Audio Nirvana: Cards to Speakers

The right speakers and sound card can turn your PC into an audio tour de force for games, DVDs, and music. Great sound can pump up a dull movie, as well as notch up your adrenaline when you battle bad guys.

We took an acoustical tour of five speaker sets and four sound cards, from the modestly priced to the top-of-the-line. And because many computers now come with integrated 5.1-channel audio (capable of driving five satellite speakers and a separate subwoofer), we added in an Amax AMD Max 3200+ system that has integrated NVidia NForce2 audio, to see how it stacked up against our four sound cards.

We piped an eclectic selection of music, and the audio from a DVD movie, from the sound cards and the integrated NForce2 through a 5.1-channel Altec Lansing speaker set; for our speaker-set tests, a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum card (a standard in many high-end desktops) drove all of the sets.

Our conclusion: The combo of Creative's $200 Sound Blaster and Klipsch's $400 ProMedia Ultra 5.1 speaker set was the best by far. Together they created astounding audio that rivaled some home theater systems we've heard. The pairing delivered well-balanced bass and treble tones, with the bass distinct and solid.

We heard some surprises, too, such as unexpectedly well-rounded audio from the tiny, ultracheap, two-channel JBL Duet and great sound from Altec Lansing's inexpensive 5.1-channel 251.

As for the NVidia-based integrated audio, we thought it sounded pretty good--until we heard the sound boards.

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