Choosing the best sound cards, speakers and audio senders: Buyer’s Guide review

Getting the best PC audio equipment for your budget
Photo of Choosing the best sound cards, speakers and audio senders: Buyer’s Guide

While a computer’s monitor is an undeniably important accessory, given the vast amount of time spent peering at it, there’s an aspect of desktop PC systems that’s often criminally overlooked: its audio components, including the sound card and speakers, some of which include media streaming capabilities to send your tunes around the house, wherever you want to listen to them. IT Reviews talks you through the complexities of PC audio.

Sound card
While office users are able to get away with on-board sound chips that come supplied with their motherboards, gamers, music fans, film buffs, and professional audio types need something a little extra – and the good news is that there’s plenty of choice out there in the market.

As with any purchase, it’s important to go into buying a sound card with your eyes open and a firm budget in mind. While some features such as 24-bit playback might sound impressive, they often come with a major price tag attached – so you’ll need to balance the features you need with the price you can afford.

The sound card is only half the battle, of course: once you’ve got the PC side sorted, you’ll need some decent speakers to get the most out of your purchase. Exactly what you need depends on the scenario in which you’ll be using it – but, as with sound cards, there are some excellent bargains to be had at all levels.

Audio streaming devices and media senders
For those who already have a decent sound system, there’s a final category of product to think about: audio senders. From simple devices that chuck the output of your sound card over the ether to your AV receiver, to all-encompassing wireless network streaming solutions, there’s plenty of choice for those who want a more integrated system.

The sound card is a critical component in the quest for high-quality PC audio. While every mainstream motherboard on the market includes integrated audio support, the quality is often not great – and if you’re spending more than about £20 on the speakers to go with it, you’ll soon find yourself noticing the little buzzes and glitches that cheaper integrated audio controllers can cause.

AuzenTech - Prelude X-Fi
Internal sound cards usually offer an improvement in quality over integrated audio controllers, and may include outputs for 5.1 or 7.1 surroudn sound speakers sets.

Before splashing out on the latest and greatest sound card, however, it’s worth investigating just how good your existing hardware is: although some can be shockingly bad, others are surprisingly good – and while the quality will never rival that of a dedicated sound card, it can be good enough for mainstream use. Try some high-quality speakers out on your existing hardware, or do a search for the model number – you’ll find this in Device Manager in Windows.

Internal vs external
If you’ve decided that your current model isn’t up to scratch, it’s time to investigate a replacement. In the early days of home computing, that involved taking your PC apart and inserting an internal expansion card – but the advent of USB brought about external sound cards, giving users an easy way of improving the quality of their audio without having to faff around with a screwdriver.

Both internal and external cards have their advantages and disadvantages. Internal cards keep things neat and tidy, and  – traditionally – use better components. External cards are easier to fit, and put input and output jacks on a breakout box – perfect for those who find themselves disconnecting and reconnecting devices frequently.

Deciding exactly what you need is key to getting a good sound card without breaking the bank. Gamers and film buffs will likely need the option of multi-channel output for surround-sound audio, whereas music and pro-audio types are better off plumping for a stereo card that offers the highest possible playback and recording quality.

When buying a sound card for surround sound use, it’s important not to fall into the trap of ‘pseudo-surround sound’: some manufacturers choose to use technologies that employ phase-shifting to create a surround sound effect from a pair of headphones or stereo speakers – especially at the cheaper end of the market. While this can be surprisingly effective, it’s nowhere near the quality of a true multi-channel setup – and if you’ve already got a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system, with a single subwoofer and five or seven ‘satellites’ to handle higher frequencies, it’s a complete waste of time.

Instead, look at the outputs and match them to the speakers you’re going to be using. If you’re connecting your sound card to an external amplifier or AV receiver, buy a model with optical or digital co-axial outputs – whichever your target device will accept as an input. These digital connections allow multiple audio channels to be transmitted down a single cable – but make sure that your amplifier talks the same ‘language’ as the sound card, such as Dolby Digital or DTS-HD.

