The basics

How to choose a sound card for a computer

Sound cards are devices for creating sound on a computer. It is they who convert the digital signal to analog and vice versa, output the signal through speakers, headphones and other acoustic devices.

Most often, computers are equipped with integrated sound cards, that is, you do not need to buy it separately – it already comes with the computer. Integrated sound cards are often cheap, do not provide high enough sound quality and sometimes fail. If desired, they can be replaced.

We tell you which sound cards are and which one to choose for your computer and various tasks.

What sound cards are

All sound cards are divided into two large classes – internal and external.

Internal cards are a separate board, which is installed directly on the motherboard through special ports. This is an analogue of an integrated card, so if you are looking for just a replacement for a broken card, this option is quite suitable for you.

If you want to expand the possibilities of working with sound on a computer or equip a small studio at home, you need an external card. External cards are suitable for recording sound and make it easier to work with it in special programs – they reproduce sound with minimal delay and in the best quality.

An external sound card is a great solution for a laptop. It will help improve the sound or replace a failed card. For a computer, you can also buy a small external card.

If you need to replace an integrated card or a card for a laptop, while you are not looking for a significant improvement in sound, you should pay attention to compact sound cards with a USB connection. In appearance, they resemble a small flash drive, are easy to connect and are quite inexpensive 

How do they differ in functionality?

All sound cards differ among themselves. To find the right one, you need to focus on the tasks that confront the user.

When choosing, it should be borne in mind that the level of the card should correspond to the level of devices through which you play or record sound. The fact is that all parts of the sound path are interconnected, so the sound quality and your ability to work with it will always be limited by the characteristics of the worst of the devices. If you have the simplest and cheapest speakers installed, there is simply no sense in an advanced sound card: you still won’t be able to evaluate the quality of its work.

Conventionally, all cards can be divided into game, multimedia, cards for working with music projects and basic.

 Base cards are most often bought to replace integrated ones. They provide standard sound quality and are suitable for those whose integrated card is out of order. The second option: you only have one connector on your laptop, and you need to connect a microphone and headphones to it at the same time. In this case, a low-cost external card with basic characteristics is also useful.

Maps for working with music projects are higher-end devices. They are suitable for multi-channel sound recording and digitization of recordings from analog devices – vinyl players and tape recorders. Such sound cards provide high accuracy of signal conversion, they are equipped with high-quality microphone amplifiers. Often they have a MIDI interface that allows you to connect musical equipment to your computer, such as synthesizers and samplers.

Multimedia sound cards are needed for those who have an HTPC computer at home. This is the type of computer that can be used to organize a home theater. Of course, sound is especially important for watching movies. When choosing such a card, you need to pay attention to the presence of an analog output: it is needed to connect active speakers. Be sure to need the function of decoding multi-channel audio in Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby TrueHD, DTS.

External game cards are the choice of gamers. Such devices significantly improve the sound quality of games and reduce the load on the central processor. They support modern technology for creating surround sound in games.

What technical characteristics should I pay attention to

Sound card specifications directly affect sound quality. When choosing, special attention should be paid to the frequency of the DAC and ADC, their resolution, signal to noise ratio and the number of inputs / outputs. DAC is a digital-to-analog converter, ADC is analog-to-digital.

The frequency of the DAC and ADC reflects the number of signals that the card is able to process in a certain amount of time. The higher this indicator, the better the sound quality: for the DAC – when outputting sound to audio devices, for the ADC – when recording sound. Frequency is measured in hertz. The lowest indicator is 44.1 kHz, the highest for the DAC is 384 kHz, and for the ADC is 192 kHz. It is optimal to choose cards with a DAC and ADC frequency of at least 96 kHz.

The bit depth of the converters – DAC and ADC – indicates the number of signal levels with which the device can work. The higher the score, the better the sound quality. Most modern cards have a converter bit capacity of 24 bits. This is enough for most tasks.

Signal to noise ratio is an important indicator. From it you can understand how much extraneous noise occurs when playing or recording a signal. The optimal indicator is from 90-100 dB.

The inputs and outputs determine which devices you can connect to the sound card. For example, a card may have a separate output for direct connection to a microphone or headphones. SPDIF outputs are universal digital, provide high signal quality and allow connecting most devices.

MIDI and Hi-Z inputs are needed to connect musical instruments, XLR – for professional microphones. Before buying a card, you need to decide which devices you are going to connect to it in order to select a model with all the necessary connectors.

It is also important to pay attention to the number of channels that the sound card supports. So, modern acoustics exists in different formats and uses from two to eight channels to reproduce sound – acoustics 2.0, 2.1, 5.1, 7.1 and others. The sound card should support as many channels as your acoustics support. Accordingly, for acoustics 5.1 you will need a card with support for six channels.

What additional features may come in handy

When buying, you should pay attention to the additional features of the sound card that will make working with it more convenient. For example, the presence of a panel of controllers and a remote control.

The control panel is a set of controls that are needed to control sound parameters. Such a panel will greatly facilitate the work in audio editors when recording sound. Using the knobs, also called faders, you can precisely adjust the sound parameters – more precisely and more conveniently than using the mouse or keyboard.

The control panel is useful for remote monitoring of the sound card. With it, you can adjust the sound volume, change the surround sound parameters. Quite convenient, especially if you are buying a sound card to improve the sound image of movies.

The backlight can also help in the work – it will be more convenient to work with it in a darkened studio or at night.

Many manufacturers supplement their cards with their own software. It allows you to significantly expand the capabilities of the card, create your own settings when working with the equalizer and save them. Own software is a definite plus of any sound card.
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