Seeking aural pleasure?

Whether you’re a gamer, DVD buff, or musician, a decent sound card is an essential part of your PC. Windows Middle East guides you through the options.

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By  Andrew Picken Published  June 30, 2003

Introduction|~||~||~|DENYING your PC a soundcard is truly an injustice in these heady days of DVDs, 3D gaming and surround sound technology. Connections are king when it comes to sound cards and the cards on offer today can satisfy your every audio demand. They won’t break the bank either, as prices have tumbled over the last few years with budget sound cards starting at $20 and the more professional ones weighing in at $300. As ever, deciding what sound card to buy depends on your budget and its use within your PC set-up.

For those looking to create music using their PCs, a good sound card is an essential purchase. The type of sound card you decide upon will determine how many instruments and speakers you can connect, as well as having a huge bearing on the overall sound quality of your set-up.

MIDI ports are an important consideration for music makers and some sound cards, such as the Creative Sound Blaster Live Platinum 5.1, come with MIDI connections as standard. Many of the music orientated sound cards can also be fitted into the front of your PC, allowing easier access for connecting cables. Microphone ports are also important to the musician, though they now tend to come as standard on most sound cards. The majority of modern sound cards are also full duplex, which means they allow for recording and playing at the same time. This is a must for music makers, but also an important factor for the growing band of people looking to chat with others over the internet.

For the serious gamer, it is worth checking out if your sound card works in conjunction with the 3D acceleration graphic chip-sets found in the modern PC. Two of the leading brands in this field are DirectSound 3D and EAX, both systems create sound effects based on the environment of the game with sounds dynamically produced in relation to the game’s developing events. An increasing number of PC games have support for 3D sound with Quake and Half-Life among the more notable ones.
||**||Speakers|~||~||~|
Speakers
Having a quality sound card with cheap speakers is like eating sirloin steak with a plastic knife and fork. To make the most of your sound card it is worth investing in some decent speakers, particularly if you are going to be listening to a lot of music or watching DVDs through your PC set-up.

The choices available for speakers are far ranging, as are the prices and quality. In the next issue we will carry a review for the Altec XA3051 5.1 surround sound speakers but plenty of alternatives exist, including the Cambridge desktop theater 5.1, which boasts five speakers and a subwoofer. The serious musician will avoid stereo speakers and opt for monitor speakers, the difference being that monitors are designed to reproduce audio signals accurately where as home stereo speakers de-emphasise a lot of signals and are designed to boost and improve recordings.

Whatever you choose, it’s vital that you do a little research though it’s often difficult to wade through technical specification for sound quality without becoming easily flummoxed. The vital statistics to keep an eye on for sound quality are depth and frequency. Although they don’t give you the overall picture, the more depth and the higher frequency you have got, the more enriched sound quality you will get. 16 bits and 44.1 kHz will suffice to achieve adequate sound for games and music, at least on standard PC speakers. But for those looking for DVD quality, it should be closer to 24 bits and 96 kHz.

The evolution of sound cards has been a rapid one and today it will be difficult to find a PC that doesn’t have, at the very least, audio capability embedded onto its motherboard. Embedded sound was the first normal sound-reproducing devices for PCs but the market has moved more towards PCI based sound cards. Embedded sound offers little in the way of sound quality but is more than adequate for users with little need for audio, such as the business user. It is worth verifying whether it is possible to disable your embedded sound card before forking out for a new PCI based sound card.

In terms of getting started, installing sound cards is actually quite straightforward. The majority of sound cards available today are PCI audio cards that slot straight into an empty PCI berth inside your PC. We used the M-Audio Revolution 7.1 (priced at $70) in our workshop and this came with detailed hardware instructions but Windows advises that you also consult any instructions that came with your PC as these might be slightly different.

So we have given you the low-down on soundcards and speakers, now turn the page for a step-by-step guide to installing them and obtaining aural delight.
||**||Steps 1 and 2|~||~||~|
Step 1
Ensure that your PC is shut down and switched off at the mains supply. Next, ease open the PC’s case to expose the empty PCI slots. It is important to remember to touch the metal cage surrounding the power supply, this will ground you to prevent any chance of static electricity damage to the computer.

If you are doing a straight swap of sound cards, remove the old one or otherwise unscrew the metal cover adjacent to the empty PCI slot that you will install the sound card into. Firmly press the sound card into the vacant PCI card slot, as demonstrated in the picture below.

When it is properly installed in the slot, you should not be able to see more than 1/16th of an inch of metal showing on the edge connector above the slot. Once you are happy that the sound card is properly inserted, tighten the screws at the side of the card to keep it rigid within the PC. Once you have completed this stage, fit the PC cover back onto the computer and start up the computer.

Step 2
The majority of sound cards will come with driver software that will allow you to set up with the minimum of hassle. Start your computer up and place the sound card’s driver software CD-ROM in your PC’s CD-ROM tray. We installed the Revolution on a PC running Windows XP but the configuration instructions are virtually identical for installation of 98, ME and 2000 operating systems.

