We're here to help you buy a sound card. We've got advice and information about all the latest PC components. We discuss the features and specifications you need to look for, and explain the difference between the technologies.
It's worth making sure you spend wisely. To make it easier, we pointed out some features you should consider before you buy:
Technology has brought together audio, video and data onto the personal computer, enabling this once mundane data processing device to offer a rich and colorful multimedia experience to the user. Now, playing movies, recording high quality music and playing colour-rich games, is possible on the most basic computer. With various input devices such as microphone, radio, tape deck, CD player as well as output devices such as speakers, headphones and CD-Recorders, the sound card acts as the primary peripheral. Before the advent of the sound card, computers would be limited to sending out simple beeps and whistles to let the operator know if its internals were functioning effectively and there was little or no continual output of sound. With the launch of the Creative Sound Blaster in the early 1980's, this completely changed. As development on the CD-ROM and Sound card was simultaneous, this has been beneficial to users who have access to a multimedia rich environment overnight. The sound card used to execute much more processes than just sound, and was the interface for the joystick and various gaming devices on the computer.
This has now changed, however, with joysticks and other peripherals being USB most of the time. In fact, the term 'sound card' is slowly being replaced by 'audio interface' as these devices become external, with proper knobs and bigger audio connectors than the example on the photo below, with its mini-jacks.
Motherboards do still sport such mini-jacks. and a host of, usually, surround outputs, as well as a mic input and a digital output. The analogue sound through motherboards is, however, unlikely to satisfy the audiophile. Indeed, buzzing & interference is common on such outputs due to the proximity of the central processor and to the lack of any electro-magnetic shielding inside the computer between components.
The internal sound card can be defined as an expansion card that can input and output sound under the control of a program. This card when plugged in on the computer via the recent PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) or the newer PCI-Express slot enables the creation, storage and reproduction of music. A sound card is made up of multiple processors, which perform a set task. These processors focus on a specific activity and in conjunction act as the interface of audio within the computer. A DSP or Digital Signal Processor acts as a computational processor, while the DAC or Digital-to-Analog Converter is responsible for the audio output from the computer, and the ADC or Analog-to-Digital Converter for audio input. The DSP is responsible for any alterations to the sound and acts as a full-fledged processor while freeing up the computer's main processor for other tasks. In addition to this, most sound cards come with their own on-board Flash memory or ROM, which is used to buffer the data from the card to the processor on the computer's motherboard. The sound card also holds various jacks for connecting speakers & microphones. MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface acts as the interface to connect external musical instruments to the computer, and some sound cards come with such connectors hence the option to connect synthesizers & the like to your computer. Based on this a sound card is quite a complex device and is almost a computer in its own right.
All current sound cards are full-duplex, as it enables data to be transferred two-ways or in both directions simultaneously, thus increasing the quality and speed of the card. A card's quality also depends on its maximum sampling rate or the number of bits used to record each sample. Most cards come with a 32-bit sampling rate, which is currently, the highest level of recording sound. Users can also now look forward to a new generation of digital sound cards, with professional XLR mic and TRS 6.35mm jack connectors.
The external sound card, usually called an audio interface, connects via USB or Firewire in most cases, USB 3 being the latest & most popular standard. It can come in a desktop format, with dedicated volume knob and headphone output, and with dedicated knobs for microphone preamplifiers / high impedance instrument inputs. Line level outputs are usually found on the back: these connect to CD players or synthesizers, for example.
The external interface is by far preferable in terms of sound quality as it will not suffer from proximity to high emittance electro-magnetic devices such as the CPU and graphics card. Most such interfaces offer pristine sound, although there can be differences in quality, especially in the input section.
If you want the ultimate transparency, some of the best brands to go for are Hilo, TC Electronic and MOTU.
Trying to narrow down your search for a sound card that is apt for you, PriceRunner.co.uk offers search parameters on Name, Price, Bits & 3D Sound Support. Where serious users will need to pay attention is the extra features and software that is bundled along with the card. As most chipsets present on the sound card will be from the same manufacturer, the differentiator will be in the software and features added to that card. Having 192 Khz inputs & converters is, according to white papers written by top sound engineers, absolutely useless, and 44.1 Khz or 48 Khz are totally sufficient for optimal sound. In fact, anything above that may theoretically harm your sound (subtly) so don't pay attention to the hype!
While most motherboards come with an inbuilt sound-processing chip, gamers and audiophiles may not be happy with its output. As this on-board inclusion of the sound card frees up a slot on the motherboard, which may be used to plug in another device, it leaves a lot to be desired for the user who has plugged in his computer to a home theater setup or a users who records music on the computer. Likewise, for serious gamers or users who use their computers to play VCD's or DVD's or graphic and sound rich games, the sound card would have to upgraded from the one on-board to a PCI enabled card. Most recent sound cards are 32-bit enabled making the multimedia experience truly fascinating.