Geek on Sound (or.. does anyone really need a sound card these days?)

July 14, 2014 by . 0 comments

These days, most PCs come with sound cards that are good enough for most purposes. Speakers have gotten generic enough that shopping for a good pair, with something to differentiate them, isn’t that easy. In a sense, if you aren’t massively picky, you aren’t going to  look very hard or far, since what you have is probably good enough.

 

Output devices

I’d start by saying that sound is subjective – different people expect different things from their sound system, and look at different things. A pretty good idea when actually trying to put together gear for sound output is to decide what you’re going to do, and what you expect from your sound gear. Different folk expect different things – some value bass over all else (in which case, you’d want a pretty powerful subwoofer, or bass oriented headphones), while other want a neutral sound.

 

An ideal sound system sounds exactly like what its source material sounds like. Practically, its pretty hard to make a device that records the entire range of human hearing (ideally from 20 – 20,000 hz). Your mic locations and types make a difference. The recorded material might also be changed in storage (for example, if it’s converted to an MP3), and by the output devices. In some cases, distortion can be pleasing (as vinyl and tube enthusiasts will tell you). In short, an ideal sound playback system is impossible. At the end of the day, rather than perfect fidelity, a realistic goal is simply a system you are happy with.

 

In most cases, unless you’re on the loony fringe of audiophilia, the component closest to your ears is probably the most crucial part of your setup. It’s going to determine what you have behind it and whether you get the most out of it. (I doubt you can get very good sound from a home-made monstrosity of tin cans, cellophane and magnet wire ripped out from alternators, even with the world’s best amplifier behind it!)

 

At the most basic level, everyone has speakers somewhere these days – most modern monitors have a tiny pair hidden away somewhere, as do laptops. One step above that would be the good old stereo speakers. These are perfectly adequate for transforming an electrical signal into sound. I use a pair of old Altec Lansings for gaming and system sounds, but I’d do just as well with my monitor’s built in speakers in many cases. These speakers probably are museum pieces- they possibly predate front panel audio, but they’re solid, well made and sound surprisingly good.

IMG_1071 (Mobile)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you need more bass, a subwoofer, as part of a 2.1 speaker set would give you that rumble; however, if you have small animals at home, be warned it may frighten them. Hardcore gamers might look at surround sound speakers – ones with more speakers such as 5.1 sets split sound into more channels you can position for more immersive sound.

21

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monitors are a step up  in terms of sound quality- these are full range speakers which are often used to monitor (hence the name) recordings. They often offer a full range of frequencies (that’s to say they cover the ranges subwoofers do as well – not all speakers do), and are significantly better quality than most regular PC speakers in most respects. They also tend to be larger, but not absurdly large, and contain their own internal amplifiers.  They do tend to be slightly harder to find(As with a lot of my audio gear, I find that music shops rather than computer shops are the best place to find these), but are a great option if you want good sound in small spaces.

SPav40_front

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from plugging in your PC to an amplifier or receiver, and running a regular pair of speakers off it. Lots of people use their PCs as you would any other source with great results.

 

Personally, I favour headphones. They’re generally cheaper (with some exceptions), some of them offer decent or even spectacular sound quality and, are good if you’re primarily listening to music or gaming alone. There’s a vast array of different types, but there’s two main things to be aware of.

 

Firstly the ‘form factor’ of the headphones – ranging from simple earbuds, to In Ear Monitors or IEMs, which go into the ear canal to earphones that fit on your ear to circumaural (headphones that sit around your ear) and circumaural (headphones that sit on your ear). The second is the design of the phones, such as the driver design. IEMs can be dynamic, or use balanced armatures, headphones are mostly dynamic, but there’s alternate designs with their own fans. Headphones can be open-backed (which sound more natural, but often have less bass, and leak noise) or closed back (better isolation, more bass). Quite often, listening to a pair of headphones is the only way to be sure!

 

In some cases your speakers and headphones may be too demanding for your onboard sound card to drive, or have the wrong interfaces, so it’s useful to know what you have. Many monitors may take in 1/4 inch inputs or RCA, which your regular sound card may not have, and some headphones need a more powerful output than your regular sound card can handle. A good rule of thumb here would be the impedance level, and that most soundcards can handle up to 32 Ω (ohm) headphones with no issues. Impedance is a hugely complicated thing, and for our purposes, just note that you just don’t want to run a high impedance headphone off a regular sound card.

 

In the next part, we’ll talk about options for feeding your output devices, and when a regular sound card just doesn’t cut it.

