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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | Detailed Considerations and Tips for Specifying Particular Components ]

Sound Cards and Speakers

Description: The sound card is responsible for bringing the world of sound and music to life on the PC; that sound is played through the speakers. For the first several years that the PC existed, the only sounds it made were the occasional beeps and squawks through the tiny speaker that is part of the system case. Since then, driven primarily by the need for quality sound effects and music in games, sound cards have become an essential part of most personal PCs. In the business world they are also becoming somewhat more prevalent, particularly for business applications such as teleconferencing, though many business PCs lack sound capability (in part for practical reasons--if more than one PC with sound is being used in an open office a cacophony could result!)

Much as I described in the discussion of video cards, choosing a sound card today is either fairly involved or rather simple, depending on your needs. For occasional gaming, playing music and other fairly mundane tasks, almost any sound card will do. High-end gamers however can choose from a wide array of special components and features, such as 3D audio and support for a large number of speakers. I am going to cover primarily the basics in this section; if you want the latest and greatest in sound, I'd recommend supplementing this information with specifications and reviews of current hardware.

Role and Subsystems: The sound card is part of the multimedia subsystem. It plays music and sound from digital files within the PC, and also plays audio from audio CDs played on an optical drive. The speakers connect to the sound card to actually play the music.

Related Components: The sound card is most closely related to the optical drive and the motherboard.

Key Compatibility Selection Criteria: Here are the key criteria to consider in selecting a sound card and speakers:

  • Interface: Sound cards can connect to the system using either an ISA slot or a PCI slot. ISA slots are more commonly found on older machines; PCI is the trend for the future. Use whichever your system has room for. If you are planning to reuse an older ISA card in a new system, be sure there is an available ISA slot in the motherboard.
  • Resource Availability: Sound cards are notorious for using a large number of system resources: interrupt request lines (IRQs), direct memory access channels (DMAs) and I/O addresses. On a new system the PC maker will take care of these issues, but if you are upgrading or adding a card to a system, be sure to check for availability of resources. The fancier the card, the more likely it will require a lot of resources.
  • SoundBlaster Compatibility: The SoundBlaster was one of the first sound cards and became a virtual standard in the PC world. Virtually all cards are compatible with at least one version of the SoundBlaster family, and this is something you want to make sure you have, especially for games.

Performance and Capacity Selection Criteria: Generally speaking, the more you spend on the card, the more performance you get from it, but it's debatable as to how important this really is. You want to be sure to look for a card that supports wavetable playback, not just FM synthesis, as this will give you much better sound. Beyond that, you are paying for support for more simultaneous "voices", faster processing and so on. As I have mentioned, these are really of primary interest if you are heavily into gaming, otherwise virtually any sound card will do the job. (Even if you are a gamer, a high-end sound card is not mandatory--it's more of a "nice thing to have".)

Speakers are pretty much the same story: paying more gets you more power (volume) and better quality. Virtually any speakers will work for occasional gaming, but if you want the full gaming experience you need to use either good speakers or a home stereo system.

Quality Selection Criteria: Name-brand cards are all fairly reliable and quality problems are not great. Sound cards usually come down to a comparison of features, and just avoiding the "really cheap" ones that can be of poor quality.

As for speakers, this is one place where you really do get only what you pay for. Cheap speakers generally sound like junk; if all you can afford is $20 for a couple of teeny speakers then you will be able to hear what sounds and music your software is producing, but that's about it. If you can, consider using a patch cord from the sound card to the auxiliary input of a stereo system; the sound produced by even an economy portable stereo will be much better than what you get from most inexpensive computer speakers. If you can't do this and you are on a budget, I personally would spend more on the speakers and less on sound card features.

To test if a PC's sound system sounds good or bad due to its sound card or its speakers, try using a good pair of headphones in the output jack of the sound card. Or better, try different sets of speakers with the same sound card on the same system.

Important Features: Here are a couple of things to look for:

  • 3D Audio: 3D audio is a new technology that causes audio to basically "project" into three dimensions, causing the sound to feel like it is surrounding you. For certain gamers (and certain games) this can make the experience more immersive.
  • Digital Audio Connection: As discussed in the section on optical drives, a cable normally connects the CD or DVD drive to the sound card to allow playing CD audio through the PC. This is an analog connection. Some drives and sound cards now support a digital connection that improves quality, assuming you have the capability on both pieces of hardware.
  • Additional Features: If you are in the market for a high-end card, be sure to check out all the various features of different cards, and match them to the software you are considering.
  • "Sub-Woofer" Speakers: If you really want to "feel your bass", look for a set of speakers that includes a sub-woofer.

"Magic Numbers" To Watch For: None, really.

Performance Impact: Little impact on overall system performance.

Retail, OEM and Gray Market Issues: This is not as big a concern as for most other components, for the simple reason that sound cards and speakers are very cheap. It is fairly common to buy a sound card OEM and you shouldn't have too much trouble doing this if you buy from a reliable vendor.

Importance of Manufacturer: Not terribly important, but given how cheap cards are even from reliable vendors, I'd recommend staying with those. For speakers, the brand is not really all that important at all--just how they sound.

Typical Component Lifetime: Sound cards and speakers will last for many years, and unless you are trying to keep up with the latest features, you don't have to worry about replacing them frequently. If you want speakers to last a long time though, you must be careful not to damage them by driving them with more power than they can handle.

Warranty Issues: Nothing special.

Driver Support Issues: Sound cards are fairly dependent on their drivers for proper support under Windows. This is one reason to buy a known brand name. If you plan to update to the newest version of Windows as soon as it is released, be very sure to choose a company with a good track record of writing up-to-date drivers, or you could get "stuck".

Special Specification Considerations: None.

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