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Home >> Computer Hardware >> Sound, Speakers, MP3 >> Resources - PC Audio >> 

How to Choose a Sound Card?

How to Choose a Sound Card?

By Dr. Michael and Lee Penrod

You are encouraged to make links to this article from your website and tell your friends

The following advice is based on many years of experience. It is provided as a free service to our customers and visitors. However, is not responsible for any damage as a result of following any of this advice. You are welcome to distribute these tips free to your friends and associates as long as it's not for commercial purposes.

  • The quality of onboard audio has been dramatically increasing in the past year or so. Many new integrated solutions such as the nVidia nForce/nForce2 chipsets and cheap 5.1 integrated solutions like the C-Media 8738 have taken onboard audio to a level acceptable by many. Most new motherboards now have at least some form of onboard audio. If you are buying a new motherboard you may want to see how you like the onboard audio before purchasing a separate sound card. You may very well find that the onboard sound is more then adequate for your needs.

  • Most computer sound systems are designed for both gamers and music lovers at the same time. An inexpensive sound card of any brand, costing only $10-20, together with an inexpensive pair of speakers, is adequate for most average users.

  • With the advent of DVD, new multimedia software, MP3 audio, and high bandwidth Internet access on the horizon, the reason to have sound on a computer is changing. A realistic surround sound system is a must if you want to watch movies on your computer monitor.

  • For gamers the good news is that the prices of high-end sound cards have been falling like a rock in the past year or so. One popular high end sound card, the SoundBlaster Live used to cost $200 just a year and a half ago and now goes for a small fraction of that. As the Audigy is being replaced with the Audigy II price on them are also dropping.

  • Feedback from our customers and our own testing suggest that the result of high-end speakers with subwoofers does not correlate well with the price of such products.

  • Here is some clarification on many confusing terms used on sound cards. 16-bit vs. 32-bit: These terms refer to the bus structure of a sound card, i.e., the number of bits of information the card can process at one time. An ISA sound card is 16-bit and a PCI sound card is 32-bit. Now, what do AWE64, PCI128 and AW37 mean? These mean the total number of sound waves that can be output at the same time! The SoundBlaster AWE64 sound card is a 16-bit ISA sound card capable of producing 64 sounds at the same time, while the Acer/AOpen AW37 is a 16-bit ISA sound card capable of making 37 sounds at the same time. More confused? OK, the higher the number of sound waves the better.

  • The term 6-Channel audio and 5.1 audio are used interchangeable and mean basically the same thing.

  • If possible use PCI sound cards. ISA is obsolete, and USB can sometimes be more problematic and of lower quality then similar PCI counterparts.
If you find this article useful, please create a link to it from your website or tell a friend about it. If you have any comments or suggestions about this article, please email

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Last Updated: 07/09/03

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