Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


For most computer users, a sound card and speakers are essential parts of their PC, every bit as necessary as the monitor and mouse. Whether you're humming along to music while you work, listening for sniper fire in your favorite game, or just waiting to hear "You've got mail," sound is a vital part of how you interact with your PC. Here are tips for improving and understanding the audio on your computer.

Sound Cards

1. The phrase "sound card" is becoming an anachronism. A few years ago, a PC needed a sound card to make any noise other than simple beeps. The majority of PCs sold today, however, include sound capabilities that are built into the computer's motherboard, making a separate sound card unnecessary. Coupled with decent speakers, this built-in sound is generally more than adequate for such things as playing games and music. Hard-core gamers and movie junkies who want the ultimate in PC sound, however, can still add a sound card. When you add an external sound card, the motherboard's built-in sound may be disabled automatically. In other cases, you may need to turn it off in the PC's BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) setup utility.

2. One measure of a sound card is the number of channels it outputs. Sound cards that are inexpensive and motherboards with built-in sound typically provide 2-channel (known as stereo) sound. Intermediate and high-end cards provide surround sound with 4, 4.1, 5.1, or even more channels. Four-channel sound means there are left and right speakers, plus left and right rear speakers. Five-channel sound adds a front-center speaker, often used for the dialogue in movies. The .1 means there is also a subwoofer, which is a speaker that adds rumbling lows to movies and computer games. Technically, adding a subwoofer won't change a two-speaker setup from 2 to 2.1 channels--the .1 refers to a sound format in which the sound card outputs a separate channel just for subwoofer effects.

3. Two numbers measure a sound card's quality. These numbers indicate the depth and frequency of the audio the card can produce. Depth is measured in bits, and frequency in KHz (kilohertz). With both, higher numbers mean better sound quality. Today's least expensive cards are typically 16 bits and 44KHz, which most users will find adequate for games and music. High-end sound cards are 24-bit and 96KHz or 192KHz, which provides exceptional sound for movie buffs, gamers, and audiophiles.

4. It's all about the drivers. Although a sound card may seem to work perfectly with the OS' (operating system's) built-in drivers, it pays to install the driver that the motherboard or sound card manufacturer provided. The customized driver can add special audio effects, such as depth (making it seem like the speakers are farther apart) and equalization. Check the Web site of the CD-ROM or sound card manufacturer for the appropriate driver.

Choosing Speakers

5. Better speakers mean better sound. The best single thing most people can do to improve the quality of their PC's sound is to get better speakers. Unless you have an expensive multi-media PC, chances are that the speakers that came with your computer aren't terribly good. But speaker quality is subjective. If you can, try several sets of speakers in a local computer store to get a first-hand idea of how they sound. If you're going to buy the speakers online, be sure to choose a store that offers a no-questions-asked return policy and doesn't charge a restocking fee, just in case the speakers don't sound like music to your ears after all.

6. Some monitors have built-in speakers. And these are, without exception, poor. If you need audio for music, games, or anything more than just hearing the computer go "ding" when there's an error, unplug the monitor's speakers and use a pair of external speakers instead.

7. How many speakers do you want? The vast majority of PCs are connected to two speakers, but some sound cards can handle many more speakers, sometimes as many as eight. If your sound card can handle surround sound, you can start with just two speakers and add more later if desired.

8. Magnets and computers don't play together nicely. A magnetic field can erase a floppy or Zip disk or distort the image on a CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitor. Speakers create magnetic fields that can damage your data. Quality PC speakers are shielded to reduce their magnetic fields. Nevertheless, it's a good idea to keep your magnetic media more than a few inches away from the speakers. (Optical media such as CD-Rs [CD-recordable] aren't affected by magnetic fields.)

9. Keep the subwoofer on the low down. Many speaker systems include a subwoofer dedicated to low-frequency sounds. Most subwoofers aren't magnetically shielded, regardless of whether they are made to work with a computer, so place your subwoofer a good distance away from the PC. The floor is a great location, not only because it's typically away from the PC but also because it sounds best when positioned in a corner or against a wall. The walls and floor will direct the sound back into the room.

Choosing Headphones

10. Be respectful of those around you. Headphones are a good choice if you use your computer in a busy office, public computer lab, on an airplane, or any other time you need to keep your PC's sound from bothering others. If you use headphones only intermittently, you'll want the headphone jack within easy reach. Some PC speakers include a convenient headphone jack. When you plug in the headphones, the speakers automatically turn off.

11. Consider wireless headphones. Wireless headphones will let you move around while listening without worrying about tangling up your headphone wire. Some wireless models use infrared signals to transmit sound, which means you have to be within sight of the transmitter in the same room. Other headphones use RF (radio frequency) signals to send the sound, letting you wander around the house while you enjoy your MP3s.

12. Try using noise-canceling headphones. If you often compute in an environment with a lot of background noise, such as an airplane or convention center, try noise-canceling headphones. Units with "passive noise reduction" block noise out by fitting snugly to block your ears from outside noise. Headphones with "active noise reduction" use an electronic circuit that creates sound 180 degrees out of phase from the background noise, which means it creates the "opposite" sound, dramatically reducing background noise. Active noise reduction works best to block low-frequency sounds such as an airplane engine.

