If you tend to listen to music on your PC while you’re doing something else you won’t be giving it your undivided attention but, even so, you’ll still want to experience good quality audio. If, on the other hand, you want to build a home media centre around a PC – which isn’t our main theme here although it’s an option you might want to consider – then sound quality will be absolutely paramount.
Yet all too often, the quality of music reproduction on a PC is far from perfect. The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be that way as we demonstrate here. First we’ll look at the various audio-related hardware components in a PC with a view to helping you to upgrade your hardware for better quality music. This will go a long way to improving your listening experience but, for the ultimate, you also need to trade in those MP3 tracks for music that’s recorded in a higher quality format. Accordingly, we’ll then discuss the alternatives to mp3 so that you can get the most out of your new hardware and we’ll look at the software you’ll need to handle these high performance standards.
Audiophile-quality music on a PC
If we ignore the hard disk or the CD/DVD drive on which the music is stored, three audio components are required for music reproduction on a PC although the second and third are often combined. First there’s either a so-called sound card or, more commonly, an audio chipset on the PC’s motherboard. This performs several tasks although, in the context of listening to pre-recorded music from a CD or the hard disk, it acts as a digital to analogue converter (DAC) that converts the digital data to a signal that our ears can hear.
The output from the sound card or chipset is too weak to drive a speaker or headphones directly so the next component is an audio amplifier. The final component is the speaker or headphones although, in the realm of computer hardware, speakers often have a built-in amplifier.
In all probability, all of these components will be below par so there’s an argument for replacing the whole audio chain. If your budget is limited, though, or if you want to upgrade in stages, it’s important to identify which upgrade will provide the biggest improvement so you can prioritise.
Audiophiles debate this ad infinitum and opinions differ but a commonly held view is that it pays to give priority to the early stages of the reproduction. The “garbage in – garbage out” argument applies: in other words, no component can improve a poor quality signal that’s passed to it. This implies that the sound card or chip is the most important, followed by the audio amplifier, with the speaker or headphones being the least important. While favouring an upgrade of the early stages in the chain makes sense if all the components are of similar quality, this often isn’t the case with the speakers usually being particularly poor, especially in a laptop. In this instance, therefore, the exact opposite would be recommended.
Such inevitably contradictory guidance makes it difficult to decide what to upgrade although we’d suggest that the speakers are usually the weakest link so would be the top priority. If you decide to buy passive (i.e. non-amplified) speakers, though, this upgrade path would also involve investing in an audio amplifier. Like any other piece of PC hardware, you’ll undoubtedly draw up a shortlist by perusing the specifications and while this is an important first step, in the realm of audio, it’s not easy to equate figures with performance.
Paradoxically, your ears often provide a better way of comparing and it’s not uncommon for one product to out-perform another with a better specification. In the realm of Hi-Fi (as opposed to PC music), the “try before you buy” philosophy applies with top-end dealers offering customers the option of auditioning equipment before buying. This is the best way to decide on your upgrade path and it will often be possible to try out upgrades on your PC if you choose a small local shop instead of going to a big name store or buying online. It may also be possible if you’re thinking of upgrading with Hi-Fi gear instead of equipment intended specifically for use with a PC.
Let’s take each of the components in turn. For each we’ll consider what you should take into account in choosing an upgrade and provide some indication of what you might end up paying.
On-board sound cards or chipsets are usually very basic, and can suffer from interference from other electronic components on the motherboard. This leads to unwanted noise through your speakers instead of a clean, interference-free sound. That’s why it’s worth bypassing this altogether and replacing it with hardware that does a better job.
A new sound card could be either a replacement internal PCI-Express card (only for desktop PCs) or a separate box that connects to your PC via a USB port. In addition to the obvious reason for upgrading – i.e. to improve the quality of reproduction of your existing music – you might also need to upgrade it to support some of the higher quality music formats that we discuss later.
If you’re going to be using it purely for listening to music you should look for a card that’s intended primarily for this application. However, if you’re also interested in gaming and perhaps watching movies, a dedicated gaming card will offer features such as surround sound but, possibly, at the expense of the ultimate in audio quality.
Creative Labs has traditionally addressed the gaming market but now also offers audiophile products. Asus and Auzentech are also well-respected. In addition, for music but not for gaming, some of the Hi-Fi companies such as Arcam are now addressing the PC market. Bear in mind, though, that products from Hi-Fi companies, for example the Arcam rPAC, will often be DACs (so search for “USB DAC” instead of “sound card”) so will not offer the other functions of a general purpose sound card. Expect to pay at least £100 for hardware that will make a substantial difference to your existing setup, although you could pay several hundred pounds.
Turning to the speakers, those that are marketed as PC components usually have a built-in amplifier. Commonly, they also support surround sound by the provision of several satellite speakers that attach to a central sub-woofer which also houses the amplifier. However, unless you really need surround sound, we suggest that you pick stereo speakers instead.
After all, if you go for just the two speakers you’re likely to get a higher quality product than if you buy six or seven speakers for the same price. Perhaps because of the commonly held, but not necessarily correct, view that the speaker is the most important element of an audio system, numerous companies address this market so you’re going to have to do your homework. Prices range from £15 offerings that are unlikely to provide you with any improvement, to a few hundred pounds although products around the £100 mark should provide a reasonable upgrade.
