Audio in Vista: more hell than heaven

Here is a contradiction. On the one hand, Vista audio is said to be much improved over audio in earlier versions of Windows. Certainly this was Microsoft’s intention. Larry Osterman’s 2005 post refers to several goals, including moving audio code out of the kernel to improve reliability, and making Windows a better platform for audio professionals. Osterman also describes the new audio API called WASAPI, which enables low-latency, and provides an illustration of how it fits together. Vista clearly has a much richer audio API than Windows XP. Here is an easy to understand overview, full of enthusiasm for its benefits.

Why a contradiction? Well, the actual, real-world experience of audio in Vista is mixed at best. Here is a typical post, complaining of stutters and pops in Vista audio which recall bygone days when PCs were barely up to the task. Surely playing 16-bit audio should be a breeze for today’s PCs?

I’ve had the same experience. I care about high-quality audio, so I installed a high-end Creative card, the Xi-Fi Elite Pro. I’ve been through all the drivers, from early betas to recent and supposedly production-ready releases. None have worked smoothly. I’ve had problems playing CDs, problems in Audacity where playback stutters or simply stops working, or a strange effect where the right and left channels go out of synch. I’ve had problems in Windows Media Player, where the responsiveness of the play, pause and stop buttons becomes sluggish, or playback fails completely.

I thought this might be primarily a problem with Creative’s drivers. There are certainly howls of anguish on the Creative forums. I also notice that if I switch to the motherboard’s integrated Realtec audio, reliability is greatly increased, though sound quality is worse. There are still occasional problems. Everyday use is fine, but a heavy editing session in Audacity causes glitches.

I decided to go pro. I removed the Xi-Fi, purchased a Terratec Phase 22, aimed at the pro market, and attached an external DAC. I chose the Terratec because it is a no-frills affair and has a Vista driver, unlike many of the pro audio cards out there. Happy now?

Well, no. The Phase 22 works OK using its internal DAC, but I’m having problems with the  SPDIF digital output. If I direct audio specifically to this output, by making it the default device, or selecting it in the preferences of an app like Audacity, it does not work. I can sometimes get it to work temporarily using the Phase 22 control panel, but it fails again as soon as I stop and restart playback. If I direct output to the Phase 22 internal DAC, then SPDIF output works, but it is always re-sampled to 48 kHz. Ideally I want bit-perfect output to the external DAC. For example, I’ve got a 96 kHz FLAC file. If I play this in Vista, it is output at 48 kHz.

In Windows XP, by contrast, it works perfectly. Ripped CDs are output at 44.1 kHz, my 96 kHz FLAC file is output at 96 kHz.

I also have problems with Steinberg’s Cubase SX. This works well in XP with the Phase 22, or with the internal card on Vista, but it does not work with the Phase 22 in Vista (I’ve not spent a lot of time trying to troubleshoot this). I called Terratec support. The guy didn’t bother trying to analyze the problem; he just said wait for a new driver.

Digging a little deeper

Maybe some of these problems are specific to my machine or the way it is configured. Maybe, and I look forward to your tips. But here are a few observations.

Pro audio vendors are very late with Vista drivers. I noticed this when looking for a replacement for the Xi-Fi. M-Audio, for example, has only patchy support, and some drivers are still in beta. E-Mu, Creative’s Pro range, is still on beta drivers. Bear in mind that Vista was released to manufacturing in November 2006, and that there were plenty of pre-releases.

Vista drivers, where available, may not be full-featured. Creative is a case in point. Its Vista drivers do not support decoding of Dolby Digital and DTS, DVD-Audio, 6.1 speaker mode, or DirectSound-based EAX effects.

General advice in the Pro community seems to be: stick with XP for the moment. I don’t see many posts from musicians raving about how much better Vista is for their work. I see plenty of posts about problems with audio in Vista.

