Do You Need a Dedicated Sound Card for Your PC?

Creative's Sound Blaster AE-9 PCIe card with audio control module
Creative

For years, getting a dedicated sound card for your PC was a given because it was the only way to get quality sound. Modern PCs, however, have good audio hardware built into their motherboards. But dedicated sound cards still exist.

What’s the Point of a Dedicated Sound Card?

Companies like longtime sound-card manufacturer, Creative, and PC hardware manufacturers, Asus and EVGA, still make dedicated sound-card hardware.

But who’s 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” means to you.

The thing about the audio hardware built into modern motherboards is it’s good. It works really well, and most people are fine with it. However, it can’t offer the same clarity, detail, and effects that dedicated audio hardware can for one very simple reason.

Audio Interference

A bare gaming ATX motherboard.
MSI

The major issue that kills 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 is doing. Then there’s the RAM, USB connections, and all that pretty RGB lighting.

All this action creates a background hiss that can degrade overall audio performance. In an attempt to reduce potential interference, many motherboards include isolation and shielding for the audio components. This definitely improves the situation, but it can’t remove electrical interference entirely.

You won’t really hear this interference all that often. It’s most noticeable when your PC is working hard. If you plug in a pair of headphones, crank 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 process some other heavy workload with no active audio.

For example, I’ve logged hundreds of hours in the game The Division 2. For most of that time, I’ve used my motherboard’s built-in audio. Whenever the game would hit its first loading screen, there was always a hiss over the audio due to electrical interference from the motherboard. I never thought much about it, 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 I’d never heard before. This was a nice benefit, but who cares about sounds on the loading screen?

The more notable differences were in-game. There was more sonic detail, and all sounds just generally had more pop. The direction of enemy footfalls was also more precise, 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, result in an even greater improvement.

Are Good Headphones a Better Investment?

Someone playing a video game on a big-screen TV while wearing headphones.
sezer66/Shutterstock

One of the most common responses when people ask whether they should get a sound card is, “You’d be better off spending that money on a pair of high-quality headphones.” Sound cards can run anywhere from $40 to nearly $400, which is enough for a solid pair of cans.

Good headphones definitely improve your audio experience, but that alone can’t overcome the electrical interference issues inherent to built-in motherboard audio. In fact, they might even make any interference noise more pronounced.

A sound card, though, takes care of all the audio processing above the “noise” of the motherboard. It’s still close to the source of the interference, 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 issues. Another alternative is an external digital-to-audio converter (DAC). A DAC converts digital audio signals to analog sound your headphones or speakers can use.

DAC boxes just sit on your desk, and the consumer-grade models also usually have a built-in amplifier. People who prefer DACs argue that it further separates the sound from any possible electrical interference from the motherboard.

DACs can also work with multiple devices, so it isn’t tied to your desktop like an internal sound card is.

Should You Buy a Dedicated Sound Card?

A black portable digtal-to-audio converter
The FiiO K3 DAC and headphone app. FiiO

There’s no question that a sound card would improve your audio experience on a PC. However, whether it’s worth the cost comes down to your personal experience and preferences. Audio results aren’t like the graphics benchmarks that determine whether your GPU has hit, exceeded, or fallen short of the minimum bar of 60 frames per second.

When it comes to audio, you see and hear terms like warmth, pop, greater dynamic range, deeper bass, and clarity of sound. All of these are entirely subjective and come down to what you want out of your audio experience.

If you want the best sound possible for your PC, a sound card or DAC will solve any issues that better headphones can’t. If you use speakers more often than headphones, though, you would still get big benefits from dedicated PC audio hardware.

If you haven’t noticed any interference issues, you’ll most likely be better off investing in some good headphones. But who says you can’t have both? In fact, if you pick up a sound card or DAC and get rid of any interference issues, you’ll probably end up saving for a better pair of headphones anyway.

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