17.6 Choosing a Sound Card

Sound adapters fall into two broad categories. Consumer-grade sound adapters are made by companies such as Turtle Beach and Creative Labs and are widely available in retail channels. The better ones, such as the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz, suffice for any purpose for which you are likely to use a sound adapter. Professional-grade sound adapters?made by companies such as Aardvark, Digital Audio Labs, Event, Lucid, and Lynx?cost hundreds of dollars, are intended for professional audio production, have poor retail distribution, and are beyond the scope of this book. For a technical comparison of many models of sound adapters, see http://www.pcavtech.com/soundcards/compare/index.htm.

Use the following guidelines when choosing a sound card:

Choose embedded audio, if available, for general use

If you are building a new system or replacing a motherboard on an existing system, choose a motherboard with embedded audio, unless you need enhanced features that are available only with a standalone audio adapter. Recent embedded audio solutions support formerly high-end features such as 3D acceleration, enhanced MIDI functions, and surround sound, so the features you need are probably available with embedded audio. In addition to lower cost, embedded audio is well integrated, which minimizes installation and configuration problems. If you run Linux, check hardware compatibility carefully because Linux often provides limited or no support for recently introduced audio chipsets.

Embedded sound is often implemented as soft audio?e.g., the Analog Devices AD1980 chipset used in many Intel motherboards. Although soft audio solutions are inexpensive and may provide superior sound quality and features such as 3D positional audio, they depend on the main system CPU for processing. Using 3D audio features on a soft audio adapter may consume 10% or more of the CPU. We have never found this to be a problem, even when running CPU-intensive first-person-shooter games, but this additional burden on the CPU can cause jerkiness, hesitations, or other problems, particularly if the system has a slow CPU.

Don't buy too much sound card

When you add or replace a sound card, don't pay for features you won't use. Don't buy an expensive sound card if you'll use it only for playing CDs, listening to system prompts, light gaming, Internet telephony, voice recognition (on a fast system), and so on. High-quality sound cards available for $30 or so, such as the Philips Sonic Edge 5.1, include most of the features that more expensive cards provide, and are more than adequate for most purposes.

Don't buy too little sound card

If you use a sound card extensively for purposes such as 3D gaming, reproducing DVD sound, voice recognition (on a slow system), complex MIDI rendering, and so on, buy a sound card with hardware acceleration and other features that support what you use the card for. Capable consumer-grade high-end sound cards such as the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz sell for $65 or so, and are suitable for anything short of professional audio production.

Consider replacing an older sound card

If a sound card is more than two years old, consider replacing it if you are otherwise satisfied with the system. Even inexpensive current sound cards such as the $30 Philips Sonic Edge 5.1 provide better sound reproduction than high-end models that are a few years old, particularly for games and other MIDI applications. Note, however, that motherboards are now so cheap that it may be more cost-effective to replace the motherboard with a recent model that has the audio features you need and also provides other benefits such as a more recent chipset.

Avoid ISA sound cards

Don't even consider installing an ISA sound card. Even if you are upgrading a system that has an ISA slot and you happen to have a "free" ISA sound card languishing on your spares stack, do yourself a favor. Discard the ISA sound card and buy an inexpensive PCI card instead.

Avoid no-name sound cards

Stick to name-brand sound cards. We frequently hear horror stories from readers who have purchased house-brand sound cards?outdated drivers, missing or inadequate documentation, poor (or no) tech support, shoddy construction, incompatibilities with Windows 9X (let alone Windows 2000/XP and Linux), and on and on. What's particularly ironic is that you may pay more for a house-brand sound card than for a low-end name-brand card. You can buy decent name-brand sound cards for $30 from reputable companies. Don't buy anything less.

Make sure the sound card you choose has drivers available for your operating system

Nearly all sound cards are well supported under Windows 9X. Windows 2000 and Windows XP include drivers for most popular sound cards, but we have experienced conflicts and limited functionality with some of these drivers. Make sure any sound card you use with Windows 2000/XP has a certified driver supplied by the manufacturer. Linux now supports many sound cards, and both the number of models supported and the quality of that support seem to improve month to month. If you run Linux, however, verify that drivers are available for the exact model card you plan to use.

Bundled software

We admit it. We've never bothered to install any of the plethora of applications that are bundled with many sound cards, particularly high-end models, and we probably wouldn't know what to do with them if we did. But that's because we use sound cards only for playing MP3, Ogg Vorbis, and CD audio, recording audio from within other applications, Internet telephony, and similar applications. The software supplied with a sound card varies according to the market focus of that card. Cards targeted at gamers often include a game or two intended to show off the features of that card, although such games are often demos, feature-crippled, or older versions. Similarly, cards with high-end MIDI features often include a competent MIDI sequencer and editor, although again it's likely to be a "Lite" version, intended primarily to convince you to upgrade to (and pay for) the "Professional" version. But if you do need one of these functions and your needs are moderate, bundled software may do the job you need and allow you to avoid spending more money on individually purchased applications.

Embedded audio has nearly destroyed the standalone sound card market, and this trend is accelerating. Originally, embedded audio sold well because it was cheap and adequate. Nowadays nearly all motherboards include embedded audio, and you can't get cheaper than free. Worse still for sound card makers, embedded audio is no longer merely adequate. Good embedded audio, such as that of Intel motherboards and the AMD-compatible nForce2 chipset, matches any but the best standalone audio for features and sound quality.