What to Look and Listen for in a Sound Card

Written by:  Daniel Barros • Edited by: Tricia Goss
Updated Jun 1, 2009
• Related Guides: Gaming Pc | PC

This article describes the different facets of PC sound cards and what should be considered when looking to buy one. It expands on the key topic of building the perfect gaming PC as initiated earlier in this series. Here we look at how certain sound systems deserve specific cards.

The Sounds of Games

It's time for another exciting addition to my multi-part series about building the perfect PC. This time, we're talking about the sound card, an item of perpetual debate among PC gamers. Welcome to the fray!

Naming conventions in the PC world are just terrific. By looking at what the name of a PC component is, it won't be a huge leap in logic to guess what that component does. In this case, the sound card handles all the sound-based needs of your computer. "Sound-based needs" covers a lot of ground, ranging from any noise your computer makes through your speaker system to the greatest sounds of operatic singer Andrea Bocelli (if you don't have him in your music collection, you should hear some of his music - great stuff) to the explosions produced by the gun you just fired inside the latest FPS to hit the market.

If you've ever walked inside a BOSE store, you know what I mean when I say "perfect sound". I hate to toot their horn because they're so pricey, but they really do produce an amazing product - life-like sound can make an experience 10 times what it would have been without the sound. But do speakers need to break the bank in order to be amazing? We'll discuss this in a future article, but for now, the simple answer is no.

Perfect sound comes from two sources - the first being the sound card, and the second being the speakers. Much like great picture with bad sound or bad picture with great sound, the sound card and speakers work the exact same way.

Great sound cards will carry with them a legacy of generating great sound. With the perfect speaker-sound card pairing, your system will be able to literally make you jump out of your seat with joy, anger, sadness, or fear, depending on which one the situation calls for.

Wait - I Already Have Sound Through My Motherboard...

Ah, I didn't want to jump the gun, but I can see your point. So can many other PC gamers, which opens up the debate whether or not sound cards are necessary? As manufacturers put higher quality integrated sound into the motherboard, people are becoming increasingly wary of buying a sound card, believing that these cards are costly and only for those who are audiophiles. Let me debunk this myth right now - as of the publishing date of this article, there is no motherboard-integrated sound device that has the capabilities a sound card does, and just like video cards, the myth that all are pricey is just false - they're pricey if you don't know how to buy them.

Let's Talk About Sound

Sound cards aren't nearly as complicated as video cards, and as such are usually smaller and cheaper than the video card (except for the insanely-complicated and engineered professional cards).

First let's talk about what the sound card actually does. This question comes up among circles of PC dabblers looking to upgrade their PC for the first time. A sound card is essentially a gigantic digital to analog converter. Your computer outputs sound digitally (using 0s and 1s), which is something that an analog device like a speaker and subwoofer system cannot comprehend, meaning that the digital signal needs to become analog (electrical signal) before your speaker can interpret it. It's best to think of the sound card as analogous to an interpreter at the UN.

However, sound cards are also measured by their ability to overlay or sound multiple channels at once - a quality known as polyphony. Modern sound cards are capable of up to 8 or 9 voice polyphony on a mono channel. If this sounds confusing, don't worry too much about it, as much as qualities like polyphony are important, you don't need to fully understand them to buy a sound card.

Furthermore, as if converting from digital to analog wasn't enough, the sound card also needs a book to translate from in order to learn the language of what it's trying to translate. Essentially, a sound card uses codex to bridge the gap between the digital and the analog worlds, if you're playing a movie for instance, the sound card needs to be able to realize it's a movie and not a music file.

Other than these points, it's time to talk about what to look for when purchasing a sound card.

Finding that Great Sound

Sound cards are simple - and as such, buying them is simple as well. There are only two things to watch out for - the bit-rate of the digital audio and the number of channels (speakers) that the card supports.

In terms of bit-rate, this describes the fidelity with which the card will reproduce the sound you're asking it to. As a rule of thumb for modern cards, anything below 24-bit isn't worth your time. As most cards today are 24-bit, this leaves only the amount of channels to pick from.

Channels are often denoted 2.1, 5.1, 7.1, 2.0, and so on. These numbers just mean the amount of speakers in your set-up (and don't worry if surround-sound gaming isn't your scene yet - it will be in my future article about speakers). The first number means the number of satellite speakers you have - probably for now just those two looking at you from the side of your monitor as you read this article. The number after the decimal means the number of sub-woofers, and unless you're planning on starting your own death-metal concert and going deaf, more than one sub-woofer is overkill. And it really is this simple, once you've established that you want five satellite speakers and a sub-woofer, you're now in the market for a 5.1 surround-sound system.

And that's all there is to the technical aspects of sound cards. Stick around though, the next article in the series discusses what the best five cards are for the gamer as well as a special budget card.


 
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