Sound Cards: Worth Buying or Just a Niche Product?

R00sT3R

Posts: 773   +2,403
Simple case of onboard audio getting to the point where its 'good enough' for the vast majority of users, leaving the sound card market to the audiophile snobs who (think) they can tell the difference to the point of spending extra money, is a worthwhile pursuit.

..and 'Audiophile snobs' are in the top tier of snobs, when it comes to such things.

If you think GPU's are 'expensive', then you need to step into the world of high end audio, to learn the true meaning of the word.
 

bviktor

Posts: 1,155   +1,686
Things are becoming wireless. Even my $200 receiver has BT support, so it becomes harder and harder to justify the cables, especially if you like rearranging your room often.

We should be seeing lossless, low latency BT audio in the coming years, at which point it'll be utterly pointless to bother with dedicated sound cards anymore, except if you're a producer or sound engineer. For the consumer, big fat nope.
 

hahahanoobs

Posts: 4,718   +2,682
The S1220A got me to finally dump my Creative X-Fi. I also wanted it gone to sit my vertical GPU mount at its lowest, so win win. It was a noticeable difference in audio quality and volume which surprised me.

I used to use 5.1 desktop speakers, but downgraded to 2.1 and don't have any problems locating enemies by sound in first person shooters. Using my headset with Dolby Access is better, but not miles better. I'll only put it on if I'm on a team using comms properly. I don't like covering my ears just for the game audio.
 

takaozo

Posts: 514   +812
Sound cards have better OP-AMP's than onboard, bluetooth or USB cards. For "gaming" headsets it makes no difference but for hi impedance headsets any other than dedicated card will sound like an empty barrel.
There are some motherboards that include good DAC and OP-AMP's but cost a lot compared to an simple board and a dedicated audio card.

Audio quality is about the same in all last 10 years audio chips, what makes the difference is the OP-AMP used. This applies only to headset connected directly to 3.5 jack. If you use a external receiver or amplified speakers there is no difference.

The Creative cards have a parametric EQ I use daily and couldn't find other software that has the same quality.

 

passingposeidon

Posts: 38   +51
I think it's worth noting that a very important element of sound quality which is often ignored by 'normal' listeners is room configuration and speaker placement. If your speakers are pushed back into a wall in sub optimal position and you're in a small, 10ft x 10ft room, you will never get good sound quality even if you have a great setup in terms of the speakers themselves and how the audio is processed.

Conversely, optimum positioning in a room with good sound treatment (combination of absorption and diffusion) can make even relatively average £200-400 speaker setups sound amazing.
 

Hysc84

Posts: 55   +42
I still have my Xonar STX in my PC case, the only item survive the upgrade process over the decades, definitely worth and give noticeable sound quality
 

donnieD

Posts: 27   +25
Simple case of onboard audio getting to the point where its 'good enough' for the vast majority of users, leaving the sound card market to the audiophile snobs who (think) they can tell the difference to the point of spending extra money, is a worthwhile pursuit.

..and 'Audiophile snobs' are in the top tier of snobs, when it comes to such things.

If you think GPU's are 'expensive', then you need to step into the world of high end audio, to learn the true meaning of the word.

I tend to disagree here. While most of the basic needs are covered by 1220A, it is in no means an audiophile part. I would not go anywhere near plugging PC with that codecs into the high end audio gear, not even to a mid range. The only way for you to experience it is to have a blind test with external audio interface vs integrated codecs. Only other viable option to connect PC directly would be via SPDIF RCA (not optical Toslink) to an external processor/DAC, even though, that would also introduce unwanted interference if DAC is not up to a job. Chord Mojo can be recommended for such task.

As already mentioned in the article, having a sound card next to a GPU is a major interference to the analogue signals. I have got for my sons cheapish Behringer USB audio interfaces HD202 and HD404 connected with XLRs to active near field monitors. Beats any setup with integrated sound card hands down.

Then again, taking into the account that my kids listen to those little JBL boom things over bluetooth and consider that "good enough" while saying Kef Reference speakers are ugly and big is another product of "instant generations"
 

mbk34

Posts: 422   +327
Perhaps if someone else is paying AND you work in audio AND the rest of your audio equipment is great AND your ears are good enough to tell the difference then it MIGHT be worth it. I did find it interesting that the reviewer never said that he'd actually compared the sound from one of these cards and the sound from his motherboard and thought the card sounded better.
 

