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Sound Cards

Sound Cards Buying Guide
Before any sound that is generated from your computer can be ...
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Sound Cards Buying Guide

Before any sound that is generated from your computer can be amplified out your speakers it must first be processed by a sound card. The sound card, depending on the type, either takes the digital signals from your computer and transforms them into pristine sounding analog signals for your speakers or it steams a multi-channel digital sound steam to your own system for conversion and amplification. High end sound cards are really a niche market because face it, if you have a home computer for nothing more than browsing the web then why would you need high fidelity sound conversion? For gamers, audiophiles and those who love their digital media - a high quality sound card will be top of their shopping list.

Lets take a brief look at the key terms to look out for when buying a sound card:

multi-channel sound cards will support more than just a regular stereo output signal. This means you can hook up more advanced sound systems such as surround sound. Depending on the system you want to hook up you will likely need support for either 4.1, 5.1 (most common) or 7.1. It doesn't hurt to find out what sort of surround sound features a card provides. Some cards will let you specify where you have your speakers placed or setup a delay for more accurate sound reproduction in your room.

Sample Rate
Most consumer level cards are capable of 44.1kHz at 16 bit. If you're playing back DVDs, Bluray discs or computer games then you often have the option to switch to higher quality sample rates for better sound. Now we're talking numbers like 48kHz at bit-depths up to 24 bit. These abilities will only concern you if you plan on doing such things that would involve you wanting to push the sound envelope up a little bit for higher quality - not every day-to-day user will need to worry about these finer numbers.

Ins and outs
What types of inputs and outputs will you need on your card? Pretty much all sound cards will provide you with a microphone input and line input as well as however many analog outputs the card may require to support the number of channels it has. When you get to higher end cards you'll now see the introduction of digital outputs (and maybe even digital inputs). These come in two forms; digital coaxial (looks like a single RCA cable end) and Toslink/Optical (often a small square hole with a dust cover/plug). Digital outputs means that the card itself does not handle converting the signal from digital to analog. Conversion is now handled externally because the card is simply steaming the digital signal it processes from the computer out to a standalone converter to convert it to analog to be played through your speakers. Usually your surround sound amplifier or speakers will handle the conversion itself if it supports digital signal input. Digital coaxial output is always in the form of two channels and optical output can vary from two channels up to eight channels (so check CAREFULLY what the card supports if you plan on running surround from the optical output!). With HDMI starting to join the mainstream now, keep your eyes open for newer cards that are even supporting HDMI audio output too. Most of these cards work by taking the HDMI output from a video card to an HDMI input on the sound card, the card then processes the audio in with the video signal and routes it out a second HDMI output to your home theatre system.

When you're spending a lot of money on a high end card, you can usually find some other goodies with it too. Watch for cards that come with included remote controls or front bay mounts that route some extra inputs and outputs to the front of your computer for quick access.

I want to touch briefly on something that confuses a lot of hobby musicians at home. If you plan on running music production software or recording and layering more than just one track in recording software then the sound card you buy at the local computer store likely won't work for you. You need to buy what they call an audio interface - this takes the form of either a PCI card or a USB/Firewire external box. In addition with providing you several inputs (exact number can range from 1 to 32+ in professional models), these audio interfaces use what's called an ASIO driver. ASIO drivers are much more advanced sound drivers designed specifically for ultra-low latency recording. This means if you're recording yourself at home and layering up tracks then you won't get that delay which causes tracks to not line up like you'll find when attempting such a thing on a consumer card.

Keep in mind that sound cards can come in the integrated variety (where they are a part of your system's motherboard) or as a standalone add-on card or external device. If you're investing in a high quality sound card, then make sure you don't skimp on the other half of things – speakers. The sound card is only half of the equation in producing good quality, accurate sound on your computer. Once it's done the first half of the work, it's now up to your speakers to accurately portray the sound for your ears to hear. Putting an expensive sound card on those cheap $5 speakers that came with your computer is not the way to do things, nor is putting those brand new $500 speakers on the cheap integrated sound your computer came with. With a little balance and research, you'll find the perfect sound card and speaker combo that will make your audio shine the way you want it to.

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