Speakers and a Sound Card That Will Impress Even Audio Snobs make games and bach sound great
By Michael J. Himowitz

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Walk down the halls of a college dorm, and you'll hear music at all hours. Enter a room, and you'll probably find that the noise isn't coming from a stereo--but from the occupant's computer. The biggest surprise? It sounds great.

Thanks to CD-ROM drives, new audio circuitry, and newer models of speakers, PCs have become legitimate digital entertainment centers. No, your computer will never replace a $2,000 sound system. But if you want to enjoy good music at your desk or feel the floor tremble when you blast an Imperial cruiser into a parallel universe, a well-equipped PC will work fine and cost a lot less.

To check out the state of the art, I opened up my PC, replaced my generic sound card with a SoundBlaster Live! MP3+ from Creative Technology, and hooked it up to a set of FourPointSurround FPS2000 digital speakers from the company's Cambridge SoundWorks subsidiary. I've never heard anything like it from a computer. Whether I played CDs or MP3 music files, the system delivered, crisp, clear music without a trace of distortion. When I switched to gaming mode and heard bullets whiz past my head and smack into the wall behind me, I got a new sense of virtual reality.

The heart of this amazing system is the $99.95 SoundBlaster Live!, the latest sound card from a company that has dominated the PC audio market for more than a decade. It's a remarkable piece of hardware that comes with a set of audio-mixing, playback, and recording programs. The SB Live! is powered by a digital-signal processor, which reproduces sound with remarkable fidelity but also bends, warps, and reshapes it on the fly. So with Creative's Environmental Audio software, you can simulate a band in your living room or shower, in a cave, concert hall, sewer pipe, or stadium with the click of a mouse. You can even change the pitch of voices to make soulful Boyz II Men sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Its digital instrument samples are very accurate--this is the first low-priced card I've heard that can creditably reproduce violins.

The SoundBlaster's bundled software is also topnotch. The MP3+ package allows you to "rip" tracks from an audio CD and save them as MP3 files. If you're more into sound effects, Creative's SB Live! X-Gamer model replaces the MP3 jukebox with videogames enhanced for four-speaker audio systems.

Speaking of which, when I hooked up my PC to the FPS2000 digital speakers, they delivered clear high-range tones with a smooth, well-modulated bass. The $200 package includes four 2.5-inch satellite speakers and a 25-watt subwoofer that sits under a desk and connects to a port on the back of the sound card.

Surprisingly, it was the speakers--not the sound card--that took longer to install. I spent 45 minutes running the spaghetti of lines and cords around the walls of the room. (Cambridge SoundWorks takes some of the sting out with tripod stands that allow you to set up the rear satellites on the floor.) But it was worth it--if you want to treat yourself to spectacular music and sound effects, the SB Live! and a good set of speakers will keep you entertained without going broke. For information call 800-998-5227 or surf to www.sblive.com.