Sound cards are still important to PC builders and those who want excellent audio. But, they are not as essential as they once were. It was necessary to buy a sound card when building a PC from scratch. Today, however, there are many ways around that with external audio interfaces and other similar devices like a good quality DAC and amp.
Therefore, if you are asking, “What is a sound card?”, I assume you are a younger person or a newbie in the PC building game. Luckily, if you don’t already know what a sound card is, I am about to tell you all about them. Even though there are only a few situations when you need a sound card, here are some of those instances so you can fully understand the larger picture.
What Can You Do with a Sound Card?
Sound cards are computer components whose purpose is to convert digital signals to standard analog signals and vice versa. Sound cards are generally optional components. But you will need one if you want to hear music and audio from your PC via headphones or speakers. You will also need one if you intend to plug in a microphone that comes with analog outputs.
The main purpose of a sound card is to parse signals into good-quality audio because the CPU in your PC is not meant for such tasks. It is possible to use external audio interfaces as a solution to this problem. But, the traditional method has always been to use a sound card.
The best audio interfaces are replacing sound cards, but they are not dead in the water just yet. In some ways, the two have become interchangeable, and even some experts refer to sound cards when they are talking about audio interfaces, but they are different.
How do sound cards differ from audio interfaces?
There are several ways that sound cards differ from audio interfaces. Sound cards are installed inside a PC case, while audio interfaces are external devices outside of the PC. The main way to connect sound cards is via the slots for PCI or PCIe.
With these connections, you can easily interface with contacts and the power that are then connected to the PC’s motherboard. You can connect the sound card by dropping it into a slot and then screwing it securely to the backplate.
If you buy a standard PC from the shop with bog-standard specifications, likely, a sound card is already integrated into the PC’s motherboard. This is usually done by using basic integrated circuits.
But, if you are using a laptop, it’s a different experience…
The vast majority of laptops don’t have separate sound cards. That’s because they just don’t have the internal space to house one. Similarly, it’s normal for your dusty old PC to already have audio. But if it’s crackly and not of good quality, it might be time to update your sound card.
This is not something that happens too often, but if the sound is noticeably worse than before, this might be your only option. So, now you have an answer to the question, “What is a Sound Card?”, let’s discuss when and why you might need a new one. As well as alternatives to an internal sound card.
When Do I Need to Buy a Sound Card?
There are not many times when you need to install a new sound card. But, there are some circumstances when a new one is essential. Most in-built sound cards on PCs are more than adequate for casual users. That said, here are some instances when you might need a new one or update your preexisting sound card.
1 Your PC Audio is Poor
It’s not uncommon to get issues with your PC audio. When this happens, it’s usually something to do with noise from your components or a lack of shielding that surrounds the motherboard. These are the two most common issues with poor-sounding PC audio.
Installing a new sound card can circumnavigate those issues. That’s because it shields the components and ensures they are further away from the parts of your PC that are the noisiest. Even a cheap sound card can help to improve the audio in this situation.
2 Need to Improve Lossless Audio Quality
It’s possible that if you have a very cheap PC, you don’t have any audio outputs whatsoever. That’s an exception to the rule in today’s PC universe, but it does still happen. In this rare instance where the PC doesn’t have audio outputs, and you cannot listen to audio on your computer or are limited to dodgy Bluetooth audio, you could buy a new sound card or even an external DAC and amp.
For collectors of lossless audio files or FLAC, your motherboard and its in-built sound card might not support these file types. In some cases, even high-end motherboard-based audio chips might not have the bit-depth or sample rate to support those files. In this instance, you’ll need to buy a sound card to optimize your PC audio.
3 You Need More Ports
Basic sound cards usually give you basic input and output port options. This is especially important if you have a top-notch desktop setup that uses microphones, studio monitors, and headphones at the same time. You will need more inputs and outputs. Decent sound cards will offer several ports that give you the option to add surround sound, optical outputs, and more to your setup.
Home recording studio setups need a high-end sound card or some kind of external audio interface that can meet the specifications. It’s very difficult to use any kind of recording studio hardware or software without an advanced sound card of some kind.
Do Colored Ports on Sound Cards Mean Something?
Yes, they do. Although, they can seem intimidating if you’ve never used an advanced sound card before. If you are trying to understand which wires go where and you encounter a bunch of ports with rainbow colors, it can be very confusing.
The reason they were color-coded in the first place was to simplify connections, so you do not plug into the incorrect ones. Most people do not use all these ports. But, for those of you who might, here is a breakdown of the port purposes and their prerequisite color coding.
- Optical: Black – Square Port.
- Headphones/Line Out: Green – Round Port.
- Microphone-In: Pink – Round Port.
- Line-In: Blue – Round Port.
- Digital Out: Yellow/White – Round Port.
- Subwoofer Out: Orange – Round Port.
- Rear Surround Sound: Black – Round Port.
- Center Channel: Gray – Round Port.
- MIDI: Gold – Round Trapezoid Port.
- Firewire: Metal – Rectangle Port with Rounded Side.
Should I Buy an External DAC and Amp?
People using laptops or some kind of compact computer with limited space might need to buy an external DAC and Amp. Adding some kind of PCI or PCIe to these types of computers is almost impossible, so your options are limited. You will need some kind of external unit in this scenario.
If you need a bunch of inputs and outputs…
DAC and Amp devices are usually connected to smartphones or computers using a USB cable. Analog outputs that you see on sound cards are also common on a DAC unit that is used outside of the computer.
Also, it’s important to check whether there are volume knobs and buttons on the DAC before you buy. You might need to buy an amp if your DAC doesn’t have enough output for your headphones or speakers, so please bear that in mind.
Need More Help with Improving our Computer’s Audio?
Also, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Desktop DAC/Amp, the Best Portable DAC/Amp Combo, the Best Audio Interface, the Best USB Audio Interfaces, and the Best iPad Audio Interfaces you can buy in 2023.
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What is a Sound Card? – Final thoughts
As you can already see, sound cards are not as important as they once were. Sure, they can still massively help to improve your PC’s audio and playback, but you can buy a DAC to get that job done if needed. If the sound from your current PC is very poor and constantly crackles, buying a sound card might be the best solution.
However, if you are a music producer with a home recording studio setup, having access to an external sound card unit, like an audio interface, is essential.
On the other hand…
Laptop users will not be able to upgrade to a new internal sound card because the space is limited, and they already have in-built ones. So, many people opt for an external audio interface or a DAC and amplifier at that point.
Thankfully, there are several solutions if you are struggling to get optimized audio on a laptop or a compact computer unit. One thing is for sure, you cannot go on listening to poor-quality audio, especially if you are a keen music listener or are a podcaster or YouTuber.
Until next time, happy listening.