When audio quality alone is concerned, whether a sound card and high-quality speakers/headphones are worth buying is a highly subjective matter based on personal requirements and preferences. However, a dedicated sound card can be a good way to replace your motherboard’s integrated audio solution if it isn’t working properly or lacks some features that you might need.
Building a gaming PC is often pretty straightforward – pick a graphics card that meets your performance requirements in a given resolution, pick a CPU that is powerful enough to keep up with it, throw in 8-16 GB of RAM, an SSD and/or an HDD that can hold all your stuff, plus a motherboard to tie it all together and a PSU to keep it powered.
However, there is one component that is often overlooked and seldom given much thought in the process of PC building in 2020, and it’s the sound card.
Of course, there is a reason for this – pretty much all motherboards come with an integrated audio chip that can easily meet the audio requirements of most users. However, dedicated sound cards still exist, and there are several reasons why you might want to get one, as well as some good reasons as to why you shouldn’t.
If you’re wondering whether a dedicated sound card is worth buying in 2020, read on and find out!
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Dedicated Sound Card vs Integrated Sound Card
As mentioned above, virtually all motherboards come with integrated sound cards these days, though they aren’t really “cards” per se. Rather, they are inconspicuous chips integrated directly into the motherboard, and the audio connectors are located on the motherboard’s back panel, plus some extra connectors on the front, depending on the case.
As for dedicated sound cards, they can be either internal or external. Internal sound cards interface with the motherboard via a PCIe slot, much like any expansion card, whereas external sound cards interface via USB.
As usual, the quality will vary based on the brand, model, and pricing, but generally-speaking, internal sound cards tend to offer better audio quality than external sound cards. However, external solutions are easier to install and are much more portable, so you can easily use them on multiple devices.
With that out of the way – what are the reasons why you might want to buy a dedicated sound card?
Surround Sound and Connectors
Sometimes, the integrated sound card just doesn’t have enough connectors, or it doesn’t have the right connectors for your needs. This is can be a problem, especially when it comes to surround setups.
The six connectors that you’ll commonly find in most motherboards are:
- Pink (mic in)
- Blue (line in)
- Green (stereo speakers/headphones)
- Orange (center channel/subwoofer)
- Black (rear speakers)
- Grey (side speakers)
However, some motherboards (especially the cheaper/more compact ones) might not include the orange, black, and grey connectors, and will thus not support setups. Moreover, some systems might use RCA or optical connectors.
So, in the case that your motherboard doesn’t have the required connectors and can’t support the surround system you’ve got your eyes on, you will need to invest in a good sound card that actually can.
Faulty Integrated Sound Card or Connector
A lot of the time, when a computer component or peripheral breaks, simply replacing it is usually the best and most efficient option. Repairs are often either impossible or they are just too expensive and/or time-consuming to be worth the time and money that goes into them.
Now, hardware problems that have to do with a motherboard’s integrated sound card or with one of the audio connectors aren’t very common, and if there is a problem with the motherboard straight out of the box, the warranty will ensure that you get a new, fully functional motherboard.
However, if something goes wrong somewhere along the way and you don’t want to deal with the hassle of getting a new motherboard or having your PC out of commission while it is “in the shop”, just buying a sound card could save you time and, possibly, even money.
Audio Quality – Do I Need a Sound Card?
At the end of the day, whenever you’re thinking about investing any serious amount of cash into a PC component, you’ll always end up asking yourself: “do I really need this?” We’ve all been there when it comes to pricey graphics cards and monitors, but in the world of audio, things are about as subjective as they get.
Sure, we could talk on and on about frequencies, bitrates, etc. but at the end of the day, audio quality is best judged by ear. You don’t have to look far to find avid audiophiles who refuse to settle for anything but FLAC audio and top-quality headphones, but at the same time, there are others who can’t really tell the difference between FLAC and MP3, even with proper gear.
That said, as far as audio quality itself is concerned, both the sound card and the speakers/headphones are important. You could get a clearer and more immersive sound by buying a good sound card, but if you want to get the most out of it, you’d need to invest in quality speakers/headphones as well. Needless to say, this would be a hefty and tricky investment, seeing as how the benefits are so dubious and subjective.
So, whether you’re willing to spend a good amount of money on improving your audio experience is entirely up to you, but most gamers would likely prefer putting that money towards a better GPU, CPU, or any other component or peripheral that could improve their experience in a more palpable manner.
On the other hand, if you’re thinking about getting a sound card because your motherboard’s integrated audio solution lacks the necessary connectors or because it’s not working properly for whatever reason, then a new dedicated sound card could make your life easier.
At the end of the day, only you can decide whether a pricey sound card and high-end audio gear are worth buying for the sake of enhanced sound quality alone. On the other hand, if you’re considering it because you want to replace an inadequate or faulty integrated sound card, then getting a dedicated sound card could save you both time and money.
If you’re shopping for a new sound card at the moment, you might want to check out this article. Moreover, here are our selections of the best gaming headsets, speakers, and surround systems that you can get at the moment. These buying guides are updated regularly, so if any of them seem to feature outdated products, that only means the article is slated for an update in the near future!