Marek Matusiak
IT Institute, Academy of Management, Lodz, Poland
A sound reception is one of important human perceptions and a contact with the
surrounded world. Now computer devices are the main equipment to almost
perfectly record and playback a wide range of sounds. Music or sound cards
play the central role in this process.
The Author has tested several cards concentrating the attention specially on
their external versions but internal versions were also investigated for
comparison. Usually specially constructed external sound cards are better than
much compromised internal versions built directly other electronic circuits on
the computer mainboard. It was proved during experiments measuring noise
parameters – not always. A simplicity of the construction and other digital
circuits closeness create difficult conditions for a noiseless action but
in a popular class equipment only.
Three external cards, one of PCI interfaces E-MU - 0404 for studio recording
and two of USB interface, potentially worse designed by Creative Labs - Sound
Blaster Connect and by Lexicon - Alpha. All Hi-Fidelity requirements are
performed by each card but noise levels are different.
Conclusions are shortly presented here:
1. Built-in sound cards, specialized for Hi-Fi recording are better with noise
parameters than external USB devices
2. The newer built-in card (Dell Studio laptop) is only a little bit worse than
special professional card by Creative Professional (E-MU 0404)
3. USB cards include additional preamps (very useful) but present in noise
charts ad-ditional interferences (peaks) and its noises are a few dB bigger
4. Newer USB cards (Lexicon Alpha) are much better than older (Sound Blaster
Connect). The noise difference is up to 10 dB (abt. 3 times)
Results are clearly shown using tables, charts and mathematical formulas
derived from own experiments.
Key words: computer sound card, electric noise, sound card DSP, sound card
Matusiak M.
Bases of the electric noise
The electric noise is an electric current flow effect. The Joule heating is
another known and normal result. The noise existing is mostly undesirable,
unfortunately its reduction stais very difficult or plainly unworkable because
of its wide frequency range and troubles with using specific filtering methods.
The basic method remains to reduce noise levels in all low signal circuits
mainly in preamplifiers. This follows a few electric noise definitions:
- Thermal noise (root mean square RMS voltage) represented by JohnsonNyquist formula:
k – Boltzmann constant,
R – an actual conductor resistance in ohms,
T – a temperature in Kelvins,
∆f – a frequency bandwidth in Hertz
The thermal noise presents constant noise voltage named “white noise”.
Flicker noise is only of low frequency (1/f dependence) and not so troublesome in audio frequencies (20 – 20,000 Hz), called as “pink noise”
Shot noise has also a wide bandwidth, similar to the thermal noise but only
present with active electronic parts (semiconductors, vacuum tubes).
Avalanche noise – reversed biased Zener diodes (larger than shot noise).
Burst noise – occurs in semiconductors (monolithic amplifiers), present
noise crackle [1].
Concepts in noise measurements
There are two mainly used parameters to determine a noise level:
A. Equivalent Input Noise – EIN
A noise calculated for a device input is often impossible to measure (too
low voltage level). In practice almost all voltage signals are compared to the
“normal” signal in line tract equals 775 mV (effective). Bigger than normal
signal levels cause an overdriving and consequently signal distortions. Compressing devices save circuits realized amplification decreases accompanying
too big signals.
Signal levels may be calculated from the formula:
Noise Problem Indicated in Computer ...
Minimum theoretical EIN was solved calculating the thermal noise at input
resistance of 200 ohm and the room temperature and this critical EIN equals 129dBu (minus 129 dBu). In the practice values of EIN less than 115 dBu are
very good.
B. Signal to Noise ratio –
Signal to Noise ratio is the older parameter assigned to the device output.
Measurements can be made quite easily now because signals (also noises)
present bigger levels. The main formula for the S/N parameter is:
Us – a signal voltage
Un – a noise voltage
Mostly equipment producers present S/N in a very optimistic version at
maximal values supposing the signal has 775 mV (0 dB – normal level).
Usually signals are much weaker and certainly S/N decreases.
Summing up:
When the amplifier is EIN = - 125 dBu and its voltage gain is 35 dB then
the output noise is – 90 dBu. This is the situation of 90 dB S/N, where the
useful signal has the level of 0 dB (775 mV). More gain of an additional
preamplifier (preamp) gives of course more output noise [3].
2 Noises of the Digital Signal Processing
A computer sound card is both analog and digital device. In most cases, an
input analog signal has a microphone level only (Mic In), about 5 mV sensitivity and it is ready to cooperate with electret-condenser transducer. A classic
dynamic microphone may also be used, but signals are weaker. An analog to
digital converter needs a voltage input level abt. 1 V. This signs the microphone signal has to be gained 200 times (46 dB). This is another noisy electrical stage. Sound cards used in a recording studio have obviously less sensitivity input of about 1 V and called Line In. In this case, the noise problem
stays outside of the sound card and the computer. All preamplification stages
(preamps) must be specially constructed as a low noise devices. Its sensitivities have to be different depending on a signal source. A few cases have been
presented below (table 1).
Matusiak M.
Table 1. Parameters of different signal sources dedicated to the sound card.
Dynamic microphone
Electret microphone
Condenser microphone
Guitar pickup
Any device Line out
Typical impedance (ohm)
200 - 600
150 - 500
Output voltage (mV)
10 - 20
Figure 1. shows the block schematic of a typical sound card.
