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Seven PC audio solutions compared

Seven PC audio solutions compared

MUCH TO MY DISMAY, audio seems to be one of the more universally neglected components of today's PCs, even the high-end ones. Quite honestly, it's not hard to see why. It's much easier to flash some benchmarks showing that a 3GHz processor is indeed very fast, or show a screenshot or video clip that conveys the awesome power of DirectX 9-class pixel and vertex shaders, than it is to convey how good all the different PC audio solutions really sound. What makes something sound good is largely subjective territory, and evaluations can be as dependent on quality of source media and speaker system as they can on the quality of the sound card itself. An audiophile-class sound card isn't going to do much for you if you're listening to a 128k MP3 on a set of low-end, bargain-bin speakers. Likewise, a budget sound card isn't going to magically sound amazing when you hook it up to a killer set of THX-certified 5.1 surround sound speakers.

Nevertheless, I think quality audio is ready for a comeback. PCs are increasingly being used as digital entertainment hubs to play, record, and manipulate audio and video, and Microsoft has even released a special "Media Center" edition of Windows XP designed for media-centric PCs. Games, too, are ripe for an audio revolution. With today's graphics cards capable of handling all the complex calculations required to produce stunning visuals without having to lean on the processor for too much help, game developers have additional CPU resources that can be dedicated to more complex audio engines, among other things. Hard drives are adding gigabytes at what seems like a frantic pace, too, so there's also plenty of room on gamers' hard drives for higher quality audio samples.

To prepare you for what could be the PC's impending audio revolution, we've rounded up a total of seven very different PC audio solutions and run them through the wringer. We have everything from a typical 6-channel motherboard integrated audio implementation all the way up to a professional-level, true 24-bit/96kHz sound card more appropriate for audiophiles. Is professional-level audio really all that? Is integrated audio really that bad? How do different audio cards stack up, and which one is right for you? Read on to find out.

A few things you should know
If you already understand the ins and outs of PC audio, you'll probably want to skip over this section and turn the page. However, if your knowledge of PC audio stretches about as far as how to correctly plug in your speakers, you'd best stick around. In this section I'll try to give you a quick crash course on what PC audio is all about, and some of the more important things we'll be looking into today.

A sound card's two key components are its audio processor and its codecs. The audio chip and codecs work together, in conjunction with a few other more minor components, to take sound from your PC and output it to your speakers. Ideally, nothing is lost in the process, but we all know how ideals work out in the real world.

Since the audio processor is the most complex component, we'll tackle it first. The audio processor is essentially your sound card's brain; it does much of the thinking and is responsible for the vast majority of the duties a sound card is capable of performing. Features like 3D positional audio and support for multiple output channels are some of the more important things to look for in an audio chip, but if your primary concern is sound quality, the chip's sampling rate and resolution should be at the top of your list of things to check. An audio processor's sampling rate and resolution refer to a chip's internal precision and to the quality of the signals that it's able to record, generate, or manipulate. When it comes to sampling rates and resolutions, higher is better. Low-end audio chips typically process audio internally at 16-bit/44.1kHz, while high-end offerings can go as high as 24-bit/192kHz.

If you have speakers with a digital input, all you have to worry about is the audio chip. However, if you're using analog speakers, you'll need a way to convert the audio chip's digital signal to an analog one that your speakers can understand. That need brings us to the codecs, which typically include Analog to Digital Converters (ADCs) and Digital to Analog Converters (DACs). The ADCs and DACs handle all the conversion necessary for analog recording and playback, respectively. If you're using analog inputs or outputs, signals pass through the codecs, which makes their internal sampling rate and resolution very important. Your audio chip could be producing a high-quality 96kHz, 24-bit digital signal with all sorts of dynamic range and impeccable fidelity, but if your codec samples that signal down to 44.1kHz and 16 bits of resolution, you probably won't be impressed by what you hear. At the very least, a codec should have an equal sampling rate and resolution to the audio chip it's paired with.

Of course, if you have a great codec with a high sampling rate and resolution paired with a sub-par audio chip, you're not going to get good sound either. If a high-quality codec gets a low-quality signal from the audio chip, the best you can hope for is an accurate reproduction of the initial, low-quality signal. As a wise man once said, "you can't polish a turd."

Ideally, a good sound card will pair a high-quality DSP with a DAC of comparable quality, but that's not always the case. Occasionally, you'll see high-end codecs paired with lower quality audio chips to save a few dollars while the marketing types spin support for whatever audio quality the best component of the two supports. Buyer beware.