You don’t have to have mediocre audio on your laptop or netbook. A few additions and changes can improve your listening experience greatly
The PC’s heritage isn’t in audio. Think about how audio is used on a PC: it’s for system events and alerts. The PC’s ancestry isn’t wired for sound, and who hasn’t winced at a low bit-rate MP3 played on low-quality speakers through a basic soundcard?
The electrically noisy environment and all those other functions competing for precious PC resources meant audio was often the poor relation. Thank goodness the days of selecting IRQs to make your soundcard work are long gone.
Streaming audio has also changed the PC audio landscape. It has brought a huge increase in the choice and availability of audio, but low quality and interruptions have meant that we’ve often grown willing to accept low-quality audio as the trade-off for the speed and ease of access from Youtube and the major streaming services.
The good news for audiophiles is that you no longer have to live with mediocre audio. With PCs at the heart of so many home entertainment and gaming systems, there’s been a heartening increase in choice and quality.
Whether you’re buying a new system or want to upgrade your current laptop, desktop or netbook, there’s a choice of hardware and software out there that means you’re not stuck with the basics and can turn up the volume on PC audio with confidence.
Desktop PCs are often at least reasonably kitted out for audio, so we’ll be concentrating on how you can really get to grips with audio on your mobile laptop and netbook, and how to get the best possible input; how to manage and manipulate audio on your PC; and how to play back sound so you can really enjoy it.
You can get some great audio results out of your laptop or netbook. What you can do is largely affected by the hardware limitations of your laptop or netbook. You can’t avoid the physical limitations of laptop and notebook speakers; slower processors and limited battery life will also place some restrictions on what you can do. Moreover, professional audio software and n etbooks don’t make good partners.
Buying a new laptop
At the heart of a capture and playback system must be a PC capable of keeping up with audio input. If you’re buying a new laptop, check it has a chipset capable of supporting what you want to do.
For example, the Realtek ALC889 chipset offers a good choice of inputs, including impressive microphone support. The best features are support for HD audio and Blu-ray, a good analogue differential CD input, and digital interfaces such as primary and secondary S/PDIF, though you’ll need to check with your notebook manufacturer about the connectors provided.
If you’re in the market for a new all-round system that’s strong on home entertainment, you’ll need a system capable of keeping up with the demands. We recommend at least a 2GHz CPU; at least 1GB Ram and a fast hard disk with quick access times.
If you’re buying a laptop to work with sound, for live performance, composing or recording, look at a digital audio workstation (DAW) from a supplier that specialises in audio systems.
A high-end Apple Macbook is worth serious consideration, too. The key to buying the right system is getting the right interfaces for your needs.
As well as the basic 3.5mm connectors, it’s worth getting a system with the maximum number of USB2 interfaces, Firewire, Express Card, S/PDIF and HDMI if you have a compatible home entertainment system.
Desktops and laptops also come with basic audio input. The standard 3.5mm line-in and microphone connectors can record voice, and will even stretch to recording a single stereo track or alternatively two mono signals; for example from a mono microphone and an acoustic guitar.
The microphone and line-in connectors operate at different signal strengths. The microphone jack works better with lower signal levels, while the line-out will power PC speakers, your hi-fi amp or other analogue audio equipment.
S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format or Sony Philips Digital Interface) is the easiest way to connect a compatible CD or DVD player, or home theatre equipment to your PC. S/PDIF (often labelled digital out) can be implemented as an optical link that is ideal for shorter distances and will avoid RF interference and ground loops.
If you get a ground loop, which produces a buzzing hum through your speakers, make sure your equipment is properly earthed, and consider buying a special transformer. For distances over 6m between your home theatre and PC, choose coaxial S/PDIF, which has a lesser signal attenuation, and buy a converter if you have coax S/PDIF at one end and optical at the other.
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