The computer as movie theatre: Surround sound systems
By Andreas Thieme Apr 11, 2010, 15:01 GMT
Munich - Few things set a film fan's heart aflutter quicker than action scenes accompanied by sounds that seem to come from all sides. Surround sound systems are no longer a novelty, yet they remain a seminal experience.
What has changed is the option of running surround sound systems from a computer. The experience can not only make DVDs more fun to watch; it can also enhance the realism of computer games.
Premium surround system effects require audio data that is accurately reproduced by the PC, says Ryan Stuczynski from hardware maker Logitech. 'That is generally achieved through 5.1 systems.'
To provide the complete sound spectrum while watching DVDs or enjoying games, the sound system must also be capable of providing precise replication of high, medium and deep bass tones from the source.
Two hardware components are always required for this. The surround sound system comprises five satellite speakers and a subwoofer. The PC also requires an appropriate surround sound output, Stuczynski says. The computer's sound card itself may offer this output. 'Most PCs now offer audio outputs directly integrated into the motherboard as well.'
Connecting the speaker system is as easy as sticking the plug into the appropriate socket and then setting the computer's control panel to handle a 5.1 speaker system, explains Florian Klein from Munich- based GameStar magazine. The proper cables are often included with delivery. There are not typically many problems with the connection process, says Andre Schwerdt from Teufel, a Berlin-based speaker maker.
The sound system needs the computer to control it. All relatively recent motherboards should contain a sound chip capable of reproducing surround sound, but Schwert points out a potential catch: 'Unlike the PC, not every laptop always has the corresponding output for a 5.1 system. In many cases only a headphone jack is provided,' says Schert. The best way around this is an external sound card connected via a USB port.
Stand-alone sound cards are also helpful for users dissatisfied with the sound quality produced by their machine. The onboard sound cards are almost always decent, Schwerdt says. But serious audiophiles may want to upgrade the sound card to allow for greater multichannel quality. 'It's just another league,' says Schwerdt.
Florian Klein from GameStar says the difference is particularly noticeable for computer games. While DVDs can typically be watched just fine with the integrated sound chip, many gaming effects are only really functional when a full sound card is available. This includes dampening or echoing effects suitable for the environment being depicted.
For first-person shooters in particular, the surround sound provides a significant boost to the atmosphere. The effect is there even for stereo headphones or a PC headset, Schwerdt says.
'Sound frequencies are converted so that the gamer perceives the gaming sounds as entering his ear from all sides, even though it is being heard through stereo headphones,' he says.
Surround sound systems are available for as little as 50 dollars. At that price you shouldn't expect top quality, though. While it may provide the basics of surround sound, the bass is typically muted and hollow, leading to an unbalanced overall sound. 'The sound is like that of a simple radio,' says Schwerdt.
Models for around 100 dollars are a bit better. If you're looking for good resolution and impressive, clear sound you have to be ready to hand out at least 150 dollars, Klein says.
Before making a purchase, the prospective buyer should consider whether the sound system is solely for him or her alone or rather for small groups like a family or the residents of a shared apartment. Systems intended for multiple persons should feature somewhat more powerful equipment.