Are Soundcards Worth It?

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Sound cards used to be a common and vital part of any gaming PC build. In recent years, however, they fell to the wayside – integrated chips got better, and plenty of headphones include their own hardware that simply replaces them. Still, there are some manufacturers that produce sound cards in the modern year, so they must have some value.

There are a few different use cases for getting a separate sound card. To find out whether sound cards are worth it or not, consider the rest of your setup, how important audio is, and your budget. Let’s explore each of these, as well as the different types of sound cards, to help you decide.


The Different Types of Sound Cards

For sound cards that connect directly to your computer, there are three different categories. An important note here – many audio devices that use a USB to connect to your computer include their own version of a sound card or DAC (digital-to-analog converter). We won’t touch upon those in this section; just know that your sound card does not mean a thing for those devices.

Instead, we are going to focus on sound cards that affect devices you plug directly into them. Devices that plug directly into the headphone jack on your computer, or those multi-colored connection ports on the back, will be affected by the sound card.

There are three different types of sound cards:

  • Integrated sound cards
  • Internal sound cards
  • External sound cards

The names are self-explanatory, so you might already be imagining some of the differences. To truly paint the picture between the three, it is important to go over the pros and cons of each.

Chances Are Good You Currently Use an Integrated Sound Card

Integrated sound cards are included on almost every modern motherboard. They are closer to a sound chip, as they are soldered onto the motherboard like any other component. Integrated sound cards are not replaceable, and their quality depends heavily on the price of your motherboard. While it is not a direct scale, chances are good that the more you spend on a motherboard, the better its sound chip is.

Most PC users, gamers and otherwise, use an integrated sound card for their sound needs. It covers all the basics and does so in a quality that is unoffensive at least. While it may seem like a cheap option, integrated sound cards work exceptionally well. Their benefits include:

  • Free (or at least, don’t cost extra
  • Require no setup
  • Decent audio quality
  • Multiple connections

Of course, they do not provide the best audio out there. Internal and external cards can provide better quality and offer more ports, making them valuable options for certain users. However, the most common reason for moving on from integrated cards is likely them breaking.

If your sound card burns out or starts degrading in quality, it is much harder to replace an integrated chip – the entire motherboard must be sent in for repairs or replaced. While this does not happen too often – as previously stated, the majority of people use them – it can be a frustrating occurrence.

Internal Sound Cards Can Be a Worthy Upgrade

Internal sound cards are plugged into a PCIe slot in your computer. They provide their own DAC and connection points while retaining a sleek exterior. Internal sound cards provide the best sound quality out of all options.

They are a common option for people who require higher quality audio, such as audio engineers. If your current audio quality does not bother you and you can connect all your audio devices to your computer, chances are good you do not need to upgrade.

Audiophiles are another group that may benefit from an internal sound card. People interested in the subtlest differences between audio, or who insist on the highest quality, may find splurging on a sound card worth it.

External Sound Cards Offer Portability

External sound cards offer many of the benefits of internal sound cards with a few key changes. They often have slightly worse audio quality than internal options, but it is almost negligible. – choosing between models and manufacturers will have a wider impact.

The key benefit external cards have is their portability. They are significantly easier to install and disconnect, allowing you to transfer them between devices as necessary. Rather than needing a free PCIe slot, most models connect through USB, making them widely universal.

This portability may be a downside for some, however. External cards can get large and occasionally gaudy looking, so those interested in keeping a slim profile may want to look elsewhere.


When To Get a Sound Card

In the modern computing era, there are really only two reasons for the average user to consider getting a sound card. These are:

  • If issues arise with your integrated card
  • For additional audio connections

Every other reason is an edge-case or people who already benefit from a separate audio card. With that out of the way, let’s get into these.

Hardware issues with integrated sound cards are rare, but they can happen. If this occurs while your motherboard is still under warranty, you are in luck. Faulty hardware is covered under most agreements, so you will be able to send it in for repairs or replacement at no cost. Otherwise, however, you may be looking at a hefty repair bill. Sometimes it is easier and cheaper to just buy a sound card and avoid the repair time. This is especially true if you largely use audio devices that have their own integrated card.

The other reason to upgrade is for more connection points. Users who connect their PC to a surround sound system or optical cable may find that their integrated card does not have the proper ports to support this. While you may be able to find other options for audio, they may require some extra dongles and converters, making a dedicated sound card a better option.

This all comes down to the ports that your motherboard comes with. Most motherboards include some variation of the following:

  • Mic in (pink)
  • Stereo (green)
  • Line in (blue)
  • Center or subwoofer (orange)
  • Rear (black)
  • Side (gray)

At the least, your motherboard will include mic in and stereo options to cover the basics. Compare the connections on your sound system to your computer before moving forward to buying a new sound card.


Does A Sound Card Upgrade Audio Quality?

This area gets tricky for most users. Sound cards will upgrade audio quality for most setups out there, but the improvements may not be noticeable. Unless if you have a trained ear, you may spend a few hundred dollars and notice absolutely nothing new. But the more important thing to consider is this – your other audio equipment has far more of an effect on your audio quality.

In fact, good sound cards need good audio equipment to realize their potential. Think of the audio system like a computer build; by upgrading only the sound card, you introduce a performance bottleneck and end up wasting money. While you can upgrade both the equipment and card, we recommend starting with the headphones. It’s a better bang for your buck.

So, while upgrading your sound card will upgrade your audio quality, it is almost certainly not the best use of your money. Instead, consider upgrading your headphones or speakers. They can often cost around the same amount and even offer a few other upgrades like aesthetics or a better microphone.


Verdict – Not Worth It for Most People

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Outside of a select few use cases, sounds cards are just not worth it anymore. With a working integrated card and the ability to connect high-quality headphones for a cheaper setup, most users will never need to worry about upgrading or replacing their sound. The only notable exceptions are fixing a dead integrated chip or gaining extra connections for uncommon audio configurations.

This is largely a budget decision – if you have extra cash to spend and want the highest quality audio, then a card rises in importance. Just keep in mind that you also need better audio equipment to notice the difference a card can make. Still, even if a sound card is on sale, it probably isn’t worth picking one up. Save your money and put it toward a performance changer like a new graphics card or monitor.


Relevant Guides

Looking to upgrade other parts of your setup? We’ve got guides covering every other peripheral you might need to show some love:

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