Build Your Own Media Center PC - Part 4 - Sound Cards

If your computer is anything less than three years old, the included sound card should meet the minimum requirement of 16-bit audio. Unless you upgraded from the computer manufacturer's default card, you won't have any surround sound support, which is vital to getting an experience approximating traditional component home theater systems.

At the lowend of the sound card upgrade selection, consumer grade hardware will more than suffice for most users. The Audigy MP3+ from Creative Labs features Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and 24-bit audio processing for under $70.

The Turtle Beach Santa Cruz card comes in slightly higher, at around $75, but comes with Turtle Beach digital signal processing (DSP) technology, which off-loads more of the audio processing to the sound card reducing the load on your CPU. The tradeoff is only 18-bit audio, which is above our minimum requirement, but less than the more affordable Audigy MP3+. The Santa Cruz also supports 5.1 Surround Sound.

For just under $100, the M-Audio Revolution 7.1 provides the best of the affordable PCI consumer solutions, with Dolby Digital 7.1 Surround Sound, 24-bit output, and some of the best on board noise shielding available in the consumer space. Assuming I ever purchase another PCI audio card, this would probably be my first choice. This card doesn't support Windows 98, but should work with Me, 2000, and XP.

For better audio performance, an external USB solution may be preferable for several reasons. The USB solution is outside your computer case, so there's less opportunity for noise from other computer components to introduce garbage into your audio signal. Many of the USB solutions offer XLR connections, which further contribute to noise reduction. Another convenience of external audio solutions is accessibility to the connectors. With even a 3-foot USB cable, you can easily position the USB "sound card" closer to all of your connections, and further from your computer case. With a USB solution, there's no more crawling around on the floor, squinting at tiny little connectors, while trying to remember which one of the arrows on the back of the card is referring to input. For under $200, here are two 7.1 ready audio devices, with 24-bit output:

M-Audio delivers here as well, offering a solution geared toward portability. For under $100, Sonica Theater offers 24-bit, Dolby Digital 7.1 Surround Sound output in a device designed to fit in your pocket.

The Sound Blaster Audigy2 NX offers 7.1 Surround Sound and 24-bit DVD-Audio playback for under $130.