What’s gone wrong? I don’t have a definitive answer, but can speculate a little. What we do know is that audio in Vista, and multimedia in general, is greatly changed. The links I gave above are just overviews. For a real drill-down, try the lengthy audio processing in Vista thread on the AVSForum, along with Creative’s explanation of audio in Vista. Note that a number of older APIs are now emulated on top of the new WASAPI. Emulation, as everyone knows, often means slow. Note also the two modes in Vista audio: shared and exclusive. As I understand it, in shared mode, Windows will always munge the audio at least a little. In exclusive mode this won’t happen, but according to this post, writing exclusive-mode drivers is exceedingly complex.

There’s also DRM to think about. Is the notorious protected media path getting in the way of faithful audio reproduction on Vista? Personally I doubt it, but it could be a factor.


The bottom line is that Vista audio should be great, but in practice it is problematic for many users. Why? Here are a few possibilities.

1. Vista audio is great, but third-party vendors are a lazy bunch and haven’t bothered to do decent drivers. This is the view of many on the Creative forums, but I don’t buy this entirely. The failure to provide good drivers in a timely manner seems to go right across the industry. I am sure some vendors could have done better but I’m inclined to think there are other factors, such as perhaps…

2. Vista audio is so complex and different that third-parties had no chance of writing good drivers in time. This seems at least plausible. I still find it curious. I don’t doubt that the leading vendors of audio add-ons worked closely with Microsoft in the run up to Vista. Why then is support for the new operating system so limited and late?

3. Microsoft slipped up; audio in Vista does not work properly. It will certainly be interesting to see what effect Vista’s service pack 1 has, when it arrives later this year.

No conclusion

A year from now, we might all be saying Vista’s audio is fantastic. That will be after Vista SP1 and another year of driver development. Alternatively, we may know more clearly why it does not deliver. In the meantime, my own view is that Vista audio is more hell than heaven.

Technorati tags: , , , ,

28 thoughts on “Audio in Vista: more hell than heaven”

  1. I’m curious whether your success in XP is related to running as admin by default or are you comparing LUA accounts in both Vista and XP?

    It’s an interesting point. I run as admin in my test XP installation, but I’ve just downgraded to “restricted user” and the sound still worked OK in a brief test.

    Vista’s UAC does slow performance a little though, so I imagine it could impact the audio.


  2. Worse than that! Some of the new sound chipsets that are Vista only cannot be reinstalled! Yes, you read that correct! Everytime you’ve got a sound problem that needs a driver refresh then you’re looking at a full recovery disk to take it back to the factory defaults! Not good!!!!

  3. There are actually a number of reasons, IMHO.

    First off, IHV’s have relatively limited resources to dedicate to drivers. Naturally they concentrate on writing drivers for their new hardware instead of their old hardware (after all, they don’t get revenue from their new hardware). In addition, many IHVs ignored Vista until it released.

    Secondly, Vista changed the model that allowed IHVs to add audio DSP to the normal stream rendering process. It’s taken the IHVs a while to figure out how to get their DSP working reliably.

    Thirdly, Microsoft DID change the rules of the game somewhat and they’ve upset the applecart a bit.

    For instance, the user now gets to pick a single dedicated format for rendering. That dramatically simplifies the rendering path for most audio audio applications, which is a good thing. On the other hand, it means that if you’re going to play 44.1kHz content and 96kHz content on the same device, one of the two IS going to have it’s sample rate converted. Now it turns out that the hardware DAC for many audio solutions ran at a single clock rate (usually 48kHz), so the audio vendors driver did the SRC in the driver before it actually was handed to the DAC. In other words, your data wasn’t ACTUALLY bit-for-bit transmitted, you just thought it was. Vista also has a dramatically better sample rate converter than XP did which makes up for some of the pain of the conversions.

    Vista also indroduces a concept called “Exclusive Mode” which allows an audio rendering application to write directly to the audio hardware with very low latency, bypassing all of the audio infrastructure (it’s similar to ASIO or OpenAL).

    The DSound hardware acceleration thing has been done to death on Creative’s forums, I’m not going to go into it.

    In general, the goal for Vista’s audio stack has been to make the user’s experience more streamlined, more discoverable, more reliable. It’s not perfect, but IMHO, there are a lot fewer surprises when using Vista than there are using XP.

