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 chips||sampling rate||SNR||introduced||Creative Sound Blaster|
|AC’97||up to 16-bit/44.1kHz||1997|
|HD ( High Definition Audio, HD Realtek audio etc)||up to 24-bit/48kHz|
|E-MU 20K||up to 24-bit/96kHz||2005||X-Fi|
|up to 24-bit/192kHz||2002||Audigy 2|
|ALC897 Realtek||97 dB||2008|
|E-MU CA10300||106 dB||2006||Audigy 4|
|ALC898 Realtek||106 dB||2013||Audigy Fx|
|ALC1220 Realtek||120 dB||2017|
|ALC1200 Realtek||110 dB||2018|
|Sound Core3D||up to 32-bit/384kHz||122 dB||2022||AE-5 Plus|
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
SNR 97 dB, Line in SNR 90 dB
SNR 110 dB, Line in SNR 102 dB
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 ?
Many 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.
Internal sound cards
Internal 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.
While 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.