Wondering if adding a sound card to your PC is worth it?
Generally, modern sound cards are only worth it for audiovisual professionals or audiophile enthusiasts. Most other users won’t notice or realize any of the benefits of a sound card. That said, sound cards absolutely have great benefits when paired with the correct supporting equipment.
It’s somewhat uncommon to find a computer these days with a sound card installed out of the box and that’s because most PC’s have onboard audio in their motherboard to create sound for your system. The only common option is to buy a card to add to your existing PC setup.
While everyone is always obsessing over their graphics cards, their RAM, and their motherboards, not everyone is as well versed in altering the sound systems of their computers.
But is a sound card really something that you need to fully enjoy your PC experience?
This quick guide will cover everything you need to know about the in’s and out’s of sound cards, who can benefit from them, and who shouldn’t worry about them at all.
What Is A Sound Card?
A sound card is an internal or external expansion piece that can be added to a PC to integrate with any and all of the audio devices available. That extends to speakers, headsets, audio interfaces and more. Microphones also benefit especially from sound cards, as their quality can be greatly increased.
With the right supporting equipment, having a dedicated sound card can greatly amplify the overall quality of your sound systems. Although almost all computers have sound capability without a card, the addition of a sound card will bring about a noticeable change for those with the right speakers and other external devices.
Internal sound cards are common, but external sound cards are also an option. External cards are used especially within professional audio recording and playback.
The Pros of Sound Cards
When you combined with the right speaker, a sound card is going to be a major upgrade to your audio experience. On its own, a sound card will do pretty much nothing without the additional equipment to properly utilize it. You will likely not even notice the difference that a sound card would create by itself.
That’s the give and take in a nutshell, as a sound card is essentially pointless unless you then purchase the right accompanying equipment. This equipment can be in the form of speakers, audio interfaces, microphones, headsets, etc. At the end of the day, you’re going to likely be spending well over $100 extra to get any real use out of a soundcard.
Once you have your sound card ready with its supporting cast, you will find there are some great benefits.
A big benefit is that a sound card will reduce CPU usage, freeing it up for other tasks such as gaming or running other intensive programs.
How this works is the sound card takes the audio load off of your graphics card or CPU and this will culminate in your gaming experience having better performance. This is one of the lesser-known effects of a sound card, but its pretty convenient that you can increase your graphics performance while also improving your sound experience.
Of course, if you aren’t a gamer and use computer for things like movies or editing programs, this won’t do that much for you.
TLDR; If you’re an audiophile or have very specific needs, a sound card is something you’re going to want, along with the equipment to fully enjoy it. If you’re not an audiophile, you probably don’t need one.
Note for those who need it: we have a standalone guide to external DAC’s versus sound cards.
The Cons of Sound Cards
The biggest con in buying a sound card is usually the price tag. While the price tag of most of sound cards are relatively manageable, you will find that the lesser end of the sound cards will not give you much difference. Because of this, most places you shop in will likely suggest you upgrade to something better, if only so that you will actually feel the difference in sound.
So right away, you might have no way to really know how much impact you are getting from a particular card.
With graphics cards, you can go on Youtube and watch countless videos comparing FPS and temperature so that when you finally buy a card, you have a pretty great idea of the impact it will have on your gaming visuals.
With soundcards though, things are much less clear. They can have different effects on different pieces of equipment.
For example, if both you and I get the same sound card, but I have a higher quality speaker than you do, my sound card is going to be better. You will be left wondering why you are getting a lesser quality than me, despite most sound cards never indicating what speaker you should be using. You might send it back, not realizing the sound card wasn’t the problem, but your speaker was.
This all means that purchasing a sound card is full of trial and error. For some people, buying and trying and replacing and then buying speakers to match might be more trouble than its worth.
Who Really Needs a Soundcard?
Generally, music and video professionals will have the most to gain from using a sound card. When you absolutely need to hear deeper and richer sound to tailor it perfectly to various other sources, a soundcard can come in handy. It will let you hear parts of songs or video that you simply couldn’t hear otherwise.
If you are strictly using your computer for gaming, you probably don’t need a sound card. This is based on need, not want, so consider that. The onboard audio that your computer comes with should be completely sufficient for whatever gaming needs you have.
The only exception here could possibly be games that utilize surround sound and use that sound as a vital gameplay feature. These games are few and far between though and games like this usually go quite well with headphones anyway. So you should be just fine using those with the onboard audio.
If you use your PC for everyday tasks and general web browsing, it’s almost certainly not worth it to give a sound card a second thought.
What If My Sound Card Isn’t Working?
Having issues with your sound card and wondering if it’s even worth it to replace it?
As with any piece of technology, there is always the chance that the thing will go haywire far before its expiration date has come. There are several ways to hopefully fix these issues before you go buy a replacement.
The most common issue is obviously that your sound is simply not working. Sometimes, you can easily solve this issue by checking your connection and making sure its secure, but other times it can be more complex.
To check whether the card is working as it should, go to your device manager and check the sound section of it, if you see your card present, all is well.
If it is disabled though, then double click it until a menu comes up and choose that to be your main sound device. If this doesn’t work, click on your sound icon on your tool bar at the bottom of the computer screen. Sometimes, the wrong sound output will be selected and this can be affected by external devices being plugged in like VR headsets or game controllers. Make sure the sound output is the correct one.
This surprisingly solves the bulk of issues with sound, but its always worth making sure your drivers are up to date as well as these can cause issues with sound cards too.
If you’re outside of those fixes, you may have an actual hardware problem and are in need service/replacement.
For audiovisual pros and audiophiles, a sound card and additional equipment is a no-brainer.
For everyone else, this is one of the best examples of something extra rather than something crucial.
Crucial for PC users is getting a good enough graphics card to play a game that their PC can’t handle otherwise. Crucial is keeping your fans cooled so that your CPU doesn’t melt your entire system. Extra is buying more equipment so that you may or may not hear just a few more details in music and effects.
It is not really pricy endeavor if you know what you are looking for, but with the additional equipment you are pretty much required to buy, the hassle far outweighs the benefits here for casual users.