Motherboard Audio Software: Friend or Foe?

Author: Stephen Cooper
Last Updated: December 23, 2020

Without a doubt, onboard audio has come a long way over the years, relegating discrete PCIe or other solutions to the the more discerning consumers. We now commonly see better trace routing and isolation for onboard audio solutions, even at the budget end, and in the case of higher end motherboards we may even seen high quality DACs included. While working on our upcoming review of the new ASUS TUF GAMING X570-PRO (WI-FI), we ran into a common problem with newer onboard audio solutions, the software. The best hardware in the world means exactly nothing if it’s paired up with mediocre software. What problem did we encounter? Let’s take a look.

When Off Means…On?

Now, with onboard audio you can use either the Windows High Definition Audio driver, or the software specific for your particular codec. In reviewing motherboards, we use the software and drivers meant specifically for that device to suss out any potential problems and unlock unique aspects of the product that the generic driver will not allow. In doing so, at times this is where the “fun” begins. In this case, we started to take a look at the DTS® Custom feature for headphones.

Above, we have a screengrab of the Realtek Audio Control software that ASUS provides with the driver package for the TUF GAMING X570-PRO (WI-FI). This software allows for the consumer to enable the DTS® Custom audio processing to enhance the onboard audio specifically for headphones. Notice that in this grab, we have the option of “Disable All Sound Effects” checked. Now, based on that you’d likely assume there is a flat frequency response. In other words, no adjustments to gain across the 20Hz – 20kHz spectrum. But, is that actually the case? No, it isn’t.

As you can see, even though we have the “Disable All Sound Effects” option checked, and the DTS® Custom icon is toned down, we’re still seeing manipulation of the frequency response. We have two +3/4dB gain boosts centered at 600Hz and 9kHz. With no effects, we would expect to see these response curves ride along or close to the 0dB line with some slight movement above and below, especially as we hit the higher frequencies. Clearly, that is not the case.

Luckily, this wasn’t too terribly offensive for most uses. It began to be a little noticeable with some music. That’s the media type where this problem became most evident. There was a bit of vocal harshness added, and the low end was perhaps a bit boxy. It wasn’t bad by any means luckily, thanks to the limited gains we have here. It wasn’t the flat response I was looking for though. Can we fix it easily? You bet.

The way to fix this problem is by disabling the additional processing in the “hidden” sub-menu. I say hidden because what you’ll need to do first is uncheck the “Disable All Sound Effects” option, then click on the DTS® Custom logo. This will bring up the dedicated feature screen above on the left. Notice how it’s actually enabled by default? That’s our problem. To fully disable all of the EQ tweaks, click the diamond power “button” at the bottom. Once that’s done, you’ll see the image on the right. Close it out, then re-check the “Disable All Sound Effects” check box as a reminder. Now, you’ve finally fully disabled it. Need proof?

Now, that is more like it. Yes, the right channel has about +0.3dB of offset from 0dB compared to the left channel, but that’s another article for another day. Suffice to say, we’ve found the software problem for our original issue of perceived audio quality problems. One thing to note here is that this problem impacted both the rear line out as well as the headphone line out. They share common settings and effects. That poses another potential problem. If you want some effects enabled on the headphones, perhaps for gaming, but then want them disabled for line out…what happens if you forget to “power down” DTS® fully and only toggle the “Disable All Sound Effects” check box? Let’s find out.