This article is part of the Hardware Buying Guide series:
- Buying an SSD: What to Look Out for
- Buying a Monitor: What to Look For
- Buying a Keyboard: For Work, Play, and Everything in Between
- Buying a Mouse: DPI, Sensors and More
- Buying a Graphics Card: FPS, Benchmarks and More
- Buying a Processor: What You Need to Know
- Buying a Case: Drive Bays, Form Factor and More
- Buying a Motherboard: Form Factor, Ports, More
- Buying Memory/RAM: What to Know
- Buying a Power Supply: Wattage, Efficiency and More
- Buying a Sound Card: Benefits, Pricing and More
In this article we’ll be discussing the steps to take when buying a sound card as well as our advice on whether you really need one. We’ll start by discussing the latter.
Do You Need a Sound Card?
People with a passing knowledge of computer hardware might know that most people don’t need a sound card at all. But how do you define “most people?” Whenever you’re hearing people say sound cards are unnecessary, they’re usually referring to the fact that onboard sound (that is, sound from your motherboard) has evolved enough over the years to make traditional sound cards obsolete.
And in many cases, especially on newer computers, this is true. However, onboard sound can still suffer from electrical interference (thanks to your sound processing being done in proximity to the rest of your computer), and with older machines onboard sound sometimes can be outright painful to listen to.
So if you’re on an older machine with poor onboard sound/no onboard sound support, you should probably buy yourself a sound card. Other parties might want to purchase sound cards, too, such as professional gamers and high-end audio enthusiasts. More on that in a bit.
Benefits of a Sound Card
Aside from the obvious boosts to quality, there are a few key benefits to buying a sound card.
- Support for more audio channels – 5.1 and 7.1 channel audio offers more ports for better surround sound speaker systems and directional audio in headphones.
- Adding more/better audio ports to a system that otherwise doesn’t have them.
- On older systems/CPUs, sound cards can take some load off of the CPU by handling the sound processing instead. In modern hardware, though, this difference isn’t really noticeable.
- Shielding against an electric interference. High-end sound cards will have an actual shield to prevent electrical interference from other components entirely, but even unshielded sound cards make a world of difference when plugged into the lowest PCI slot on a motherboard away from everything else.
- More accurate bass, sounds and directional audio. If you’re dealing with a low-end onboard sound chip, the leap to a sound card will be immense based solely on how much clearer you’ll be hearing the audio. However, note that these benefits can only be enjoyed on hardware that’s good enough. You’re not going to get better sound out of a pair of earbuds you grabbed at the register for $3, for instance.
Comparing Sound Cards
When comparing sound cards to one another, there are four primary specifications to compare. These specs are as follows.
Audio channels correspond to the number of speakers and are also related to multi- and omni-directional headphones. The more channels of audio, the more directions your sound can come from and the more accurate it can be as a result. Consider two audio channels the bare minimum with higher levels of audio only necessary for advanced speaker systems/high-end headphones.
Bit depth ranges from 8 to 16 to 24. You’ll see this spec toted around a lot, but most don’t know what it actually means. Basically, bit depth manages the range of what you can hear, with 24-bit depth in audio being nigh perfectly accurate. High bit-depth benefits even low-quality audio by lowering the noise floor and ceiling. Basically, the lower your bit depth, the harder it will be to distinguish quiet from loud. 16 is the bare minimum, and 24 is high end.
Sound-to-noise ratio. Have you ever plugged in your speakers and turned them up really high while nothing was playing? That buzzing you heard is the “noise” in SNR. The higher your SNR, the quieter that background noise.
Sample rate is measured in KHz and ranges from 44.1 to as high as 192. Some audiophiles swear that the astronomically high numbers are better, but unless you have world-class hearing and equipment, you’re unlikely to hear the difference in most cases. 44/48 KHz is absolutely fine, but if you’re investing in high-end audio hardware you can go higher. It can lead to dimishining returns, though.
How Much You Should Be Paying For One
Finally, there’s the discussion of what you should be paying for a sound card. I’ll separate your payments into tiers based on what you want/need, as well as some additional notes.
- $20-40 USD: if your onboard audio is bugged or nonexistent and you just need some proper sound.
- $50-$80 USD: if your onboard audio is fine but doesn’t support your gaming headphones or sound system.
- $90-$150 USD: if you want the highest possible clarity and quality in your audio but are fine with your audio as it is, there’s no need to make a big leap.
- $150-$200 USD: if you’re an audio professional, but note that you’ll also need to invest in high-end headphones.
If you make sure you’re buying a modern sound card from a reputable brand and follow this guide you should be fine. If you’re interested in reading up on buying some decent headphones, read Miguel’s article> on the topic.
Do you use a sound card? Have you noticed any benefits from it? Tell us in the comments below!
Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons