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It’s all in the cards

If you’re zealous about your audio experience, you’ll want to invest in a quality sound card as well as speakers to match. Here are some options to get those games cranking.

If your PC serves as a venue for casual music listening, viewing an occasional movie, or for low-end gaming, integrated audio may suffice, especially if your motherboard features the nVIDIA nForce2 chipset (no other integrated solution comes close). However, if you’re zealous about your audio experience, you’ll want to invest in a quality sound card as well as speakers to match.

When considering an audio adapter, a gamut of cards is available, especially in the budget category. However, I recommend steering clear of low-end audio alternatives. They lack the quality and features that elevate audio above on-board implementations, and usually place extra strain on the CPU. If you’re considering a budget-class audio expansion card, save your money.

Where does that leave you? Several good options exist at the mid-to-high levels. As with video adapters, sound cards are based on different chipsets made by the card manufacturer or licensed from another vendor. Features differ among chipsets, too. All current sound cards are compatible with Microsoft’s DirectX Audio API (Application Program Interface), but that’s not the only API to consider. Creative’s EAX (Environmental Audio eXtensions) is another strong contender offering audio features beyond those in DirectX. Other APIs include A3D, Sensaura, and QSound. Currently, though, the most significant APIs are DirectX Audio and EAX. Whatever card you buy, it should support the former with the latter being a bonus.

From an I/O standpoint, inputs and outputs should consist of internal CD audio in and aux audio in, as well as external mini-jacks for front and rear stereo speakers, microphone in, and line in. Other connectors include (but aren’t limited to) a mini-jack for center channel and subwoofer speakers, fiber optic or coaxial S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface), MIDI, and FireWire, as well as internal S/PDIF Audio in. Though most sound cards still feature them, a 15-pin joystick port is superfluous as all new game controllers are USB-based. If you need expanded I/O capabilities, some audio adapters offer internal or external breakout boxes with additional ports and controls.

You also need to determine the type of speaker setup you want. Most sound cards offer Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound at a minimum. This enables you to easily employ 2, 2.1, 4.1, and 5.1 speaker systems (the .1 designation refers to the subwoofer). Some audio cards even provide support for newer 6.1 and 7.1 speaker systems that add additional rear satellites. (I’ll reserve a full discussion of speakers for a future column.)

Of course, audio is very subjective; what sounds good to you may not appeal to me. Regardless, avoid budget and no-name adapters, and make sure the card you choose supports 5.1 audio. If you want the option of 6.1 or 7.1 speaker support, opt for a card that features it. And, if you’re a music connoisseur, pay attention to the software bundled with audio cards. Some of the better models pack in some quality sequencers, editors, jukeboxes, and the like.

As for today’s best consumer-level audio cards, stick to those offered by Creative, Hercules, Philips, and Turtle Beach. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, though, you simply can’t go wrong with the latest audio alternatives from Creative–the Audigy 2 and the new Audigy 2 ZS. Personally, I recommend sticking with Creative unless cost is a significant factor.

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