Audio cards pc: What is a sound card? Everything you need to know

What is a sound card? Everything you need to know

If you’re looking to improve your PC’s audio or build one from scratch, you’re probably wondering if you need to buy a sound card. Fortunately for you, the age where this was a necessary buy for a PC is long gone, but there are still some situations where you may want to consider buying one. Let’s go over them quickly.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on February 10, 2023, to add clearer language about sound cards and their alternatives.

What does a sound card do?

A sound card is a computer component that translates digital audio signals to analog ones, and analog audio signals to digital ones. Technically, a sound card is an optional component but a necessary one if you want to hear sound from your PC on wired headphones or speakers (just like an external DAC), or plug in a mic with an analog output. These components are designed to take the specialized job of parsing signals into quality sound, a task that the computer’s CPU is not always the most ideal tool for.

Audio interfaces have largely made the humble sound card obsolete.

Audio interfaces solve these problems too and have basically taken over from sound cards. Some people will even refer to them using the same terminology. Sound cards differ in that they are installed inside the computer case itself, rather than connected as an external peripheral. They are usually connected to the motherboard via a PCI or PCIe card slot. By using these connections, the card can interface with all the power and other contacts to connect to the motherboard: you can just drop the card in the slot, and screw the backplate into place.

In general, most computers will handle the sound card’s job with a basic integrated circuit on the motherboard. Laptops won’t house a separate sound card, as space is at a premium. But your trusty desktop PC might provide crackly sound or have difficulty supporting the standards you want with your music. When your computer’s audio is noticeably worse than, say, your phone’s—you want to get a sound card. Almost nobody will need to, but there are still circumstances where you’ll want one.

When should you buy a sound card?

The black rectangular sockets shown here are the PCI (long) and PCIe (short).

While most default sound cards are perfectly adequate for casual use, there are still a few instances when you’ll want or need to upgrade.

Should you buy a soundcard if your music sounds bad?

Component-produced noise and a lack of shielding around the motherboard are almost always responsible for poor PC audio. A sound card sidesteps this issue by shielding internal components and creating distance away from the noisiest parts of your PC. Even a crappy sound card will usually offer a slight improvement over your motherboard’s noisy circuitry, if and only if you can audibly hear an issue with the stock setup. Nine times out of ten, though, a sound card isn’t something you need to buy for better audio.

Keep in mind too that if you’re listening to your music with wired headphones, the soundcard may not help you all that much if it doesn’t have a TRRS jack that you can reach with your cable. It’s why some models will add an external control module with a headphone jack, or have a satellite unit that has its own hardware to decode and amplify your tunes outside of your computer.

Will a new soundcard improve lossless audio quality?

Some ultra-cheap computers will simply not have an audio output at all. While it’s excessively rare nowadays, every so often there’s no way to listen to your music with a computer, or you’re limited to crappy Bluetooth. In this instance, you’ll want either a sound card or an external DAC and amplifier.

If you’re a collector of FLAC or lossless audio files, even some high-end motherboard-based audio chips won’t support playback at your collection’s native sample rate or bit depth. In that case, you’ll want a sound card to get your audio at optimal quality.

Should you get a soundcard when you need more ports?

What the heck do those colors mean? Check out the table below.

Those of you with sick desktop setups with studio monitors, microphones, and headphones might need more inputs and outputs than your PC currently provides. In this case, sound cards will often allow you to add optical out, surround sound out, and more.

If you’re a music producer—or are looking into recording with your computer—we recommend getting a high-end sound card or audio interface to meet your needs. These units will typically have the hardware necessary to monitor output as well as record it, and it will have all the same capabilities of a headphone DAC and amp built in.

What do all those colored ports on the back do?

Color Shape






Headphone/line out





Microphone in





Line in





Digital out





Subwoofer out





Rear surround sound





Center channel









Rounded trapezoid



No color/metal


Rectangle with rounded side

Taking a peek at the back of your sound card can be a bit intimidating, especially if you’re trying to figure out where to plug in all those wires. Luckily, they’re all color-coded to avoid obvious problems. You will likely not need to use all of these ports, they’re there to meet the most demanding users.

When should you buy an external DAC and amplifier?


If you have a laptop or a compact computer unit, adding a PCI or PCIe-based sound card just isn’t in the… cards. In that case, you need an external unit. If you need analog inputs as well as outputs (for recording, streaming, or podcasting), you should look at audio interfaces. Or, you could get a USB mic and a DAC.

These usually connect to computers or phones via a USB cable (and before you ask: no, the cables don’t matter). The DAC will provide an analog output like a sound card, just outside of the computer. Before you leave the store, be sure to check to see if the DAC has a volume knob or buttons. You may also need to pick up an amplifier if the DAC unit doesn’t provide enough output for your speakers or headphones.

