17.10 Our Picks
Here are the sound adapters we recommend:
- General-purpose sound
Buy a motherboard with embedded audio. Many recent motherboards include embedded audio standard or as an option. These audio chipsets, usually from Analog Devices, Creative, Crystal Audio, or Yamaha, may not include the cutting-edge features of standalone sound cards, but are more than good enough for standard business audio, listening to music, and casual gaming. The tight integration of embedded audio also makes compatibility problems and resource conflicts much less likely. In particular, we are impressed by the Analog Devices AD1885 chipset used in many recent Intel motherboards. In conjunction with the latest SoundMax drivers, the AD1885 provides all the audio functionality most people need.
- PCI sound card (budget)
SIIG SoundWave Pro PCI. Basic PCI sound cards are becoming hard to find, as embedded audio eliminates their market. Although basic Creative PCI sound cards remain available, we think the SIIG SoundWave Pro PCI is about the best PCI sound card you can find for around $25. It supports basic 3D sound, is compatible with DS, DS3D, and the SoundBlaster 16/Pro, and is PC98 compliant. The sound quality, while it certainly is not up to the standard set by the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz, is at least adequate for listening to MP3 and casual gaming. Like most SIIG products, the SoundWave Pro PCI is readily available from Best Buy, CompUSA, and similar retail stores, as well as from many online vendors. (http://www.siig.com/products/sound/features/SndwvProPCI.html)
- ISA sound card (budget)
Creative Labs SoundBlaster AWE64 Value. We recommend avoiding ISA sound cards whenever possible, but sometimes there is no alternative to using one. For those times, this $25 wavetable card does everything you can reasonably expect from an inexpensive ISA card. Its MIDI support is not as good as more expensive cards, and it can bog down the CPU, particularly in slower, older systems, but we don't know of a better basic ISA card. (http://www.soundblaster.com/products/sbawe64value/)
- PCI sound card (premium)
Voyetra Turtle Beach Santa Cruz. At $75 or so, this is the best consumer-grade sound card available. It supports six-speaker surround sound, including virtual 5.1 processing that emulates full surround sound from two-channel stereo sources. It supports all major PC audio standards, including A3D, EAX, DS3D, IA3D, and Sensaura, and provides DOS game compatibility under Windows 9X. Good drivers are available for all major operating systems, including Linux. We have experienced no compatibility problems with Intel, VIA, ALi, or SiS chipsets, which is more than we can say for some sound cards. Unless you work with PC audio for a living, the Santa Cruz is probably all the sound card you'll ever need. This is the sound card we install when features and sound quality matter. (http://www.voyetra-turtle-beach.com/site/products/santacru/)
- ISA sound card (premium)
None. If you need 3D, hardware acceleration, enhanced MIDI support, and other features common to higher-end sound cards, buy a Turtle Beach Santa Cruz.
| || |
Although Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live! PCI sound adapters are immensely popular, we cannot recommend them. We have many reports of poor audio quality, compatibility problems, and system crashes attributable to a SoundBlaster Live! sound adapter. We have experienced these problems ourselves on Windows 9X and Windows 2000 systems, despite loading the latest drivers and doing everything else we could think of to resolve them, including fiddling with PCI latency. These problems are documented on public message boards, the Usenet comp.sys.ibm.pc.soundcard.* and microsoft.public.win2000.* newsgroups, and elsewhere. Note that although these problems are most common with the Live! boards, they also occur with earlier boards such as the AWE32.
The usual symptoms are crackling sound, dropouts, DMA problems, bluescreens, and sporadic system crashes, including blackscreen crashes to a hard reboot. The problems seem most common on motherboards that use VIA KT-133 family chipsets, but we have seen similar problems on motherboards that use non-VIA chipsets, including the remarkably stable Intel i440BX and 815 chipsets. Although the problems don't show up on every system and are sometimes not reproducible, they are common enough that we consider them systemic. Problems seem most likely to occur on overclocked systems, systems with ACPI enabled, and systems that have a high-performance video card, although we have seen the problem occur on vanilla Intel 440BX and 815-based systems that were not overclocked, did not use ACPI, and used only embedded video.
The only solution we know of is to remove the SoundBlaster Live! card, go in with fire and sword to eradicate all Creative Labs drivers, and install a different sound adapter. Unfortunately, the Creative Labs drivers are very persistent, and a simple uninstall leaves drivers and registry entries that may cause continued problems. Doing a repair or upgrade installation of the operating system isn't enough. The only sure way we know to solve the problem is to back up your data, fdisk your hard drive, and reinstall the operating system and all applications from scratch.
For updated recommendations, visit: