Buying Guide - Sound Cards

Making a choice

Sound card diagramWith a vast array of audio cards on the market, it can be a very difficult process deciding which product would suit you best. As with most consumer products, the key is to choose a sound card which matches both your budget and your specific requirements.

All laptops and desktop computers come fitted with a basic audio card which will easily be able to handle listening to music, internet content, basic gaming and DVD playback. If, however, you are a serious gamer, music composer or DVD fan, it would be advisable to invest in a sound card to really boost your computer's audio performance.

You might reasonably ask why a basic sound card will not be appropriate for all of your audio needs. The common problems experienced with a basic audio card include low bit depth, high latency (the delay between pressing 'play' and actually hearing noise coming from your speakers) and background noise interference. All of these problems will affect you if you wish to record, overdub or listen to music. Likewise, if wish to benefit from Dolby Digital surround sound when watching a movie.

Therefore the most important factor to consider when deciding which audio card to buy is exactly what you are going to be using it for. The usage of the sound card will affect the number of inputs and outputs that you need running from the device, as well as determining which technology you use to connect your audio card to your computer.

Connectivity

A very important consideration to think about is when it comes to connecting your audio card to your computer. There are six different types of card to consider, run across three separate interfaces. You will need to make the decision as to whether you opt for an internal sound card (i.e fitted to your computer's motherboard), a USB audio card or a Firewire device.

Internal audio cards are subdivided into two categories: PCI and PCMCIA. Put simply, a PCI card is designed to be fitted to your desktop computer and a PCMCIA for your laptop. Internal audio cards are generally regarded as being very reliable, quick and fairly hardwearing, therefore representing good value for money.  They can, however, be quite complicated to install so it would be a good idea to visit a computer professional to have your sound card fitted.

A USB interface for your sound card would be useful if you want to have the added flexibility of portability. If you do opt for a connection via USB for your audio card, there are also two options to think about. Two USB standards are in operation: USB 1.1 and USB 2.0. The latter is much faster than the former but there are not many sound cards on the market supporting the 2.0 format.  Generally speaking, if you are going to be looking to have more than two input or output devices in use at once then do not opt for USB connectivity.

The most recent technology to become available for audio card interface is Firewire connectivity. This again comes in two different formats: 400 and 800 megabytes per second. Tthe latter is still very new and not available on a huge range of products. Firewire is able to transfer huge amounts of data per second which therefore makes it perfect for audio card users needing to simultaneously use multiple input and output devices. This could be of particular use to you if you are looking to record music from multiple instruments at once, for example. If your computer does not have a Firewire port then you will need to purchase a PCI Firewire card to make use of this interface.

Therefore when deciding which audio card connectivity is best for you, the most important thing is to determine how many input and output devices you are going to be using at any one time. For higher speed, more portability and to use more devices, a Firewire card would be your best option.

Bit Rate

Sound cardThink about bit rate for an audio card in the same way that you would think about megapixels on a camera - the higher the bit rate, the higher level of clarity and detail of the sound. Therefore, take into account exactly how detailed and clear you need your sound reproduction to be. If you are going to be using your sound card for gaming, for example, it is unlikely that you will need a sound card with the maximum bit rate. That will be the opposite if you are going to be producing music combining together numerous instruments, where every last piece of sound is crucial.

If you are looking to do a lot of music recording, mixing or overdubbing, the advice would be to look at an audio card with a bit rate of 24. The reason for this is not necessarily that the audio will sound better at 24 rather than 16; it is that recording on a 24 bit sound card with offer you much more depth to create a fantastic recording. The reason for this is that with 24 bit, you are not pushing your audio card to the limits of its capabilities. You will therefore experience audio recordings with less background noise with both instruments and vocals sounding clearer.

The Extras

If you are going to be using your audio card for some serious recording, dubbing or mixing then there are products on the market that can offer you even more features to aid your music production. There are sound cards available which as well as providing you with multiple input and output sockets also come with microphone pre-amps to really give you a more sophisticated way of recording your content. For even further options, there are audio cards around which will provide you with most of the capabilities of a mixer, including sliders. This can give you a far defter touch when mixing and dubbing music.

It is important to check the specifications of your computer and its software before you invest in any audio card, especially one for high-end music production. A card with numerous inputs and outputs in addition to a high bit rate is going to be put some serious strain on your computer and might prevent you from getting maximum quality and usage from your sound card. Similarly, not all sound cards will be supported by Windows and Mac operating systems. It may be necessary for you to download additional drivers to make use of your audio card.