  4. John A Thompson: I’m confused. I update the driver on my machines all the time here, without requiring a reinstall.

    Could you give more specifics? Use the contact form on my blog if you want to send me details directly.

  5. This is interesting, because my new box has a bog-standard Creative SB Xi-Fi and I have had no problems whatsoever. I’m nowhere near as much into music as Tim is, but I am starting to use the computer for buying and playing music a lot more and I have had no problems at all.

    I suspect it’s because Creative have written a set of core drivers for *all* cards that work well on Vista, but when you start to push the hardware envelope, the incompatibilities start to creep in.

  6. Tim, the post you link to in the second paragraph (the one complaining of stuttering audio) is from Jan 3, 2007. I was having audio problems then as well, on multiple PCs. Since then, thanks to driver updates, I have smooth audio on every PC I run. On one PC, I was having glitches with song playbacks that resulted in stuttering at the beginning and end of every song. Those went away when I installed the latest drivers from Creative.

    This experience suggests to me that the issue is mostly related to driver quality.

  7. Larry, many thanks for your comments.

    Vista also indroduces a concept called “Exclusive Mode” which allows an audio rendering application to write directly to the audio hardware with very low latency, bypassing all of the audio infrastructure (it’s similar to ASIO or OpenAL).

    Do you know of any drivers that use this mode? I want to get this working, even if I have to buy another card.


  8. This is interesting, because my new box has a bog-standard Creative SB Xi-Fi and I have had no problems whatsoever.

    It’s hard to compare because some of the Creative X-Fi cards are actually totally different from the Elite Pro, not just cut-down.

    I’m sure a lot of people find audio works OK; but they may not stressing it much. Or I may just be unlucky; but if so, quite a few others are “unlucky” as well.


  9. Tim, the post you link to in the second paragraph (the one complaining of stuttering audio) is from Jan 3, 2007. I was having audio problems then as well, on multiple PCs. Since then, thanks to driver updates, I have smooth audio on every PC I run. On one PC, I was having glitches with song playbacks that resulted in stuttering at the beginning and end of every song. Those went away when I installed the latest drivers from Creative.

    This experience suggests to me that the issue is mostly related to driver quality

    I agree driver quality is a big factor; I still find myself wondering why the major vendors are finding it so difficult to come up with decent drivers. Even the latest Creative drivers are in many cases unsatisfactory – just glance through the forums there.

    Here’s a comment from Martin Walker, PC audio specialist for the music mag Sound on Sound:

    Your blog’s an interesting read, and your experiences with Vista Audio echo many others I’ve spotted on forums around the world.

    Nevertheless, it is possible that all these problems will go away as better drivers appear; at the very least they things are bound to improve. I don’t feel 100% confident though which is why my last para is headed “no conclusion”.


  10. I’m sure a lot of people find audio works OK; but they may not stressing it much.

    That’s the same the world over…nobody posts to a blog saying ‘I got into my car this morning, turned the key and it started perfectly, like it always does.’ We take the state of being where everything functions and should function perfectly as the norm.

  11. On “Speculations”, add…

    4. Deep OS changes late in the beta process may have invalidated many early-bird vendor’s work

    …and I suspect this is the case. As recently as 3 months after Vista shipped (and 5 months after RTM), “new” DVD writers were still shipping with bundleware that didn’t work in Vista and had no free update path.

    Other “not ready yet” examples include accounting packages, modem fax bundleware and certain hi-end audio cards that speak glibly on “as the industry slowly transisions to Vista…” while I shrug and buy something that is already ready instead.

  12. My understanding is that Vista’s DRM put so many requirements on driver writers that it’s taking a very long time for them to get it ‘right’. Even though your application may not require DRM, the drivers still have to support DRM. I’ve been led to believe it’s absolutely mandatory, or the vendor could get into legal difficulties.
    My Audigy is working ‘OK’ now, but I’m still missing a number of the control applets that I’m used to having with Soundblaster cards.

  13. My understanding is that Vista’s DRM put so many requirements on driver writers that it’s taking a very long time for them to get it ‘right’.

