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Hack 43. PC Audio Hacking

Trade flimsy computer speakers for an atmospheric surround sound stereo experience.

One of the best weapons in the elite gamer's arsenal is a killer audio system. With the advanced audio performance in today's games, you will often hear your enemies well before you can see them. Our amazing ears and brains can sense distance, location, direction, and environment from audio information cues. Unless you have eyes in the back of your head or another monitor behind you, gaming with a surround sound system is the best way to check straight behind you. If you want this kind of advantage, you must invest in a high-end sound card and surround speakers.

For PC gamers, surround sound is a bit different from standard console audio fare. Most modern games use DirectX's Direct3D audio standard. Direct3D simulates 3D environments better than Dolby Digital (http://www.dolby.com/) can. This format supports everything from two speakers all the way up to 7.1 and 8.1 systems, as long as the software renders audio to that many speakers.

Connecting a computer surround speaker package is straightforward because the speaker set usually includes connection cables. Be sure to follow the guidelines for speaker set up and positioning in [Hack #39] .

Some high-end speaker packages from Logitech (http://www.logitech.com/), Creative Labs (http://www.creativelabs.com/), and Klipsch (http://www.klipsch.com/) have started to include onboard Dolby Digital decoders as well, allowing them to function as limited-use A/V receivers. In addition to the analog inputs, they have up to three separate digital inputs. If you connect your PC to the analog input, you can save the digital inputs for a DVD player or game consoles.

The Meaninglessness of Computer Speaker Power Ratings

If you need even more versatility, an alternate setup is to attach your computer to a home theater A/V receiver and use conventional, nonpowered speakers. This approach provides a great advance over most low-fidelity computer speaker systems. Computer speakers are not subject to the same regulations regarding how they specify amplification power.

In a standard A/V receiver, the manufacturer must specify wattage using the RMS method; the given rating represents the power that the amplifier produces when it drives all channels simultaneously. In contrast, computer speaker ratings show the peak capacity of a single channel. The reason that manufacturers can get away with this is because the amplifier is mounted outboard (usually inside the subwoofer), and is therefore not subject to the same Federal Communications Commission regulations. Obviously, the RMS method is a much fairer representation of an amplifier's actual power and renders self-powered computer speaker ratings virtually meaningless by comparison.

Because using a personal computer as the center of a home entertainment system is fairly new, PC speakers have remained quite pedestrian and substandard. With the growing popularity of the home theater PC, a few notable exceptions have started to raise the bar. This bar is still low, though; the high end tops out at about $500 for an all-in-one package consisting of five speakers, a subwoofer, an amplifier, and a surround decoder in a single set. This is just a starting point in the realm of a serious set of home theater speakers capable of producing realistic volume levels in a large room. Therein lies the major difference. Computer speakers assume that the listener is right there, so they perform with a near-field environment in mind. Whether you have gone beyond the confines of a small office into a larger room or simply want a high-end experience, it may be time to graduate to an actual home-theater-grade setup for your computer system.

Your ideal setup will probably fall into one of two scenarios: connecting to an existing system or building a dedicated multimedia PC ( [Hack #45] ).

4.10.1. Connecting to an Existing Home Theater

You will need a long cable (or set of cables) to connect your gaming rig to your home theater. Depending on your sound card, you will need a specific cable that connects the two systems. Most SoundBlaster cards require a set of 1/8-inch headphone-jack-to-RCA cables for every two channels you would like to bring over. If you have a 5.1 Dolby Digital receiver, you will need three cables for your six-channel system. If you have a Pro Logic system, you will need just one set of these cables. Your Pro Logic receiver provides surround sound using its own processor.

Most modern A/V receivers today have a six-channel input specifically for SACD and DVD-Audio players. For the most part, these go unused. I recommend connecting the six RCA connectors from the computer here. You can also still play DVD-Audio discs with the Audigy 2 and newer cards from your computer's DVD tray.

Be careful to connect the channels correctly. There are usually very small printed indicators on the back of the card itself, but it may be easier to read the card's instructions instead. Use the card's audio software to produce a test tone to confirm the connections and balance your speaker levels. Once you've connected everything, you can control your volume with the receiver in the same room, making things a bit easier to manage.

Advanced SoundBlaster cards with outboard connection units (the Platinum and Platinum eX models) contain both Toslink and coaxial digital connections on the front panel. The M-Audio Revolution card (http://www.m-audio.com/) has a coaxial digital output directly on the back of the card. Using a digital connection to connect to your receiver saves you having to buy two or three analog cables. Instead, you'll connect with just a single line. However, digital cables tend to be more expensive, so weigh the cost carefully. If your run is short, it is a good idea to go digital. Otherwise, do the math to see which method makes more sense. The biggest benefit of a digital connection is that you can keep your analog connection to the computer's speaker system for gaming and switch your receiver to the digital connection for normal audio without removing and replacing wires every time.

Any of these methods will give you a taste of multiroom audio with access to your entire music collection from the comfort of your couch. Provided you have made the video connection ( [Hack #44] ), you can enjoy your archived movies there as well.

Hacking an Older Pro Logic Receiver

If you have an older Pro Logic receiver, you may not have six-channel input. Instead, you may have a set of pre-inputs on at least two channels that will allow you to bypass the processor on the receiver, giving you full Dolby Digital performance if you send it the right signals. If you have a Dolby Digital sound card in your computer and three sets of analog RCA cables, plug them into your receiver as pre-inputs. You will have to control the volume from the computer side, however, because this method totally bypasses the receiver's preamplification. There are a lot of great older receivers out there configured this way. They're often inexpensive because they lack the most current Dolby Digital circuitry.

When shopping around for this sort of amp, look on the back of the unit for jumpers, those little metal shunts that connect two sets of RCA jacks on the back panel. A Pre-Input section was a high-end feature years ago, but with newer formats, these older but powerful receivers have lost most of their value. Additionally, these receivers also had great features such as learning remotes and heavy-duty amplifier sections. Combining the brains of your computer with the brawn of these receivers is a great way to give these fine components a new lease on life and treat yourself to an inexpensive but powerful audio system.

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