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Playback and Sound Quality
Once we have our digital audio, how do we get it back into analog form so we can hear it? Simple: we reverse the process and convert the 1's and 0's encoded on the CD or in a digital audio file to analog voltages to be sent to your speakers. The device that does this is unsurprisingly called a digital to analog converter, or DAC. In a home stereo system, and in very high-end sound cards for professionals, the DACs are very high quality (I know, I know, there are cheapy home stereo systems out there with lousy DACs too, but I'm speaking generally). In lower-priced sound cards they are of lesser quality, though most sound cards today do produce very good quality sound.
So your Metallica CD should sound just as good when played on your computer as the stereo in your house right!!!? Well, not exactly. There are a good number of differences, but probably the biggest one has nothing to do with the computer at all: it's your speakers. The speakers that come with most PCs are very low quality, due to manufacturers trying to save funds. The best way to get good quality sound from your PC is not to use the speakers that come with it. Do what I do: have the line level outputs from your sound card going to a stereo receiver using non-computer speakers; then your sound quality will be comparable to that of your home stereo system. (Don't get me wrong here. Altec Lansing has come out with some good speakers and subwoofers, as has Bose. But neither sound like a set of Bose 901s or Infinity SM-155s...)
Another major problem with sound reproduction on the PC is noise. Your computer's components generate a lot of noise. I'm speaking about electrical noise here, but this can become audible if it is processed by your sound card circuitry. The power supply, hard drives, CD-ROM, tape backup, processor cooling fan, ZIP drive etc...All generate noise. Some of this bleeds over into the sound card circuitry. That's why you should try to install your sound card in the slot farthest from all of these devices, if possible.