Tuxie

Posts: 46   +43
Definitely not an audiophile, but to be able to plug in an electric guitar and use software guitar amps and effects without noticable lag, I definitely need a discrete soundcard. I have the Yamaha AG06 on my computer desk and it's awesome for this purpose.
 

Uncle Al

Posts: 9,363   +8,581
Sound quality on todays MB's is so good I stopped buying sound cards. I'm sure if you're into making, editing, and listening to music, etc. they are a great advantage .... but is that enough to carry the market?
 

Theinsanegamer

Posts: 3,956   +6,997
Sound quality on todays MB's is so good I stopped buying sound cards. I'm sure if you're into making, editing, and listening to music, etc. they are a great advantage .... but is that enough to carry the market?
It has been, enough to support 3 different AIB makers plus all the external DACs.

For listening to quality music there is still a difference, especially if it is FLAC or a similar file type.

There's also the multi channel processing thing, which is hinted at here. The likes of the EVGA nu audio make a marked difference in games like the tomb raider series that support multi channel audio, even over stereo speakers the background audio is noticeably improved. YMMV.
 

neeyik

Posts: 2,419   +2,963
Staff member
I did find it interesting that the reviewer never said that he'd actually compared the sound from one of these cards and the sound from his motherboard and thought the card sounded better.
Well, it wasn't a review, but if I included my (highly) subjective thoughts comparing a discrete sound card, against an onboard CODEC, heatsets, USB audio, etc, what would that really tell you?

Without proper equipment (acoustically appropriate testing room, microphones, studio monitors, and so on), there would be nothing quantifiable about my judgment -- it would simply be how my ears+brain viewed it all.

But that wasn't the intended scope of the article, just whether it's actually worth buying an add-in sound card or not.
 

gamerk2

Posts: 767   +744
The answer basically comes down to what equipment you are using to listen to said audio. If you have even a decent set of headphones, then there is a very clear difference in quality between a soundcard and even a high end onboard audio chip. Moreso if said headphones require an amp (which necessitates either a soundcard or a dedicated amp on the other end of the connection).

That being said, the one downside to a soundcard I've found is there are times where I can hear how badly compressed certain audio is, because of how much clearer the resulting audio output is. [Even in games released in '21-22 I've seen instances where I can literally "hear" the dynamic range being compressed due to how the source was recorded].

As for performance...if we really had 3d audio effects where in-game audio was handled properly (including reflections/diffusions; think ray tracing for audio) then it might matter, but audio processing is light enough where I wouldn't justify a soundcard for performance benefits.

Generally, ASUS's stuff is fine, though their drivers (really a repackaged C-Media driver suite since all their stuff is derived from C-Media chipsets) are hit and miss. Creative...is hit or miss at best (though I haven't had a problem with a Sound Blaster Z on Win10 for what it's worth).
 

takaozo

Posts: 514   +812
Yes, all depends on your setup. Signal from DAC is 100% the same if analyzed with a spectrum analyzer for both onboard or dedicated card. The difference is only the analog signal for each if we talk about headphones. Most consumer parts use 16-32 ohm coils and should be good with any output. But headset 100+ ohm will sound like dirt. It's all about matching impedance of amplifier to speaker.
 

kira setsu

Posts: 447   +434
PC sound is one of the most annoying things I deal with, my rigs main job is playing movies first and gaming follows, for movies its awesome, hooked to a 65" tv and pumping audio through a 5.1 onkyo is epic.

BUT, the Kodi program handles the video and audio, it simplifies it and makes sure I'm getting that sweet sweet dolby or dts hd goodness.

games on the other hand are infuriating, for some silly af reason the gaming industry is addicted to cranking sound through headphones?! my audio sounds "fine" but a playstation or xbox beats this expensive pc because they can crank high def audio to a receiver easy as pie, just go into settings, check 1 or 2 boxes, boom, surround sound.

pc can and cant do that, at least not easily and after spending 10hrs googling through arguments on htpc forums. if microsoft just moved over whatever xbox is using for audio into windows I'd give them all the money, but for some reason sound just doesnt matter to them.
 

human7

Posts: 152   +131
Perhaps if someone else is paying AND you work in audio AND the rest of your audio equipment is great AND your ears are good enough to tell the difference then it MIGHT be worth it. I did find it interesting that the reviewer never said that he'd actually compared the sound from one of these cards and the sound from his motherboard and thought the card sounded better.
Agreed. This article is woefully incomplete without looking at at least a few real world examples and using objective metrics, or at least describing a subjective experience, to compare integrated vs dedicated sound cards. I find myself coming away from this article with more questions than answers. What about surround sound setups? Are dedicated cards able to withstand the vibration produced from GPUs with no adverse affect? What level of speakers do you need before you notice a difference? Are 2.1 channel $200 THX certified speakers good enough, or do you really have to go high-end in audio to make a difference? Speaking of THX certified, what do they have to say on the subject?

