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Creative (left), Echo (middle), Creative (right)

How to Get Great Sound From Your Laptop

If you want great sound to come out of your laptop, or you’re a mobile DJ, you can either get an external sound device (via USB) or a PC Card (PCMCIA) to plug into your laptop. PCMCIA cards are about the size of credit cards but thicker.  Below are some laptop cards that are on the market.

Creative (left), Echo (middle), Creative (right)

Creative Audigy 2 ZS (left), Echo Indigo DJ (middle), Creative ExpressCard X-Fi (right)

Currently, Creative Labs no longer support their old Audigy 2 Z5 PCMCIA card (left most card in picture above).  This is too bad because it works really well.  You can find some on sale on Ebay but it’s hard to find.

Only the new X-Fi Xtreme Audio  ExpressCard is available for $79.99 (right most in picture) from Creative Labs.  The X-Fi requires a ExpressCard/54 slot and will not work with the old PCMCIA or PC Card slots.  But since my Toshiba Qosmio has the ExpresCard slot, I decided to try it out.

The Echo Indigo DJ is also available, but you must have a PCMCIA slot on your laptop (see below). So the choices are pretty much down to the Echo or Creative and it just comes down to which type of slot you have on your laptop.

When I got my Toshiba, I wasn’t even aware that there were 2 different types of slots available.  The 2 styles are: the old style PCMCIA slot, and now the newer ExpressCard slots.  So be aware of this before purchasing your laptop.

Echo close-up

Echo Indigo DJ close-up

What I like about the Echo (pictured above)  is that only the larger portion sticks out of the laptop and the head phone jack is on the side.  Therefore, if your slot is on the side of your laptop, you can have your cable plug in very close to your laptop without it sticking out.

The picture below shows a close-up of the Creative card with the following features:

  • Headphone out / Line out / Optical out (shared 1/8″ mini jack)
  • Line In / Microphone In / Optical in (shared 1/8″ mini jack)
  • Speaker Docking Module connector (5.1/7.1 surround sound with the Surround Sound Upgrade kit sold separately)
Creative close-up

Creative ExpressCard X-Fi close-up

Since the output equipment I’m connecting to are not state-of-the-art stuff, I really couldn’t tell any difference in qualty.  Even with good head-phones on, I really couldn’t tell any difference between the units.  But keep in mind, I’m not a sound engineer, or expert in this area.  Both produced what I would consider quality that is above what would be needed for normal use by any consumer, and maybe even some pro-sumers.

One thing that is a problem for me with the Creative and my Toshiba is that when you press the card in, it pops out.  At first, this seemed like a great feature to remove the card.  However, when using it, you have to be very careful not to bump it or it will get unplugged.  If you are doing a live performance, this is way too risky.  Even if your cable gets pushed against your laptop, this could cause your card to be unplugged.  I’m not sure if this is only a feature of the Toshiba or if that’s the way the ExpressCard slots work.

The other smaller problem with the Creative is that the jacks are located on the outside.  If your slot is on the side of your laptop, and your Creative sticks out, and your cables come out from there, you will need a lot of space on the side of your laptop.  If you’re cramped for space, this may not be the best solutin for you.

The bad news is, that’s all that’s available out there.  Alternatively, you can get an external USB sound output device from just about anywhere from $2.90 on Amazon up to $40 or so.  The Xitel MP3 Streamer is a little more expensive ($49.95 MSRP) than the cheap ones, but works just as well as the internal cards. It’s a little more expensive but it comes with a 30′ audio cable so keep that in mind when pricing.

So, if you have a PCMCIA slot on your laptop, I would go with the Echo.  If you have a ExpressCard slot, I cannot recommend the Creative Labs X-Fi card unless your laptop puts the card internally.  If you want to use an external device, I would recommend the Xitel MP3 Streamer, which is what I use with my Toshiba.