic) and multipurpose input/output sockets. Mic boost or gain options on unused devices can make awful noise, as it may try to amplify a signal that's just baseline noise. Some systems detect what is plugged in where, and also this may work poorly.

Make sure the system and speaker setups are powered from the same UPS/strip/etc, so they're grounded together. Otherwise you may leak current across the speakers from one ground to the other, and this buzzing noise sounds lousy.

Route power cables cleanly inside your case, and don't let cabling sit on top of chips or RAM (hunting down memory BSOD sources is not fun). This is for basic system health rather than audio issues, but it's the same sort of problem.

CuriousOrange
06-06-2012, 07:19 PM
I've persevered with the onboard Realtek crap on my mobo but I'm getting more and more tired of weird game-related sound issues and that ever-present high-pitched 'whine' which is the product of all that interference they're not bothering to deal with (esp annoying for music through headphones).



If that is the problem then just switch over to the HD audio on your motherboard. I presume you are using AC 97 and that is why you are getting the high pitched buzzing. But HD audio doesn't. Problem solved, no money spent!

That fixed the problem for me. The HD ports are usually right next to the AC97 ones on the mobo and it should just require you to move a plug over a couple of cms. Then go into bios and switch it from ac97 over to HD.

Spengbab
09-06-2012, 05:34 PM
Never had problems with Creative's stuff. Got a X-fi platinum card (PCI-X). You can download just the driver portion of the software from soundblaster.com. EAX etc work without issue.

I dont have any experience with other brands, but as mentioned in above posts, youre going to run into driver issues - Soundblaster is p. much the default soundcard choice of old, even though Creative has a mysterious past with its flagship product (Like, why the hell did it take so long to get to it's current driver model)