Frequently asked questions

Soundcard and audio interface are terms that can be used interchangeably. They do the same thing.

Probably! A cheap DAC/amp assembly is generally cheaper and easier to use with different computers over time (most connect with a normal USB cable), so they’ll last you longer as well.

Creative Sound Blaster Sound cards – PC gaming and Entertainment

Creative Sound Blaster Sound cards – PC gaming and Entertainment – Creative Labs (Pan Euro)

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PC sound card selection

The sound card in a PC or laptop processes sound – that is, it converts the signal from digital to analog (and vice versa). Also, the sound card outputs sound to devices – speakers or headphones.

If you buy a laptop or pre-built PC, it already has a built-in sound card. However, if you are not satisfied with the equipment you already have or you are building a PC yourself, then you will have to buy it. In this article, we will help you make the right choice.

What to look out for?

When choosing a sound card, it is important to remember that the quality of sound output does not depend on individual devices, but on the entire sound system. Thus, it is not enough just to buy a good external card – it must be supplemented with speakers of the appropriate quality, otherwise you will not appreciate the full potential of the purchase.

When choosing, it is worth considering the number of channels that the sound card supports. Modern acoustics uses from two to eight channels to reproduce sound – 2.0, 2.1, 5.1, 7.1 and others. The sound card should support as many channels as your speakers support. Accordingly, for 5.1 acoustics, you will need a card with support for six channels.

When choosing, you will be faced with two options – supported sample rate and frequency range. In both cases, the higher the setting, the better the sound quality and usability will be.

All sound cards can be divided into three types: internal, external and USB sound cards

Internal cards

Internal cards are installed on the motherboard inside the system unit.

Typically, these sound cards are used for standard tasks in home and office PCs – this is a fairly budget option. In most cases, such a sound card is bought either when assembling a new PC on its own, or when replacing a broken sound card.

When working with an internal card, it is possible to record only one signal source of the same type at a time – either a microphone or a musical instrument. Also, the internal sound card is not suitable for recording – it will catch background electronic noise from the coils, power supply and video card.

The models listed below work with the PCI Express and PCI 2.2 connection interface, which are backward compatible, as well as different revisions of USB.

Among the sound cards supporting 5.1 systems, you can choose:

CREATIVE 70SB157000000 5.1 with a supported sampling rate of 96 kHz;

Asus XONAR SE 5.1 ​​ – with a supported sample rate of 192 kHz and a frequency range of 10 Hz to 87 kHz.

CREATIVE 70SB151000001 5.1 — with a supported sampling rate of 192 kHz and a frequency range of 100 Hz to 20 kHz.

Among the sound cards supporting 7.1 systems, you can choose:

Asus XONAR U7 MK II 7.1 with a frequency range from 10 Hz to 46 kHz;

Asus STRIX SOAR 7.1 and Asus STRIX RAID DLX 7.1 with a frequency range of 10 Hz to 48 kHz.

Asus ESSENCE STX II 7.1 with a wider frequency range from 10 Hz to 90 kHz.

The models described above support a sampling rate of 192 kHz.

Separately, we note Asus XONAR AE 7.1 and Asus STRIX RAID PRO 7.1 with a frequency range from 10 Hz to 48 kHz. Supported sample rate in this case: 192 kHz, 176.4 kHz, 96 kHz, 88.2 kHz, 48 kHz, 44.1 kHz.

External cards

If you work professionally with sound or video, you will need the external sound card . It is located in a separate case and is connected to the system unit.

Such cards support multi-channel recording, allow you to connect and record sound from musical instruments, digitize records from vinyl players and tape recorders.

Also, external sound cards are chosen by those who want to organize a home theater at home. In this case, when buying, you need to focus on the presence of an analog audio output for connecting Dolby systems.

Another category of buyers of external sound cards is gamers. The first advantage is to improve the sound quality, the second is to reduce the load on the processor. The third advantage is the presence of an amplifier for high-impedance headphones, which provide a high-quality and good signal for the headset.

System 2.0 supports CREATIVE 70SB124000005 2.0 . It has a compact format, made in a standard format for external sound cards with a USB 2.0 connection interface, the supported sampling rate is 96 kHz.

5.1 systems work with CREATIVE Sound Blaster X7 5.1 (also available Limited Edition ) with USB 3.0 connection interface, audio frequency range 20 Hz – 90 kHz, supported sample rate 192 kHz.

The following two models support with 7.1 systems:

Asus XONAR U7 MK II 7.1 with USB 2.0 interface, based on C-Media USB2.0 6632AX chip, audio frequency range 10 Hz – 46 kHz, supported sample rate 192 kHz.

CREATIVE 70SB170000000 7.1 with USB 3.0 interface, supported sample rate 192 kHz.

USB sticks

The third type of sound cards is USB cards .

