For years it was a given to get a dedicated sound card for your PC as it was the only way to get quality sound. However, modern PCs have good audio hardware built into their motherboards. But special sound cards still exist.
What is the use of a special sound card?
Companies such as the long-time sound card manufacturer, Creative and PC hardware manufacturers, Asus and EVGA, still make special sound card hardware.
But who is buying them? Are they worth the investment? Do you still need a sound card in your PC despite the built-in audio? The answer depends on what “need”
The thing about the audio hardware built into modern motherboards is that it is good. It works very well, and most people are fine with it. However, it cannot provide the same clarity, detail and effects as dedicated audio hardware for a very simple reason.
The main problem affecting audio performance on PCs is electrical interference. The motherboard is a hotbed of activity with electrical impulses flying through the PCIe lanes between the GPU and CPU, not to mention the work the chipset does. Then there are the RAM, USB connections and all that beautiful RGB lighting.
All this action creates a background noise that can diminish the overall audio performance. In an effort to reduce potential interference, many motherboards include isolation and shielding for the audio components. This definitely improves the situation, but it cannot completely remove electrical interference.
You will not hear this interference very often. It is especially noticeable when your PC is hard at work. If you plug in headphones, turn your audio all the way up, and then start transferring a large file, you might be able to hear it. Still, you’re more likely to hear it when a game is on a silent loading screen or when you’re waiting for your computer to handle another heavy load with no active audio.
For example, I logged in the game for hundreds of hours The Division 2. Most of that time I’ve been using my motherboard’s built-in audio. Whenever the game hit the initial loading screen, there was always a hiss over the audio due to electrical interference from the motherboard. I never thought about it much, and eventually it just faded into the background.
Then I picked up a sound card. Suddenly, not only was the hiss gone, but there were underlying sounds that I had never heard before. This was a nice perk, but who cares about loading screen sounds?
The more noticeable differences were in-game. There was more sonic detail, and all the sounds were generally more pop. The direction of enemy footsteps was also more accurate so it improved my gameplay.
I noticed all these improvements over a ho-hum generic pair of stereo headphones. A better pair would no doubt lead to an even greater improvement.
Are good headphones a better investment?
One of the most common responses when people ask if they should get a sound card is, “You better spend that money on high-quality headphones.” Sound cards can run anywhere from $ 40 to nearly $ 400, which is enough for a sturdy pair of cans.
A good pair of headphones certainly improves your audio experience, but that alone cannot solve the electrical interference problems inherent in built-in motherboard audio. They can even make any interference noise more pronounced.
However, a sound card takes care of all the audio processing above the “noise” of the motherboard. It’s still close to the source of the failure, but sometimes it’s just that simple “step up” from the motherboard to a stand-alone component in a PCIe slot that makes all the difference.
But sound cards aren’t the only solution to PC audio problems. Another alternative is an external digital-to-audio converter (DAC). A DAC converts digital audio signals into analog sound that your headphones or speakers can use.
DAC boxes just sit on your desk, and the consumer models usually have a built-in amplifier too. People who prefer DACs claim that it further separates the sound from possible electrical interference from the motherboard.
DACs can also work with multiple devices, so it’s not tied to your desktop like an internal sound card.
Do you need to buy a special sound card?
There is no doubt that a sound card would enhance your audio experience on a PC. However, whether it’s worth the cost depends on your personal experience and preferences. Audio results are not like the graphics benchmarks that determine whether your GPU has reached, exceeded, or undershot the minimum bar of 60 frames per second.
When it comes to audio, you see and hear terms such as warmth, pop, wider dynamic range, deeper bass and clear sound. These are all completely subjective and boil down to what you want to get out of your audio experience.
If you want the best possible sound for your PC, a sound card or DAC will solve all the problems that better headphones can’t. However, if you use speakers more often than headphones, you would still get great benefits from dedicated PC audio hardware.
If you haven’t noticed any interference issues, you should probably invest in a good pair of headphones. But who says you can’t have both? If you pick up a sound card or DAC and fix any interference issues, you’ll probably save for better headphones anyway.