 

Part 2: Feeding your speakers or headphones the good stuff

 

As with your output devices, different people expect different things from their sources. By a ‘source’, I really mean “device that feeds sound into your sound system so you hear things” – traditionally this could have been a DVD player or even some flavour of a tape player. Associated with that would be the amplification stage of things.

 

In the context of what you’re likely to run into, we can really classify 3 types of sources.

 

Firstly, the traditional sound card and your integrated sound devices. Integrated sound devices usually are designed around providing the bare minimum of outputs at the lowest cost. While there’s some motherboards with fancy features, in most cases you’d have 5 channel sound and S/PDIF. While soundcards are similar, since basic features have been commodified; these often offer better headphone amplification stages, more options, and ostensibly better sound chips. If you’re a gamer, soundcards are likely the best option, since they’re built around gaming needs, such as surround sound. Creative seem to have gotten their drivers in order these days and make really nice sound cards, including models that work with recent phones, and Asus Xonar is pretty well known.  You’re likely going to need a spare PCI or PCIe (Most modern sound cards use a PCIe 1x connector) slot for an internal card, or spare USB port. While typically these are one slot card, there are occationally 2 slot cards with additiona features – such as this creative zxr

zxr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second is the DAC or digital audio converter. These are units used by audiophiles which usually do purely output and either have a headphone out, or can be connected to an amplifier. These tend to be somewhat expensive, you’ll need to do your research but in many cases should offer the best sound quality for music. These are usually connected to your PC via USB and are detected as a soundcard. These tend to be expensive (though prices have been dropping), and as with any audiophile grade equipment, you can’t always trust reviews. Do lots of research, and check out as many reviews you can. If you can, many shops that sell this sort of  gear have display models you can audition. These are occationally homebrew units or kits, though there’s pre-built ones with great build quality. I’d note though, some companies make a hash of perfectly good sound chips so do your homework before you invest in one of these. These are in effect very fancy soundcards.

 

The third is the DAW or Digital Audio Workstation – these are basically DAC-type devices with better inputs – I use one of these for playback, and if you do your homework, it offers good sound quality, often at lower prices.  They’re pretty good if you want to use proper mics, or want something that can output to RCA – my music playing setup is built around a relatively inexpensive, rather old M Audio Fast Track, so I obviously believe this is a good option. Its got a decent headphone output, RCA out if you want to connect to an amplifier or monitors, and a proper mic and guitar/direct input

rtaImage

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s devices that straddle lines – there’s headphone amplifiers that work as a DAC/microphone for phones for example, or dedicated amplifiers and so on – so I may not cover the whole spectrum of things you may come across

As with your output devices, what you have might be perfectly adequate, and there’s usually no need for fancy, extremely expensive audiophile gear in most cases. I found that the most sensible reason for a sound device outside your onboard sound card was really your inputs and outputs. I got a DAW cause I needed proper XLR microphone ports for music (and it turned out, it sounded better than my onboard sound card for music).

I’ve chosen to have an amplifier between my source and my headphones. This is pretty much optional, but if you have more demanding headphones or want to use speakers not actually designed for a PC, it can be worthwhile upgrade. It’s useful to know what inputs your amplifier takes in (mine does 3.5mm and RCA) and what your soundcard does. In general, you’re not going to need an amplifier except for very special circumstances, and you will know when that is – high impedance headphones, and regular unpowered speakers come to mind. While there’s a slight improvement to sound quality in my opinion, the big difference is in convenience – I have two inputs for my amplifier so I can switch between my PC (where I game) and my laptop with a flick of a switch, and have a large, physical volume control.  Its a sAPII made by a  chinese company called SMSL which I bought on a whim.

Untitled

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally of course, you need to get sound to your system – games would do it pretty naturally, but there’s a few tips and tricks for music I use, which I’ll cover in the concluding part.

Part 3: If music is the food of love (of music?), play on!

 

From parts 1 and 2, it’s rather obvious that I believe that in most cases, your standard sound setup is good enough. I am rather picky about music however, and try to get the best, least-coloured sound out of my system as possible. I also want my music player to stay out of my way.

 

Like a lot of audiophiles, I’m a fan of foobar2000 – there’s alternatives of various sorts such as lilith on windows but I find that a nearly stock foobar2000 setup works best for me.

