If you tend to listen to music on your PC while you’re doing something else you won’t be giving it your undivided attention but, even so, you’ll still want to experience good quality audio. If, on the other hand, you want to build a home media centre around a PC – which isn’t our main theme here although it’s an option you might want to consider – then sound quality will be absolutely paramount.
Yet all too often, the quality of music reproduction on a PC is far from perfect. The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be that way as we demonstrate here. First we’ll look at the various audio-related hardware components in a PC with a view to helping you to upgrade your hardware for better quality music. This will go a long way to improving your listening experience but, for the ultimate, you also need to trade in those MP3 tracks for music that’s recorded in a higher quality format. Accordingly, we’ll then discuss the alternatives to mp3 so that you can get the most out of your new hardware and we’ll look at the software you’ll need to handle these high performance standards.
Audiophile-quality music on a PC
If we ignore the hard disk or the CD/DVD drive on which the music is stored, three audio components are required for music reproduction on a PC although the second and third are often combined. First there’s either a so-called sound card or, more commonly, an audio chipset on the PC’s motherboard. This performs several tasks although, in the context of listening to pre-recorded music from a CD or the hard disk, it acts as a digital to analogue converter (DAC) that converts the digital data to a signal that our ears can hear.
The output from the sound card or chipset is too weak to drive a speaker or headphones directly so the next component is an audio amplifier. The final component is the speaker or headphones although, in the realm of computer hardware, speakers often have a built-in amplifier.
In all probability, all of these components will be below par so there’s an argument for replacing the whole audio chain. If your budget is limited, though, or if you want to upgrade in stages, it’s important to identify which upgrade will provide the biggest improvement so you can prioritise.
Audiophiles debate this ad infinitum and opinions differ but a commonly held view is that it pays to give priority to the early stages of the reproduction. The “garbage in – garbage out” argument applies: in other words, no component can improve a poor quality signal that’s passed to it. This implies that the sound card or chip is the most important, followed by the audio amplifier, with the speaker or headphones being the least important. While favouring an upgrade of the early stages in the chain makes sense if all the components are of similar quality, this often isn’t the case with the speakers usually being particularly poor, especially in a laptop. In this instance, therefore, the exact opposite would be recommended.
Such inevitably contradictory guidance makes it difficult to decide what to upgrade although we’d suggest that the speakers are usually the weakest link so would be the top priority. If you decide to buy passive (i.e. non-amplified) speakers, though, this upgrade path would also involve investing in an audio amplifier. Like any other piece of PC hardware, you’ll undoubtedly draw up a shortlist by perusing the specifications and while this is an important first step, in the realm of audio, it’s not easy to equate figures with performance.
Paradoxically, your ears often provide a better way of comparing and it’s not uncommon for one product to out-perform another with a better specification. In the realm of Hi-Fi (as opposed to PC music), the “try before you buy” philosophy applies with top-end dealers offering customers the option of auditioning equipment before buying. This is the best way to decide on your upgrade path and it will often be possible to try out upgrades on your PC if you choose a small local shop instead of going to a big name store or buying online. It may also be possible if you’re thinking of upgrading with Hi-Fi gear instead of equipment intended specifically for use with a PC.
Let’s take each of the components in turn. For each we’ll consider what you should take into account in choosing an upgrade and provide some indication of what you might end up paying.
On-board sound cards or chipsets are usually very basic, and can suffer from interference from other electronic components on the motherboard. This leads to unwanted noise through your speakers instead of a clean, interference-free sound. That’s why it’s worth bypassing this altogether and replacing it with hardware that does a better job.
A new sound card could be either a replacement internal PCI-Express card (only for desktop PCs) or a separate box that connects to your PC via a USB port. In addition to the obvious reason for upgrading – i.e. to improve the quality of reproduction of your existing music – you might also need to upgrade it to support some of the higher quality music formats that we discuss later.
If you’re going to be using it purely for listening to music you should look for a card that’s intended primarily for this application. However, if you’re also interested in gaming and perhaps watching movies, a dedicated gaming card will offer features such as surround sound but, possibly, at the expense of the ultimate in audio quality.
Creative Labs has traditionally addressed the gaming market but now also offers audiophile products. Asus and Auzentech are also well-respected. In addition, for music but not for gaming, some of the Hi-Fi companies such as Arcam are now addressing the PC market. Bear in mind, though, that products from Hi-Fi companies, for example the Arcam rPAC, will often be DACs (so search for “USB DAC” instead of “sound card”) so will not offer the other functions of a general purpose sound card. Expect to pay at least £100 for hardware that will make a substantial difference to your existing setup, although you could pay several hundred pounds.
Turning to the speakers, those that are marketed as PC components usually have a built-in amplifier. Commonly, they also support surround sound by the provision of several satellite speakers that attach to a central sub-woofer which also houses the amplifier. However, unless you really need surround sound, we suggest that you pick stereo speakers instead.
After all, if you go for just the two speakers you’re likely to get a higher quality product than if you buy six or seven speakers for the same price. Perhaps because of the commonly held, but not necessarily correct, view that the speaker is the most important element of an audio system, numerous companies address this market so you’re going to have to do your homework. Prices range from £15 offerings that are unlikely to provide you with any improvement, to a few hundred pounds although products around the £100 mark should provide a reasonable upgrade.
As an alternative to buying a set of PC speakers you could also consider using a lower cost set of speakers aimed at the Hi-Fi market. You’d also need a separate audio amplifier but it’s quite possible that a speaker plus amplifier could outperform a set of dedicated PC speakers at the same price point.
Next page: High Quality Music Formats