Sound Connections

13. Place the sound jacks within easy reach. If the audio jacks at the back of your PC are too inconvenient to reach, you can move them to the front of the system for easy access. A drive bay port mount, such as those available from Frontx ($40; http://www.frontx.com) and other manufacturers, lets you move the plugs to the front of the PC in the location where a CD-ROM drive would go.

14. There are many types of connectors for audio components. The audio input and output jacks on the PC are called mini plugs. Stereo components generally use larger RCA jacks.

15. Know the color code. Most sound cards (or motherboards for PCs with integrated audio) have three mini plugs for audio, but it can be difficult to tell them apart. They're often color-coded to help. Typically, the green plug is the line output (for speakers or headphones), the pink or red plug is for microphone input, and the blue is for the line-level input. Digital output, if available, is orange. These aren't hard-and-fast rules, however, as some sound cards have separate output jacks for line-level output and speakers, while others have extra jacks for surround sound and a subwoofer. Your PC may have a different color system or no color-coding at all.

16. Your speaker and microphone plugs may be color coded, too. This can make connecting them easier, but because the standards for color coding aren't very standard, you aren't guaranteed that the plug colors will match up with the colors on the sound card jack. Check the sound card or motherboard manual to find out which plug goes where.

17. Why are there two inputs? The microphone jack is self-explanatory; it's where you can plug in a microphone. The line-level jack is meant for input from a CD player, tape deck, tuner, or other audio component. The difference in the inputs is the signal strength. A microphone provides a much weaker signal than the line output of a stereo component does. So if you plug a microphone into the line-input jack, the resulting audio will be barely discernable. If you plug a line-level output into the microphone jack, the audio will likely be overmodulated, which means it will be excessively loud to the point of distortion.

18. Make MP3s from your old tapes. You can use the line-level input along with digitizing software to make MP3s from cassette tapes, radio programs, and other audio sources. You will need a cable that connects the stereo component's RCA jack output to the PC's mini plug input. These cables are typically inexpensive and are available at RadioShack and elsewhere. Cables and jacks on stereo equipment are color-coded; red is the right channel and white is the left channel.

19. Converting your vinyl LPs is trickier. You shouldn't connect a phonograph directly to the line input. The phonograph uses RCA jacks, but its audio signals are different. "Not only is the phono signal much lower in voltage, but the process of vinyl mastering involves applying a special equalization curve that cuts low frequencies and boosts highs," according to Crutchfield.com (http://www.crutchfield.com), which sells audio components. You can connect a phonograph to a line input with a phono preamplifier, which is a device that converts the phono-level signal to line-level output. (Crutchfield.com sells one for about $50.) To accomplish the process without the preamp, connect the phonograph to your stereo amplifier's phono input, and then connect the amplifier's line-out (or tape-out) connection to your PC's line-input jack. Finally, you can convert your old Cat Stevens albums to CD.

20. Some PCs have two sound output jacks. These output jacks are often labeled speaker output and line output. Again, the difference is in the signal level. Speaker output puts out a stronger signal than line output does. If you want to use powered speakers (or speakers that plug into the electrical socket, as most computer speakers do) use the line-output jack. The speaker output jack may work better with headphones and speakers that don't have their own power source.

21. One size does not fit all. The speakers that connect to your stereo shouldn't be connected directly to the PC. Typically, the PC doesn't put out enough signal strength to drive those large, unpowered speakers. If you want to rock out with the stereo system loudspeakers, connect the PC's line out to one of the stereo's line-in jacks, and then crank the volume on the stereo system.

22. Some sound cards have a joystick port. Whether or not you play computer games, the sound card might seem like an odd place for a joystick port to be located. Here is the reason why it is there: You can use the port to connect MIDI-compatible musical instruments. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) connects digital instruments to the PC, letting the computer control a synthesizer or letting the computer transcribe the tune you play on a piano, for instance.

23. Cable quality matters. Although most people are happy enough with the standard cables that connect a PC to the speakers or to a stereo component, audiophiles swear that better cables mean better sound. High-quality cables, such as those from Monster Cable (http://www.monstercable.com), let more of the signal pass through and are better shielded against interference.

24. Use the shortest cables you can. The longer your audio cables are, the greater the chance is for signal loss and for radio-frequency interference to disrupt the sound.

25. Don't worry. It is safe to plug and unplug speakers, headphones, line in, and microphones while the PC is on.

26. PCs can also output and input audio though USB ports. No sound card is necessary if you go this route. You will need a microphone or speakers with a USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection instead of those with mini audio plugs. This can mean better sound quality than the standard mini jack provides. You can use a device that's called a USB audio adapter to convert USB digital audio to high-quality optical digital output for sending PC sounds to a mini-disc player or tape recorder. On the downside, if you are using other devices on the same USB hub, such as a modem, joystick, or printer, competition for bandwidth on the USB port can interrupt the audio.