Figure 1. The block diagram of the standard sound card.
Another block that can generate a noise is an amplifier Amp. Because of
a small voltage coefficient and relatively large signal level from the digital to
analog (D/A) converter, the risk of a noise in this place is unimportant. Own
noises of digital circuits can be omitted but interferences carried out on amplifiers and its signal connections can be problematic. Rich sound cards' producers take care of these specific places but in cheap devices not so much.
Results are higher noise level with according power lines hum (50 or 60 Hz
plus harmonics) [2].
Noise Problem Indicated in Computer ...
3 Computer sound cards tested in the own experiment
For sound cards comparison, the author uses the software called Visual
Analyzer by SillanumSoft (freeware). The whole program interface is presented in figure 2. And it shows a case of the internal sound card form Dell
Studio 17” switched to the line input position [4, 5].
Figure 2. The internal sound card with line input activated - the Dell Studio.
All measurements were performed with open audio inputs. This situation
may cause some interferences inducted from external electromagnetic fields.
The program presents the useful input signal or as shown in figure 2 the spectrum of a noise signal only, the input gain is set at the maximum value. This
situation is a good equivalent of the EIN measurement. The bottom chart will
be selected for the noise evaluation. The prepared noise view for the described
card is shown in figure 3.
Figure 3. Open input signals for the Dell Studio internal sound card [5].
Matusiak M.
The noise characteristics is quite constant in a wide range of audio frequencies at maximum values of about -120 dB. It is a very good result, 5 dB
better the – 115 dB a good limit for Hi-Fi recordings. Because of significant
hearing the noise frequencies are between 1 kHz and 10 kHz and the best
sensitivity of the human hearing is 3 kHz. The author proposes a following
formula for the evaluation of noise parameters (nc – noise calculated as
a mean for chosen frequencies):
where lower indexes equal numbers of kilohertz.
The presented formula for nc calculating is the first approximation of the
noise parameter calculated on the acoustic band. More precise measurements
and calculations will provide better formulas.
The next presented sound card is also internal but specially produced as
a studio sound card: E-MU 0404 with PCI interface. The chart for this card is
shown in figure 4.
Figure 4. The input noise signals for E-MU 0404 PCI sound card [7].
The Sound Blaster Connect is several years old sound card dedicated to an
external use with the USB computer port. Conditions of measurement are the
same: a line input and the maximal gain settings in the Visual Analyzer software. Fig. 5 presents the noise chart for this card.
Noise Problem Indicated in Computer ...
Figure 5. The noise chart for the Creative Labs. Sound Blaster Connect [6].
The last tested card was the Lexicon Alpha from a current production. It
has apart a line stereo input also a dynamic microphone and an instrument (an
electric guitar f.e.). The fig. 6 shows its noise parameters as a chart.
Figure 6. The Lexicon Alpha external card and its noise parameters [8].
Results of measurements including calculations of nc parameters are presented and discussed in the next point of the paper.
4 Results
The parameter nc inserted at the last part may be calculated for each noise
chart. Table 2 includes data for all specific frequencies and calculated nc parameters linked with each sound card.
Table 2. Noise parameters ni in dB for different sound cards.
Sound card type
Dell Studio internal
E-MU 0404 internal PCI
SB Connect external USB
Lexicon Alpha external USB
nc (dB)
Matusiak M.
Performed tests have proved that the best solutions for studio audio recording
- E-MU 0404 – quite old but specially constructed for studio recordings
- Dell Studio – new in the present production, on the board
The result nc equals -122 dB for both cards is very good. The theoretical
limit -129 dB means more than twice smaller noise level (6 dB equals the
ratio twice). That will be very difficult to perform such low noise level. The
worst card was Sound Blaster Connect but it is a several years old device and
dedicated for low-end users.
5 Conclusions
The comparison of four different sound cards gives better effects for built
in devices because (from charts above):
- The noise characteristics is more even
- No on charts impulses (specific peaks)
- Noise levels are lower of several dB
Anyway in some cases USB sound cards can be much more comfortable in
use because include some additional circuits: preamplifiers for microphones
condenser (with phantom supply 48V) and dynamic, inputs for instruments
(guitars) and headphones amplifiers and switches. They can also work as
hardware mixers.
USB sound cards designed for Hi-Fi recordings (Lexicon Alpha) and newer are significantly better than older ones (Creative SB Connect). The difference is: -116 dB for Alpha and – 106 dB for Connect, noises lower abt. 3
times. The progress in the computer devices technology is very clearly visible.
Tietze U., Schenk, 2009, C. Układy półprzewodnikowe. WNT, Warszawa.
Smith S.W., 1997, Digital Signal Processing. California Technical Publishing,
San Diego.
Wikipedia. Noise (Electronics), Oct. 1’th 2010,
SillanumSoft., Visual Analyzer, Oct. 1’th 2010,,
Dell Studio, Oct. 1’th 2010,
Creative Labs, Oct. 1’th 2010, Sound Blaster Cards.
Noise Problem Indicated in Computer ...
Creative Technology of Singapore, Oct. 1’th 2010, E-MU. 0404 PCI sound card.
Lexicon Professional. Alpha sound card., Oct. 1’th 2010, http://www.lexiconpro.
com/ product.php?id=7.
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