Is Buying a Sound Card Worth The Money? An Enthusiast's Perspective


Posts: 349   +111
This was a great review, very down to earth and helpful. I was actually considering buying a sound-card for myself, and I think this has convinced me it's worth it. :)

I do agree with some of the comments though, using a "rock" setting does somewhat discredit the review, as this puts an uncontrolled variable in the test that wouldn't be present in the majority of situations. I like the idea of drawing simple, down-to-earth conclusions from real-world situations, but this really does personalize the situation to a degree. Despite not being a major audiophile, I always turn the equalizer to flat before testing new speakers or headphones, and sometimes make small adjustments if I feel the speakers are lacking in a certain area. Judging by the comments, many others do similar.

Re-reading what I said, it seems like I'm calling the review completely irrelevant and useless, which isn't the case. I'm just saying that many of these people are somewhat justified in their criticism.


Posts: 1,721   +370
I could probably make do with no sound card at all, if software supported it. Still it's worth having something for when I do want sound.


Posts: 5,269   +103
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Since there's a lot of debate, it's probably worth clarifying again that this really isn't a review. I agree my test setup isn't the end-all of configurations -- I even said so halfway through the article. But it was a reasonable starting point for comparison because I've always used it. I have over 2,000 hours logged on my desktop installation of foobar alone in less than a year. Nearly all with the same settings. Changing that last minute would have defeated the goal of the article, which was to offer a look at what you might be able to expect out of upgrading based on my experience. Take from that what you will.


Posts: 1,627   +519
I miss my Audigy 2ZS... it went in a blaze of glory (literally) after faithful usage of 5 years. =(


This is ridiculous.. the reviewer has failed to use monstrously expensive speaker wire at $100 per metre AND failing that has also used two fleshy lumps stuck to the side of his head to "hear" the music. How utterly preposterous, it fair makes my blood boil!

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Posts: 71   +17
The choice of getting a sound card or not depends on your speaker setup. Though going from Realtek to anything will be noticable in quality, but is it worth it? If you just slap headphones on your head, you may want to hold onto your money.

Now if you have a digital reciever with 5.1 speaker setup, then you'd want to get a sound card. Problem is most sound cards are made for headphones users, who would only notice a small sound quality increase. So things like Dolby Digital Live or DTS are usually reserved for $100 cards.

Also keep in mind that hardware sound acceleration further improves quality, but only creative still does this. Most sound cards offload their work to you CPU, usually with algorithms that take lots of shortcuts to keep your cpu from slowing down in games. Only OpenAL offers hardware sound acceleration, after Vista/Windows7 killed it off in Direct Sound for no good apparent reason.


I apologise in the behalf of other Guests, whom may not have read the article, (or simply did not understand it).
The article should be good for those who are not yet knowledgeable of the field, but wish to start off somewhere without having to chew through walls of numbers or essay-like comparisons that can scare away the less dedicated persons. Also perfect for the average Joe who only wants to know why/how a dedicated audio card can be good and what should he expect from one.

The only thing I miss from the did not test and wrote an opinion of a random Sennhaiser headset, a brand that is known even for the laymen, outside the realm of audiophiles :)


Posts: 3,083   +1,234
It's simple. On board audio is basically free audio. Except for the PCIe x1 cards you get with some higher end motherboards. Last time I checked, onboard audio costs around $6-$12 to put on a motherboard. Remember PSU's that came with computer cases? Those were junk.

If you care about audio at all, you buy a sound card. If you care about stable and reliable power, you buy the PSU separately .

Another example is, If you want the best out of an app on your tablet or phone, you buy the Pro/full version.

I would of used the Xonar DG ($40) for comparison.
A) You should still hear a difference, and...
B) Readers won't think they NEED to spend $90 (DX) to upgrade from on-board audio.
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Posts: 2,725   +2,372
I think that it pays off more to buy a new good set of speakers or headphones than to buy a sound card. Good set of speakers are required to make use of a sound card.

If you have integrated sound with good speakers, you'll probably get a good sound, plus you have an equalizer with Realtek so you can modify sound to your liking.


