In a survey we conducted last September, we discovered that about half of FiringSquad readers use a 2-channel audio setup (headphone or speakers) and half of you use a multi-channel system. These findings aren’t surprising. While multi-channel audio is important for games and movies, MP3s and WMAs are stereo. It turns out that the best sound card for multi-channel games usually isn’t the best sound card for music. The problem is that most sound cards operate at a native 48 kHz sampling rate. This means that for every second of sound, there are 48,000 slices of the waveform. As you can imagine, the smaller the slices, the more accurate the recording will be. Games, sound effects, and DVDs all use a 48 kHz sampling rate. On the other hand, most PC music is recorded at 44.1 kHz – that’s what music CDs are recorded at.
The problem arises when you have to convert the 44.1 kHz data for a 48 kHz sound card. Since the samples aren’t evenly divisible (i.e. converting 22.05 kHz to 44.1 kHz), the conversion process usually introduces artifacts that diminish sound quality. Therefore, even if you run the digital output of your motherboard’s sound card to a high-end receiver, you’re still dealing with the 44.1 khz to 48 kHz conversion. One approach to solving this translation problem is through sophisticated algorithms. The X-Fi dedicates 7310 MIPS of processing power just for conversion of 44.1 kHz audio to 48 kHz data. However, there’s an easier and cheaper way to add 44.1 kHz audio support to your motherboard. It’s called the VIA Envy24.
VIA Envy 24HT
If you’ve been interested in PC audio for a while, this is old news to you. The Envy24 has been around for over half a decade. Despite its age, it still remains my “sound card of choice” for 2006. Even for the hardcore dual GPU gamers, the on-board sound card found on most modern motherboards is more than enough for games and movies. Upgrading to the X-Fi only offers better recording or slightly better EAX support, but it’s still an incremental improvement for a relatively high price.
The Envy24HT is great because it provides a dirt cheap solution to high-end audio. For less than $25, you get true 16-bit/44.1kHz audio, important for MP3 and CD audios, but also 24-bit/96kHz playback support. Since the design of the sound card is exceptionally simple, manufacturers are still able to include high-end DACs without increasing the cost. Best of all, the Envy24HT “plays nice” as a second sound card. This makes it a great add-on to your motherboard sound card or even another PCI sound card.
If audio fidelity during music CD or MP3 play back is important to you, the Envy24 HT is unquestionably the best starting point.