When the computer starts, the new hardware wizard will tell you that it has found a multimedia audio controller. Click on ‘next’ to continue the configuration process. Windows will then search the computer’s CD-ROM drive and install the necessary files and drivers.

When we installed the Revolution on our test PC we were presented with a warning message that informed us that the product has not passed the Windows logo testing, assessing its compatibility with Windows XP. We encountered no problems with the product when we installed it and clicked on ‘continue anyway’ to proceed.
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Step 3
The plethora of connections at the back of any modern sound card can look rather daunting but fear not, they all have their uses. The rear panel of the Revolution sound card that we used (pictured right) has the following jacks. Most sound cards on the market will have a similar set-up.

1. Digital Out — The digital output jack is a S/PDIF coaxial output. You can use an RCA cable (sold separately) to connect this to a digital recorder, mixer or surround receiver. It is recommended that you use a 50-75 Ohm digital cable for this.
2. Mic In (black) — The mic input allows you to connect a mono microphone for recording, videophone or voice recognition applications. The jack is a 3-conductor TRS-type jack for condenser (2-conductor) and electret (3-conductor) type microphones.
3. Line In (blue) — This is a stereo line-level input that can be used to record into an audio recording program.
4. Front L/R, Phones (green) — This jack should connect to the powered left and right speakers, located to the left and right of your computer monitor. If you have just a two-speaker stereo setup, this is the jack to plug into. You can also plug a pair of stereo headphones into this jack.
5. Centre/Subwoofer (yellow) — This line-level output connects to powered centre and subwoofer speakers. The centre channel speaker should be directly above or below your monitor and the subwoofer can go just about anywhere it will fit in your room.
6. Surround L/R (black) — This line-level output should be connected to the powered surround left and right speakers. These speakers should be located to your left and right sides, just behind your head.
7. Surround Centre L/R (pink) — This line-level output connects to the powered surround centre left and right channel speakers. These speakers should be located directly behind you as you are looking at your computer monitor.
||**||Steps 4 and 5|~||~||~|
Step 4
The set-up described in the last step is typical of most sound cards on the market today and the Revolution we tested has four 1/8" stereo output jacks, which can be connected to powered speakers or to the inputs on a surround sound receiver.

This is made simple because the jacks on the Revolution are designed to combine two speaker outputs into one jack, saving on space and also simplifying installation. For example, the centre/subwoofer output is actually the output for both the centre and subwoofer channels. Most multimedia speakers use 1/8” stereo input jacks.

If your speaker or receiver jacks are of the RCA type, instead, you can purchase a converter at a local electronics store, such as Radio Shack. It is worth noting that if your speakers are not self-powered, then you will need to connect the outputs to the inputs of a power amplifier or surround receiver and then its outputs accordingly to the speaker inputs.

Step 5
With all this talk of surround sound, it is probably a good idea if we explain what all the different formats actually mean. When playing a DVD, you can run it through a variety of surround formats, some of which include 2.0, 4.1, 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1. These numbers generally correspond with the number of channels that each format supports.

The vast majority of DVD’s released today are on the 5.1 format, where the signal plays back from the left, centre, and right speakers, plus two surrounds, left and right. The formats that have superseded the 5.1 are ,unsurprisingly, the 6.1 and 7.1 and these incorporate additional centre surround speakers and have been developed with internet and gaming in mind.

For those not looking to go into this level of detail, a simple 2.0 stereo set-up would suffice. This is where sound plays out of the left and right speakers or through a set of headphones. The 2.1 surround sound format is similar but has capacity for a separate subwoofer.
||**||Steps 6 and 7|~||~||~|
Step 6
Once the sound card is successfully installed and configured you will need to ensure that the sound card is set as the preferred Windows system sound device.

If your sound card is the only audio device installed in your PC, then Windows will select it automatically. Otherwise, you may need to inform Windows to start using your card. To check your Windows audio settings click on the start menu, and then choose control panel. Open ‘sounds’ and ‘audio devices’ and then click on the ‘audio’ tab.

Under ‘sound playback’ the default device should have the name of your sound card. If it does not, use the drop down list of devices to find your sound card. Next, click on ‘apply’ and then ‘ok’.

Once you have successfully installed and configured your sound card, it should be possible, with most quality sound cards, for you to control and edit most of its functions via a control panel on your PC’s desktop.

Step 7
The Revolution’s control panel is accessed through a shortcut on the Windows taskbar and is a user friendly, intuitive interface with separate tabs to adjust your speakers, surround sound and input/output options.

The output mixer tab, pictured below, allows you to tinker with the settings of the speakers, while the input/other tab controls the input levels and sampling rates and frequencies. This tab is only of real concern for those looking to use their sound card for recording and mixing purposes.

The surround sound tab does exactly what it says on the tin and it’s important to configure the settings of your sound card’s channels to reflect the actual number of speakers you’re using so that the drivers aren’t sending audio to non-existent speakers. For example, if you select 5.1 and you only have two speakers connected, you won’t hear any of the dialog when playing a DVD movie. That is all it takes, seven simple steps and you’re well on the way to augmenting your audio pleasure.
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