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New PCs Break the Sound Barrier

June 09, 1997|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Until a few years ago, about the only sounds you'd hear from most PC workstations were an occasional beep, the roar of the fan and the clacking noise of a printer.

Fans and printers are a lot quieter now, but PCs are sounding off in other ways. Virtually all have the ability to reproduce music, voice and other sounds to enhance game playing, Internet usage and general computing. Apple's Macs have had built-in sound since day one, but IBM didn't include a sound system in its original PCs. Now just about every machine comes with a sound card or circuits that play and record audio.

For many people, the sound card that came with their PC is perfectly adequate for standard productivity programs and the occasional game or entertainment product. But if you're an audiophile who wants to compose or play music on your machine or if you're a serious game player who wants to "feel" the sound of planes crashing or tires screeching, you should consider spending $100 to $200 for a high-end card.

Regardless of the card you have, the sound can be improved with better speakers. Most PCs come with a cheap speaker, but you can buy a much better set of amplified speakers starting at $100 from Altec Lansing, Yamaha, Koss, Bose and several other companies.

Sound cards are, in a sense, multiple-function devices because computers have several ways to produce sound. One method is called a wave file, which is basically a recording of any type of sound. It can be a vocalist, an orchestra, a speech or anything else.

Another type of sound is a MIDI file. Musical instrument digital interface is the same protocol used to represent sounds in digital instruments, such as the MIDI keyboards and guitars. Unlike the recorded wave file, a MIDI file is a string of bits that tells the sound card what instruments to emulate and what notes to play. The same MIDI file that's used to produce sound on a PC sound card can also be used in a MIDI instrument. In fact, PC sound cards typically have a socket that can be used to connect the PC to a MIDI instrument. One advantage to a MIDI file is that it is compact. A typical one-minute selection with multiple instruments takes up about 13 kilobytes of memory. Depending on how it's recorded, a minute-long wave file could take up 10,000 kilobytes or more. With most PCs and Macs, a standard audio CD can be inserted into the CD-ROM drive and played through the PC speakers.

Finally, PCs are now being used to play and capture sounds from the Internet. Many Web sites have sound and an increasing number are using RealAudio or other forms of "streaming audio" that make it possible to listen to music, live radio broadcasts or recordings.

PC sound cards can also be used in lieu of a telephone to make long-distance calls via the Internet for little or no money. In this case, you're not only using the sound card to play the other person's voice but to capture your own via a microphone plugged into the card.

Your choice of sound cards makes the biggest difference when playing MIDI files. The basic no-frills cards that come with low-cost PCs are capable of playing up to 20 voices at a time. A "voice" can be a musical instrument or other sound, and limiting the number of voices means cutting back on the actual music you hear. A number of new machines now come with sound cards that give you up to 32 voices, and the latest boards from industry leader Creative Labs play up to 64 voices.

All sound cards have microphone inputs and most let you record from CDs and other sources. Other good sound cards include the Orchid Technology NuSound and the Ensoniq Soundscape Vivo 90. For links to other reviews of sound cards and sites of vendors, set your Web browser to


Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at His World Wide Web page is at

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