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Sound Cards

Believe it or not, high-fidelity multimedia was not considered an essential part of PC systems until the advent of the CD-ROM.  Before CDs were in full force, most applications didn’t even need complex sounds.  The only applications that did need them were games, and even still they did not require high quality sounds.  So, up until the early 90’s, most PCs only came with a cheap speaker that could emit beeps and some really poor-sounding audio.  In the early 90’s, simple sound cards came out that could play basic audio samples.  By the late 90’s, mainly stemmed by developments in the video game industry and audio recording industry, a new wave of hi-fi sound cards came out with more bells and whistles than you could shake a stick at.  It was only in the last few years that sound cards began to be integrated into the motherboard.  This new trend helps to reduce the cost of a PC system but right now, these ’on-board’ sound cards are of lower quality.

The modern sound card is miles apart from its ancestors of the early 90’s.  They’ve gone from curiosities to full-blown audio processing suites.  Computer technology has advanced so far that a single musician on a computer can do the work of an entire studio (not as quickly, of course).  In terms of audio quality, modern sound cards can also handle higher sampling rates and sound quality.  Most meet the new specifications related to DVD-encoded movies.

All new sound cards also support home theatre systems.  In the late 90’s this started with the first wave of 4.1 sound cards (4 satellites, 1 subwoofer) and has blossomed into the latest 7.1 sound cards (4 satellites, 2 center, 1 subwoofer).  Not too many applications can truly take advantage of full surround sound aside from DVD players and blockbuster games.  Speaking of games, most new games are coded with some form of EAX support (environmental audio extension).  EAX allows game developers to accurately model the way sounds are heard in varying environments.  For instance, if you’re in a tiled room, there will be more echoes.  If you’re in a carpeted room, sounds will be dampened.  As these effects have gone through several revisions (currently at EAX 4.0) the realism and immersion factor of games have increased dramatically.

The major player in the sound card business is Creative Labs.  They released the original sound card, the SoundBlaster, back in 1989.  Since then they have dominated the sound card market in every way possible.  Their current line of SoundBlaster Audigy 2 cards features THX certification, 24-bit sound, and a high-fidelity 96kHz playback rate.  Every Audigy 2 card can support 6.1 or even 7.1 speaker configurations!  There are many specialty versions of the Audigy 2.  The Audigy 2 Gamer is designed for the video game system, while the Audigy 2 ZS Pro is geared at audio industry professionals with its Input/Output drive bay that sticks out the front of your computer.