    Thanks for the comment. Just wondered: what is your source for this info?


  14. I hesitate to ask this but I’m so excited to read about others having trouble that I figure it can’t hurt!

    Are you saying that others are experiencing sound simply stopping on their systems? I don’t have anything special: Sigmatel something, and I couldn’t even tell you the name of the sound card in my Gateway laptop, but…when I’m clicking around on web sites, sometimes the clicking noise stops and I have to shut down IE7 or completely reboot before the sound comes back. If it’s just IE, then closing and relaunching does the trick. If I lose sound sytem-wide, reboot. Also, listening to iTunes streaming radio, the sound just stops and I have to reboot. And I’ve given up listenting to my iPod because every CD recording has static and clicks and pops.

    I’ve just thought I messed up my system, but if others are having the same kinds of problems, that’s cool…well…you know what I mean. I’m just glad it might not be me. I’ll have to investigate more. Thank you! Great article, and as Ed Bott said, constructive instead of whining. That’s how we’ll go forward.

    Best regards,

  15. Hi Tim. I’m sorry, I read so many articles, & listen to so many podcasts, that I can’t remember for sure, but it might well have been the Windows Weekly podcast with Paul Thurrott & Leo Laporte. I believe they had been talking to developers at either Creative Labs or ATI. Before anyone comments that ATI is video, not audio, the point is that the DRM requiremens affect all developers involved with either audio or video.

  16. GMC,

    DRM certainly could be a factor but if it is, I’m surprised that the hardware vendors haven’t cited it as a problem more often. I know ATI complained about it in the context of video. Maybe they don’t want to offend Microsoft. I’d be interested to know.


  17. My only major problem with Vista Ultimate is the audio. I just want to watch DVD’s on my large LCD monitor with 5.1 sound. I’m not in to music and all the other. First, went with the onboard AC97, which was a mess with the stuttering during DVD playback.

    So…I thought, since it looked like no drivers were forthcoming for this MoBo (DFI LanParty II w/Nvidia chipset) I bought a Creative X-Fi card figuring if anyone could figure out Vista’s audio Creative could.

    Things went from bad to worse. Although it would work every couple of minutes it would let out a screeching howl which about deafened me and I was sure, ruined my 5.1 speaker system. And that was with the volume on the speakers at 50%. Uninstalled, re-downloaded, installed new Vista drivers and still no change. Still stutters during playback and the howls are still there.

    Finally, I just gave up on Vista since the only way I could use it was with the volume muted. Luckily, I dual booted and still had my trusty old Win XP Pro installation so copied the personal files back and went back to XP.

    As a side note the howls still occured in XP but at a lower volume and not as often so maybe the card is defective. Whatever, Vista is just too much of a hassle in its present form. It’s too bad because I liked the interface and I think it was faster, from opening new windows, processing large data files, and multi-tasking was less of a problem.

  18. For most of the post here I see all of you have sound problem with SB Creative X-FI Soundcard, but for my side now I don’t have any problem now.

    I’m using a SB X-FI Platinum Edition, at first I’m having nightmare with this card, When I have first installed the updated driver since I don’t have the Driver CD for vista everything works fine with the driver testing, but when comes to music playing or movie playing, it only drive my 5.1 speaker system in 2.1 mode only.

    So I try to source for the CD that bundle with the newer shipment (Platinum Edition) I did found the installer CD from my friend It’s for Vista Edition, so I’ve install it and the problem there so I updated the driver to the newest driver I downloaded from creative website, after installing and rebooted the 1st time the problem solved, everything works fine and I thought thank god it works finally but after I’ve shut down my PC and on it the next day OMG the problem back so I was quite disappointed at this moment.

    I don’t give up yet so I accessed the divice manager and check for the driver section and update the driver and point it to browse my computer for driver and select let me pick a list of driver from my computer and I select the newest driver from there and restart my PC, the problem solved again but after I shut down my PC Vista temps to select the earlier driver again and the problem arise again.