Posts: 12   +9
Iv tried many times to get my z77 onboard audio to sound as good as my creative titanium, but it just wont have it, not matter how much I try and tweak the creative titanium sounds better in all aspect. Realtek has always sounded horrible to me this is across many devices.
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Actually if you are an enthusiast, you shouldn't NEED a sound card. Today's high end 7.1 receivers support audio over HDMI which is the BEST way to send audio out of your computer. It is also the only way to digitally send 8 channel audio streams like dolby live and DTS HD.
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Posts: 85   +14
Probably the worst review of a sound card I've ever read. Obviously, reviewer is not old enough to remember when they were required (SoundBlaster 16 / Gravis Ultrasound). The onboard stuff is fairly good now, but the "tests" done are BS.

You'd need to test code that uses 3D audio, or test the MIDI wavetables. Just comparing uncompressed audio is stupid
WHY would he need to test using 3D audio or MIDI wavetables when 99% of us just listen to regular mp3's, youtube, or play games? He also stated that this is going to be a non-subjective review, but it is a review for us, the audio challenged on to see if a regular joe 6pack can recognize the difference...


I've owned a few audio interfaces over the years for recording purposes.
Running games like GTA V through an optical cable to bypass the PS3's DAC and use my interface's instead, well the sound quality significantly improves.
Of course, crappy mp downloads still sound crappy, in fact they sound crappier since they sound is no longer colored.
But the thing with audio fidelity is, it's only ever as good as your worst part of the chain.
So the problem is, you need a good source, good interface, and good speakers to experience the best audio. And even then you run into issues with power interference.

That being said, movies sounds fantastic on my studio monitors, and when I play my VST grand piano it sounds pretty amazing.

The coolest thing about having VST software and a nice interface is the reduction in latency due to ASIO drivers. My friend left his electric guitar over. I happen to own Waves GTR3, which is an entire virtual amp/cab/pedal setup for guitar. Since I have a nice interface (focusrite saffire pro 40) I have an astounding variety of amp/cab setups at my fingertips, completely customizable.


Posts: 3,293   +1,979
Put me in the "sound card required" group. I have a Xonar Essence XTC and the difference over resident sound is considerable. But then again music is very important to me - it's the first thing to come on when I wake up in the morning and the last thing turned off before I go to bed.

I liked the review. I prefer these "does it sound better to an average listener" than one that's filled with stats and algorithm charts. The best advice I ever got from a stereo/audio device dealer was, "go into the sound room, and when you hear a setup that sounds right to you, buy that one. It may be the cheapest, or it may be the most expensive, but if it sounds right to you, that's all that matters."


I don't think that question is debatable anymore. With 20 bucks you can get yourself a cheap Audigy card, that makes all the difference. I have a Logitech X-530 surround system and a cheap Audigy SE. The sound is twice as loud as it is on a Realtek chip, but also many times sharper and clearer. It really is worth the money.
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Posts: 2,065   +856
Actually if you are an enthusiast, you shouldn't NEED a sound card. Today's high end 7.1 receivers support audio over HDMI which is the BEST way to send audio out of your computer. It is also the only way to digitally send 8 channel audio streams like dolby live and DTS HD.
Actually an optical toslink does the same job, but better. Some enthusiast you are "Guest" And I'm not talking about the integrated one on the mobo, get a discrete card with optical out, way better than trying to have your GPU process your audio, I mean, pass through your audio. And for the record Dolby Live is just 5.1 or 6 channels.

As for the review, it's a good basic guide to why a discrete sound card helps your overall experience in games and with listening to music. But again, a couple things were missed, the biggest things that you missed is number of simultaneous voices that can be processed, my current card does 128 vs my on board which is less than half, hence why your hearing new things you weren't hearing before. In games like Counter-Strike this gives a HUGE advantage. Countless times I've been accused of hacking just by hearing were the other team is, something on board sound can never do. The DSP should be turned off, I will agree with the other comments about that, DSP are meant for devices that can't handle the full range of audio and low bitrate files, as soon as you introduce high quality headphones that can fully reproduce higher bitrates the DSP just muck it up.


