Before sound cards for IBM-compatible PCs became common around 1988, this was a very simple question to answer. One merely needed to ask themselves if they wanted their computers to be capable of producing audio. If the answer to this was “yes,” they bought a sound card. Today, motherboard manufacturers include sound chips right on the boards, begging the question of whether one even needs a sound card at all. In this article we’ll go over some of the advantages sound cards have over integrated audio and detail some features you’d expect to find in both solutions.
A sound card is a dedicated solution to providing sound. It is installed into a PCI or PCI Express slot, and it is loaded with Digital-to-Analog Converters (DAC’s), solid state amplifier components (such as Transistors, Resistors, and Capacitors), numerous 1/8″ audio jacks for input/output, dedicated RAM, and a dedicated processor specifically for audio. Because this card is dedicated to audio, there is extra room to add hardware enhancements, and therefore sound cards will more frequently support features such as EAX or full 3D positional audio. Another benefit of being a dedicated audio circuit is that there is a considerable reduction in parasitic capacitance and Electro-Magnetic (EM) interference, resulting in higher quality sound with great signal clarity and reduced noise and hiss.
This improved clarity and reduced noise makes sound cards ideal, and for the most part essential, for audio recording. The dedicated processors and RAM also help to reduce latency, where even the tiniest amount can negatively affect the entire recording. Gamers will appreciate EAX and 3D positional audio, as these features can help them pinpoint the locations and distances of their enemies with sound.
In order for these advanced features to actually matter, however, it is important to have quality speakers or headphones. After all, five-dollar speakers will make even the most expensive sound card sound just like five-dollar speakers. The cost of quality speakers or headphones must be factored into the cost of buying a sound card if one does not already own a set.