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Don’t short-change your ears

Produce stereo-quality sound from your PC. Windows Advisor hed: Don’t short-change your ears dek: produce stereo-quality sound from your PC. by Joe DeRouen

According to a recent COMPUTERUSER survey, the vast majority of computer users listen to more music on their PCs than on their stereos. Unfortunately, not all PCs are producing true stereo-quality sound, and those that are aren’t always optimized to their full potential.

In this world of MP3s, high-impact video games, CDs, and DVDs, stereo-quality sound for your PC is a must. Aside from having a functional CD-ROM drive, there are three key elements to getting the most out of your discs, video games, and MP3s: a good sound card, a nice pair of speakers, and a capable music player. PC users often concentrate on the first, admittedly important, element, while all but ignoring the others.

It’s all in the cards

A high-performance sound card is a must, and the basis of the backbone that forms the sound skeleton of your PC. Creative Labs and Guillemot both make excellent cards, with the high-end cards of the crop coming in just under $200. Even the low-end cards from the two companies should be sufficient to supply strong stereo sound, but ultimately you do get what you pay for. If sound is important to you, though, and you want to be able to thoroughly control what you hear, be prepared to spend what it takes to nab the best.

My pick for the overall best sound card available today has to be the Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live Platinum 5.1. The card features Dolby Digital 5.1 technology and acts as a decoder, thus eliminating the need to purchase one separately. As anyone with a Dolby Digital 5.1 DVD setup can tell you, the decoder makes all the difference in the world in terms of crisp, clear sound, and it’s rare to find a good one for the price of this sound card. Add in all the other features, and Creative Labs’ newest wonder is a bargain.

The other features of the card, while not quite as impressive as the Dolby sound feature, include Live Drive IR, a feature that allows you to simultaneously connect both digital and analog devices, such as MIDI instruments, MiniDisc, external digital audio devices, and headphones, all from the front of your PC instead of the back. Also, the EMU10K1 digital signal processor gives you the ability to create crystal-clear, 100 percent-digital audio files with absolutely no sound quality loss or distortion from the original source.

The card also comes with an impressive array of software to help control and enhance the sound you hear and record, including Play Center and EAX, which add interactive, high-definition sound to your PC. Play Center provides a full 320Kbps encoder with up to 9x digital audio acceleration to allow you to create high-quality, compact digital audio files. It allows you to rip CDs and make your own MP3 files.

Of course, the card also comes with an equalizer and full sound and mixing-board software, allowing you to modify and enhance the music, movies, and games you listen to. In Creative Multi-Speaker Surround (CMSS) mode, you can even “upmix” stereo sources into 5.1 output, giving you ever more flexibility over how you hear sounds from your PC.

Remember, though, that a sound card without a good set of speakers is much like a powerful engine sitting up on the blocks: If it doesn’t have a car to power, it really isn’t worth much.

Speaker of the house

Speakers come in all shapes and sizes and for all budgets. Creative Labs and Pioneer, to name two of the best, both make excellent models that are affordable (under $50) and deliver excellent quality. If you want the very best in stereo sound from your speakers, though, you might consider a system from MidiLand The company offers everything from simple two-piece speakers to high end, multi-channel surround-sound systems, all priced accordingly.

The S4 MidiLand 7100 Plus system sells for just under $300 and makes your PC sing like an angel. The eight-piece 100-watt multichannel speaker system offers the ultimate in flexibility and power. Its 6.5-inch subwoofer speaker is mounted in a wood cabinet enclosure and features 50 watts of output power, while the five 2.5-inch high power satellite speakers each offer 10 watts of output power, accurately reproducing the full audio spectrum to provide crisp, vibrant sound.

Best of all, the system comes complete with a handy remote control and, like the Sound Blaster Live Platinum 5.1 sound card, offers full Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound decoding. Also included is software that enables you to tweak and adjust the speakers, giving you even more control over your sound. Combine this speaker system with the Sound Blaster card, and you’re one step closer to creating a sound system that’ll stack up against some of the best standalone stereos.

Talk about a real player

Once you have a good sound card and a nice pair of speakers, you’re two thirds of the way there. The last component of this stereo sound trinity is your sound software. Many different companies offer nice players-just search or for a listing-but two of the best are Real’s RealJukebox and Nullsoft’s WinAmp Both offer extensive control over playback and recording, as well as support for a wide variety of music files. Both offer all sorts of extras, such as the ability to choose skins (templates) that change the look and feel of your player and “visualizations” that allow you to “see” the beat of the music via timed animations.

For my money, though, RealJukebox edges out WinAmp by a nose. The software is just as powerful as WinAmp but easier to learn, and it fits more easily into your Windows environment, especially if you already have RealPlayer or other Real products on your PC.

RealJukebox comes in two flavors: the free RealJukebox Basic and the $29.99 RealJukebox Plus. If you don’t mind spending the money (and you shouldn’t, especially if you’ve already gone to the trouble of buying a nice sound card and speakers) the Plus version is definitely the way to go.

The plain version of RealJukebox offers tremendous sound quality, but the Plus version gives you a 10-band equalizer, lets you add advanced enhancement such as crossfade to your recorded music, boasts optimized MP3 recording speeds on Pentium III and higher PCs, and enables you to transfer digital music to portable players such as the Diamond Rio 500.

The right resources

There are a multitude of different PC sound cards, speakers, and audio players on the market. If price is an issue, you might consider giving up a few options here and there to better fit your budget. If money is a consideration, go for the high-powered sound card first. You can always add quality speakers later, and RealJukebox will work just fine without the “Plus” attached to the end of its name. You can always upgrade later.

Your PC is a case with all sorts of different components inside, working to produce what you see on the screen. Sound is no different. If you have the right resources, the stereo sound coming from your PC can sound just as good as what you get from that expensive stereo sitting on the shelf in your den. Maybe even better.

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