Even if you have a huge music collection that are encoded in the highest quality, without the right hardware, you won’t be getting the best out of your music. In this article I will cover three different ways to improve the audio experience – internal sound cards, external sound cards and headphones/speakers.
1. Internal Sound Cards
The vast majority of computers (laptops, at least) come with not-so-good sound cards which, despite doing their job well for the regular user, are far from being the best cards for people who are into music. Before buying a new computer, check the quality of the included sound card. If you have already bought a new computer and wish to get a better sound card, there is always the possibility to change yours for a new one (warning: if you are not certain on how to do this, DO NOT do it. Not only is it a hard process, especially for laptops, it can also void your warranty).
Most of the best best internal sound cards in the market are made by ASUS and Creative. The ASUS Xonar Essence STX is considered to be the best, followed by the ASUS Xonar Essence ST9 and the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi. They all cost between $150 and $215, and they are considered to be “professional”. In fact, the ASUS models do not have any regular 3.5mm jack ports (but they do come with an adapter), while the Creative one has two such ports.
2. External Sound Cards
External Sound Cards are useful for those who are not able to add an internal sound card to their system. It can be due to a lack of PCI Express port or the laptop casing is not removable. In this category, there is a wider spectrum of products to cover. There are several ways of connecting these devices to our computers, such as USB or FireWire. The external sound cards use these interfaces to communicate with computers and improve its sound reproduction capabilities. They also come in many different configurations, from USB sticks to devices looking like external hard drives, and different prices, from $10 to $1000.
Once again, Creative comes as one of the most reliable brands in this category, with its X-Fi series (Sound Blaster X-Fi HD, Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro and Sound Blaster X-Fi Go! Pro). If your budget is lower, there are plenty of other options from lesser known brands that will also do the trick. I have one of these “USB sticks,” and I guarantee you will notice the difference, because they emulate a 5.1 card (and they do not require an existing sound card since they work completely independently).
3. Headphones and Speakers
If I said the external sound card market was really big, this one is gigantic – earphones, headphones, regular speakers, surround speakers, cordless, you name it. And since they are the last devices the sound gets through before reaching your ears, they obviously have some influence in playback quality. They also come in many colors, models and prices, so ultimately this is just a matter of taste and/or budget. According to Lifehacker, who polled their users for the best earbud, headphone and speaker, the respective favorites are the Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones ($100), the Grado SR80i ($99) and the Klipsch Promedia 2.1 ($150).
What are your favorite ways to improve audio experience? Let us know in the comments below.