Are sound cards worth it?


Are sound cards worth it? If you ask this question, it’s likely because you have already tried searching for information online about what they are and their purpose, but haven’t gotten very far in your search. Most of the articles that show up when searching for “sound card” describe what they are to some degree, but also end by suggesting that if all you’re doing is listening to music or watching movies then no, not really.

Well yes. The answer seems obvious in retrospect: You don’t need a sound card if all you do with your PC is listen to music or watch movies. But in order to fully understand why it’s important to make this distinction we need to talk about drivers…

vers are the way in which a computer communicates with a piece of hardware, and the important thing to understand is that they’re always several steps behind. It’s unlike a conversation between two humans: if you say “hello” and someone responds “nice to meet you”, those are both things the person heard before responding. But when talking to computers (well, talking to them as an end-user) it’s not like that – each piece of hardware needs its own driver in order for the computer and the hardware to understand each other, and drivers can’t be created instantly.

When we talk about sound cards we’re talking about something pretty complex: speakers and microphones and earbuds and headphones all work differently (different impedance, different), but they all need their own drivers in order for the computer to know what they’re doing. The microphone needs a driver which tells it who can use it and how loud, and where you want to record sound from; speakers need drivers so that the computer knows how to reproduce their output as something “computer-like”. Headphones with built-in microphones (like most earbuds) need drivers so the computer knows how to reproduce their output as something “microphone-like” too.

So when buying a new laptop or desktop: yes, if your old one had 3D surround sound and you want that on your new one, then maybe getting a separate sound card is worth it. But most people just have normal stereo speakers and basic headphones, and those already come with their own built-in sound card, so it doesn’t really matter.

Are Sound Cards Worth It?

Sound cards are worth investing in if you know what to look for and how to use them! True audiophiles need the best sound quality possible when they’re listening to music, watching movies or playing games. The right sound card can give your audio a more atmospheric feel with deep bass and crisp highs. However, the rise of laptops has meant that many people no longer need separate motherboards with sound cards built in; instead most modern laptops have their own dedicated digital-to-analogue converters (DAC). So which is better? If you want great audio quality without having extra bulk lying around then it’s definitely worth considering a sound card.

In this article we’ll be exploring what they are, how to recognise the different types of sound cards and why you might need one in your next PC build… but first let’s take a look at the history of sound cards so that we can better understand their evolution!

History of Sound Cards

The first generation of sound cards were pretty basic by today’s standards. Real-time digital signal processing (DSP) was used on just about every 8-bit mainframe computer in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1981 that Yamaha made the chip commercially available – known as the YM3812 or OPL2. It was then licensed by AdLib who created an expansion card for PCs that plugged into the single ISA slot on the IBM PC, XT and similar machines. This solution was widely adopted by developers of early games consoles who needed sound support but couldn’t afford to pay royalties on every system sold… with the Commodore Amiga not only using an enhanced version of this chip (the OPL3) but also including a little-known feature called FM synthesis.

Sound Card Hierarchy

So why does your sound card have so many ports? Well there are four categories: PCI, USB, CODEC and Auxiliary. A typical motherboard will include some combination of these and in most cases you’ll just need to remember that anything that isn’t PCI or USB probably best left unplugged.

“PCI and Auxiliary ports you’ll probably want to keep, but CODEC and USB don’t add any real value,” explains [name]. “USB audio is only really necessary in a professional setting where microphones need to be plugged in and out frequently. For gamers it’s not even an option.”

But what about surround sound? Can it make the difference between fragging your buddies or getting fragged yourself? Well it depends if you’ve got a 7.1 system or not, according to [name]: “A 5.1 speaker set-up will do little more than give you immersive audio when gaming; while a 7.1 system will produce positional sound – which let’s face it is pretty damn important in most shooters.”

But really, what it comes down to is this: “The gaming experience is pretty much the same across all platforms; [PC/console]. It’s about how you want to play your games and what you like or dislike.”

