How to choose a sound card for your PC. (includes related article on Multimedia Personal Computers) (Compute's Getting Started with PC Sound) (Buyers Guide)
by Gregg Keizer
Imagine Roseanne without a bellowing voice that shouts down the house. Or Murphy Brown sans sound--no deliciously droll wit hoarsely spoken. Or a silent Cliff Claven, the professional pontificator, now stilled.
Television without sound wouldn't be, well, TV.
So how are we expected to buy the idea of a personal computer as a gaming or teaching machine when it sounds off like a bad junior high school band?
Quiet No More
Unbox the average PC, set it up, turn it on, stick a disk in its drive, and it boops and beeps, clicks and blats. That's about it--worse than the cheapest TV sound.
You have to spend money to put quality noise in your computer. You have to buy a sound card.
Like every other add-on plug-in card for the PC, a sound card is a circuit board that slips into an empty expansion slot on your computer's motherboard.
With the exception of Media Vision's new Audioport ($199) and Disney's The Sound Source ($39.95)--which are external sound makers--sound cards require that you open your PC by removing its case. There are few things as scary to the new computer user as the naked sight of cables, drives, and circuit boards, but for the most part, installing a sound card is fairly painless. The best boards step you through the process with good documentation and let you change their settings without reopening the PC.
In fact, choosing the right sound device is often more difficult than putting one in the PC. With sound being so important to games and educational programs, and an integral part of multimedia, your pick of sound boards has expanded almost exponentially during the last 12 months. You need to sort out sound--what's supported, how much it costs, and when you plan to move to multimedia--before you can make the right choice.
It doesn't do any good to spend hundreds of dollars on a sound card when its figurative bells and whistles aren't put to good use by software. You need to consider the extent of any board's support.
The Ad Lib and Sound Blaster are the two most widely followed boards in the business. Though Ad Lib's 11-voice, monophonic sound was once the leader among entertainment and edutainment support, the 22-voice Sound Blaster is now the new market leader. (The Sound Blaster also mimics the Ad Lib, so it's fully downward compatible). You're safe with either.
But because the top boards--from the Sound Blaster Pro and Pro AudioSpectrum, both of which use two 11-voice Yamaha YM3812 synthesizer chips, to the even better Ad Lib Gold and Pro AudioSpectrum 16--haven't been in developers' hands for long, you'll be pressed to find software that takes advantage of those cards. It will take time for publishers to catch up. In the meantime, you'll have paid for a card that won't sound much different from the cheaper boards.
Because of their track records, it's a good bet that both the Sound Blaster Pro and Ad Lib Gold (or any cards that emulate their functionality) will be well-supported by software designers and developers.
The bottom line on support? For sound today, make sure any board is Ad Lib- or Sound Blaster-compatible (both is best). For sound tomorrow, bank on boards that mimic the new cards from both those companies.
Money Talks Big
Second on your list to a sound decision is--surprise--price.
If you're scrimping, The Sound Source, which is not a card but a device (since it connects via the PC's printer port), is your pick. It's the least expensive device, but with only minimal support, primarily Disney's own software, you can't count on it.
The original Ad Lib card is the lowest price sound card. Now that it's been technologically passed by, the Ad Lib should become an even better deal. And with the release of Sound Blaster Pro, the plain Sound Blaster may well follow in that direction.
Thunderboard, a cleaner-sounding Ad Lib- and Sound Blaster-compatible card, costs slightly more than the Sound Blaster itself.
Middle-range sound cards--Sound Blaster Pro, Ad Lib Gold, Pro Audio-Spectrum, Media FX--clump together in the $300-$350 range, with prices as low as $200 when you buy direct. If you don't have a free slot, consider spending $199 for Media Vision's Audioport, which connects to your parallel port.
At the top end of the spectrum, the MultiSound sound card from Turtle Beach Systems offers a clean 16-bit sound with a Proteus synthesizer built-in.
Most of the time, you get what you pay for in PC peripherals, and sound's no different. You can squeak by with cheap sound, but you're likely to be passed by soon. You can pay astronomical sums for a board that's overkill. Or you can buy in the middle, and get the most for your money.
The Sound and The Fury
Since sound is so dependent on the software, it can be tough to judge a card's quality and performance with an ear test--even if you could get a slew of cards together and listen to each reproduce the effects in Wing Commander II or the speech in Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
Technically, though, the newer cards have sound capability lacking in earlier versions. The Ad Lib Gold, for instance, uses the new Yamaha YM262 FM chip. It has only 20 voices, but because the it's a stereophonic chip, it can put sounds dead center with every voice. (Compare that to the Pro AudioSpectrum, for instance, which must use two voices to center a sound, effectively halving the number of voices if sound comes from both speakers at the same time.) The Ad Lib Gold also offers an add-on Surround Sound Module, which opens up echo and reverb effects to developers.
Frequency response and distortion control are just as vital to good sound as the number of voices, but here you're more on your own. What's acceptable to one person playing one game may not be acceptable to another person playing another game.
Still, the more expensive cards generally sound better, even when all they're doing is running Ad Lib or Sound Blaster files through their circuits. Listening to the same game on the same PC on alternating Pro AudioSpectrum Plus and Thunderboard cards--$279 and $179, respectively--demonstrates that more money brings cleaner and clearer sound.
Ready For MPC
The last criteria to consider when choosing a sound card is its ability to stay in your PC when you eventually move to multimedia.
As characterized by the MPC (Multimedia Personal Computer) specifications, the sound card must be able to pump out digitized speech, connect to a MIDI instrument or device, and play at least eight notes simultaneously.
Current MPC specs exclude such low-end products as The Sound Source and the original Ad Lib board. Most everything else--including, of course, the sound cards bundled with multimedia upgrade kits, such as the Pro AudioSpectrum Plus and Sound Blaster Pro--meets the MPC criteria.
You're on safer ground when you buy a multimedia-ready sound board. MPC games and play-and-learn software will trickle onto the shelves this year, but that's likely to turn into a stream next year. Think ahead and save yourself another purchase down the road.
Sounds So Good
Selecting a sound card is work. You must think not only about today--what your computer can do now--but about tomorrow as well.
Run down the list of sound cards, choose the one that's best for you, then go out and drop the money on the counter or dial the phone.
You'll wonder how you put up with a silent computer this long.