Your Basic Guide to PC Audio Making sense of the basics so you can get started

Your Basic Guide to PC Audio Making sense of the basics so you can get started

July 9, in Features, Hi-Fi Systems Reviews

If you search long enough, you will uncover a trove of information regarding the many ways your desktop or laptop can be turned into a first-rate music making machine. There’s just one problem; finding all of that information and then making sense of it all! This guide is designed to be your one-stop reference that will cover the bare essentials necessary to get you started in using your computer as a source.

Why PC Audio?

There’s no questioning it; the computer has made and continues to make a significant impact in today’s world. To hammer this point home; take a quiet moment to imagine how different life would be without the PC. It’s not an easy thing to do! Yet for all the personal and professional use we get from our computers, the growing trend is now focusing on making it the centerpiece for our audio and video entertainment. Moreover, the potential top notch sound-quality that can be attained from such a source has not gone unnoticed by many audiophiles.

Like most things, half the battle is acquiring enough information to gain a solid understanding of what options are available to you. Afterwards, it’s simply a matter of determining the best appropriate solution. So with that said, let’s kick things off from the top and look at the foundation of your hi-fi PC system.

Hardware

Sound Cards

While soundcards are great for people that want to enjoy the thrills of games and movies on designated “computer speakers” – they make for pretty lousy hi-fi playback vehicles. Usually it is best advised to start off by ditching your existing soundcard in favor for higher quality solutions. While this is the standard first-step for those serious about attaining better sound, there are still those who rely on the friendly software compatibility these off the shelf cards provide. For those of you in that situation and still want to take your stereo playback to the next level, I would suggest sinking some change into an external DAC.

DAC’s (Digital-Analog-Converter)

These days, most soundcards have a single coaxial (SPDIF) output. This is an easy and affordable way to get better sound from your existing soundcard. Simply buy a DAC, run it off the SPDIF output – and away you go. While this solution is not perfectly ideal (mostly due to jitter and clock recovery issues), it is far better than using the stock card in your PC. When it comes to selecting your DAC, the only limitation is your budget! Go tube, go solid state – it doesn’t matter. Just remember to go into your audio software and specify the output to be either “SPDIF” or “Coaxial” once the device is hooked up.

USB DAC’s

USB DAC’s have become a popular solution for many audiophiles due to not only great sound quality, but for sheer ease of use. Most Windows and Apple based operating systems will autodetect any USB device – meaning the DAC is literally plug and play. It doesn’t get any easier than that! You will need no soundcard, which saves you both space and some green. Look for DAC’s that use I2S chipsets, which improve sound quality by drastically reducing clock jitter. Currently, the main downside to USB DAC’s boils down to a limited selection in today’s market.

Wireless Devices

One of the most flexible options in todays market comes from products like the famous Slim Devices Squeezebox 3, which is an affordable device that streams audio files (wired or wirelessly) from your PC to your hi-fi rig. These gadgets allow you to stream your music collection from your computer even if it’s in an entirely different room – meaning you won’t have to share your listening space with a noisy machine. The sound quality of these pieces may vary, and you may ultimately encounter better sonic results with professional soundcards or external DAC’s. Still, there is a flexibility that no other device currently offers.

Professional Sound Cards

Even though professional sound-cards are designed with studio applications in mind, they’ve nonetheless been used by many audiophiles as high-quality sources. Even the very affordable pro cards from the likes of E-Mu can offer surprisingly good quality that can challenge more costly CD players. One of the major benefits of these cards hides within flexible software, which often allows you to control the output gain. This enables you to help match other electronics to your sound-card more successfully. The main caveats however is the often lack of software support, along with odd analog output connections (typically 1/4th jacks). Ultimately, the pro soundcard is the ideal solution for those that are either on a tight budget, likes to do a bit of mixing, or do not want any extra pieces of hardware in their space.

Playback Software

Once you decide on the hardware that best suits your needs, the next step is locating the software that will play your tunes. With so many options available on the web, I will focus strictly on the most popular choices.

