How to shop for a sound card for your computer

Question: I want to buy a sound card and use it for gaming and playing back DVDs. What should I look for? – D.M.

Answer: I checked with the audio experts at Creative Labs. The company has just come out with the new Audigy line of sound cards, which are impressive.

Here’s a quick lesson I’ve put together on sound cards for you and anyone else in the market for one:

There are typically three kinds of sound card users. People who want to listen to music or watch DVDs, those who want good sound when they play video games, and folks who want to create music using their computers. Each has special needs and should look for specific features when shopping for sound cards. The one key feature is the cards’ bit-rate. This measurement provides an indication of the “detail” in the sound.

If you’re familiar with digital cameras, you’ll know that the higher the resolution of image that you take with the camera, the more pixels (the dots of color that make up the image) there are in a picture, so the better quality a print will be. The same goes for sound card bit measurements. A 24-bit sound card gives you better sound than an 8-bit card because there’s more sound information being pumped through it (although, to be clear, data recorded to the hard drive is 16-bit).

Now on to specifics for each kind of user.

PC gamers should check to see that the sound card they are considering supports the latest DirectX software. That’s the sound technology built into Windows for games. Microsoft updates it periodically. Ask the person selling the card what version of DirectX the card supports.

If you’re keen on a high-end card and are interested in the SoundBlaster line of adapters, make sure the card supports EAX technology – that’s the ability to generate 3D environmental sounds during game play. Many games you can buy feature “EAX” support. EAX was introduced at version 1.0, then moved to 2.0. The latest version is called EAX Advanced HD, which is essentially version 3.0. DVD watchers perhaps won’t care about most of that gamer stuff.

If you’re buying a sound card to hear music, you’ll want to focus on Dolby Digital 5.1 support. That’s a surround-sound technology that provides the 3D sound in movie theatres and is used in DVD playback. To take advantage of 3D surround sound features in a sound card, you’ll need to ensure that you have 5.1 compatible multi-channel speakers. Two- and four-speaker setups can emulate it.

Music lovers and sound purists will also need to look at two more ratings. One’s signal to noise ratio (S2N). The other is THD (for Total Harmonic Distortion).

The higher the signal to noise ratio (measured in decibels), the better the sound quality. This is a measurement of garbage noise generated by electronic components and interference to pure sound produced by a piece of gear. Most sound cards will offer S2N ratings of 80 to 104 dB.

The lower the THD, the better the sound quality. You’ll see anywhere from 0.1% to 0.005% THD. The lower you go per-cent-wise, the better the sound. If you’re a home stereo aficionado, you may be familiar with these ratings as they are used to rate stereo components, as well.

If you’re into music creation with your computer, you need to consider a card with Wave Table Synthesis support. It is a method of using sound samples to mimic instruments. Sound cards are using this to create more realistic instruments for music creation.

For any sound card, you’ll also want to check the amount of memory. The more memory a sound card has, the more efficient the card is in working with sound. This allows musicians to create higher-quality music.

I’v taken the time to list some places where you can buy soundcards online:

I hope you’ve found one that fits your needs!