Today, we’re going to teach you everything you need to know about sound cards.
This includes what they are, how they work, why some devices don’t seem to need them at all, and if you need an extra soundcard if your motherboard already has one on-board.
Let’s dive into it.
What Is a Sound Card?
A Sound Card is an expansion card that adds its own audio processing and audio ports to your PC.
However, sound cards have slowly fallen out of mainstream thought over time. Once upon a time, a sound card was an integral purchase for any PC.
These days, PCs and other modern devices seem to function just fine without them.
A lot has changed about the sound card market over the decades. Sound cards have existed in one form or another since 1972, but since PC motherboards began to integrate audio in the 1990s, they’ve slowly been pushed into irrelevance in the eyes of the larger consumer market.
Enthusiasts and gamers still seem to like sound cards and other high-end, dedicated audio devices, though- so let’s talk about why.
How Do Sound Cards Work?
To explain how sound cards work, it’s important to have a rudimentary understanding of how sound processing works on a PC. Even today, sound can be surprisingly demanding on the processing end.
This is a bit of an obscure example, but in the earlier days of the development of the Yuzu Switch Emulator, completely disabling audio was a recommended practice for increasing in-game framerates.
Emulators are a bit of a special case since they’re also emulating the sound presented by the original hardware, but this actually ties pretty well into how sound cards started on PC.
Basically, early PCs and their CPUs were simply not equipped to handle audio.
The occasional beeps and boops you might hear your PC make when restarting today were about all the earliest PCs with sound could handle until dedicated sound cards came along.
Even then, it took a few years for sound cards to start producing what we would recognize today as standard quality stereo sound.
A sound card in the 80s and 90s was basically essential to a well-rounded PC build, in the way that a dedicated graphics card is for a gaming or productivity-focused PC build today.
Expansion cards in general are all about taking heavy processing loads off of the CPU, and this was vital for sound when the CPUs and motherboards of the time simply weren’t well-equipped to handle it.
So, sound cards work by taking audio processing from the CPU or motherboard and doing it instead.
Many sound cards also require custom driver installs (like with GPUs) in order to make the most of this, whereas integrated audio usually requires little if any tweaking.
How Do Modern Devices Function Without a Sound Card?
So if sound cards used to be so important, how do most devices today seem to not need them?
Nearly every single motherboard made since the 1990s has had integrated sound, and the same applies to laptops and smart devices.
While older hardware design necessitated expansion cards for things like sound, these days manufacturers produce SoCs (System-on-a-Chip: see any smartphone), CPUs with integrated graphics, and motherboards with dedicated sound hardware onboard.
The tech industry at large likes to shrink, consolidate, and combine various forms of technology where it’s viable.
Sound processing fell into that hole pretty quickly for most people, but that may not be the entire story.
Does My Motherboard Already Have A Sound Card? If So, Why Would I Need One?
Now, for the big question: do you need a sound card if your motherboard already has integrated audio?
In the 90s, a question like this in a hardware enthusiast forum would have seemed preposterous, but that’s because early implementations of motherboard-based audio were kind of…bad.
Even if your PC COULD do sound without a sound card, there was a significant span where doing so was an extreme downgrade.
This isn’t really the case for most motherboards these days. Especially on the higher-end, where manufacturers like to invest extra in their sound hardware.
My own motherboard is a Z490 AORUS Ultra from Gigabyte, and it includes an integrated Realtek ALC1220-VB. This is an integrated sound chip used in many mid-range and some high-end boards, and to my ear, I haven’t noticed any real issues with it.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. According to some extremely thorough testing by u/TheAloclawl on r/hardware, my integrated sound is generally pretty good…except when paired with a high-power graphics card under heavy load.
See, the reason that early motherboard audio was so terrible was that it had very little protection from electromagnetic interference (EMI) with other components, especially graphics cards.
While things have improved to such an extent today that it isn’t really going to be noticeable for people (especially since gaming audio is more about sound position rather than extreme clarity), there is still a provable difference between onboard audio and a high-quality sound card.
To answer the question posed in the header of this section, no. You don’t need a sound card, especially if your motherboard already seems to do it fairly well.
However, that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from getting a sound card. Let’s talk about that more below.
Will a Sound Card Actually Improve My Audio?
This is the big question that’s been hanging over the entire sound card industry since integrated audio started to sound good enough to the majority of consumers.
Especially with the rise of laptops and other smart devices, the idea of needing an entirely separate expansion card to manage audio might sound a little ludicrous to these consumers.
