That’s a very common question as of lately, and somehow I feel like most people who haven’t dealt with ALSA in the past would find it very difficult to properly answer to it. Even myself I would have ignored one particular issue till last night, when I hit another reason why I want to keep PulseAudio as my main and only audio system as soon as possible, reducing direct ALSA access.
With modern systems you mostly get onboard sound cards, rather than PCI cards and similar, unless you’re somewhat crazy and want a proaudio card (like I did) or a Creative card (not yet sure what’s the fuzz about that). To be honest, my motherboard really does have a limited soundcard so I would have needed a PCI card anyway to get digital S/PDIF output, and I want S/PDIF because the room has too much electric noise to the point I can hear it on the speakers.
Somehow, ALSA seem to hide to most users that there are indeed a lot of limitations with the HDA hardware. This because the idea for the HDA was probably to shift as much work as possible into software space rather than doing so in hardware; this is why you need a driver fix for the headphones jack to work properly most of the time. While this can be seen as a way to produce cheap cards, it has to be said that software always had to compensate for hardware defects since it’s more flexible. And having most of the processing done in software means that you can actually fix it if there is a bug, rather than having to find a workaround if anything.
So, no hardware mixing, and ALSA has to use dmix, no hardware volume handling, and ALSA has to use softvol, no hardware resampling, and ALSA has its own resamplers, and so on so forth. But while ALSA has to cope with doing these things in the same process that are doing the audio output, and thus is not so good at coping with different processes accessing the audio device with different parameters.
Having a separate process doing the elaboration does not mean that you add more work to the system, you can actually make it do less work if, for instance, you ask that process to play a (cached) sound rather than having it opened, converted, and played back.
At the same time, the fact that PulseAudio handles mixing, volume and resampling in software does not mean that it adds to the work done by the software for most cards, since the most common cards nowadays, the HDA-based ones, already do all that in software, just you don’t see that explicitly because ALSA do them in process.
In my opinion, ALSA is really doing way too much as a library, since each time you open a device it has to parse a number of configuration files, to identify which definition to use (and even then, by default they are far from perfect, for instance for the ICE1712-based cards, which depending on the way they are wired may have two, four, six or eight channel outputs, the definition only suits the 8-channel model, and does not make sense with the lower end cards). And once it found the definition it has to initialise a number of plugins, internal or external, to perform the software functions.
And this is all without putting in the mix the LISP interpreter that alsa-lib ships with (I’d leave to Lennart to explain that one).
So if you think that PulseAudio is an over-engineered piece of software that performs functions in software that should be done in hardware, you better be a FreeBSD user. At least there the OSS subsystem does not try to do all the things that ALSA does (and on the other hand FreeBSD is trying to go the Microsoft way for the HDA cards, implementing the UAA specifications rather than having a huge table of quirks; as far as I can see that would be quite useful, if it’s going to work that is).
But even in that case you should probably find PulseAudio a good thing since it tries not to be Linux-specific and thus would allow for performing all the needed functions with a single cross-platform software without having to reimplement it in platform-specific systems like OSS or ALSA. That was my main reason to look into PulseAudio when I was working on Gentoo/FreeBSD.
For everyone who cares about users, let’s try to work all together to make PulseAudio better rather than attacking Lennart for trying to do the right thing, okay?