Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Easy audio upgrade for laptop or desktop

For the last six-plus years, I've been using a monster-size rack-mounted PC as an audio server, holding ancient web downloads, copies of my own CDs and ancient media, plus recent iTunes tracks.

The big black box (home-built in an Antec housing) was visually impressive, but took up a lot of rack space, weighed a ton, and its noisy cooling fan had become increasingly intrusive.

I considered several alternatives.

A new cooling fan might have lessened the noise, but I couldn't identify a quiet fan that would fit in the old Antec box; and even if I could, it would not solve the space issue.

A new single RMU (Rack Mount Unit) PC would save space, but might have an even noisier fan.

Putting the PC in the basement would require lots of new cabling, and make it a PITA to load CDs when needed.

I found a good, inexpensive solution: a gently used Dell Latitude laptop with 30 gig hard drive, Pentium 4 chip, and a gig of RAM, which cost me about $400 from CSR Technologies.

It easily fit inside the top of my rack, befind my LCD monitor. It saved me four rack spaces (seven precious inches), and is absolutely quiet.

My only compromise was its limited audio ability -- not a good compromise for an audio server.

The Dell was designed to help corporate travelers do their business, not to provide entertainment; and the sound quality flowing from its headset jack left much to be desired. A better internal audio circuit would probably add to the cost of the Dell with little benefit for most users, and make a bigger demand on its processing power.

I found a good, inexpensive solution from Creative, the SoundBlaster sound card people. It does all that I need, very well; and also provides other features that I might use in the future.

Creative's USB SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit external sound "card" is not much bigger than a Band-Aid box, and is a stand-alone audio interface that easily connects to a PC with USB cable (supplied).

The card has analog inputs for a microphone and a line-level audio source if you want to record onto your PC; and outputs including optical and coaxial digital-audio jacks, and three analog minijacks that you can use with a 5.1-channel surround-sound speaker system. I used the optical digital output to feed int my new Sony STR-DA4300ES receiver, which I'll probably tell you about next week.

The Blaster's 24-bit Advanced HD and EAX Advanced HD technologies record and play audio at up to 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution (but you have to disable realtime audio monitoring at the highest settings due to limitations in the USB 1.1 data-throughput ability). With 256 times the resolution of basic built-in sound, your music, movies, and games can sound a lot better.

Creative Multi Speaker Surround technology lets you "upmix" stereo sources to 5.1-channel surround sound. The software includes panning and mixing, front and rear balance controls, and muting.

Realistic EAX reverb, panning, and elevation can add "oomph" to your music and games. The software also includes time-scaling (which allows variable playback duration without altering pitch, an audio clean-up feature (which removes noise and clicks from vinyl disk or cassette recordings), bass boost, smart volume management, and a multi-band graphic equalizer.

The Creative MediaSource™ digital player allows you to make high quality MP3s, manage your music library, and burn personalized CDs. It has a built-in infrared receiver for an optional Creative remote control, which will let you operate your computer from up to 13 feet away (but not if its buried in the back of your rack.

Setup is super-simple, basically plug and play. The Blaster's power comes from your PC's USB; no AC power is required. I have just one complaint -- it took about AN HOUR to load the software and install upgrades from Creative's website.

This gadget is a great way to enhance the audio quality and capability of any laptop or desktop, and you won't even need a screwdriver to install it. I paid $47.95 at Amazon.

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