Get Better Sound from Your PC with a Dedicated Soundcard

Edited by Batkingnz, Lynn, Eng, wezi chiweta and 1 other

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In times past, before the PC had become a mainstream fixture in most of our homes and offices, every computer needed a sound card if you wanted to get any sound from your PC that went beyond high pitched beeps and blips. But today, a sound card is not often something that's even considered when buying, building or upgrading a PC. Motherboards in modern PCs have sound hardware built into them and many even have high definition multi-channel output as well. These on-board chips can produce decent enough sound for basic use, but if you want high quality sound in gaming, movies and music playback while also getting the most from a decent set of speakers or headphones, installing a dedicated sound card in your PC is the only way to do it. Read on below to find out why.

Do I Need a sound card?

A sound card isn't for everyone, but if you're reading this article in the first place, then you are probably already wanting to get better sound quality from your PC. It's a good idea to invest in a dedicated sound card if:

  • You are using mid to high quality headphones, especially those that require amplification to reach their full potential.
  • You are using a mid to high quality set of speakers or home theater setup. While on board audio solutions will get the job done, they also introduce noise into the signal chain, which can reduce the clarity heard in your movies, games and music.
  • You have a general sense that you're not hearing any "wow" factor from your PC. Modern games and movies have excellently produced audio. If you have a general opinion that the sound from your PC is dull or doesn't have a "sparkle" to it, or if you are just not satisfied with the quality, then you are probably in need of a dedicated sound card.

Understanding Audio Reproduction

First things first, in audio reproduction, every single part of your source material and signal chain will affect the end result of what you hear. Before starting the search for your new sound card, you should be aware of the following components and their role in the signal chain.

  1. 1
    The source of the sound
    In this case it may be a film, a game, or music on your PC. With video and games, you are almost always guaranteed to get good quality source material as long as the files were legitimately obtained. So when playing a DVD or Blu-ray you won't need to worry about your source material, but downloading compressed versions of movies will mean that there is potential for degraded audio quality. With music, make sure that you have ripped or purchased files that are of a high bit rate. If you're playing straight from a CD, then you won't have troubles, but for digital copies you want something that is 192 Kbps or higher. Lossless audio formats are the best for audio, so look out for file formats like FLAC and WMA lossless.
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  2. 2
    The sound card
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    The sound card does all the work of taking the digital signal coming from your PC and turns it in to an analogue signal that can be reproduced and heard through your speakers or headphones. This is done through a number of processes, the most important being the digital to analog conversion using hardware called a D/A converter (sometimes just DAC). Standalone sound cards have higher quality components, especially the D/A converter which means better sounding audio reaching your ears.
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  3. 3
    Cables carry the signal from the sound card to your speakers and are as important as anything else in the signal chain. Cheaper, low quality cables may be unshielded or use low quality copper that can reduce the clarity and frequency range of the sound you hear. Because the cables are likely running alongside electricity, the computer itself and monitors, etc., it's especially important to use good quality shielded cables.
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  4. 4
    Speakers and Headphones
    You will start to notice the big theme here as we make our way through the signal chain. Every single link in the chain can make or break the sound quality in the end. So just as with everything else, your speakers or headphones should be of sufficient quality for you to enjoy the sound as intended. You don't need to break the bank here; quality Bose, Yamaha, Harmon-Kardon, and other such speakers will produce excellent results. As far as headphones go, consumers are really spoiled for choices these days with the likes of Beats, Sony, SkullCandy, Sennheiser, SteelSeries, AKG and more being good choices for your personal audio needs. It goes without saying that even with the best digital files, sound cards and cables, if your speakers or headphones are not up to it, you won't get the sound quality that you're expecting.
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What To Look For When Choosing A sound card

Because there are a lot of options on the market and in the aim of keeping things simple, we will point out the main things to consider when looking at a sound card to buy. Because not all manufacturers publish all the specifications and many companies have different ways of measuring them, we have provided recommendations at the end of the article in case you're not comfortable with tackling all the technicalities when choosing a card.

  1. 1
    Available Connectors
    The connectors available will determine if you can easily connect the sound card to your speakers. Most devices will come with a standard 3.5 mm output, and some will come with RCA type connectors, 1/4 inch connectors and even digital outputs for connecting to home theater receivers. Check the connections for your speakers or receivers and make sure that the card will support these connections.
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  • 2
    Signal to noise ratio is the amount of noise that's introduced to the signal as the output increases. To put it simply, a higher value means less noise on top of your signal, with the end result being clearer sound. Not all manufacturers will publish this and they don't always do so accurately, but if it's on the specifications list, anything over 90 dB is in the better range.
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  • 3
    Sample Rate and Digital Audio
    A good card should go up to 192 KHz at 24-bit. You can confirm these specifications on the product website or ask the sales staff if you're in a store.
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  • Recommendations

    While you can go out and choose any sound card of your own to get a better audio experience, you could also choose one of the two cards below if you're not inclined to shop around. We have selected both cards based on their price to performance ratio, as well as the features and specifications within.

    1. 1
      Creative Sound Blaster Recon3D Fatal1ty Champion
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      This is an excellent choice for gamers and film and music lovers alike. The nice thing about this card is that it has a front mounting breakout box with a headphone connection and additional inputs. This card also has a built in headphone amp, which means if you have high impedance headphones, you won't need to worry about an external amp. The card goes for $149, but was on sale at the time of this posting. at Newegg.
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    2. 2
      ASUS Xonar D1
      This card is at the other end of the scale from the Sound Blaster option. While this card is budget priced, it still packs impressive technology and will give you a definite boost over the on board sound. The card supports multi-channel as well as optical output that will work well with an external receiver. You can check out the card here.
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    Tips, Tricks & Warnings

    • If you're using Bluetooth speakers, upgrading your sound card will not affect the sound quality. Bluetooth audio transfer is wireless, which doesn't allow for sound quality at the same level of wired speakers.
    • Avoid low end cards. Around $50 should be your starting price point when looking for a sound card upgrade; anything below this is not going to produce enough difference over on-board sound to make it worth your while.
    • It's often overlooked, but low quality MP3 files will make a massive difference to your sound quality. If you have a library of songs that was ripped in the early 2000's then you might be dealing with bit rates as low as 48 Kbps. While the lack of quality won't be noticeable on low end equipment, using a quality sound card and speakers will not improve the sound of these low bit rate MP3 files.

    Questions and Answers

    Why is my computer producing a whizzing sound through a sound card?

    We have a computer that has a Realtek sound card, which produces a whizzing sound. This has just started, but the system has been the same for the last year. What could be the cause? I have tried: Nothing. I think it was caused by: I don't know

    The problem is a new driver. Windows updates sometimes install drivers that might be malfunctioning or buggy. To fix this, press the Windows key, type "device manager" and press "Enter". In the new window, expand "Sound, video and game controllers". Double-click the Realtek sound card (it can be listed as "High Definition Audio Device" or "AC'97 Audio"). Click the "Driver" tab". Select "Roll Back Driver". If that does not work, you will need to find the manufacturer of your motherboard (if you, your acquaintance, or a store built the computer) or computer (if you bought it from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, etc.), enter its web site (for example, for ASUS or for Hewlett-Packard computers), and locate the driver download section for audio devices in the support section. Usually, the latest or beta drivers work. Other times, you will need to use an older driver to fix the high-pitched sound problem.

    Does the sound card improve the quality of the recording?

    I need the sound card to record my poems

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    Categories : Hardware

    Recent edits by: wezi chiweta, Eng, Lynn

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