 

I do choose to use bit-perfect playback where possible – originally through ASIO, and later with WASAPI (there’s a third option of kernel streaming). All these methods bypass the kernel mixer which I find, subjectively, improves sound quality – (http://wiki.hydrogenaudio.org/index.php?title=Bypassing_Windows_Mixer“>Hydrogen Audio disagrees though: if some driver uses bad compression and EQ presets, the difference from bit perfect playback can be dramatic). Once again, I find experimenting to be the best option here – you may not hear a difference here. Since I use seperate sound devices for music and other stuff, I simply set my DAW into WASAPI exclusive mode, so that gets a stream of music, while the onboard sound card handles other sounds.

 

At some point, tweaking your software is a little like trying to overclock – you might get some improvement, real or perceived, but it isn’t going to make a major difference if you’re working off hardware that’s not really very good.

 

I also favour lossless – http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/06/concluding-the-great-mp3-bitrate-experiment.html“>Jeff Atwood disagrees, but these days, storage space is cheap. I have the option of re-converting my audio with no quality loss. While dbpoweramp is what I hear rave reviews about as far as ripping CDs go, I favour http://www.cuetools.net/wiki/Main_Page“>cuetools – it supports some of the same features, is free  and does GPU accelerated ripping.

 

Once again, your mileage may vary. Lots of people swear by Winamp, or just listen to music off YouTube or Spotify. It’s pretty unlikely you’ll need a fancy setup for that. Built up to your needs, and your preferences. I personally pretty much accidentally discovered my preferences, and bought my initial audiophile gear and upgraded as things broke or I wanted to experiment.  Nearly my whole setup consists of iterations of settings and gear until it sounded right. I’ve made one or two mistakes of course, but the current iteration sounds pretty good, and handles what I throw at it. I don’t tweak my sound for gaming – I’ve not seen much options, and if you’re familiar with how to tweak a computer for better gaming sound, why not write an article for the Super User Blog!

Filed under Uncategorized

What to Do After Buying a New Laptop

October 23, 2013 by . 10 comments

Buying a new laptop can be a difficult venture. You must decide which one is right for you. Depending on what your needs are, there are tons of things to consider like hard drive space, graphics cards, and general ease of use.

But once you find your dream computer, there are a few things that you must do. Here are some tips to follow after you purchase your laptop to make your computing experience a pleasurable one.

Register and Update Windows

win8

Image via Flickr by Microsoft Sweden

An important part of purchasing your computer is actually registering (and successfully activating) Windows. It activates all the perks of having Windows as an operating system, such as Windows Media Player, and it also enables desktop personalization.

Next you’ll want to download all system updates and service packs. You’ll want a really fast internet connection for this, because these can be huge files and take a while to download. However, they’re vital to making your computer safer and run much smoother. These updates patch up any bugs or glitches that were newly found, and they streamline the performance of the operating system as well as add new features.  To answer super user “Hennes” question, it doesn’t matter which variation of Windows 7 you have, Pro or Home, it will run, performance wise, the same, if you’re worried about performance issues think about either adding more RAM or upgrading to Windows 8, which for the for the most part is a more streamlined and smoother operating system.

Rid your Computer from Unwanted “Bloatware”

When you purchase a computer, you’d imagine that you’re starting with a clean slate. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most computers are loaded with unwanted games and software (referred to as bloatware, since it bulks up what should be a clean slate). The most efficient way to truly free up your computer is to install a brand-new, store-bought copy of Windows onto your hard drive.  This will wipe out everything that was on the hard drive (so make sure you save everything you wanted to keep on an external drive or disc) and leave a clean and smoothly operating system, free of unwanted, useless bloatware.

If you don’t feel like doing this, or don’t want to buy a new copy of Windows, you can try manually uninstalling the offending software, by going to Start > Control Panel > Programs and Features. From here you can go to each program you don’t want and click uninstall. For programs that are more deeply rooted, like anti-virus software, you can go to the developers website and search for the “complete uninstall” procedure and follow their steps to completely eradicate it from your system.

Anti-virus and Security Software

While many computers come with standard anti-virus software, it’s important to make sure you have the right program to deal with potential intruders. That being said, you may want to consider forking out a few dollars for an all-encompassing anti-virus program, such as Norton Antivirus software, or save some money and get basic protection, with something like AVG Anti-Virus software.

Going together with anti-virus software is security scanning software. What you’re looking for are programs such as malware that will make your computer run at a turtle’s pace. By running a security scan, you can remove all the unwanted unintentionally downloaded programs off your hard drive before you get into computing that would release sensitive information.

