This has been a question asked by many over a long period of time. But deciding whether or not you need a sound card can be a bit more of a difficult question than first thought.
Ask yourself what your computer is going to be used for. If it’s something to do with music production, gaming, or other audio-related projects, then the answer is yes, I recommend that you install a high-end sound card. Otherwise, for the vast majority, I’d say no.
Although that is the short answer, let’s dive in deeper and really see if spending the money on a sound card is the right thing to do in your situation.
A lot has changed when it comes to integrated sound cards on motherboards and the need for add-in sound cards has reduced somewhat. This is not only due to hardware but also software changes too.
And yes, I know the whole audio thing is a very subjective topic, but I will try and keep things simple and try to provide you with an easier way to approach the solution.
What is a sound card?
A sound card is a device that you can add to your computer that has a processor dedicated just for sound. It receives digital data from the CPU and converts it to analog sound that 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 (ie. 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 are probably needing an external DAC, maybe even with an audio interface between them if you are wanting to do more music recording work as an example.
What does a sound card do?
Now that we know what a sound card is, we can go into it a little more about what it does.
You can view this as a digital to analog converter (DAC) but is not specifically limited to just this.
A sound card is also capable of supplying 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 that works 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).
Is a sound card really necessary?
Is it absolutely necessary in most cases to have a sound card? I would say no. But it doesn’t mean that there are cases that I wouldn’t highly recommend installing one.
If you are using expensive headphones, speaker systems, or receivers, I would be leaning more toward adding a sound card or external DAC.
There are many situations that call for a sound card to either make other equipment compatible with your computer or to provide a good level of support for certain needs.
For audio-related applications, it’s always best to have the right connectivity or technology closest to the audio source as possible.
For example, adding an external DAC can give you a balanced audio signal straight out the gate. This can solve connectivity and other issues related to professional audio equipment.
Is a sound card necessary for gaming?
Again, no. I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely 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 that require some analog input signals.
There are many different ways speakers can be configured and driven.
But if you are a person that 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 with cleaning up the audio making it clearer and more defined.
It will be a small cost compared to the cost of a good speaker or audio system. At least you can decide for yourself if it improved audio performance or not.
On the flip side, with a set of cheap computer speakers, you couldn’t notice much in the way of any improvement whatsoever. 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 models of sound cards that have headphone amplifiers built into them which helps a lot when you feel like things are just 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 with music production or other audio work, this subject is very complex and is beyond the scope of this article.
I’d suggest that 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 some kind of audio interface with an external DAC or something along those lines.
Do pro gamers use sound cards?
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.
To solve the need for detailed spatial audio, some gamers tend to install Dolby Atmos software.
It doesn’t seem like internal sound cards are all that popular with pro gamers. But some use external DACs to reduce noise and improve clarity.
Pro gamers aren’t necessarily audio experts. They will just use what works best for them, which mostly tends to be a standard stereo configuration.
They also prefer to hear less bass and more treble sounds to hear footsteps and gun sounds a bit better.
Any virtual surround or fake surround is detrimental as they won’t be able to pinpoint the exact location of the sounds in a 3D spatial environment.
Do I need a sound card for streaming?
I most cases I’d say no, a sound card won’t be necessary.
If you are streaming audio from Spotify for example, 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 audio system.
Do I need a sound card for music production?
It is possible that you are going to need a good sound card to connect to the equipment required for music or sound production.
There are so many audio production devices out there that I’ve never even heard of. So it’s best to read up and engage with experts that help you decide how to 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 when it comes to interference.
The external sound card or DAC is further away from all the RF interference generated by all the components inside your computer.
With that being said, if you are looking to avoid extra cables and external components or peripherals around your computer, an internal sound card may be a better option.
The major difference between a DAC and an external sound card is that a DAC mainly deals with line-level out signals only.
Is a sound card worth it?
This depends on many factors and is difficult to provide a short answer based on a lot of unknown variables for your setup.
But the fact that 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 it costs for these devices, it’s not like you’re going to set yourself back significantly to start exploring them.
It’s especially true if you enjoy this kind of thing.
There is a lot of arguments that can be made for not using a sound card. But like anything, there are also good arguments for getting one.
In my personal experience, certain cards can have EQ traits that vary from each other and with integrated motherboard audio devices.
It might be that you like the extra bassy sound of a Sound Blaster’s default EQ and thus, you stick with it.
There is no right or wrong. Audiophiles will keep claiming they know better the next. It doesn’t mean what they have to say is right for you.
I’d recommend trying things out and seeing what you like and enjoying the experience. After all, it is your money and your ears.