Q: Lately I’ve been using my old laptop as a jukebox of sorts, hooking it into my stereo so I can blast my MP3 collection. But the sound quality ain’t nothing to write home about—real muffly. What can I do to set things right? Without going into hock, that is.
The trouble with laptops, at least from an audiophilic standpoint, is that they tend to come equipped with weakass sound cards—those hardware slivers that channel digital signals from your CPU to your speakers. So the smart play is to ante for an upgrade, a purchase that’ll lighten your wallet a lot less than you might surmise. And why settle for a portable jukebox? With the right sound card, there’s no reason your laptop can’t double as a home-theater nexus, too.
Sound cards basically come in two flavors, internal and external. Installing the former means popping open your computer and fiddling with the PCI slot—a tricky task when dealing with a desktop, and nigh impossible in the laptop realm. The advice here is to go for an external card, which connects via a standard USB cable. No muss, no fuss.
Calling these “cards” is a misnomer, since some of the USB devices are just a shade less bulky and boxy than cable modems. (Confusingly, some manufacturers call them “USB sound systems.”) Installation’s a snap, though you’ll have to remember to turn off the card that’s attached to your motherboard, via the Control Panel. You should also uninstall all the software associated with your built-in card (though keep your driver-recovery disks handy, just in case).
Any external card worth its salt will feature an output called a Sony/Philips Digital Interface (S/PDIF). This keeps your signals digital as they travel outward, and thus provides a bump in audio quality. You’ll also want some input plugs, of course, in case you want to do any recording. Since lots of laptops lack line-in plugs, aside from the microphone jack, this could be a big step up for you—especially if you’ve been itching to record your vinyl into .wav files. And, oh, don’t even think about buying anything that doesn’t support, at a minimum, 24-bit/96 kHz audio. Anything less is a frickin’ dinosaur, man.
OK, enough geekspeak. You’re probably dying to know, What external sound card does Mr. Roboto recommend? For a chap on a budget, you’ll be quite happy with M-Audio’s Sonica (m-audio.net), a $70 device that sounds just dandy to Mr. Roboto’s tungsten-lined ears. It supports a variety of Dolby formats, which means you can also start using your laptop in lieu of a DVD player (provided you have a DVD drive in there, of course). One thing to note: Numbers like “5.1,” “6.1,” and “7.1” correspond to the versions of Dolby Surround Sound the card supports. If you’re lucky enough to have Surround Sound speakers, make sure whatever card you buy’s simpatico with your current setup. If you don’t, no sweat—the Sonica’s designed to mimic Surround Sound through normal speakers.
The downer about Sonica is that it’s limited to oldfangled USB 1.1 connections. That’s usually not too much of a problem, as the card doesn’t overtax the computer, but the slow USB 1.1 can cause the occasional lag. Windows XP users with USB 2.0 ports on their laptops should consider Creative’s Sound Blaster Audigy 2 NX (soundblaster.com), which lists at $130. The quicker USB 2.0 link may make a particular difference if you’re playing 3-D games.
The other plus about the Audigy is that it comes with a remote control. Life’s just so much sweeter when you can change the volume while splayed out on your bed. Or, in Mr. Roboto’s case, your regeneration module.
Readers of this space may already know that the most perplexing koan of Mr. Roboto’s life isn’t, “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” but rather, “Why isn’t there Sprint PCS service near the Flatiron Building?” Hail, then, to Jeff Cohn, the Angeleno behind DeadCellZones.com. An online compendium of reported dead zones from Albuquerque to Washington, D.C., the site’s a great way to share the frustration. By all means, submit a spot if you don’t see it on the list—that’s the beauty of open-source projects.