Sound Card Features to Look for When Upgrading - dummies

Sound Card Features to Look for When Upgrading

By Mark L. Chambers

When you are considering upgrading your computer’s audiovisual components, the first consideration is your PC’s sound card (naturally). You need to know what to look for when comparing sound cards.

3D spatial imaging

Most PC owners think of 3D sound as purely a gamer’s feature, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, today’s games are even more fun when you can use your ears as well as your eyes to locate your enemy, but 3D sound comes in handy when you’re listening to audio CDs, watching movies, or playing digital audio files from your hard drive.

With audio files and music, 3D spatial imaging can add an auditorium or concert hall effect, where the stereo separation is enhanced.

Surround sound support

With a Dolby Surround sound card and the right speakers, your PC can deliver Dolby Surround sound while you’re listening to audio CDs or watching DVD movies using your PC.

High-end Surround sound cards, such as the X-Fi Xtreme Audio card from Creative Labs, can deliver Dolby Digital 7.1 Surround sound, 24-bit/192 KHz audio playback (far superior in quality than even a commercial audio CD), and 3D imaging for your games — and all for about $50 (US) from most web stores. Life is truly good.

The figure illustrates an old friend to any PC audiophile: A subwoofer adds realistic, deep subsonic bass to not only your music but also your games. A subwoofer is an important part of any 5.1 (or better) Surround sound system. Whether you’re experiencing the grinding of tank treads or launching a Hellfire missile, a subwoofer provides the necessary sonic punch. Most subwoofers should be placed on the floor, where the vibration isn’t a factor.


MP3 encoding support

Anyone who’s heavily into MP3 digital audio will really appreciate a sound card with built-in MP3 encoding and digital effects. That MP3 hardware feature relieves your PC’s processor from the job of ripping and playing MP3 files so that you can rip music while you edit a digital photograph in Photoshop with nary a drop in performance. No stuttering audio or long delays, especially on older PCs.

Many hardware MP3 sound cards also allow you to introduce to the MP3 files you create the same concert hall environmental effect. (Now your garage band can claim to have played Carnegie Hall.)

SP/DIF ports

If you’d like to connect your PC to a home theater system, make sure the card you select offers this port — it provides the best possible digital connection (and therefore the maximum quality audio signal) based upon the source.

Game and FireWire ports

Many sound cards are equipped with a little something extra: a FireWire port or a joystick/gamepad port, which was once a dear friend of any PC game player (because it used to be the only way to hook up joysticks and external game controllers).

Lately, most PC controllers have switched to the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port, but it’s still a plus for a sound card to include a game port. Older game peripherals — many joysticks and flight throttles — don’t work with USB, so it’s a legacy thing.

MIDI ports

You can use a sound card with standard Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) ports to connect synthesizers and many different electronic musical instruments, such as drums and keyboards, to your computer. Most MIDI instruments now feature a USB port as well.


With a MIDI instrument connected, your computer can play MIDI music files on the instrument, or you can play the instrument and record the music as a MIDI file on your computer. Note, however, that today’s sound cards can play MIDI music files without attaching instruments, so you don’t have to buy a card with built-in MIDI ports just to play MIDI music files.