The ES1868 is an embedded soundcard chipset developed by ESS (not to be confused with Ensoniq SoundScape - they are completely different entities). The ES1868 is a single-chip audio controller with a very minimalistic design: it consists of an ISA interface, a generic serial interface (for MIDI), and several DACs and ADCs. The internal mixer has no equalizer or amplifier.

Although this chipset was designed for notebook computers, it is also quite good for computer-based music. Although they are difficult to find (being ISA) and many of the soundcards based on this chip, frankly, suck (and add lots of extra crap like an MPU-401 and an IDE interface), if you can find one which is a vanilla card - Compaq's is very good in this respect - you will find that it has a very good SNR, and quite nice dynamics. It is also supported perfectly and natively under Linux and Impulse Tracker.

I recently acquired three of these cards. One was by Labway and had lots of extra crap on it. It's incredibly sensitive to noise, and its headphone amplifier is a really crappy chip (which you need to use a jumper to disable), and it has an IDE interface, an MPU interface which doesn't even work, and lots of other crap. The other two are Compaq OEM cards, and are basically just the chip on a card (and it has separate routing for line out and headphone, and the headphone amp is - well, I don't know if it's clean since I haven't used it, but it doesn't interfere with the line out).

The Compaq card's quality is incredible. Not from a balls-to-the-wall "this will knock your socks off" perspective - because it has no equalizer the sound is rather flat, being, well, flat, and when you're producing the sound that's a Good Thing - but from a music production point of view it's great - most of the audible noise comes from my (external) amp and not from the soundcard itself, and that's just to start with. The line input is a little noisy, but my external mixer is noisier by far. The only real issue I have with the chip is it seems to have some clipping problems, and that can be dealt with.

Overall, it's much cleaner than anything put out by Creative Labs, and certainly cheaper - I got this one for $3 on eBay.

Very nice. If you actually care about sound quality and use Impulse Tracker or other legacy apps (it's SB compatible and easy to support natively, so quite a few apps did - look for 'Audiodrive' support), I'd recommend this card (the Compaq OEM one, not the Labway) - it's apparently the only card out there which you can still get and is supported fully in both IT and Linux (which is why I even considered it to begin with).

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