If you’re using a standard set of speakers connected directly to your PC, you’ll want a sound card that has enough outputs to cope. While the sound chips built in to the motherboards of most PCs are happy driving a single pair of stereo speakers, more expensive models include multiple analogue outputs – a front pair, a rear pair, and a subwoofer. These save the cost of a separate decoder, but often miss out the all-important centre channel of a true 5.1-speaker surround-sound setup – a key component for movie buffs, as it’s the channel used to reproduce dialogue.

For musicians
For those who create, rather than consume, audio, inputs are equally important – and should be matched to the equipment you already possess. You’ll also want to consider plumping for devices that offer higher sample rates for recording – pro-level gear usually includes features such as 24-bit recording at a 192KHz sampling rate, and the ability to record multiple audio streams at once.

Those looking to record their own music will also want a card that supports MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface – a ‘language’ spoken by most digital pianos, synthesizers, keyboards, and drum kits. Once common, thanks to a dual-use joystick/MIDI port, support for MIDI devices has all-but disappeared from the lower-end devices – although for those looking to add support on the cheap, it’s worth investigating dedicated MIDI-to-USB adapters, which often cost significantly less than a pro-level soundcard.

For gamers
Gamers need to pay attention to the hardware acceleration functions available in the card of their choice. A good gaming card will include DirectX 11-compatible hardware acceleration – taking some of the strain of audio playback away from the system’s central processor on order to improve performance. Higher-end cards may also support environmental audio effects, which enhance the feeling of immersion in a game. Creative’s EAX system is a good example of this.

At the lower end of the market, £50 will get you a good-quality gaming card such as Creative’s X-Fi, which includes hardware acceleration and the company’s fidelity-boosting technology which claims to improve the perceived quality of compressed music formats such as MP3. Spending more will up the feature set, with higher-end cards including breakout boxes that sit on the desk and make it easier to connect and disconnect peripherals.

At the semi-pro and professional level, the Creative brand gives way to companies like M-Audio and RME, which produce internal and external cards aimed at professional users – and, depending on the features you require, the cost can rapidly rise.

Once you’ve got your PC’s audio hardware sorted, it’s time to shop for speakers. Different users have differing requirements, and what represents an excellent, punchy set of speakers for a movie buff may lack the fidelity that a music lover requires – while a professional would dismiss both as ‘colouring’ the sound.

It’s important to match the speakers to your usage scenario. If you’re going to be gaming or watching films, you’ll want something with plenty of bass to keep the excitement levels high and a surround-sound configuration for total immersion. If you’re listening to music, multiple speakers can be traded for a pair with excellent stereo reproduction, and powerful bass is less important than excellent frequency response across the range.

Stereo vs surround sound
The first choice to make is the number of speakers you’re planning to use, from two right the way up to eight or more. A standard stereo setup uses a pair of speakers, which – as audiophiles will already know – should be set up with a distance between them that is equal to half the distance between the speakers and the listener for the best stereo reproduction. Most speaker packages that come bundled with a desktop PC system include just two speakers.

Music fans and professional audio types will normally concentrate on upgrading the quality of these two speakers, rather than adding additional units. ‘Monitor’ speakers are designed to offer the maximum response across the entire range, and are used in studios to check recording levels before master audio tracks are made. While the higher end models can be expensive, they offer amazing quality – when twinned with a good sound card and an external amplifier.

The most common upgrade for a stereo speaker set-up is a subwoofer. Designed to improve bass response, a sub-woofer uses a low-pass filter to respond only to low-level frequencies – usually below 80Hz.

Edifier - M3300SF 2.1 Speakers
2.1 systems feature a subwoofer for bass reproduction, plus two smaller stallite speakers.

Because the subwoofer features a much larger, dedicated low-frequency speaker, bass response is drastically improved, making in-game or in-film explosions that much more satisfying, while also – with careful adjustment – revealing hidden nuances in music. Because the subwoofer isn’t considered a full speaker – as it doesn’t respond across the entire range of frequencies – such a set-up is known as a ’2.1′ speaker system. Human ears can’t tell which direction very low frequency sounds are coming from, so subwoofers can be hidden away just about anywhere, such as under your desk.