Winamp

Winamp is one of the most popular media players on the web. Between its flexibility, compatibility, ease of use, and the ability to customize the graphical interface, it is an attractive player for crowds both young and old.

Windows Media Player

Windows Media Player is a versatile piece of software that is preloaded in every windows machine. While it is a bit of a resource hog, it is a solid player that is very easy to use, especially when it comes to burning high quality files from CD’s. Windows Media Player is also very friendly when it comes to creating and maintaining a playlist/ archive of your music. When it comes to video playback, Windows Media Player was the very first piece of software in the world to support 1080p.

iTunes

A popular choice for Apple users, iTunes is another versatile piece of software that comes preloaded with every Mac computer. Like Windows Media Player, iTunes sports an easy to use interface that is friendly for both burning files, and maintaining a play-list of music.

FooBar2k

While FooBar’s interface is not as pretty or as simple as Winamp or Windows Media Player, its flexibility allows you to tweak and adjust a whole host of variables that yield very audible results. FooBar also supports a huge variety of codec’s (music files) and requires far fewer resources from your PC than the aforementioned software. Simple and very effective, FooBar2k has become the de-facto standard for PC touting audiophiles.

Burning Software

Now it’s time to look at software that can be used to transfer your CD collection onto your PC. Like playback software, there are tons of ‘audio grabbers’ available on the web to chose from. For now, the focus will be kept primarily on simple and effective software.

Windows Media Player

For PC users, burning your favorite CD onto the hard-drive won’t get much easier than using the native tools built into Windows Media Player. With the ability to create either highly compressed files or larger, high quality lossless files – Windows Media Player offers the path of least resistance for those completely unfamiliar with the world of burning.

iTunes

This piece of software is the standard Apple/MAC media player. When it comes to burning files, think of Windows Media Player – except for a different operating system. Like Windows Media Player, iTunes has its own high quality lossless converter built right in. For Mac users, iTunes will likely be your go-to software for both listening and burning.

E.A.C (Exact Audio Copy)

For PC’s only, EAC is a freeware ripper that creates incredibly clean and accurate files from your CD. Much like FooBar2k, there are many opportunities to tweak and adjust how you wish to burn your files. Burning files with almost zero errors, EAC is the standard for many audiophiles.

LAME encoder

LAME is not software designed to burn files. Instead, it is an encoder which helps programs like EAC create very high quality mp3 files. This will be an essential tool for those who do not have the hard-drive space to facilitate larger, high quality files.

Main File Extensions

We’ve now reached the final step; determining the format you wish your files to be burned as. While there are literally dozens of formats, I will once again focus on the most common extensions.

.mp3

(mpeg3) There aren’t too many people who haven’t heard of mp3’s. Mp3’s are very compressed versions from the original recording. The files are typically very small, meaning you can store thousands on a modest sized hard-drive. This all comes at the expense of over-all sound quality. When burning music into mp3 format, the general rule of thumb to maintain as much quality as possible is to keep the bit-rate as high as possible (320kps is ideal). The higher the bit-rate, the better the mp3 should sound. Although this is an imperfect measurement, it is a good mental note.

.FLAC

(free audio lossless codec) Designed specifically for audio, FLAC compresses the original file without loss of critical information and thusly; sound quality. It is the most popular and widely supported lossless format available and has become the standard format for most high end PC systems.

.WAV

(wave) WAV files are typically the uncompressed audio format the PC reads off a standard red book CD. Unlike mp3 and FLAC, when you rip your files into the WAV format you are getting nearly 100% of the information that’s on the original recording. While it seems like this would be the most logical format for a purist audiophile, the large file sizes drastically reduce the amount of music that can be stored on your hard-drive.

There you have it!

The information above should be able to provide you with just enough direction that will help you obtain the tools necessary for turning your desktop or laptop into a high end music making machine. As you become more comfortable with PC audio – you will find a substantial amount of information available that will help take your experience to the next level. When done right, it is very difficult to go back to the world of standard disc spinners. Have fun!

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