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A Primer on Your Computer’s Audio: A Brief Look at Sound Cards

written by: John Garger•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 7/20/2010

Choosing the right audio components has a huge impact on the multimedia capabilities of your computer. Learn about computer sound cards and the importance of choosing the right audio hardware in this article.

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    Computer Audio

    Computers are made up of many parts that must work well together to produce a pleasant computing experience. The granular nature of the modern computer means that computers are comprised of parts made by many different manufacturers. Luckily, industry standards and third-party standards organizations ensure that parts that are supposed to work together do.

    Computer audio is one of the most salient components in a computer. It is responsible for a major portion of a computer’s multimedia experience. At the center of computer audio lies the sound card, literally an electronic card that plugs into your computer to which speakers and other components connect. Read on to learn about sound cards and the impact they have on the multimedia capabilities of your computer.

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    A Brief History of Sound Cards

    Computers were not always the multimedia experiences they are today. Prior to the introduction of sound cards, computers were either dead silent or were only capable of producing high-pitched bleeps and blips from a tiny, underpowered internal speaker.

    In the late 1980s, a company called Creative Labs forever changed home computing with the introduction of the Sound Blaster sound card. The first Sound Blaster that really took hold in the computer market was only capable of 8-bit mono sound. Still, the quality of sound delivered by the Sound Blaster created demand for the major computer manufacturers of the time to include Sound Blasters as standard equipment.

    Creative Sound Blaster X-fi Surprisingly, Creative Labs has kept a hold of the sound card market as the number one manufacturer of computer audio equipment. The latest Sound Blaster cards are capable of far more than first generation sound cards. For example, the Sound Blaster X-Fi is capable of EAX 5.0 sound effects, delivers 3D positional audio, and plugs into the latest PCI Express slots on your motherboard. This particular card is even capable of delivering sound quality so high that it is often the sound card of choice for home theaters.

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    Choosing the Right Sound Card

    Sound cards come in a variety of capabilities and formats including those capable of surround sound in 5.1 and 7.1 configurations. Most home users still use the standard 2.1 configuration (two speakers on the desk and one subwoofer on the floor). Choosing the right sound card involves deciding beforehand what you want your computer’s sound capabilities to be.

    To choose a sound card, start with the following questions: What will I be using the sound for? If you are a hard-core gamer, you will want a sound card that can deliver the highest and richest sound possible. The same is true if your computer doubles as a stereo system.

    Do I need the highest quality sound possible? If you only need the blips and beeps from your operating system, you are better off saving some money and using on-board audio. Many motherboards now shop with audio capabilities built in, removing the need to purchase and install a separate sound card.

    Can my computer use an internal sound card? Most sound cards plug into an available PCI or PCIe slot on your computer’s motherboard. Before you buy a new sound card, check with your computer’s manufacturer to be sure you have the right internal equipment to install a sound card.

    What audio configuration do I want for my computer? 2.1? 5.1? 7.1? Surround sound produces an amazing multimedia experience, but is it practical for you? Do you have the space to hook up and place 6 to 8 speakers around your computer’s desk? If the answer is no, you are better off buying a sound card with fewer features that match your needs. The result is less money spent on the features you want rather the ones you will not use.

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    Sound cards deliver a major portion of your computer’s multimedia experience. Coupled with the right speakers, you can enjoy near-cinematic quality for a fraction of the price of an entire home theater system. For gamers, the right sound card is one of the most important components in your computer, second only to a video card. Take the time to think about what you want your computer to do and choose a sound card that matches, as closely as possible, the experience you want to receive from your computer’s sound.