Control Sound In Windows

27. Control the sound card's volume levels with your PC. In Windows Me or Windows XP, double-click the speaker icon in the System Tray to show the Volume Control screen. On it, you'll see a series of sliders for adjusting sound levels. The slider on the left is the main volume control for PC sound. The other controls shown let you fine-tune the relative volume of various sources of sound. For instance, you can make CD audio louder than wave sounds (used for the system beeps and the like.) You can also turn down (or turn off) the noise an internal modem makes when you connect to the Internet.

28. Don't peg the meters. Pegging the master volume control slider all the way to the top may overmodulate sound or create an annoying hum. It is better to set the master slider one-half to three-quarters the way up, then use your speakers' volume control to adjust the volume to a comfortable level.

29. Control input levels. The Volume Control window also sets the levels for audio input, including the line-in and microphone ports. You'll have to experiment with these levels to get the best audio quality from your particular input sources. You may have audio-input sources that you don't use, such as the microphone on a Web cam. In order to prevent confusion and audio feedback, you may want to mute audio input devices that you rarely use.

30. Look for advanced audio controls. The Volume Control window may offer hidden controls and options you can also tweak. From the Options menu, choose Properties. Then use the checkboxes to choose whether Volume Control will show sliders for various input and output sources. (The exact list depends on your particular sound card.) Selecting Advanced Controls from the Options menu (if available on your system) reveals an Advanced button on the Volume Control window. Click that button to adjust the equalization of the sound (boosting the bass, for instance) and perhaps tweak other audio features, depending on your hardware.

31. Quickly adjust the sound volume. In any version of Windows, you can single-click the speaker icon in the System Tray to quickly change the PC's volume. A slider for the master output volume will appear. You can also click the Mute button for an immediate dose of silence.

32. There is more control for fine-tuning sound input and output in the Windows Control Panel. In WinXP, click the Start menu, then Control Panel, then Sounds And Audio Devices. Under the Volume tab, click the Speaker Volume button to adjust the relative volume of each speaker. The Advanced button tunes Windows to the type of speakers and sound card you are using. Available choices include everything from desktop stereo speakers to 7.1 surround sound. Under the Audio tab, you can choose the sound card and the microphone or line-input device that is used to record. Similar options are available in other versions of Windows. In Win98, look in the Multimedia Control Panel. In WinMe, look in the Sounds And Multi-media Control Panel.

33. Take the test. If you're not sure that sound input or output is working properly, use Windows' Sound Hardware Test Wizard. It will record and play back your voice while you adjust the audio levels. From WinXP's Sounds And Audio Devices Control Panel, select the Voice tab and click the Test Hardware button. Or, from the WinMe Sounds And Multimedia Control Panel, click the Voice tab then the Voice Test button.

34. Don't forget about third-party software. Advanced sound cards often include their own software for fine-tuning audio features that you can't adjust from the Windows Control Panel. Check the sound card manufacturer's Web site for such information.

Speaker Maintenance

35. Test your sound setup. Visit Eminent Technology's Multi-media Speaker Test page (http://www.eminent-tech.com/music/multimediatest.html), a Web page that provides sound files for testing your PC's audio setup (and perhaps your hearing). Each file is accompanied by a description of the test and what you should listen for. Because they are audio files that your Web browser can play, you don't have to install software to perform the tests. The tests work with any version of Windows and Mac OS.

36. PC speakers don't need much maintenance. Quality speakers should serve you without trouble for years. If you feel the need to clean them, use a slightly damp cloth to wipe the speakers. A cloth that is too wet may drip liquid through the speaker grill--a bad thing.

37. Dealing with odd sounds. If your speakers begin to make odd sounds, such as a hissing or crackling, it is time for some investigative work. To start, check the connection between the speaker and the PC. Make sure the plug is clean and that the wires aren't pinched. If wiggling the connector between the plug and the wire causes sound to cut out or produces a crackling noise, you may need a new cable. A nearby fluorescent lamp or cordless phone can also produce interference that can affect sound. Check for interference by turning off nearby lights and appliances or moving the speakers around. You may be able to isolate the problem by connecting your speakers to a different PC and trying a different set of speakers on your PC.

Digitizing Audio

38. Simple sound recording. Win98/Me/XP include a simple audio digitizing tool called Sound Recorder. (From the Start menu, choose All Programs, Accessories, Entertainment, and Sound Recorder.) With the tool, you can record short snippets of sound from the microphone or line-in and perform basic manipulations such as echo and reverse effects.

39. Download advanced digitizing software. Sound Recorder can be fun to play with, but you will need more powerful digitizing software for bigger jobs, such as converting your 8-track tape collection to MP3s. Two popular choices are PolderbitS Sound Recorder And Editor ($19.95; http://www.polderbits.com) and Acoustica MP3 CD Burner ($24.95; http://www.cdburner.ca). Visit the Transferring LPs to CDR: Some Advice Web page (http://www.delback.co.uk/lp-cdr.htm) for helpful tips on converting records and other analog sources to CDs.

40. Sound cards can be fussy about microphones. On inexpensive sound cards, the microphone input jack is typically built with the assumption that you will be using an inexpensive electret microphone. Ironically, plugging in a processional microphone can produce a lower-quality signal. An external microphone preamplifier, connected between the microphone and the sound card's microphone input, will correct the problem.

Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz