And the Winners Are...
In part 3, we covered the essentials of picking a sound card out of the multitude available for consumer purchase. We were looking for a card with 7.1 surround sound built in, 24-bit digital audio, and good polyphony. Just as before with video, picking a sound card can be a personalized experience - nobody knows what you need and what your budget is better than you do. As a rule of thumb, I don't purchase a sound card that costs more than $50, but then again, I'm sporting a Logitech Z-4400 2.1 system, which means that I won't need a sound card to give me that perfect pitch 7.1 surround sound people are looking for.
That being said, here are the top sound cards for the budding PC Gamer:
1. The HT Omega Claro Plus+
Unlike the cream of the crop in video cards, the top sound card didn't come out five minutes before I wrote the article. The HT Omega Claro Plus+ is definitely the consumer choice for surround sound. The card itself skips the formalities of having colored indicators in order to know which connections are which (green is line in, light blue is line out, etc.) which to me is a drawback for the card, but in no way a reason not to make the purchase - it just means that you'll have to connect your 7.1 speakers before you move your tower back to its comfortable resting place. Simply put, no other card comes close to the amount of customization and sound quality generated by the Claro Plus+, although some will be deterred by its $175 price tag.
2. The Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 Value SB0400
Until recently, no one was able to dethrone Creative as the definitive sound card maker. HT is now giving them a good run for their money, but as one of the founding fathers of the sound card, Creative still has a massive reputation with the gaming community at large. This particular card is a good buy if you want a great sampling rate and good sound in general, as it sports many of the same features as the Claro Plus+ without breaking the bank. Furthermore, this card is probably the only card I could find here on this list that actually has the polyphony written out in the product description, so special kudos to Creative for treating everyone like experts, always a bonus when a company knows it doesn't need to dumb down its products.
3. The HT Omega Striker
For a cheaper HT card, you need look no further for a sound card that is not as crystal clear as the Claro Plus+, but just as effective in every area. However, as a trade-off for the $100 dollars you're saving, the sampling rate of the card goes down to 92 Khz. The sampling rate goes back to the physics of sound - basically, a sampling rate measures how many times the card is able to break down an analog signal into smaller, more manageable pieces (what is known as a discrete signal instead of a continuous signal). At 92 Khz, this card in particular will not be able to give full life to Blu-ray movies in the future when the BD-DVD drives decrease in price. For a future-proof sound card, buy number 1, for a sound card that will perform amazingly and give you the best sound you've ever heard for now, buy this one.
4. The AuzenTech AZT-XPCINE
Number 4 is a reasonably unknown sound-card make in the PC world. Two reasons to make them number four:
1. As a reasonably obscure company, they won't try to jack up their prices like HT and Creative will.
2. They make a quality product, and with a rebate - it comes out to less than any of the good Creative or HT cards without sacrificing significant sound quality.
Another important thing to remember is that even though most sound cards will boast on the front/back of the box that they are designed especially for a cinematic experience - there is no reason that they shouldn't work exceptionally well with games too. As a matter of fact, thus far a lot more games than movies support the new 7.1 surround sound standard. All in all, Auzen presents a product with a good sampling rate, and a buffet of features.
5. The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtremegamer
I will now go ahead and remove the kudos I previously gave Creative for not dumbing down their products. Even though this is a lower-end X-Fi sound card, which has been given a marketing bath in order to get anybody who knows what the word "game" means to buy one, it still is a pretty good choice for sound. While not having the sampling rate that the cards above it do, it has features that are game-specific and therefore, given the right set-up with the speakers and a lot of finger-crossing with the settings, it could beat out number 4. I say "could" because it takes quite a bit of time to navigate through the junk that is included in the software pack and therefore, it might just be nicer to get an HT card or even the Creative card in number 2.
That does it for the top five cards. Now the time has come for the cheap gamer's favorite - the budget card!
... and the Top Budget Card Is....
The Creative Soundblaster Audigy SB0570 SE
Coming in at $30, this card offers amazing value. Personally, I noticed the difference when I switched over to one of these from the motherboard on-board audio, and for 30 bucks there is no reason to continue living without owning one instead of plugging in your expensive speakers to the motherboard. The sampling rate is just as high as some of the other cards I described in the Top 5, but the features list is considerably shrunken. For the gamer who wants great sound but doesn't want to spend a penny over $50, this is the card to buy, and since sound cards are much more stable in terms of the technology than video cards - this is an investment that could carry over into your PC 4-5 years from now.
And with that, we bid adieu to sound cards - you should now have all the information you need to buy one. If you find that you can't make up your mind over which one to get, just use the motherboard's audio for the time being. Since we're on the topic of sound, in the next article, we'll be discussing what speakers are and your best choices therein.