    So I uninstall the driver, Application and remove all the installed directory and reinstall the driver again from fresh, thistime I install from the CD using custome mode, I install everything accept the driver from the bundled SB X-FI CD Driver(Check off the driver installation) and after install procedure completed I restarted my PC, after the restart I install the newest Application update that I’ve downloaded from creative Website and at last then I install the newest driver downloaded from creative webside and this have solved my problem till today, bottomline there’s only 1 driver can be installed in vista for what I’ve experienced for X-FI in Vista.

    So I hope this will help a lot of X-FI User out there and it does work for me.

  19. I’m a pro audio user with thousands of dollars invested in MOTU audio interfaces and many years of recording experience. For most of us who use our computers to record, Vista has been a painful lesson. Often we need to run much smaller audio buffers to get lower latency than gamers or home theatre enthusiasts. This is something that was no problem on a well tuned XP machine. Unfortunately Vista has proved itself to be a very poor alternative. Even pro audio apps that register with MMCSS to guarantee CPU time to critical audio threads perform poorly. My feeling is that the move of most of the audio driver components from kernel mode to user mode is at the root of the issues we’re seeing. This move was made to reduce the likelihood that a bad audio driver could cause a BSOD. The trade-off however, has been much worse audio performance at low latency, regardless of how much money you spend on top-shelf audio interfaces.

    I find it difficult to see how MS can fix this in a service pack. The basic foundation of the audio stack is fatally flawed. IMHO this could be the end of the road for the PC as a viable pro audio recording/editing platform.

    Unfortunately, I believe the Mac will fill the void left by Vista. Apple place a greater emphasis on their creative community, evidenced by the number of Macs in recording studios around the world. This situation would never be allowed to persist on that platform.

  20. These problems have an effect on proffesionals as well as the basic user that likes to hear the highest quality of sounds. If you google vista and DRM there are many “doomsday” sites that dissect the terms and the DRM features of vista and quite frankly they are fairly disturbing on how vista handles video and audio content. It is not really much of a scare but many of the problems in vista can be related to the built in protection mechanisms. Every day becoming a switcher is becomming more and more “appealing”. Just one day when all my apps will work on mac os will I be happy 😉

  21. I’m not convinced that it is to do with the DRM and protected media path, though I guess it could be. I know there are sites out there, but they are not all reliable.


  22. Since a week or 4 I have audio problems, I did not have these before and I have the latest drivers.

    Since a few updates my sound is popping clicks and glitches. EVEN WHEN I DONT PLAY AUDIO!

    I home MS fixes this soon, its terrible!

  23. I’m another professional recording guy. I too have a large investment in audio recording interfaces. Just to add weight to what Bill said above, Vista is a total non starter for serious audio work. I think he hit the nail on the head regarding Vista’s audio driver stack (moving from kernel to user mode). Low latency ASIO drivers have particularly suffered. Vista has planted the PC solidly in the consumer audio camp. I’m afraid that the PC’s ability to be a professional creative tool has been severely compromised.

    After months of struggling with Vista, I have now completely removed it from my quad-core, purpose-built audio recording PC. With all the same hardware, XP 64 bit edition is working as I had hoped Vista 64 would. The machine now records and plays back flawlessly. It’s also many times faster to boot and just feels more responsive. I don’t see a return to Vista for me any time soon.

    With XP becoming obsolete, if my hardware/software vendors stop supporting it, I will have to do what I never thought I’d ever do… Buy a Mac.

  24. What I’d like to say to Microsoft:

    Move the audio stack back to the kernel in Windows Vista (I wish I could say “RIGHT NOW,” but…), or I will revert back to Windows XP. I get the feeling that I’ll set the deadline date for Microsoft to January 31, 2008, but that’s just silly and pointless to force Microsoft to do this…

    Emulating older API in Windows Vista is a bad ideal… That will also get me back to Windows XP.

    Anyway, I have a Conexant audio sound card in my HP Pavilion zv6130us notebook and since I currently have 512MB of memory, even if I upgrade to 1GB or 2GB of RAM, I’ll still get audio glitches…

    Excuse my whining/complaints, but Windows Vista is a resource hog…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *