Burning Choices Page 5

Sound Choices Sound quality, of course, is one of the main reasons you read this magazine. Most stand-alone decks use reasonably good analog-to-digital (A/D) and digital-to-analog (D/A) converters. The Harman Kardon, for instance, sounds superb. It even has HDCD decoding for discs using that format. Your computer, on the other hand, probably uses questionable A/D converters, and they're embedded in an electronically noisy place.

PC manufacturers design most sound cards for games, and maybe Internet listening, not necessarily true high-fidelity playback. The sound card doesn't matter if you just copy CDs, since the signal stays in the digital domain throughout the process. But if you want to use your computer to burn CDs from analog sources, like tapes, LPs, or live performances, you'll probably want to spend $100 or more for a better card than the one supplied with your computer. Some of the upper-end cards from Turtle Beach (voyetra-turtle-beach.com) sound good, and many people who are serious about sound swear by the CardDeluxe from Digital Audio Labs (digitalaudio.com), which costs about $600. For recording LPs directly to a computer, you'll still need a phono preamp. If you're burning anything other than CD to CD, a stand-alone deck will probably record it with superior fidelity for the money.

A stand-alone deck can double as your system's CD player, and a dual-tray model could even be considered a mini-changer. Since most CD-R/RW decks lack microphone inputs, you'll need a separate mike mixer to make live recordings.

Stand-alone decks are limited to recording from the music sources available on your system, while a computer can access millions of music files from the Internet, usually in MP3 format. Some PC software converts these to noncompressed CD-quality .WAV files so you can burn discs that are playable on all CD players.

If you already own a recent model computer, sliding in a CD-R/RW drive is the least expensive way to begin burning CDs - especially if you only want to copy CDs or download and burn MP3 files from the Web. But stand-alone decks are easy-to-use copiers that double as high-quality CD players and cost far less than a new computer with a CD-R/RW drive.

Once you begin burning CDs, whether on a stand-alone deck or in your computer, you'll never want to return to cassettes or even DAT. Tape is a Model T Ford next to the Ferrari of recordable CD.