I talked about improving my computer sound volume a while ago.
After thinking about it a bit, I decided that rather than just amplify the mediocre sound, I'd upgrade to something better. I came across a few USB sound cards, and after looking at the various offerings, settled on the OPTOPlay from AudioTrak. It does more than I need - I don't need the digital output - but that really didn't add much to the price, which was about $50.
One disadvantage is that NewEgg didn't carry it, so I had to wait about 10 days for it to show up.
On Monday, I brought it in, plugged it into my dev machine, switched to it, and started listening to a song. It sounded great...
... for about 10 seconds, at which point the music dropped about 30dB and got hissy. I stopped it, and tried again...
It played for 7 seconds, at which point it began playing a full 50 mW of white noise into my headphones.
After trying a few things with no luck, I left a message on their tech support forum. The answer I got was that certain Intel chipsets had problems with audio data, and that if I plugged the device into a USB hub, it might fix the problem.
And it did. For someone who has been into audio for a while, the notion that adding another device in the chain will fix problems is an interesting notion.
So, onto the sound quality. I can only describe it as outstanding. Very clear, with plenty of power.
I was going to write a sentence or two on how the sound compared to the on-board sound, but decided not to. I came up with a few analogies ("like Eddie Van Halen vs. your nephew Josh"), but it didn't seem fair. The average on-board sound system is optimized to match the quality of computer speakers, which means that it's simply awful. When confronted with the hostile electronic environment and fiscal constraints of on-board sound, the designers understandably nipped out early for a pint.
Acoustical memory is notoriously unreliable, but I think that the sound is slightly better than my iRiver h120.