Motherboard audio chipset comparison

Are you looking for a better sound experience from your PC? Upgrading your motherboard with high-quality onboard audio could be the solution. This article compares the top three contenders in the motherboard audio chipset market - Realtek, Intel, and Creative Sound Blaster. All three brands offer high-quality audio chips with support for high-definition audio, but there are some differences between them.

Realtek chips used to be considered to offer the best value for money, while Intel chips offer the best audio quality. Creative Sound Blaster chips are somewhere in between, offering good audio quality at a higher price.

Audio chipssampling rateSNRintroducedCreative Sound Blaster
AC’97up to 16-bit/44.1kHz1997
HD ( High Definition Audio, HD Realtek audio etc)up to 24-bit/48kHz
E-MU 20Kup to 24-bit/96kHz2005X-Fi
up to 24-bit/192kHz2002Audigy 2
Intel HD2004
ALC897 Realtek97 dB2008
E-MU CA10300106 dB2006Audigy 4
2013Audigy Rx
ALC898 Realtek106 dB2013Audigy Fx
ALC1220 Realtek120 dB2017
ALC1200 Realtek110 dB2018
Sound Core3Dup to 32-bit/384kHz122 dB2022AE-5 Plus
127 dBAE-7
129 dBAE-9

Sampling frequency of most Mp3 music and CDs is 44.1 kHz, DVD 48kHz. This means any motherboard made since 2005 can handle HiFi audio without any issues for a regular listener.

Audiophiles, music producers, or serious gamers may benefit from audio chips and sound cards with a high Signal-Noise ratio (SNR). SNR indicates the noise level in the output signal. Not every HiFi amplifier achieves an SNR of 100 dB.

An SNR over 100 dB is an overkill in a typical home environment where ambient noise levels are above 20-30 dB. In such settings, the high SNR's benefits would be masked by ambient noise, making it impractical for most home listening involving speakers.

However, high-quality headphones may allow you to benefit from a high SNR, mainly if they are active noise-cancelling.

Let’s compare SNR of the latest high quality audio chipsets. The higher SNR is better.

Latest Realtek audio chipsets

All chipsets have 24-bit SPDIF output with up to 192 kHz

ALC897/887 (2008)

SNR 97 dB, Line in SNR 90 dB

ALC1200 (2018)

SNR 110 dB, Line in SNR 102 dB

ALC1220 (2017)

SNR 120 dB, Line in SNR 110 dB, Direct Stream Digital (DSD), Impedance Detection to work with higher impedance headphones.

Last two both support Nahimic 3D, Dolby PCEE, SRS TruSurround HD, SRS Premium Sound, Fortemedia SAM, Creative Host Audio, Synopsys Sonic Focus, DTS Surround Sensation, UltraPC, DTS Connect.

It seems that as of 2023 Realtek is the leader in audio for consumer motherboards with ALC1200 and ALC1220 audio chipsets. Let’s see what motherboards are the best in regards sound quality.

What motherboards have ALC1220 ?

ALC1220 audio chipsetMany motherboard models feature the ALC1220 audio codec, including Gigabyte AORUS MASTER, Asrock Extreme4, Taichi, Creator (ALC4050H+ALC1220), PG Velocita, PG Riptide, and Fatal1ty X370 Gaming K4. MSI GAMING PRO and M7 ACK also use ALC1220. To find out which audio codec a motherboard uses, check the product specifications before buying, as it may vary within the same model line.

Optical link in motherboards

If you have an amplifier with an optical link, also known as Toslink, get a motherboard with an optical link as well. This will reduce potential issues with coaxial audio wiring and provide a more stable audio connection.

Other options

Internal sound cards

Sound Blaster Audigy Rx2Internal sound cards can also offer significant improvements in audio quality compared to onboard audio. They usually feature higher-quality components, better shielding against electrical interference, and additional features like dedicated headphone amps. For instance, Sound Blaster Audigy Rx V2 provides 120dB SNR for $75 plus $27 for the Expansion Card with Optical out.

External sound adapters

An external sound adapter is the other solution for high-quality sound from a computer without changing the motherboard. These devices offer dedicated audio processing isolation from internal computer noise, often with advanced features like headphone amplification. They are a flexible, portable option that can significantly improve your audio experience, especially when paired with high-quality headphones or speakers.

Sound Blaster Play4While serious sound blasters cost over $200, the cheapest is SoundBlaster Play 4 with the headphone amplifier. Costing only $35 it provides over 110dB dynamic range and noise cancelling for headphones and microphone! It looks like a dongle and connects to any computer with a USB-C cable. It also has background noise cancelling and mic mute, specifically for audio conferencing.

Data retrieved from respective manufacturers websites in 2023.

updated June 2023 Tags: AudioComputers