QUESTION I use my PC as my main way of playing music. I have a decent amplifier and speakers, but I'm less than happy with the quality of audio coming from my computer. I've tried a plug-in sound card from Creative Labs and this has improved the quality somewhere, but my main issue is that there seems to be a lot of audible interference coming from the computer itself. During quiet passages of music, it's as though I can hear the PC ‘thinking' in the form of a quite unpleasant screeching noise. What can I do to achieve something approaching hi-fi quality? (Also see how to get better quality audio from your PC and HD audio on your PC: how to buy and play hi-res music in 24/96 or better.)
HELPROOM ANSWER Upgrading your sound card can indeed improve quality, although there are a few different types, and while all of them will be designed to sound as good as possible, they don't all have an emphasis on high quality music reproduction.
For example, many are designed to accelerate the processing of effects for gaming or produce surround sound designed for multiple speaker setups. These functions are unnecessary for simple music playback.
The best way to isolate your audio from the noise produced inside your PC is to take the sound generation outside the computer's case altogether. If your amplifier or active speakers come with a digital input, either co-axial or optical, you can use a digital output from your PC if it has one.
This will use the Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC) in your amplifier/speakers, rather than the sound card in your PC, to generate the sound which should be clean of interference from within the case.
If you don't have a digital input to your speakers, you can add an external USB sound 'card' to your computer. These can be almost trivially inexpensive: a quick search on Amazon reveals examples costing under £2 – although we wouldn't expect hi-fi quality from these. A better example would be a Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS for around £100 or an HRT microStreamer for £180, although you can of course spend considerably more than this.
Be aware, though, that these particular devices are purely for playing back audio and not recording it. For that see our features: how to get better quality audio from your PC and HD audio on your PC: how to buy and play hi-res music in 24/96 or better.