Since when FLAC is snobbish? CD is also snobbish? Gosh, soon you'll be called snob if you refuse to eat junk food or wear rags. I suppose it is also snobbish to actually LISTEN to music, you know, like appreciating stuff like notes, harmonies, vocals and stuff, you know, like, yeah? Now it all fits, I always wondered why I hate the crap they call music these days, with painted tarts who can't sing and hold the microphone like penis -- it's all because I'm a snob! Wow. The new generation is surely made to appreciate the (cultural) poverty they live in.
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I presume the comments are like "why would somebody want something more than onboard since bla bla bla?", and the ones saying it matters.

In my home I use the onboard and I'm happy with it, but I have a mid size internet coffe with 25 machines and because of how the place is it is very important to have sound to make the ambient less "sullen?", well, I have a x-fi xtreme music and the day it stop working I will have to run to buy another sound card because there is no way I would have the crappy sound of the onboard sound here.

Yes, onboard sound is "good", you can heard the music, etc without noice. But if you want quality there is no question you need a dedicated one.


Agreed, I enjoyed the rewiew. I don't want numbers, just a simple rewied from a comsumer point of view, with there experience with the hardware.
I have a sound card that is plugged into an Onkyo Amp/receiver. Is my Onkyo doing any work? or is it acting as a mere pass-through to my speakers, rendering it expensively useless?
I am not entirely sure if this is a rhetorical question or not, but as you have already said, your Onkyo receiver/amp is acting as an amp which is a very important function for any quality speakers. Just having a sound card in a pc doesn't over the same pump that a receiver is capable of. I took run my pc audio to my home theater system with an onkyo. The audio quality that it is capable can be maintained at much higher volumes than my smaller topping amp for my desktop setup. Receivers always add great versatility! It just costs a bit to bring that function out with more peripherals. Sorry again if the question was rhetorical!


Posts: 2,151   +588
If you buy a higher end motherboard like an Asus Maximus you get a pretty good 7.1 surround on board chip that will give you high quality sound. For years ive only run on the on-board sound cards and in this day and age the motherboards come with really nice ones built in if you look at the top tier boards.

I have one now and its a very nice card which gives good quality even compared to my built in one on my Crosshair V-Z, but I really dont think a sound card is necessary unless you buy a lower end board or need the extra bit from a sound card.


Posts: 6   +3
I thought the review was spot on for what it's stated purpose was. Sometimes keeping things simple is the best course.
I can say adding the same Asus card to my set up made an immediate difference in sonic quality.
I connected it too klipsch 2.1 and a pair of M-audio studio monitors all together. Thje same set up on onboard was finicky to configure......with the Asus card everything works together flawlessly. I too was unsure of the difference it would make but am quite pleased with my decision to take the plunge. The Klipsch 2.1 setup is like on it's 5th computer system :)


Posts: 2,348   +915
I use my ears, nothing more. My budget Xonar sounds better (producing more of the desired effect) than my onboard HD audio. The best card I ever had was the an Aureal. Smoked the soundblaster and creative knew it so they sued and forced Aureal to bankruptcy

Raoul Duke

I find it funny gamers will spend like $700 on a soundcard or SLI set-up's yet choke and consider a $80 soundcard a big expense. Especially when the soundcard will last until the slot it uses is obsolete while the GPU will need replacing every few years or less.
I have an ASUS Essence STX, it cost $200 CAD, but I have had it so long I cannot remember when I bought it. It's likely the oldest piece of hardware in my PC. Similarly with headphones, I use Sennheiser HD600's which cost $600 CAD. Insane you say? I have had them at least a decade, replacement parts are still available, and if I work out the joyous amount of time I have used them, they are one of the best bargains I have ever received. Headphones work right off the card
More unusual granted is I use RCA out to a $400 NAD integrated receiver (40 watt) which powers my floor speakers. So my computer provides all home audio, CD's ripped as wave or downloaded as flac, Blu-ray sounds great as do DVD's or even Netflix.
For how long the sound gear lasts (especially compared to computer hardware in general) and how many hours of pleasure it has given me, this is a non-issue
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Raoul Duke

Correction, that is a integrated amplifier.
So the headphones and soundcard cost $800 CAD How fast do you burn through that on tech toys, GPU/CPU mobo upgrades etc. The headphones will last decades, the card 'till the slot is obsolete.
But it's your money, do what floats your boat