Sound cards explained

Whether you’re a home theatre enthusiast, gamer or musician, selecting the right sound card for your needs should be an important consideration. Here’s how to decide into which category your sound card needs fall, plus some general installation and connection tips to keep in mind when you’re setting up.

Choosing a sound card

Home theatre: if you’re upgrading or piecing together a new PC, remember that new motherboards usually contain onboard or ‘host’ audio chipsets. They are generally adept at handling 5.1-channel surround sound or greater and are useful if you plan to equip yourself with a DVD drive and surround sound speakers for watching movies. If your motherboard doesn’t have 5.1 ability, cards such as AOpen’s $49 Cobra AW850 (www.bluechipit.com.au), Hercules’s $89.95 Gamesurround Muse 5.1 DVD (www.hercules.com) and Creative’s $99 SoundBlaster Live! 5.1 SE (http://australia.creative.com) represent good entry points.

Of course, this requires a set of surround speakers, which are available from companies such as Creative, Logitech (www.logitech.com) and Altec Lansing (www.alteclansing.com), and vary in features and price.

TIP: be sure to get surround speakers that match your surround sound card in terms of channels (5.1, 6.1, etc.) and connections. There are two main types of sound card-to-speaker connections for surround sound. The easiest to deal with is an optical S/PDIF port, which involves simply one glass or plastic fibre cable being connected from the sound card to the speakers. Conversely, sound cards with connectors for each separate channel require several matching colour-coded cables. The latter method is more common on cheaper sound cards and speakers.

Gaming: if you’re keen to be immersed in the worlds created by the latest 3D games, your needs will be almost the same as those of a movie buff. The main exception is that you’ll need a sound card capable of reproducing 3D sound the way the game developers intended. (See the Audio column in the January 2001 issue, page 106, for more information on gaming audio.) Your best bet is simply to check your favourite game’s audio hardware requirements. Cards to consider as a starting point include the SoundBlaster Live! 5.1 SE and Hercules’s $119 Gamesurround Fortissimo III 7.1.

Music production: although any sound card can suffice, the more advanced your production needs get, the more features and sound quality you require. The mid to pro level music-orientated sound card market has exploded and prices range from $300 into the thousands. External break-out boxes are available that provide easy access to ports and help reduce interference. Connectors include a 3.5mm jack (standard headphone jack), 6.5mm jack (the thicker audio plug type) and S/PDIF optical or coaxial (RCA). You should also consider your need for MIDI-in and -out ports. Finally, if you only require basic function­­ality, options such as the AOpen Cobra AW840 retail for as little as $29 and Creative’s SoundBlaster Vibra 128 for about $50.

Colour codes

Many audio connections use basic colour coding, as seen in the screenshot here. Generally, the microphone will be pink, the standard single channel line-out or headphone will be green, and line-in will be blue. Consult your manual for the specifics of connectors, because both colours and icons that are supposed to help can sometimes confuse.

SoundMAX, which makes audio chips for various motherboards, has designed a system called intelligent jack sensing that works in conjunction with a user interface to inform a user if they’ve used the wrong jack and let them switch things around easily using software. You can check for supported motherboards at www.soundmax.com.

Installation tips

  • Completely remove all previous sound card drivers and software. Install a new sound card as far as possible from other cards and devices in order to reduce possible interference.
  • Many newer sound cards used in conjunction with newer CD/DVD-ROM drives allow digital CD playback using the drive’s IDE cable connected to the motherboard. The older analog alternative requires a cable to be connected internally between your sound card and your CD/DVD-ROM drive. Check your manual.
  • Ensure that the card’s ports are aligned so cables can be plugged in securely and that the bracket is screwed in place.

Integration tips

  • Before you invite friends around for a night of popcorn and movies, remember that you might need some connection adapters to convert certain cable connections from your card to those of your TV or hi-fi. For instance, you may need to buy a stereo 3.5mm to stereo RCA cord to run the output of your sound card to the input of your hi-fi. These are available from good electrical and hobby stores.
  • Have equipment turned off or volume low when connecting cables; this will protect your speakers.
  • Get to know your sound card’s mixer controls. Using the standard Window’s audio mixer (double-click on the speaker icon in your system tray), you can usually adjust bass and treble. If you require more bass or treble, select Advanced Controls in Options and then click the Advanced button.

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Danny Allen

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