Do I Need a Sound Card?

Many have asked this question over a long period. But deciding whether or not you require a sound card can be a bit more of a tricky question than first thought.

Much has changed regarding integrated sound cards on motherboards, and the need for add-in sound cards has somewhat reduced. This is not only due to hardware but also software changes.

And yes, I know the whole audio thing is very subjective, but I will try to keep things simple and provide you with an easier way to approach the solution.

Do You Really Need One?

Is it necessary in most cases to have a sound card? I would say no. But it doesn’t mean that there are cases in which I wouldn’t highly recommend installing one.

If you use expensive headphones, speaker systems, or receivers, I lean more toward adding a sound card or external DAC.

Many situations call for a sound card to make other equipment compatible with your computer or provide a good level of support for specific needs.

It’s always best to have the proper connectivity or technology closest to the audio source for audio-related applications.

For example, adding an external DAC can give you a balanced audio signal straight out of the gate. This can solve connectivity and other issues related to professional audio equipment.

What is a sound card?

The top view of a PCIe x1 internal sound card.

A sound card is a computer component you can add to your computer with a processor dedicated just to audio. It receives digital data from the CPU and converts it to the analog sound you can hear through headphones or speakers (DAC – Digital to Analog Converter).

Although most motherboards have a sound processor on board, it is usually a minimalistic device to help reduce componentry added to the motherboard as space is precious.

This is especially true for smaller form factor motherboards.

However, it will be more likely that connectivity options will be affected rather than the sound quality.

A sound card can either be in the form of an expansion card (i.e., via a PCIe x1 slot) or as a separate encapsulated device connected to your computer using a cable to an IO port like USB.

Some sound cards can help with gaming, others with audio for music producers or recording. So choosing the right one is very important.

But for audio-related requirements, I’d say you probably need an external DAC, maybe even with an audio interface between them, if you want to do more music recording work, for example.

What does a dedicated sound card do?

Now that we know what a sound card is, we can learn more about what it does.

You can view this as a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), but it is not specifically limited to just this.

A sound card can also supply a digital audio signal for amplifiers, AV receivers, or soundbars.

Some models of sound cards specialize in various output connectors to try and cater to specific requirements you may have.

The software with a sound card allows you to adjust other settings like EQ, surround settings, audio quality, etc.

A sound card can also take input signals like microphones or other low-level audio lines and convert them back to digital for a computer to process and store as data for you.

So, this can be referred to as an analog-to-digital converter (ADC).

Are they a necessary setup for gaming?

Again, no. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary.

Sound engines have become great at outputting detailed 3D audio and lowering the need for a sound card.

But still, I wouldn’t rule one out completely for the best 3D audio immersion. I’d say that a sound card would most likely deliver a better experience, though not necessarily a more accurate one.

External DACs are also a great choice, provided you have good speakers or headphones.

Be aware of the requirements of your audio system or speaker system, such as 7.1 surround or impedance, to get a correctly matched external DAC if you choose to go down that path.

Do you need a sound card for speakers?

This depends on your speaker setup. Do you have a receiver that processes and amplifies the audio from your computer for you?

Or is it an amplifier driving some speakers? Or perhaps some active speakers require some analog input signals.

There are many different ways speakers can be configured and driven.

But if you are a person who loves audio and has spent a good deal of money on the quality of the system, my question is, why not add an external DAC?

It will most likely help clean up the audio, making it clearer and more defined.

It will cost less than a good speaker or audio system. At least you can decide whether it improved audio performance or not.

On the flip side, you couldn’t notice much improvement with cheap computer speakers. So it wouldn’t be recommended to spend the money on a sound card in this case.

Do you need a sound card for headphones?

Sound cards can be an advantage when dealing with headphones. There are sound card models with headphone amplifiers built into them, which helps when you feel things are not loud enough after turning them up.

If you have lower-impedance headphones, for example, you may opt for an external DAC instead to help avoid interference.

Integrated sound cards on a motherboard have come a long way, but I’d still say that I personally prefer having a sound card when using a good-quality set of headphones.

Do you need a sound card for recording?

Like music production or other audio work, this subject is complex and beyond this article’s scope.

I’d suggest you do your homework and research the topic properly before considering the purchase of any devices for this line of projects.

The equipment starts to get very expensive and can set you back quite a bit.

But it’s generally a safe bet that you will have some audio interface with an external DAC or something along those lines.

Do pro gamers use them?

It comes as no surprise that most gamers use good-quality headphones. They need to hear everything that’s going on around them to the greatest detail possible.

Some pro gamers prefer a standard stereo output, while others want detailed spatial sound.

Some gamers install Dolby Atmos software to solve the need for detailed spatial audio.

It doesn’t seem like internal sound cards are popular with pro gamers. However, some use external DACs to reduce noise and improve clarity.

Pro gamers aren’t necessarily audio experts. They will use what works best for them, mostly a standard stereo configuration.

They also prefer to hear less bass and more treble sounds to hear footsteps and gun sounds better.

Any virtual or fake surround is detrimental as they won’t be able to pinpoint the exact location of the sounds in a 3D spatial environment.

What about streaming?

In most cases, I’d say no. A sound card won’t be necessary.

If you are streaming audio from Spotify, I’d be hard-pressed to find a good reason to spend the money on a sound card for this purpose.

However, when Spotify or other streaming services release a lossless stream option, I’d recommend an external DAC with a good pair of headphones or an audio system.

Do I need one for music production?

You may need a good sound card to connect to the music or sound production equipment.

I’ve never encountered as many audio production devices as you get today. So, it’s best to read up and engage with experts to help you set up your computer to suit your needs.

So, it’s more than likely that an external DAC and or other devices will be required, rather than an internal sound card in this case.

Internal vs. external sound cards

Sound cards come in two main forms. Cards you install inside your computer, and sound devices that connect to your computer using a cable.

There are advantages to connecting an external device with a cable regarding interference.

The external sound card, or DAC, is further away from all the RF interference generated by all the components inside your computer.

That said, an internal sound card may be a better option if you want to avoid extra cables and external components or peripherals around your computer.

The major difference between a DAC and an external sound card is that a DAC mainly deals with line-level-out signals only.

Sound card vs. integrated audio

This depends on many factors, and it is difficult to provide a short answer based on many unknown variables for your setup.

But if you are interested in reading more about sound cards, you probably have a feeling that you may be able to get more out of your computer’s audio.

So, there is a chance that you would find it worth it if you decide to purchase a high-end sound card.

For gaming with a good audio system or pair of headphones, I think that it is worth it.

If you look at what these devices cost, it’s not like you will set yourself back significantly to start exploring them.

It’s especially true if you enjoy this kind of thing.