ESS Audiodrive: An underrated retro sound card

Recently I’ve heard a few people singing the virtues of the ESS Audiodrive, a budget sound card from the 1990s. It turns out that in several regards, especially if you want to run older software, the ESS Audiodrive is a better Sound Blaster than the Sound Blaster 16.

The ESS Audiodrive is a 16-bit ISA sound card that can emulate older Sound Blasters. Some late 90s software supports it natively, but older DOS games use it as a Sound Blaster, Sound Blaster Pro, or Ad Lib.

What’s good about the ESS Audiodrive

ESS Audiodrive
The ESS Audiodrive doesn’t look like much, but it’s a very good clone of early Sound Blaster cards.

The ESS Audiodrive always had price going for it, and it still does. You can get one for under $20. Sometimes less than $10, even, but watch the shipping. But many Sound Blaster 16s sell in that price range too. So why not go for the real deal?

The key to the ESS Audiodrive is that it can emulate a Sound Blaster Pro in stereo, unlike the 16, which emulates the older model in mono. If you’re wanting to run older DOS titles, say, 1995 or earlier, neither card is a perfect substitute for a Sound Blaster Pro. That’s why a Sound Blaster Pro sells for five times as much. But the ESS Audiodrive sounds more like a Sound Blaster Pro, so if you have $20 to spend, it’s the better choice. A lot of vintage parts have gotten really expensive, so it’s nice to still have a cheap, good option.

The IDE channel

And if you have a 386 or 486 with only a single IDE channel, look for an ESS Audiodrive with an IDE connector. You can use it to add a CD-ROM drive and free up your other channel for hard drives or solid-state storage.

The setup program

The setup program isn’t the least bit glitzy. It’s just gray text on a black background and asks you some simple questions, unlike Creative’s colorful affair. But the ESS software runs on systems the Creative setup program won’t touch. You can get around that, but with ESS, you don’t have to. The setup program just adds a few lines to your config.sys to configure the card and bring it to life, then those programs exit gracefully. It gives you a jumperless setup like Creative, but with wider compatibility if you need it.

Drivers

And the drivers are still widely available online. Just make sure you get the right ones for the chip on your card. Vogons is a good place to look. If for some reason they don’t have a match for your card, you can just search on DOS drivers for the ESS Audiodrive and whatever variant of chip you have (such as 1688 or 1869).

Steady and reliable

I had a couple of these cards in the late 90s. They didn’t blow my mind or anything. But they didn’t give me any trouble either, which is more than I can say for some other sound cards I had in that decade. There’s something to be said for steady and reliable.

What’s not so good about the ESS Audiodrive

One thing I didn’t like so much about the ESS Audiodrive is that the card’s IDE interface is active by default, even if yours lacks the IDE hardware. That’s a bit wasteful and can cause conflicts on Pentium or newer systems with two IDE channels already. As long as you’re careful with the setup program you can disable it. But you have to pay attention, and don’t get too quick to accept the defaults without reading everything.

The ESS chip is register compatible with the Yamaha OPL3 used in early Sound Blaster and Ad Lib cards. That means software can’t tell the difference between the ESS chip and a real OPL3. They act the same, from a software point of view. Your ears may be able to tell a difference.

But even if the ESS Audiodrive is imperfect, it’s a huge improvement over the PC speaker. It can stand in until you get the sound card of your dreams, and help you keep from overpaying for the card you really want since you do have something that works.

There’s no perfect sound card for DOS, because there’s no single card that emulates the best card for every single DOS title. But you can do worse than this one, especially for the money.

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