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A sound card (also known as an audio card) is a computer expansion card that facilitates the input and output of audio signals to/from a computer under control of computer programs. Typical uses of sound cards include providing the audio component for multimedia applications such as music composition, editing video or audio, presentation/education, and entertainment (games). Many computers have sound capabilities built in, while others require additional expansion cards to provide for audio capability. Sound cards usually feature a digital-to-analog converter, to convert recorded or generated digital data into an analog format. The output signal is typically connected to an amplifier, headphones, or external device using standard interconnects, such as a TRS connector or an RCA connector.
Another important characteristic of sound cards is polyphony, which is more than one distinct voice or sound playable simultaneously and independently, and the number of simultaneous channels. These are intended as the number of distinct electrical audio outputs, which may correspond to a speaker configuration such as 2.0 (stereo), 2.1 (stereo and sub woofer), 4.1 or 5.1 etc.). Sometimes, the terms "voices" and "channels" are used interchangeably to indicate the degree of polyphony, not the output speaker configuration.
Today, a sound card providing actual hardware polyphony, regardless of the number of output channels, is typically referred to as a "hardware audio accelerator", although actual voice polyphony is not the sole prerequisite, with other aspects such as hardware acceleration of 3D sound, positional audio, surround sound, and real-time DSP effects being more important. For that reason Surround Sound PCI Cards are among the most popular.
Since digital sound playback has become available and provided better performance than synthesis, modern soundcards with hardware polyphony don't actually use DACs with as many channels as voices, but rather perform voice mixing and effects processing in hardware inside a dedicated DSP. The final playback stage is performed by an external DAC with significantly fewer channels than voices (e.g., 8 channels for 7.1 audio, which can be divided among 32, 64 or even 128 voices).
The leading manufacturers of sound adaptors today are: Creative Labs, Diamond Multimedia, Sabrent, and others.