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Computer Audio Cards - The Howto

Most computers today come with audio connections that let you hook up speakers and a microphone. The sound from these connections is adequate but if you are serious about using your computer as a digital entertainment device capable of playing all sorts of audio and video, you should look into buying an audio card.

There are a huge number of audio cards on the market today. Some are traditional PCI cards that must be installed in one of the slots of your motherboard, and others are USB or FireWire devices that can be attached to the computer with a cable. Either way you go, there are plenty of options to choose from.

If you are interested in basic stereo playback with two speakers connected to your computer you may find that the built-in audio connections are suitable for you. Their basic limitation is that you have to use computer speakers and most run-of-the-mill computer speakers don’t really sound that good. However, a top-of-the-line set may be sufficient for your needs and don’t cost very much money.

If you watch DVD movies on your computer or you are interested in DVD surround sound audio, you should get a third party card that has 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound capabilities. The first number in the 5.1 or 7.1 spec tells you the number of main speakers that can be positioned around the room. The .1 refers to a sub-woofer for reproducing low frequencies.

Surround sound cards come in a wide range of prices and specs. You want to find a card that has a decent signal to noise ratio. This figure tells you how noisy the card is and a S/N ratio of 85dB and above is pretty good.

If you are interested in making your own digital recordings, you can attach a microphone or line input to just about any computer on the market. But as with audio playback, 3rd party recording sound cards give you more flexibility and usually a better sound. Cards that can record audio at 24 bits and 96 kHz are becoming the norm, and there are some that are quite reasonably priced. Consider that CD audio is 16 bit and 41.1 kHz and you will get an idea of the superb sound qualities of these cards.

For the musician who wishes to use the computer as a recording studio, MIDI connections are another important consideration when buying a sound card. Sound cards with ASIO drivers allow you to play “virtual” instruments in real time with no delay between pressing a key on the keyboard and hearing the computer-generated sound.

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