But if you’re here, chances are high you’re a professional, a hardware enthusiast, or a gamer. Even if you don’t fall into these categories, the fact you’ve gotten this far must mean you’re pretty curious, so let’s break it down.
First, let’s talk about electromagnetic interference or EMI. Your PC is a pretty densely-packed piece of electronics regardless of form factor, and that does introduce some electrical interference to audio analog signals. (ie, the kind you would get from plugging your headphones straight in).
Depending on the quality of your onboard audio, this will either be not very noticeable or extremely noticeable (especially if you’re still on a fairly old motherboard architecture).
A benefit advertised by many sound cards is EMI shielding. And while this helps, it may not remove the problem entirely, especially if you’re using a high-power graphics card that’s going to generate a lot of EMI.
The best way to remove EMI from the picture, with or without a sound card, is to start using an external amplifier with a built-in DAC. A DAC (Digital-To-Analog Converter), when built into an external amplifier, will allow you to have crisp analog audio routed to your headphones without risking the analog signal getting disrupted by all the hardware present inside of your PC.
By itself, a sound card can’t guarantee the removal of all EMI from an analog audio signal, especially not if it’s right beside a high-power graphics card under heavy load.
So, EMI removal requires an amplifier with a built-in-DAC, at least if you’re hoping to use analog audio (the majority of headphones and speakers, if you’re keeping track).
However, before you invest in an amplifier, you’ll want to make sure that your sound card (discrete or integrated) has a SPDIF (Sony/Phillips Digital Interface) port that you can use to route digital audio from your PC to the amp.
Second, let’s talk about actual sound quality.
I know you probably expected me to talk about this part first, but it was important to talk about the EMI point first, as that is more likely to be a serious issue with modern onboard sound than the other stuff.
Plus, since lots of sound cards are marketed around EMI shielding but can only do so much against it, I thought it’d be better to clear that up first.
Anyway, once you’ve ensured that EMI isn’t disrupting your audio experience, yes. The right sound card can allow you to set up a more immersive surround-sound system, or make the most of powerful audiophile-grade equipment.
Are There USB Sound Cards?
Yes! In fact, they usually double as amplifiers and DACs in their own right, which is great if a sound card alone doesn’t eliminate EMI from your sound OR you’re using a PC/laptop where you can’t install a PCIe sound card.
If you’re looking for a simple all-in-one USB Sound Card that’ll turn you onto high-quality audio without breaking the bank, I recommend the Creative Sound Blaster X3.
Will An PCI Express Sound Card Work With My Front Audio Ports?
No, you’ll need to plug your audio into the back.
Additionally, even if your internal sound hardware is decently-shielded and powered, that won’t carry over to front panel audio ports.
Front panel audio ports pretty much have the maximum amount of EMI for an analog signal to be disrupted by, so you should always be plugging your audio cables into a DAC (preferred), the ports on a sound card, or the ports on the back of your motherboard.
Can My Graphics Card Be A Sound Card?
Yes. In fact, your graphics card is already a sound card, it just doesn’t have a headphone jack.
What should have a headphone jack is the HDMI or DisplayPort-powered monitor that you’re connecting that graphics card to. Through AMD or Nvidia’s HD Audio and a display with audio ports, you can achieve some pretty decent results.
However, there are a lot of limitations to using a GPU as a sound card, especially if you’re using headphones and/or you don’t have SPDIF output on your display.
In fact, that basically sums up the issue- when you start using your GPU as a sound card, your sound is going to be limited by whatever output is supported by your display.
Not having a SPDIF port for connection to an amplifier means that your headphones aren’t going to be able to be driven at full power, and in some circumstances, you may even find yourself to be limited to DVD quality audio.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve picked up on this one from personal experience, as I was plugging my Hi-Fi open-back headphones into my monitor instead of my motherboard.
As a result, I was limited to 16-bit DVD Quality audio when my headphones are built for 32-bit Studio Quality audio! My experience significantly improved after switching back to my higher-end motherboard audio.
When connected to something like a big 4K TV with built-in SPDIF and a bunch of other audio ports, however, your graphics card can turn into quite the powerhouse of a sound card. If you’re going to use HD Audio, I most recommend using it with a TV and a surround-sound setup.
For headphones and analog speakers, I recommend sticking to a soundcard or onboard sound with an external DAC instead of HD Audio.
Do I Have Worse Audio Without a Sound Card?
Yes, but not by a large amount.
To untrained ears, the difference will be minor unless your internal sound hardware isn’t well-shielded from EMI.
In this case, the difference is significant unless you are using a DAC. Otherwise, especially with modern mid-range or better PCs, you probably don’t need to worry that much.