Section 17.6. Choosing a Sound Card

   

17.6 Choosing a Sound Card

Sound adapters fall into two broad categories. Consumer-grade sound adapters are made by companies like Turtle Beach and Creative Labs and are widely available in retail channels. The better ones, such as the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz, suffice for any purpose for which you are likely to use a sound adapter. Professional-grade sound adapters made by companies such as Aardvark, Digital Audio Labs, Event, Lucid, and Lynx cost hundreds of dollars, are intended for professional audio production, have poor retail distribution, and are beyond the scope of this book. For a technical comparison of many models of sound adapters, see http://www.pcavtech.com/soundcards/compare/index.htm.

Use the following guidelines when choosing a sound card:

Choose embedded sound, if available, for general use

If you are building a new system or replacing the motherboard on an existing system, choose a motherboard that includes embedded sound, unless you need features like enhanced 3D or enhanced MIDI functions. Embedded sound is inexpensive (typically $10 more than the same motherboard without sound) and well integrated, which minimizes installation and configuration problems. Embedded PCI sound also typically provides better SoundBlaster emulation than an add-on PCI card, if that is an issue.

Embedded sound is often implemented as soft audio , e.g., the Analog Devices AD1885 chipset used in many Intel motherboards. Although soft audio solutions are inexpensive and may provide superior sound quality and features such as 3D positional audio, they depend on the main system CPU for processing. Using 3D audio features on a soft audio adapter may consume 10% or more of the CPU. We have never found this to be a problem, even when running CPU-intensive first-person-shooter games, but this additional burden on the CPU can cause jerkiness, hesitations, or other problems, particularly if the system has a slow CPU.

Don't buy too much sound card

When you add or replace a sound card, don't pay for features you won't use. Don't buy an expensive sound card if you'll use it only for playing CDs, listening to system prompts, light gaming, Internet telephony, voice recognition (on a fast system), and so on. High-quality sound cards available for $30 or so, such as the Turtle Beach Montego II, include enhanced MIDI support, 3D hardware acceleration, and most of the other advanced features that more expensive cards provide, and are more than adequate for most purposes.

Don't buy too little sound card

If you use a sound card extensively for purposes like 3D gaming, reproducing DVD sound, voice recognition (on a slow system), complex MIDI rendering, and so on, buy a sound card with hardware acceleration and other features that support what you use the card for. Capable consumer-grade high-end sound cards like the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz sell for $75 or so, and are suitable for anything short of professional audio production.

Consider replacing an older sound card

If a sound card is more than two or three years old, replace it. Even inexpensive current sound cards like the $20 Creative Labs Ensoniq AudioPCI are likely to provide better sound reproduction than high-end models that are a few years old, particularly for games and other MIDI applications.

Avoid ISA sound cards

Unless your system has only ISA expansion slots, choose a PCI sound card. PCI sound cards are faster and provide more voices, and are usually less expensive than equivalent ISA cards because PCI cards can use main system memory while ISA cards can use only on-board memory. One exception to this rule: if your system has barely adequate memory less than 16 MB for Windows 9X or 32 MB for Windows NT do not use a PCI sound card. The demands it makes on main system memory may slow performance and reduce system stability. If expanding memory is not an option, install an ISA card instead.

Avoid no-name sound cards

Stick to name-brand sound cards. We frequently hear horror stories from readers who have purchased house-brand sound cards outdated drivers, missing or inadequate documentation, poor (or no) tech support, shoddy construction, incompatibility with Windows 98 or NT (let alone Windows 2000 and XP), and on and on. What's particularly ironic is that you may pay more for a house-brand sound card than for a low-end name-brand card. You can buy a decent branded sound cards for $20 to $35 from reputable companies. There's no reason to buy anything less.

Make sure the sound card you choose has drivers available for your operating system

Nearly all sound cards are well supported under Windows 95/98. Most mainstream cards have adequate Windows NT 4 drivers (although installing a PNP/ISA sound card under NT4 requires some extra steps). Windows 2000 and Windows XP include drivers for most popular sound cards, but we have experienced conflicts and limited functionality with some of these drivers. Make sure any sound card you use with Windows 2000/XP has a certified driver supplied by the manufacturer. Linux now supports many sound cards, and both the number of models supported and the quality of that support seem to improve month to month. If you run Linux, however, verify that drivers are available for the exact model card you plan to use.

Bundled software

We admit it. We've never bothered to install any of the plethora of applications that are bundled with many sound cards, particularly high-end models, and we probably wouldn't know what to do with them if we did. But that's because we use sound cards only for playing MP3 and CD audio, recording audio from within other applications, Internet telephony, and similar applications. The software supplied with a sound card varies according to the market focus of that card. Cards targeted at gamers often include a game or two intended to show off the features of that card, although such games are often demos, feature-crippled, or older versions. Similarly, cards with high-end MIDI features often include a competent MIDI sequencer and editor, although again it's likely to be a "Lite" version, intended primarily to convince you to upgrade to (and pay for) the "Professional" version. But if you do need one of these functions and your needs are moderate, bundled software may do the job you need and allow you to avoid spending more money on individually purchased applications.

Embedded audio has nearly destroyed the standalone sound card market, and this trend is likely to accelerate as more Athlon/Duron motherboards begin including embedded audio. Sound card makers are desperate to find new ways to sell cards. One popular means is to use packaging and bundled full-featured software to target a product at different niche markets. For example, Creative Labs markets their SoundBlaster Live! in several packages, including the MP3+ and the X-Gamer, which are targeted at music collectors and gamers respectively. Turtle Beach sells their flagship Santa Cruz sound card alone, or in similar targeted bundles. In each case, it's the same hardware, but with different software, options, and accessories, targeted at different markets. If you need a particular sound application, check the models available in such "families." One may have exactly the software you need at a lower combined price than what you would spend for the card and software separately.

       


    PC Hardware in a Nutshell
    PC Hardware in a Nutshell, 3rd Edition
    ISBN: 059600513X
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2002
    Pages: 246

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