Read our Sound Card buying guide to find the perfect model whatever your budget. Compare Sound Card prices, features and reviews to help with your decision.
Sound card Buying Advice
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We're here to help you buy a sound card. We've got advice and information about all the latest pc componets. 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 consumer. Now, playing movies, recording high quality music and playing color 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 soundcard 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 SoundBlaster in the early 1980's, this complete 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 executes much more processes than just sound, and is the interface for the joystick and various gaming devices on the computer.
The 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 older ISA (Industry standard Architecture) 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 computers main processor for other tasks. In addition to this, most soundcards 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 computers motherboard. The soundcard also holds various jacks for connecting speakers, microphones, joysticks and gamepad. MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface acts as the interface to connect external musical instruments to the computer. Based on this a soundcard is quite a complex device and is almost a computer in its own right.
Most 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 cards 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, targeted at the CD-R and DAT formats. Since this is a digital format and is high in quality, no generation loss exists, as sound is not being converted to and from being analog to digital on the hard disk.
Earlier sound cards used FM Synthesis to create sound. This process samples tones at varying frequencies and combines them to create what can pass of as an approximation of the sound. While this has been in use for a long time, current generations of sound cards use Wavetable synthesis. This process records a tiny sample of the instrument and is then played in a loop to recreate the original instrument.
Trying to narrow down your search for a Soundcard that is apt for you, PriceRunner.com offers search parameters on Name, Price, Bits & 3D Sound Support. Look out for cards or motherboards that support the Creative SoundBlaster Pro standard, as this the de-facto standard of compatibility. 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. Look out for cards that support both FM Synthesis and Wavetable Synthesis. Most new generation cards use Wavetable Synthesis and may not support FM Synthesis, as it is older.
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.