The More Processing Power A Sound Card Has, The Better It Sounds!
Variant #1 : The sound card with the most MIPS sound better!
This myth has been perpetuated by the boys at Creative Technology for years and to be honest with you, I'm dead tired of it. The only thing you can do with more processing power is to make more complex audio effects, and process those effects faster.
The point is, faster sounds cards will not sound better, clearer or anything when it comes prerecorded digital sound sources, aka music CDs or DVDs. You can certainly add more fancy effects, but that will generally reduce the quality of the original sound track.
Of course, the easiest trick in the book of most sound card makers is to boost the volume. It fools many users into thinking that the stuff sounds better!
Loads of processing power is good for one thing - gaming. Games rely on greater processing power to draw a more complex soundscape, it certainly won't give you any boost in audio quality. The more you process any audio stream, the more distorted it's going to get.
So, what really determines sound quality? Just three things - the Source, Electrical Design, and the DAC (Digital Analog Converter).
The Source of the audio input is probably the most important of the three because if you don't have a good, clean source, then the other two won't really matter much. Let's say you use two microphones to record the same band using the same encoding, with just one difference - one recording done in the recording studio and the other in front of a car radio. Which would sound better? I think we all know the answer to that.
Encoding of the source also affects audio quality. Obviously, a losslessly-compressed FLAC file is going to sound far better than a 192 kbits-encoded MP3 from the same source. So, choose a good source if you want great audio output.
In the context of electrical design, a sound card with high quality output capacitors, great operational amplifiers and the least amount of board noise is going to sound the best. Although it's hard to make a choice based on these factors, they're not as important as the DAC, so don't worry too much.
In a computer, all audio sources have to be processed digitally. Unfortunately, we live in an analog world, so we rely on little chips called Digital-to-Analog Converters, or DACs, to convert that digital signal into analog signals. Therefore, these little chips have a great influence on the quality of the final audio output of the sound card.
Most sound cards have their DAC specifications listed somewhere. So, look for them and compare them when you narrow down a few cards. Here are a few key specifications of a DAC chip.
SNR (Signal To Noise Ratio) - This denotes the dynamic range it can reproduce. Higher is better.
Sampling Rate - This denotes how fast a chip can sample digital data. Higher is better.
Sampling Frequency - The frequency range a chip can sample from. The wider, the better.
THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) - Lower is better.
Resolution - The amount of resolution the chip has. Higher is better.
Frequency Response - Always in chart form. Look for a flat plateau and a sharp roll off at the end.
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