First, let's start off with –
What is a sound card?
If you look at it, a sound card is nothing but a DAC. However, it can be defined in various ways but it is the only parallel that we can draw on to make sense to an audiophile. The only difference here is that, unlike regular audiophile DACs, a sound card offers more utility and operational advantages. Essentially used in conjunction with a computer, the sound card can perform enterprising functions than simply converting digital audio off the computer into streams of analogue audio. With the limitless possibilities that computer software offers, we get sound cards that offer several sampling rates for audio playback with a number of channels (stereo, surround and others) and exquisite DSP modes for sound processing, at times even conduct recordings for you. Add to this the flexibility in terms of connectivity, and you have the answer. Be it a passive system or an active one, a sound card can easily adapt itself to any system without you having to change any of the components. This opens up a whole new avenue wherein you can use sound cards for hi-fi listening. What you need is a PC filled with hi-res music to get you started.
Types of Sound Cards
While we were searching for a sound card that is capable of delivering the perfect sound that we were looking for, we came across other sound cards that you can make use of as per your audio preference.
- Plug n Play USB Card
These sound cards almost fall in the shoe of DAC sound, and are connected to the computer using a USB cable. They are easy to use with their plug-n-play application, with not much of technical hassle involved. For instance, Asus Xonar Essence One sound card (reviewed in November 2011).
- PCI card
As the name suggests, PCI or Peripheral Component Interconnect sound cards work as a medium to connect external devices (speakers) to the computer. It is housed in the computer (CPU) and placed in such a way that the entire body of the sound card stays inside the computer with only the i/o ports exposed outside for your perusal. It is advised to have adequate knowledge about the interiors of a CPU to understand its operations better. We have provided a detailed review of the Creative Recon3D sound card in our review section.
- USB Audio Interface
These sound cards are essentially for recording purposes, especially mobile or home recording studios. The exciting part about these soundcards is obviously the added functionality of audio recording backed by the high-quality components. We have reviewed the Edirol UA-55ex for your reference.
The various types
How to connect a sound card
It's a simple set up really
So, does it mean that you employ your time to search for computer sound cards rather than relentlessly spending it on finding the best DAC in the universe? The answer is a strong ‘Yes’, if you are looking for a cost-effective solution that can match a quality DAC dedicated for digital-to-analogue conversion. The operative word here is ‘good enough’, as going by audiophile quality standards it will be very difficult for most computer sound cards to match the exquisite and pristine sound quality that a DAC offers. And this is applicable even on the audiophile-grade computer sound cards. The main reason for our belief here is the components that are used in the making of a sound card. We need to realize that the collective cost of all these components play an important role. The lower cost of components is the most important factor that allows manufacturers to effectively control the overall pricing of the product. While we warn you about the occasional compromise on the sound aspect, one needs to look at the comprehensive utility options that these sound cards have to offer. And it is this add-on functionality list that makes sound cards cost-effective and desirable.
In the Name Of Audio
Our attempt here is to understand the potential and feasibility of using a sound card to help the user gain maximum out of his audio output, and we have come to realize that they have more advantages than disadvantages. Yes, we do believe soundcards aren’t perfected to fit-in our hi-fi world but that’s not to say that they aren't capable of being used. We don’t expect to start a revolution overnight and bring drastic changes in the way we choose our equipment, but we certainly hope that this effort will help you consider the option of converting your computer into a source that is backed by a strong sound card.
Creative Recon 3D Fatal1ty Champion
Creative's Sound Blaster series has been running strong since sometime now. Picking up on this popularity, they have recently launched the new range of Sound Blaster sound cards, which include around four new sound cards and three different headphones. The Recon 3D, part of the same series, is a PCIe (PCI Express) card that fits inside your computer. Powered by the SoundCore 3D multi-core sound and voice processor, the Recon 3D also comes with a front-end interface which is a great add on as far as handling and ease-of-use is considered. Creative has also made the installation absolutely easy, wherein both the PCI card and the front-end interface are connected to each other with just two cables. Once you get the card in the PCI slot, simply install the software (including the drivers required for the card) and get going. The card is aimed at the gaming community, and hence we were not surprised to see the illustrative user interface of the sound management software that came along with the card.
For the audiophiles
The USP of this card is 3D sound, and Creative has managed to put up a really convincing show. It comes with a small calibration microphone for the most appropriate 3D projection of sound. Switching between headsets and 5.1 setup is easy, courtesy the software. We primarily tried the sound card for music listening and were mighty impressed with the accuracy of the playback. There was absolutely no trace of the component noise from our computer, which otherwise is very evident on the onboard sound card.
As a part of the Roland Corporation, Edirol is considered to be the most popular brand for portable sound cards used for recording purposes. One of their popular products is the UA-55, which is an USB audio interface as we have mentioned earlier. It connects to the computer using a normal USB cable and just like any other sound card you will have to install the drivers for the card on your computer in order to start using it. It comes with a regular analogue output that you can connect to any active speaker or an amplifier. The primary purpose of this interface is recording, and it is commonly known as the Quad- Capture sound card for its four inputs to record. The busy front panel is just a result of the same. So, it is an obvious question of why should we use it for listening to music, if it is meant for recording? But as we have mentioned earlier, a very important part of these products is the quality of components that they use and it is in fact this aspect that makes it even more interesting for regular listeners. The onboard DAC on the card demonstrated immense control in terms of jitter and sync.
Another option for the audiophile
We sampled a number of different fi le formats and the Quad Capture’s ability to playback audio at 192 kHz turned out to be a real treat for the ears. Give the card any high bit rate audio format like .WAV or FLAC and at no point will you fi nd it struggling to cope up with high rate of data to deal with. The playback was clean and without any digital discrepancy. We used the sound card at several outdoor locations and the card did not show any signs of deterioration in terms of the sound quality.
AV MAX is a special interest audiophile magazine that focuses on reviewing high-end AV equipment like amplifiers, stereos, floorstanding speakers and related news
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