So in short: sound cards do add real value for audio production (USB DACs aside), but gamers don’t need them. If its worth it or not depends on how you want to play and if your speakers are 5.1 or 7.1 surround.

Dedicated Sound Card vs Integrated Sound Card

What’s The Difference?

A dedicated sound card and an integrated sound card provide the same functionality in terms of playing audio; however, what they offer internally is different. Integrated sound cards are built into the motherboard of a computer while a dedicated sound card is not. How they work externally is also different: hardware sounds like speakers or headphones connect to the respective sockets on these cards (usually 3.5 mm jacks), which can then be connected to the computer via USB, Firewire, SATA, PCI expansion slot etc. Depending on how many connectors they have and what type they are many models include input and output audio connections.

sound-card Dedicated Sound Card vs Integrated Sound Card: What Do You Gain?

The most obvious advantage that comes with a dedicated sound card is that it leaves the integrated chip free to work with other computer components.

There are also additional features that can be added by having a dedicated sound card, i.e.:

– The ability to mix different audio sources together (i.e.: 5.1 channel surround sound) and play them back over several speakers at the same time in perfect synchronization (hardware accelerated mixing / encoding). This can often be done in software but would run into problems with latency and thus does not yield the same effect.

– Positioning of sounds: 3D positional audio which can emulate where certain sounds come from in relation to the listener such as when playing games or watching movies for example.

– Connectivity / sound input: the ability to connect higher quality microphones or instruments via dedicated ports. Often this would also include phantom power for microphones that are condenser based.

– Connectivity / sound output: Dedicated ports for speakers, headphones, etc.

The quality of the DAC (digital-to-analog converter) determines the potential audio quality that can be achieved by a device – since analog audio signals can vary significantly in level and frequency response, high fidelity conversion is needed to maintain signal integrity. A low jitter clock source for the DAC helps ensure accurate playback timing which is especially important for music reproduction so as not to introduce lip synch errors in video playback systems.

What really makes the difference in price between different sound cards is the quality of converters, DACs. The more expensive sound cards feature a 24-bit/96 kHz or 192 kHz DAC(S) with fewer components in their signal path which means that less noise and distortion will interfere with your listening experience.

*PCI or PCI Express x1 bus interface (compatible with virtually all desktop PCs and workstations) *ASIO 2.0 drivers for Windows XP and Vista and ASIO 2.1 drivers for Windows 7 *DirectWIRE support for low latency input/output routing between compatible applications

* 96kHz sampling rate; 24-bit resolution

Bits per sample is not important when it comes to sound quality . It’s more important to have a sampling rate higher than the human ear.

* Less components in their signal path which means that less noise and distortion will interfere with your listening experience

Less components = less quality. If the sound card has too few components, you won’t get high quality sound out of it. This is also true if there are too many components. It’s a balancing act, which is why sometimes high end audiophile equipment can cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Luckily for us, we’re just looking for something good enough for gaming and everyday use–we don’t need anything crazy expensive.

All things being equal, as long as two devices have similar total harmonic distortion, the one with less noise will sound better.

The only time when a superior sound card is needed, is if you have high-end speakers/headphones and/or are an audiophile who demands extreme quality.

Also, in most computers, even if the audio chipset is lower end then the on board audio controller, they are usually pretty similar in performance.

It’s about value for money, not about which device has more components or isn’t made up of two chips. If it delivers excellent value per dollar spent–even though it’s technically inferior to some other device–it’s still great despite its inferiority.

What are the best sound card brands?



Finally, only you can determine whether a pricey sound card and high-end audio equipment are worth purchasing for the sake of improved sound quality alone. Getting a dedicated sound card, on the other hand, might save you both time and money if you want to replace an existing or faulty integrated sound card. If you need help getting one, get in touch with one of our Melbourne local technicians.

I am a computer engineer holding a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, complemented by a Master's in Business Administration from University of Strathclyde, Scotland. I currently work as a Senior IT Consultant in Melbourne, Australia. With over 15 years of...