Schedule a security scan for about once a week (you can set it to automatically begin when you want, in whatever increment you choose) to keep your computer free from malicious programs. Keep this software running in the background, and it will detect and quarantine any questionable and infected files that you may have just unintentionally downloaded and it will also warn you and deter you away from possibly unsafe sites.

Back Up Software and Recovery

Any computer with Windows will have system recovery loaded to it. Recovery restores your computer to a pre-existing state if the worst should happen.

If you drop your computer or it suddenly fails due to a power surge or something else, recovery will make your computer work again if possible. Backing up, on the other hand, is basically insurance for your computer. You can take all the files that you never want to lose, and you can put them on an external hard drive. Or if you don’t want to buy one of those, you can copy the files on to a DVD or CD and keep them in a safe place. These measures ensure that you will never have to fret over lost work.

Physical back-ups aren’t your only option – there are plenty of ways to back up your info using an online cloud service, doing this will automatically back up your files as you make them, and no matter what happens to your computer, or backup drives, your files will be downloadable from their hard drives on their servers.

Power Saving

Make sure that, after registering Windows, you go into your personalization and check your power saving scheme. Here, you can configure your Windows 8 power plan settings and options. Choose how long until your computer turns off after it’s idle, as well as setting a screen saver. Both of these things will save you on your energy bill and keep your computer running longer.

No matter what laptop you choose to buy, following a few simple steps for your new laptop will go a long way. Although you shouldn’t expect problems on a brand new machine, it’s all about peace of mind. You can use the computer at your leisure and not be worried about the problems that can compound over time.

Filed under Computing, Hardware, Windows

Best of both worlds round 3: mSATA SSDs

August 19, 2013 by . 4 comments

As SSDs become increasingly affordable, making the switch is increasingly tempting. However, there are very few drives with over 512GB of capacity, and those that exist are still far from affordable. One solution that works well for desktops and workstation replacement laptops is putting an SSD in one drive bay and a mechanical HDD in another. This is a bit trickier with smaller laptops though. A couple years ago, I experimented with moving the primary HDD to the optical bay, and installing an SSD to get the best of both worlds: fast performance and extra storage for bulky but less-used files.

“Ultrabook” didn’t even enter our vernacular until mid-2011, and at the time most laptops still came with a DVD drive. Now in 2013, many of the latest laptops don’t even come with DVD drives. What’s a modern laptop user to do if they want SSD performance and HDD storage?

Enter the mSATA SSD: announced in 2009, mSATA SSDs started making their way into ultrabooks as manufacturers sought smaller sized components. In recent years some manufacturers have begun putting mSATA support into mid-sized laptops that still have a normal 2.5″ hard drive bay, too. Lenovo in particular has been leading this trend, with most recent ThinkPad and IdeaPad laptops supporting an mSATA drive in addition to the primary hard drive.

more »

Windows 8 on a VHD – Trying windows without the risk

June 13, 2013 by . 3 comments

I’m currently waiting on building a new system (which will run windows 8) but I wanted in on the windows contest . I didn’t really want to use one of my windows 8 licences on my old system, so I figured I’d run the enterprice evaluation version on a VHD, which I could discard to get back my current system to its previous state once the new system is built. I found a great guide by Harold Wong on technet, and while I was working finishing up the post this guide is based off , discovered you could install to a hard drive using the same method, found that r.tanner.f had used a similar method for an install on a actual drive. I used a windows 7 system to set this up and run it on, and you will probably find it easier if you use the WAIK from the same architecture as this system. This is pretty much like wubi – allowing me to run a seperate copy of windows without repartitioning my drive.

more »

Filed under Windows

What laptop should I buy for college? (2013 edition)

May 30, 2013 by . 79 comments

Click here to view the 2014 College Laptops list

 

 

Note: The laptop recommendations below are over a year out of date. The 2014 Best College Laptops list has this year’s up-to-date suggestions.

‘Tis the season: as family and friends head off to college, the requests for laptop recommendations start rolling in. It’s a semi-annual tradition for me to blog about my recommendations, so let’s get started! If you haven’t seen my 3 part series on “choosing a computer for college”, check those posts out for some good background info that’s mostly still relevant:

Since I wrote those articles in 2011, the computing landscape has shifted dramatically towards tablets, slates, and a plethora of weird hybrid devices. I’ll be splitting up my recommendations into several categories: primary laptops, for students who plan to have a single laptop for all their needs; primary tablets, for students who plan to have a laptop-grade tablet as their primary device; and companion devices, for students who plan to have a desktop or desktop replacement, but want a small, light, and cheaper device for carrying around campus.

more »

Filed under College, Reviews

Cable vs DSL: Which Was Better?

