Well, I have a vast music collection sitting on my computer, which I play all my music from. Rarely will I watch movies, and I do play games alot, but I don't particularly care about the sound there.
Right now I'm using the onboard audio from my motherboard (Everest tells me its a DFI 661FX-MLV(E)) and the audio drivers are Realtk AC'97. And unfortunately I'm running it all on some 8 dollar speakers, and the awful quality is really starting to get to me. I've got a maximum of $200 to spend, although I would prefer to spend as little as possible (wouldn't we all). What I would really like to know is the best path to increasing sound quality with this budget, and I'm really lost as to whether this means new speakers, and how many channels, or a better soundcard, a combination of both. I honstely don't have a clue.
To sum it all up: Currently have AC'97 onboard audio and 8 dollar speakers. Maximum $200 budget, what's the best improvement for me? (2.1? 5.1? Soundcard overhaul? Anything at all)
New speakers, and new speakers alone. You aren't going to see any practical sound quality increase between onboard mobo audio and a separate sound card without getting a decent set of speakers. While a 5.1 or 4.1 system won't make much difference compared to a 2.1 with music, since you do game a lot, you might enjoy the surround effects they provide there. However, if you want the best possible music and can live without surround effects, then take the money and go with a high-quality 2.1 set. Klipsch speakers are probably your best bet.
Okay, thanks alot for the advice. I was looking at some klipsch 2.1 sets, as well as a couple 5.1 systems, possibly the Logitech X-530. I have a concern though. Is it true that because I don't have a 5.1 sound card, I wouldn't even get sound from some of the speakers? I've heard vague things to that effect, and if thats true, well than 5.1 would just be wasting my money. Would a little 5.1 USB adapter work? I don't really have a free PCI slot, but I may be willing to do that if the quality was decent.
I'm realizing now that I could get a soundcard too and still remain in my budget, but for what people are calling minimal sound improvement, it seems a bit excessive. But if I need it for correct connections, well then there's really no way around that.
The 6-channel Audio output is what you want. That it'll do it turn the mic-input to an output source instead, with 2 channels on each of the 3 lines (for a full implementation, you'd get away with 6.1 sound.) Left and right main will come out of one line, left and right surround will come out a second, and your front and back centers will coem from a third.
And yes, you're right, you will only notice a minimal gain in quality improvement if you don't have good, quality speakers to back it up with. Lastly, check what the input options are for the speakers that you get. If they have a S/PDIF input, then you'll only need the one line to drive the whole system.
Q: "Is it true that because I don't have a 5.1 sound card, I wouldn't even get sound from some of the speakers?"
A: It's also true, even if you do have a 5.1 sound card, 99.99% of the time you will not be playing 5.1 material (aka DVDs) unless you happen to be rich and can drop $25-30 for movies when the rest of us download movies with stereo audio : P
Of course if you are a hardcore gamer, the 5.1 will come very handy. If you listen to mp3s mostly, then I think you will find a cheap 5.1 set unsatisfactory. A quality 5.1 set comes at a hefty price, whereas a quality 2.0 set can be had for much cheaper, and can always be expanded to 5.0/5.1 later on.
Ah, thanks for all the advice then. I got a chance to play around firsthand with my friend's Klipsch Promedia 2.1, so I decided to pick up those. I love the sound, and not being an audiophile, it's hard for me to imagine how my music (which is obviously not in 5.1) could really sound better.
I love how I can count on good advice here, thanks again.