Sound has become an integral part our interaction with computers. Whether you like to listen to audio CD’s, play MP3 files, watch movies or enjoy a bit of gaming, good audio is important. And to enjoy computer audio the best way, you need to make sure you address the factors that determine both the audio on a functional and quality aspect.

Audio Quality Aspects

The most important quality factor for good audio is the speaker quality. So if at home, you want to invest in a decent speaker configuration. For music a good 2.1 speaker set will do, but if you like movies or are into gaming, a 5.1 or even 7.1 speaker configuration is a worthwhile investment. If you use mobile computers a lot, you will know that laptop speakers in general are rather bad. It is better to use a headset in that case. Use one with a microphone if you use it for voice chatting or internet calls as well.

A second important factor is the sound card in the computer. All laptops, notebooks, netbooks and many desktop PC’s have an integrated sound card. This means that the sound card is part of the motherboard. For high performance audio, mostly required for video and gaming, a separate sound card can be a good choice. Integrated sound cards are often a compromise on quality to save cost. If you do decide to use an external or extra internal sound card, don’t forget to disable the onboard soundcard as it can cause conflicts.

Audio codecs are used to transform digital, possibly compressed, information into audible sound. Each audio format needs its own decoder, or codec, to be played. Different programs also need different codecs. Windows media player for example has a lot of standard codecs, but it would still need a codec to play the .ogg format. There are codec collections that can help you install the most common codecs, so you can play most audio formats.

The last quality factor I want to mention here is the quality of the encoding itself. As mentioned, video and audio files often use a compression mechanism to ensure that the file size is not too large. But compression will often result in quality loss, less information means a lower quality. MP3 files for example are recorded using a bit rate. The higher the bit rate is, the more information, so the higher the quality. The only thing to consider here is that a human can only distinguish sound quality to a certain level. This means that a 128 bit MP3 file will have sufficient quality for most people.

Windows Audio

Since most computers are still running a version of the Windows operating system, it is good to know a bit more about that.

Windows makes use of device drivers to interact with hardware devices. This is also true for audio hardware, Windows will need an audio driver to interact with the sound card. Without the proper audio driver, there will not be any sound device in Windows, and music, video and games will be without sounds.

In all recent Windows versions, the Windows Driver Model (WDM) is used for all device drivers. By default Windows will support all audio devices that conform to the Universal Audio Architecture (UAA). Compatible devices can use the PCI, PCI Express, USB or IEEE 1394 interface to connect with the computer. All UAA compatible audio devices must conform to the Intel High Definition Audio specification. The older Intel Audio Codec, or AC’97 specification is not valid.

All incompatible audio devices will need a custom audio driver. It is important that drivers support the Microsoft DirectSound API. Supporting DirectSound will ensure the audio drivers will work with most programs in Windows.

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