Breaking the PC sound barrier
Making your PC sound good & games more realistic was never cheaper.
(IDG) -- If the voices from your computer sound tinny and the music reminds you of a toy radio, it may be time to upgrade your sound board. Not long ago, you had to pay over $100 for most boards and then endure so-so quality. But in the last year, a number of new technologies have revolutionized the industry, resulting in boards that are easier to install, cost only about half as much as their predecessors, and produce significantly better-quality audio.
The most important development is the migration of sound boards to the PCI system bus. The latest boards install into fast PCI slots on your computer, rather than into older, slower ISA slots. PCI allows the boards to communicate at high speeds with your PC's processor and main memory, so the machine can produce 3D audio and detailed instrument sounds. PCI also simplifies installation -- you don't have to call in a technical whiz to put in a new board. Anyone with a screwdriver and 10 free minutes can do the job.
The recent establishment of new minimum standards for PC audio has also greatly improved sound quality. Intel's AC '97 (Audio Codec) and Microsoft's PC '98 both specify acceptable levels for noise, distortion, and other factors that can degrade sound. Most PCI boards on the market meet one or both standards.
Finally, most new sound boards support positional 3D audio, which currently is found only in computer games. Positional sound changes location as you move through a virtual landscape. In Quake II, for instance, players equipped with a 3D audio sound board can enjoy the realistic -- and frightening -- effect of having grenades explode all around them.
If you've read much lately about speakers based on the Universal Serial Bus, you may wonder whether you need a sound card at all. USB speakers threaten to make sound cards obsolete by converting digital audio signals directly into sound. But as suggested in the story "USB: A sound-card killer?" they aren't for everyone.
To see how the new generation of PCI-based sound boards stacks up, we tested nine models from Aztech, Creative Labs, Diamond Multimedia, Hi-Val, Turtle Beach, and Yamaha. We evaluated each card for both business use and games, pitting it against Creative Labs' Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold, the standard ISA board.
For business, we concentrated on how well each board played the audio found in PC applications. We based our scores on formal laboratory tests and testing by a jury of listeners. We also paid close attention to affordability, good vendor support, and bundled extras.
For games, we considered the same test results, because most of the .wav and Musical Instrument Digital Interface audio found on business apps is also used in games; but we added other important gaming criteria. PCI cards don't work as reliably with DOS games as ISA boards do, so we tested each of our boards with five popular DOS games. And finally we awarded extra points to boards capable of supporting four or more speakers, which you need for the best positional 3D audio.
Our Best Buy for business users, the $50 Diamond Multimedia Sonic Impact S90, did the best job of balancing sound and price. The Sonic's quality, features, three-year warranty, and support hours (including Saturdays) won the day against some strong competition.
Want great sound for games? Even a basic, inexpensive PCI sound board such as the Sonic Impact S90 provides good output. But for hard-core gamers and multimedia addicts, we recommend the $200 Sound Blaster Live from Creative Labs. Our jury thought the Sound Blaster Live did the best at playing MIDI music, and it supports eight speakers -- the most in our test group.
Back to the top
© 2000 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.