I think for most gamers there isn't much need, which is why this article is so thin. But it could do a better job conveying that if they put more info in here.
 

TheRealSCDC

Posts: 494   +853
I don't need an audio card to listen to game sounds. Most of the time I'm listening to music on my AirPods from my watch anyways.
 

madboyv1

Posts: 1,826   +763
I'll say I used to have an Creative Audigy 2ZS for both my desktop and my laptop (PCI and PCMCIA card respectively) and it felt like the cool, immersive thing to do. I'm not so concerned with it anymore and usually get by with my powered 2.0 studio monitors, but with the [no longer] recent introduction of a fairly decent pair of cans to my desk I can definitely hear electrical noises and interference, depending on the volume level. Running ITX means internal sound cards are not really an option without PCIe Bifurcation (not that my case or motherboard physically supports it anyways), so I've moved on to a dedicated USB DAC/AMP for the headphones.

I would not call myself an audiophile by any measure but I will say it made a tangible difference in audio quality... for the cans at least. Too lazy to move cables around for the studio monitors to try that out, maybe I'll get a DAC for those too. :) But everyone's expectations or physical ability to hear is different, so what I want or what works for me will be different from someone else and their setup/expectations.
 

GoldenGoat

Posts: 116   +184
I stopped buying sound cards because the company that makes them tends to end support for new operating systems or stop supporting the card long before I am done with it. Instead, I switched to external audio that does not require a driver. Then you can use it forever and don't need to keep buying a new one that is no better than the old one.

I use the Schiit Fulla with a razer blackshark v2 3.5 connector version or bose companion 20 speakers. I think this gives great sound for a reasonable price, especially considering you don't have to worry about it not working anymore due to the manufacturer not supporting it anymore. The Schiit fulla doesn't require a driver and works with any computer that has a usb port including mac and linux.

Onboard sound is ok, but not really that good in my opinion. This sounds much better to me.

I find it funny people care so much about visuals, and not about sound at all. I need both. On board sound is like the visual equivalent to a 720p picture on a 17 inch screen at 30 fps. It's usable, but not a great experience.
 

Bullwinkle M

Posts: 849   +767
To reject the noise from a free power supply (included with a cheap computer case) with a 50+ Plutonium rating, you will need a "quality" external DAC preferably using a fiber cable

A "quality" DAC can reject the noise even over USB cables up to 10 feet long
A lesser DAC will not reject the noise over USB (but some will)

External headphone amps should be using external DACs to reject ground plane noise

Headphone up to 300 Ohms require a dongle DAC like the Hidizs S9 (AKM DAC) or the Hidizs S9 Pro (ESS DAC) or a Fiio KA3 (ESS)

Older phones like the original iphone SE (2016) have horrible internal DACs as do certain older desktop computers
Newer phones and computers "generally" do not require an external DAC to run a high quality outboard amp and speakers "IF" the computers power supply is of high quality / low noise

Older operating systems like Windows XP require driverless DACs to operate within the USB audio Class 1 spec
or...
I could use a micca origin G2 DAC with XP drivers which gives me USB to optical conversion, allowing me to use a modern external DAC of my choice that does not have XP drivers

Fiio BTR3K Bluetooth DAC also works with Windows XP without drivers in USB audio Class 1 mode, as does the Avantree DG-60 bluetooth transmitter

There are hundreds of reasons for using a specific DAC with a specific setup for a specific use

It is not a one size fits all topic

I have a few systems that do not require external DACs
I also have systems that require USB DACs
I have systems that require Optical SPDIF
I have several systems that absolutely require driverless USB Audio Class 1 DACs
I also require quality dongles for headphones up to 300 Ohms

An internal sound card or onboard audio would meet only a small fraction of my use cases, so the very question you pose is pointless!
 
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NeoMorpheus

Posts: 1,502   +3,248
HDMI from my gpu, so no need even for onboard audio...
I have been wondering about this for a while.

I use the HDMI port since my gaming PC is connected to my TV and the TV has a regular 3.5 jack out that is connected to my speakers, but I am not sure if the sound is processed by the GPU or the sound chip in the mobo.