Exploring the Hardware That Makes Sound - dummies

Exploring the Hardware That Makes Sound

By Ryan C. Williams

It doesn’t take any special equipment to play sound files. You probably already have the tools in your computer. But it’s important to understand what makes the music happen.

Processors and memory

The processor and memory in your computer make the whole thing run. They keep the programs running and working. They are the brain and the nervous system of your computer, and the old adage “bigger is better” is true here. In this case, you’re looking for faster processor speeds and more memory (or RAM) to accurately reproduce music. The good news is that this isn’t as big a concern as it was just a few years ago. Just about any computer you purchase today has more than enough speed and power to play back music.

This doesn’t mean that you should try to play music, download a bunch of files, and burn a CD all at the same time. Computers with less memory or slower processors might balk at handling all of these tasks at the same time. Try reducing the amount of applications that are open on your computer to allow for better audio playback.

Sound cards

The sound card is the piece of hardware that makes the sound happen. Again, this piece of equipment has made huge leaps in the last few years. It is no longer a concern whether sound cards can accurately reproduce music. Now, it’s a question of whether the sound is heard in stereo or perhaps more advanced formats, like 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound.

Sound cards are often not even “cards” anymore. The components that computers use to reproduce music or other sounds are often included right on the main circuitry of the computer itself (the motherboard). This can be both a blessing and a curse — if you like the sound of the computer, everything’s wonderful. However, because the sound is built in, you’re stuck with it unless you disable it and install something new. It’s not as complicated as it may sound, but it’s still extra effort.


Speakers make the air move and create the sounds you hear. Most computers come bundled with a set of speakers that connect to the sound card (or internal sound). That’s not always good enough, because these speakers are rather small and can’t always faithfully reproduce the music. (Bass speakers are big for a good reason — they need to be!) Depending on how your computer’s sound is set up, you may want to consider getting surround-sound speakers (which include a main speaker, smaller satellite speakers, and a subwoofer for bass).

This assumes, of course, that the music you’re playing has been designed for multiple speakers. Most standard recordings today are mixed to stereo, or two channels. Running a stereo recording through a surround-sound setup still only gives you a stereo sound output. You start hearing the differences when the audio has been specifically encoded for surround sound, like in many video games and movies.

Portable audio players

Portable audio players are popular ways to listen to music. Portable sound started with the Walkman, which allowed people to take cassette recordings with them. Now, you can take CDs, DVDs, or your audio files with you wherever you go. Your length of enjoyment depends only on the amount of songs in the player and the juice left in your battery.