HTPC GuideZertz , technodanvan , tacohunter52 - March 15, 2009
» Discuss this article (16)
The Sound Card:
Now this is a difficult subject. Many people wonder if it is even worth purchasing a sound card in the first place. Integrated audio is getting better, and some people will not notice any difference. If you're one of the audiophiles that can tell the difference, or if you've somehow convinced yourself you need a sound card, you'll run into the simple problem of "which one should I get?" There is a sound card for pretty much every price range, and you'll find that just about everyone has a different opinion. While Creative's Sound Blaster may be the most commonly referred to card, many people just don't like it. Sound cards come in all shapes and sizes, and can range from PCI, PCIe, USB, and IEEE 1394. I'll attempt to help you chose a sound card that will work for you.
The cards that I selected will be based upon the following criteria:
- Since this is a dedicated HTPC it is assumed that you will be using a multichannel receiver with a real multichannel setup. Nothing against Logitech, Klipsch, or other companies that have designed 5.1 computer speakers. They just aren't the same and the vast majority of people won't be using them in their living room.
- Since you are using a dedicated receiver it is very likely that you will want to use a digital cable. Whether optical or coaxial, the cards I have listed here come with a digital output that is fully capable of carrying a multichannel signal.
- Dolby Digital Live (DDL) is a relatively new technology that simulates surround sound. It's great for movies and music alike, along with a lot of games as well. This isn't a requirement, but it's really nice to have. DTS Connect is a similar technology.
- I'm not concerned with pro-audio cards here or the features they provide.
- EAX support isn't necessary for the average HTPC, if you intend to game it'll be more important so a couple of these cards will offer it.
A sound card will perform the same in any computer regardless. If you're looking for a cheaper card grab the cheaper card. If you don't mind spending a bit more then by all means spend a bit more.
- I chose this card because it was made for a home theater set up. It has just about every connector you can use and won't take up one of your PCI slots. I've never had any trouble with any ASUS sound cards, and I don't think you will either.
- The Auzentech XPlosion is a very affordable sound card, that offers sound quality comparable to most any other card. Honestly if you don't intend to be doing any gaming (or do game but don't care about EAX support) on you HTPC, I wouldn't bother with anything else.
- I don't know anything about this card, other than it is a newer company and is based on the same C-Media chip the XPlosion is. Might be something worth trying out in the future.
- While I haven't used this card personally, I've heard excellent reviews by many other people so it may be worth a look. It uses a newer version of the C-Media chip the previous cards employ.
- This is the most expensive card I have listed because it is designed both for excellent music and movie reproduction and features EAX support to boot. If you're a gamer and also watch a bunch of movies, there really is no reason to get anything else.
Final notes on sound cards:
Some newer cards offer replaceable OPAMPS to custom tailor the sound to your ear. These kits can add a few hundred dollars to the original price of the card. Even further, some people recommend replacing cheap capacitors with high quality ones. Doing all this can make sub par cards sound great, but can drastically increase the cost of the card. If a card needs modding you really shouldn't consider it in the first place. Unless of course the overall cost is way cheaper then any alternative.
There are many other cards available that don't offer real digital outputs. If you don't need them, Creative sells many cards that support games for less money. The Creative Audigy2 (if you can find one) is possibly the best card you could buy given that criteria. Personally though, I feel the above cards are better suited for HTPC use. If you feel you need a more expensive "pro" model by all means grab one; but I feel the top end cards here are more than up to the task of handling even the most expensive of home theaters.