Surround sound
The next upgrade is rare for music fans, but near-essential for film buffs: surround sound. The most common type of surround sound setup adds a pair of rear speakers, as well as a single centre speaker – designed for excellent treble response, and used for the speech in films.

With five speakers and a subwoofer, such a system is known as a ’5.1′ set-up – and requires a multi-channel audio source, such as a DVD or Blu-ray film, or a modern game, to make the most of it. Many bundled packages come with an AV receiver capable of decoding the digital surround sound signals from a sound card’s optical or co-axial output – a necessary component in a surround-sound system.

Creative Inspire T6160
5.1 surround sound systems consist of a subwoofer, front and rear paired satellites, and a front centre speaker for dialogue in DVD and Blu-ray movies.

The next step up is really only one that’s worth making if you’re a hardcore gamer or Blu-ray fan. This type of system adds an extra pair of speakers, designed to sit between the front and rear pairs. Known, for obvious reasons, as a ’7.1′ setup, only certain films offer a full 7.1-channel audio mix – and there are those who believe that such a set-up offers little real-world benefit over a 5.1-channel system.

Whichever category you’re looking at, the speaker world is very much a case of getting what you pay for – but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune. Consult our speaker reviews and if possible, try approaching an audio specialist to see if you can have an at-home demonstration of the speakers you’re interested in – you may find that a cheaper pair offers the same performance as a more expensive set when coupled with your new sound card.

iPod and MP3 player docks
One final type of speaker system that’s worth of a brief mention is sets that have a socket built in that enables you to ‘dock’ a portable device – generally an Apple iPod or iPhone – in order to benefit from the improved reproduction of larger speakers.

Arcam - rCube, rWave and rWand
Line many iPod docks, the Arcam rCube offers wireless streaming via Bluetooth.

Many of these devices also include Bluetooth technology, enabling audio to be sent wirelessly from a smartphone handset or iPod Touch. Some of these use special proprietary compression technology designed to improve the quality of audio sent over Bluetooth.

Many MP3 player docks include a built-in rechargeable battery, enabling them to be moved around without being tied to a wall socket – some, such as the Etón Soulra XL, are solar-powered, enabling them to be used outdoors and on camping trips.

Traditionally, audiophiles have sneered at so-called ‘audio senders’ – and it’s easy to see why. The original devices were little more than a box that sat between a PC and a hi-fi system, transferring the music across the airwaves – and usually mangling it in the process.

Modern audio senders are much improved, however – and for those with the money to spend, there are some impressive toys on the market at the moment.

O! Play Air HDP-R3
Audio streamers such as the Asus O! Play Air HDP-R3 send music remotely to your hifi.

The biggest change in the world of wireless audio transmission in recent years has been the development of wireless networking – now a common feature in most homes and businesses. By latching on to this existing network technology, companies have created devices that can stream audio and video across the airwaves with zero loss in quality.

DLNA compatibility
When buying a wireless media streamer, there’s one key aspect to look for: DLNA compatibility. The Digital Living Network Alliance is a group which has extended the Universal Plug and Play, or UPnP, standard – creating an agreed-upon specification which guarantees compatibility between different products.

By checking for the DLNA compatibility logo, you can guarantee that devices from different manufacturers will inter-operate – and with both Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console and Sony’s PlayStation 3 console, as well as many mobile phones, including DLNA-compatible streaming technology, the chances are you’ve already got at least one device in your house that’s capable of receiving the transmission.

While DLNA offers a simple method of browsing and streaming audio and video held on a PC or a dedicated media server, there are companies going one step further – the biggest of them being Sonos. A producer of high-end wireless audio components, the company offers a suite of products that allow you to stream high-fidelity music to every room of your house, controlled from a dedicated touchscreen remote or using an iPhone or Android handset – but you can expect to pay a signficant premium for such convenience.

While traditional audio senders still exist, and specialist models featuring Bluetooth support for use with mobile phones can be had, it’s worth investigating the newer, wireless network-based systems – and that goes double if you’ve had problems with the old technology.