Sound Cards - Complete Buying Guide
29 October 2021
Sound. It’s one of those things that can often be taken for granted. Most people that spec a new system we pay close attention to things like the CPU, graphics card or things like the amount of memory while audio tends to fall down the list. If you plan to game or consume media, it shouldn’t! Average or poor audio tends to negatively influence a viewers’ or gamers’ opinion of visual quality. If you consider yourself a gamer or a music and movie buff, you simply have to consider the audio features of your motherboard. If you’re going to drop $1000 or far more on a GPU alone, you owe it to yourself to consider moving to a dedicated sound card. It will enhance your entertainment experience.
We’re here to go over some of the things to look for when considering a sound card. How does it compare to onboard audio? What about the differences between internal and external sound cards? Then there are individual aspects like DACs, headphone amps, I/O & power compatibility requirements and so much more. There’s a lot to cover. Let’s get to it!
Onboard audio vs discrete sound cards
The short version: onboard audio varies from utter garbage, to adequate, to good, if not very good on a high-end gaming motherboard. In most cases though, a discrete sound card and headphone amp with a decent DAC is almost always better.
Almost every computer or laptop carries some kind of onboard audio. Users looking for sound quality that’s good enough to ‘get the job done’ will find it’s sufficient. Onboard audio is inexpensive and although the sound quality that onboard audio produces has come along in leaps and bounds compared to a decade ago, it has inherent disadvantages compared to a discrete sound card. Motherboards are complicated electronic devices full of circuits, signals and power traces, all of which can interfere with an audio signal. This can manifest itself in many different ways. You might hear fuzzy distortion, pops or clicks or a fuzzy noise floor or just a lack of general lack of crisp treble or well-defined bass from your speakers or headphones.
Soundcards are naturally better isolated from the rest of the motherboard, leading to a clearer sound with less distortion. They feature better engineering and designs than onboard audio and this usually means a better feature set, higher quality components and things like improved dynamic range, higher signal to noise ratios. Better audio quality can improve gameplay and you’ll appreciate the additional detail, definition and clarity of your music and movies.
External audio solutions + sound cards and DAC/amplifier combos will typically require a digital output. The trend is towards support for digital USB signals, though some devices can make use or SPDIF/TOSLINK or coaxial digital connection. Some specialised DACs may also feature a Bluetooth receiver for streaming audio wirelessly from a source.
Internal or External Sound Card?
There’s no simple answer to this question. Both types, if well designed will function very well. It really boils down towards what you want from your audio. Internal sound cards don’t rely on the shared USB of your PC and you might see benefits from their naturally lower latency. Some higher end solutions tend to be more application specific. Some cards will have a focus on 2-channel stereo, such as the EVGA Nu series of soundcards. Some models come with the ability to swap op-amps. Additionally, if you prefer a clean, minimalist desktop or workspace, an internal sound card will keep your space tidier than an external sound card.
External cards are typically more convenient and of course you can use them with laptops that lack full-size PCIe slots. Some even offer support for consoles, such as this Creative Sound Blaster X3 USB DAC/AMP combo.
Many speakers come with the ability to accept a digital input, bypassing onboard audio, and effectively performing all sound card functions (DAC + possible further enhancements) onboard.
Things to consider when choosing your next sound solution
If you're listening with a set of premium headphones, the quality of your headphone amplifier will help them to sound their best. These are often built into external sound cards, or you can buy higher quality discrete headphone amps. Depending on the cost (which can vary by a LOT), a dedicated headphone amp will almost always outperform onboard headphone amps. Some can even slip into a pocket for use with a phone, though this can result in a reduced feature set.
A headphone amp can be exceedingly simple, such as this Asus Xonar U3, or you can move up to higher level solutions which tend to feature better DACs or features sets, such as this EarMen amp and DAC combo.
You can even buy separate headphone and DAC components though doing so is usually recommended for advanced users only. Headphone/DAC combos are typically optimised by the manufacturer and of course, simpler and require fewer cables to set up and maintain.
Digital to Analogue Converters (DACs)
A typical headphone amp will usually receive input from a USB or optical source, convert it via a DAC chip and output an analogue signal to your headphones, speakers, or separate headphone amplifier. An external DAC virtually eliminates the EMI interference that a motherboard can introduce. Explaining everything about DACs would require a book length article. There are plenty of resources on the web. In general, a better DAC will have support for higher bit depths, sampling rates and have a better signal to noise ratio or dynamic range. This are followed by things like portability. We’re focusing on integrated solutions here, so your DAC will form part of your external sound device. Note that both DACs and amps can play a role in how your sound will…. sound to you. Some may enhance the bass response, when others may have an airy, trebly sound and others may be completely flat.
What kinds of features should you consider?
In the end, audio needs to be converted to analogue so it can be heard! When purchasing a sound card/amp/DAC, you’ll need to consider things such as what formats it supports (such as MQA by Tidal), whether you need wireless capability and of course, the kinds of inputs and outputs it supports. Most PC headphones and headsets use 3.5mm jacks, which are widely supported.
Not all headphones are created equal. It’s important to consider the power output and the impedance capabilities of your amp and cans. Most consumer level headphones and amps won’t have compatibility problems, but if you do move to high end solutions, you’ll need to consider it. In simple terms, an amp with a higher power output is better able to drive headphones with high impedance.
Ultimately your choice of sound solution could come down to what formats you use. It starts with stereo. Maybe you want wireless support with Bluetooth aptX? Then there’s surround support, is 5.1 enough? Do you have a Dolby Atmos 7.1 headset? We hope you don’t walk away from reading this with more questions than answers!
Inputs and Outputs
Of course, you need to choose your sound cards based on your partnering equipment. A PCIe soundcard may lack the outputs or inputs you need simply because of the height of a PCIe bracket. An external sound card is likely to have a better set of connectors. Do you need a set of 3.5mm jacks for 5.1 surround? A 6.35mm headphone jack? XLR or RCA ports? S/PDIF or coaxial outputs for connecting to an external amplifier? Some cards come with discrete modules that add additional functionality, such as this Creative card.
Don’t forget to consider microphone inputs too. Many external headphone amps and DACs don’t have microphone inputs. Choose wisely.
Some additional things to consider
Quality sound is only as good as the weakest link in the chain. Running a $1000 set of speakers from onboard audio will not do them justice and vice versa. If you buy a quality sound card, you should partner it with quality headphones or speakers to extract the best out of it.
Consider the quality of your source material. A 128kbs mp3 recording by a garage pop band is not going to sound that good, no matter the quality of your sound card or audio setup. A lossless file that’s well produced will really show up the quality (or lack of) of your setup, from source to ears.
Try not to over-process your sound. A bit of EQ is fine but often times virtual sound fields and digital signal processing do more harm than good and detract from the original recording, particularly in the case of movies which are better enjoyed the way the director intended.
There’s a lot to think about when considering the best sound options for your PC and we’ve only scratched the surface of PC audio. If you’re into music that has fat beats, sizzling cymbals or games of which many titles that benefit from a large soundstage but from benefit from accurate sound imaging or maybe horror movies or games that can benefit from an extremely low noise floor for immersive jump-out-of-your-seat scare moments, we’ve got audio products to suit you.