As an alternative to buying a set of PC speakers you could also consider using a lower cost set of speakers aimed at the Hi-Fi market. You’d also need a separate audio amplifier but it’s quite possible that a speaker plus amplifier could outperform a set of dedicated PC speakers at the same price point.
Next page: High Quality Music Formats
High-quality music formats
The MP3 format might be considered the de facto standard for music reproduction on a PC or on hand-held devices but it’s really a leftover from a former age. When MP3 was developed, data storage was expensive so the major requirement was to make tracks tiny and this was achieved using a so-called ‘lossy’ method of data compression.
The result was that the audio quality was not as good as that of the CD that uses a lossless form of compression. Using lossless compression, and hence experiencing CD quality, isn’t the ultimate though. Many audiophiles still consider that the quality of CDs is inferior to that of vinyl records. This is because digital music is only ever an approximation to the real world analogue signal it represents and CD uses a fairly crude approximation.
In particular, sound is sampled 44,100 times per second (44.1kHz) and is represented by a 16-bit binary number – this is referred to as 16/44. Newer standards employ higher sampling rates and word lengths, most commonly combinations of 96kHz or 192kHz, and 16 or 24 bits.
It should now be clear that you’ll experience better quality music by trading in mp3 for a better format. Indeed, if you’ve decided to upgrade your hardware, then you really ought to use a high quality music format to make the most of that improved hardware. It’s even been suggested that mp3 can sound worse with a better sound card or DAC because it’s better able to reproduce the compression artefacts: the ‘damage’ that the lossy compression causes to the music.
In choosing a better audio file format, either for downloading tracks or for ripping tracks from a CD, the most important thing is to either use an uncompressed format or one that employs lossless compression. Then, the next stage (although this doesn’t apply to ripping CDs since using a higher resolution can’t create information that just isn’t there) is to go for a higher sampling rate and word length, probably 24/96 or 24/192, although you’ll probably find that the difference between 96kHz and 192kHz is fairly minimal. What’s more, some of the audiophile DACs don’t support 192kHz yet out-perform some sound cards that do.
Thinking of specific file formats, if you really do insist on your files being tiny, then at least use AAC instead of mp3. Both formats employ a lossy method of compression needed for such small files, but AAC degrades the music quality less. WAV is the most common uncompressed format, but popular lossless compressed formats – which are as good as uncompressed but about half the size – include FLAC, AIFF, and Apple Lossless (referred to as either ALAC or ALE). All these formats support the full range of sampling rates and word lengths. Before choosing a format and sampling rate, though, do ensure that your hardware/software combination supports it.
HD audio on your PC: software Issues
Windows Media Player 9 (WMP) is fairly restrictive in the types of audio files that it’ll handle so, if you decide to step up to higher quality formats, you’ll probably need new or upgraded software that can handle them. You can get alternative media players that will reproduce music in these various formats and tools for ripping CDs into high definition standards and if you’re happy to work with totally new software this might be a good solution.
Popular third-party players include the VLC Media Player and the Standard version of MediaMonkey, both of which are free. However, most people will already be familiar with WMP and many would prefer not to have to start from scratch with different software. Our emphasis here, therefore, is upgrading WMP to work with these new formats.
First the good news. WMP 12 already handles the totally uncompressed WAV format and will work with sampling rates up to 24/192. However, as installed with Windows, it won’t play AAC or FLAC files nor, for that matter, many of the less-common formats employing lossless compression. This is because, for each format it requires a codec (coder-decoder) yet it ships with a somewhat limited number.
If you install the relevant codecs, though, WMP 12 will be able to play these additional formats. You could add codecs individually but a better option is to install a well-respected codec pack that includes support for lots of additional video as well as audio formats: the K-Lite Codec Pack.
It comes in four different editions – Basic, Standard, Full and Mega. All are free, but each represents a larger download and installation than the previous one. Make sure that you pick the correct edition for your chosen file formats.
Once you’ve installed your new codecs (just follow the on-screen instructions) you’ll find that WMP will play the supported formats in just the same way as MP3 or WAV tracks. However, Windows still won’t recognise them as audio files which means that you won’t be able to include them in your Music Library. This drawback is overcome using the free WMP Tag Plus utility that you can find at bmproductions.fixnum.org.
Something else that new codecs won’t do is allow you to rip your CDs in WPM to formats other than those initially supported. Third-party software for ripping to high definition compressed formats is available but, if you want to stick with WMP the solution is to rip to WAV and then convert the WAV file. A useful tool that provides conversion between audio formats (and a whole lot more) is Free Studio.
In ripping and converting, though, do bear in mind that no high definition format can generate information that isn’t there on the CD. So, because CDs use lossless compression, ripping to WAV will give better results than ripping to mp3 and if you subsequently convert that WAV file to FLAC you’ll save disk space without sacrificing any quality. However, because CDs are sampled at 16/44, ripping them to 24/96 or 24/192 would be futile, using up more disk space for no improvement in quality.
Each of the upgrades we’ve seen here will go some way to improving your listening experience and they don’t have to cost a fortune. Yet if you do decide to push the boat out, perhaps upgrading the whole audio reproduction chain and also using higher quality audio formats, you’ll find that the quality will improve quite considerably.