These are external sound cards that look like a flash drive. Such cards are cheaper than ordinary external cards, but they do not allow you to professionally work with sound. USB sound cards are often bought for laptops: for example, to separately connect a microphone and headphones to a laptop with one audio jack.

Does my computer need a separate sound card?

Discrete sound cards today are rather niche devices. However, they should not be written off. We tell you why you might need a discrete sound card at all.

Even in expensive gaming assemblies, sound is not always given due attention and is limited to the built-in codec from Realtek. And here lies one of the reasons for the low popularity of discrete cards – the built-in sound has become better. Especially when it comes to top motherboards. But is everything so smooth?

Photo: Pixabay

In this article we will not consider professional or audiophile (it is believed that this is completely unattainable on a PC) use of sound cards. Let’s just focus on everyday use.

Sound quality

This is perhaps the most controversial moment. The thing is that people perceive sound differently. Some people hear the difference between MP3 and FLAC, some don’t. And if there is no difference, then why pay more?

In general, everything is correct, but this is not always due only to hearing. If the sound of the built-in sound card suits you, perhaps you simply did not compare it with a normal discrete one. Either your audio system or headphones just won’t let you hear the difference. In any case, you should only think about sound sources if you also have decent audio equipment.

Compared to built-in audio, the difference can be significant. On old or inexpensive modern motherboards, the sound, as a rule, is set to budget. And the point is not only in the lower versions of Realtek codecs, but also in other parameters, for example, the use of a cheap element base. If good speakers or headphones do not play: the low frequencies lack power, the music is blurry and there is no detail at all, perhaps the reason is just in the built-in.

But in motherboards, older codecs, high-quality Saber digital-to-analog converters, headphone amplifiers, etc. are more expensive. In this case, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to hear the difference between an on-board and a separate sound card.

However, to improve the sound quality it is absolutely not necessary to buy a sound card. An external DAC would be a much more versatile device.

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Multi-channel and spatial sound

As for multi-channel sound, almost all motherboards support 7.1 format. In this case, if only three audio connectors are output on the rear panel, the connector on the front panel is additionally used. It’s not very convenient, but it will work nonetheless. And, of course, this is true for the analog connection of multi-channel acoustics, and not for an AV receiver digitally.

It’s even easier with surround sound. Headphone technologies like Dolby Atmos and Windows Sonic work on any hardware. Since this is a software sound processing, it is enough to set the spatial sound in the Windows settings (for Atmos, you need to download the application from the MS Store) and a compatible game. For example, support for ambient sound is in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

The main advantage is that a discrete sound card has its own sound processing algorithms. These range from relatively simple features, such as making enemy footsteps more visible in online games, to more complex visualization of the source of the sound. All this is easily configured and switched in proprietary software. Also, the sound card usually positions the sound more accurately even on conventional stereo headphones or speakers.

A Creative sound card is also required if you want to take full advantage of EAX in older games. Now the technology is no longer used, so the list of games that support the technology is small. However, if you like to periodically go through something from the classics like the old parts of Grand Theft Auto, then this may serve as an additional argument in favor of discrete sound. However, on modern Windows 10, this works through crutches in the form of Creative Alchemy and is not always correct.

It should be noted that in the gaming segment, sound cards have to compete not only with built-in, but also with USB headsets. Such a device already has a built-in audio chip, which is responsible for sound processing. That is, in fact, it is an external audio card. The kit also, as a rule, comes with proprietary software that is responsible for multi-channel sound and other gaming functions. Moreover, despite the multi-channel sound, most often it is a simple volume emulation on conventional stereo speakers. Although there are models that produce real 7.1 sound, thanks to many separate speakers.

Additional connectors

Buying a sound card is a good way to equip your PC with additional audio connectors. So, on many motherboards there is no optical output, and this is a convenient way to connect home acoustics or a receiver.

But you can output digital sound not only through optics. The easiest way is HDMI, as almost every video card has it. In this way, the sound can be transmitted to the receiver or TV, and from there to the acoustics. You can also buy an adapter from HDMI to optics and connect a set of acoustics with the appropriate input. It should be noted that if you output sound digitally (HDMI, optical, USB, etc. ), then the quality of the sound card does not matter. Sound processing takes place already on the side of the receiver.

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Sound cards may have other additional professional connectors, but not everyone needs this in everyday use.

Noise and interference

Buying a separate sound card can help if your speakers are noisy. But, of course, this is not the only possible reason, and if such a problem occurs, then you need to start from another. Background and interference can occur due to a bad cable, for example.

There may also be problems with sound recording on the built-in. Even outside of professional use, this can cause a lot of problems – at least in online games.

If the built-in audio doesn’t work

A sound card will obviously come in handy if the built-in audio doesn’t work. This is hardly a common problem, but breakdowns do happen. In such cases, you can take even the cheapest card within 500 rubles – it will cope with the task of sound output.