March 14, 2013 by . 19 comments

I recently moved to a bigger city, and of course the first thing that I setup was my internet connection.  I’ve had the same ISP for a couple of years now, and they’ve been alright.  I’ve noticed drops in service here and there but overall it was a tolerable experience.  However, as soon as I started watching my online shows in the new place, I noticed some dramatic changes in my viewing experience.  There were long periods of waiting for the shows to buffer, and I felt like I was relapsing to my younger days of dial-up.  I got so frustrated one night I even tweeted about it:

I finally decided to switch over and give DSL a shot, but I didn’t cancel my Cable.  I figured I’d do a little testing and really see who was the better service after all.  I put together a pretty extensive document of my results.  You can find that document and all the data I captured and used in a link below. This blog post is a summary of what I found to be the important parts.

more »

Super User Contest Winners!

November 14, 2012 by . 19 comments

Congratulations!

Great job everyone. We had a great go around with this contest and lot of participants. With over 2000 posts during the contest period there were plenty of questions and answers about Windows 8. For more stats, Bob put together a stats web app where you can compare contest stats and even personalize it! Go give it a check out for more details on the contest as a whole.

All winners will receive an email from the Stack Exchange team with instructions on how to get your prize. (Note: the T-Shirt emails have already been sent, so if you achieved Level 1 and didn’t get the email, check you spam folders and make sure you weren’t suspended for cheating.)

more »

Introducing the Windows 8 Challenge

October 22, 2012 by . 9 comments

Win8Challenge: Ask, Answer, Win

October 26th is coming fast. Are you ready for Windows 8? Super User is!

We’re having a party and you’re invited. Ask and answer questions to complete the challenge levels, and complete different tasks like editing, voting, and blogging to win the eight tile challenges. Each level you beat and each tile you finish enters you for sweet prizes, including the grand prize of a Microsoft Surface RT! more »

Filed under Super User, Windows

Increase your Ping-Fu!

October 15, 2012 by . 4 comments

User George Duckett came across a weird thing while performing a simple ping:

He performed a simple ping request but missed a ‘dot’.  I assume he meant to ping 192.168.0.72 but instead ended up typing 192.168.072.  What’s really amazing though (as pictured below) was that it worked!!! but not to 192.168.0.72 it sent the ping request to 192.168.0.58 :

enter image description here

more »

Is your browser telling on you?

October 1, 2012 by . 5 comments

Browsing on the web may seem harmless to most, but we SuperUsers are typically a secretive bunch.  We’ don’t like data being shared about us unless we tell them to.

So when user Pickledegg asked about how much info can websites can get, it became a pretty popular question.

I am trying to determine if the information shown on the website www.whatsmyip.org is the absolute maximum amount of information that a webserver can obtain from a web visitor. Does anyone know of any other sites that will be able to get more information from the user passively like this? I’m not talking about port-sniffing or any kind of interaction from the user, just the info that a server can get from a ‘dumb’ visit.

So what’s the verdict?

Here’s what we found.  From What’s my IP they can determine the following (I removed un-important info, if I missed something feel free to comment):

  • External IP
  • Homename
  • Proxy
  • Internal (LAN) IP
  • Operating System and version
  • Screen Resolution
  • Cookies Enabled
  • Browser Plugins
  • Location (kinda sorta)
  • And a WHOIS Lookup

Basically is looked like this (I put green checkmarks across things that were correct):

 

But there’s more!  A browser can also give away your installed fonts! GASP.  Wait… what?  Why is that important?

User Informaficker had this to say:

Installed fonts are probably the most identifying piece of information as soon as you start adding one or two. Just because of the amount of fonts out there, it is unlikely to have the same set of fonts on two different computers. (As long as they are used by different persons)

This means that if you have any custom installed fonts on your computer, you have a greater likelihood to have a different “Font Identity” than others since there are lots of fonts out there.

How do I stop this monstrosity?

First DON’T LET IT!!!

Browsers are typically good at telling you what’s going on.  I suggest that you NEVER select Always run on this site (or other browser equivalents), and only allow trusted websites to run Java or Flash.  Disabling Java or Flash is another option, however with a majority of websites using either Java or Flash this can be difficult and annoying.

However, the browser can still access your External IP address.  A way around that is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN).  I tested this out and it worked, including getting the wrong internal IP, since it picked up the VPN’s Internal IP and not my actual home networks IP.

Overall, it goes without saying to just be careful when ever your browsing the interwebs.