Over the last couple of decades, PC audio has undergone drastic changes. Along with it, the requirements for good quality PC audio have also gone through a transformation of sorts.
Now, modern PCs have excellent audio hardware built into their motherboards rendering the dedicated audio hardware like sound cards obsolete for the average user. The craze for sound cards that were prevalent in the 90s has become largely subdued. But the question still remains, which one do you really need.
In this post, we pit sound card vs onboard audio to help you decide if a sound card is vital for you.
Sound card vs Onboard Audio: What are they?
All modern PCs have an onboard audio chip embedded onto the motherboard. Over the years, the audio quality produced by the onboard audio hardware has increased significantly. Audio comes in two forms: analog and digital.
Since computers are digital systems (the sound can be produced or manipulated only in the digital format) and speakers are analog systems, all motherboards have a chip to convert the audio between digital and analog. The chip is called a codec (coder/decoder), and it can convert digital signals to analog signals and vice-versa.
A sound card is an internal expansion card that provides input and output of audio signals to and from a computer under the control of computer programs. It enables audio devices such as headphones, speakers among others to receive audio information from the PC. There are both internal and external versions.
A sound card is a rectangular piece of hardware with multiple ports on its side to connect audio devices like speakers. It is installed in a PCIe or PCI on the PC motherboard.
While a dedicated soundcard used to be the only way to get quality sound in the 90s, it is now viewed as a non-essential kit. However, it is still useful and relevant for certain tasks and people. Soundcards are still manufactured by companies like long time sound-card manufacturer, Creative, and PC hardware manufacturers, Asus and EVGA.
Although most people are fine with their built-in audio hardware, there are still some advantages of getting a sound card. Below, we will compare sound card vs onboard audio to make the selection of audio card easy for you.
Sound card vs onboard audio: Why a sound card is better?
A casual everyday user might not need a dedicated sound card. But if you use your system for hardcore audio editing and music production or for extreme gaming, it is advisable to have a good sound card.
Since the motherboards need to be small enough to fit into your system, there is limited space for the onboard audio card. It may not produce the same quality sound as a dedicated sound card as there is simply no space on the card to add many of the features that produce the good quality sound.
The dedicated sound card is a standalone unit and has a large amount of space available. So, they can offer more features to produce better sound. Features like lower harmonic distortion, 192-kHz resolutions, higher signal-to-noise ratios, 24-bit sample rates, and additional APIs truly make a difference in the overall audio quality.
Sound cards usually have software that allows you to customise EQ settings, surround sound, and general audio quality. They have the ability to expand audio output to surround sound. External sound cards also have multiple audio ports that allow you to connect to 5.1 speakers, microphones, etc.
The biggest issue with audio performance on PCs is electrical interference. With electrical impulses running through PCle lanes between CPU and RAM, USB connections, RGB lighting, and chipset working, the motherboard is a hive of activity. This continuous heavy action creates a background hissing or crackling sound that affects the audio performance. While isolation and shielding of audio components work to a certain extent, it cannot entirely remove electrical interference.
The hiss of interference is not always noticeable. You might hear a hiss when your PC is working hard or with headphones turned all the way up. With a sound card, all these would disappear. You may begin to hear more detail and clarity in your sound, and it might make your audio experience much better.
Sound card vs onboard audio: Why a sound card is unnecessary?
In-built audio hardware has improved a lot and the audio quality produced is enough for most users. You most likely will not be able to tell the difference in quality without an expensive pair of headphones or large speakers.
The sound cards can be an unnecessary expense, especially if you have to buy additional equipment to tell the difference. The price varies a lot for sound cards and can go up to tens of thousands. There is also the additional hassle of set-up. You might be better of investing that money on a good pair of headphones.
While a sound card takes care of all the audio processing above the “noise” of the motherboard, it still is too close to the motherboard to completely eliminate all electrical interference. But the sound card is not the solution to your audio issues. You can use an external digital-to-audio converter (DAC). Nowadays, DAC is being preferred over sound cards by most people as it further separates the sound from any possible electrical interference from the motherboard. It is also not tied to one PC like an internal sound card and can be used with multiple devices.
Sound card vs Onboard audio FAQs
Here are a few questions we often hear when comparing Sound card vs Onboard audio.
What is a sound card?
A sound card is an internal expansion card that provides input and output of audio signals to and from a computer under the control of computer programs.
Sound card vs Onboard audio: Which is better?
For most people, onboard audio is more than enough. But if you produce or are a stickler for the best quality audio, then go for a sound card.
Sound card vs onboard audio: Are there any other alternatives?
Nowdays, most people prefer to use a DAC over a sound card.
In the End…
In the sound card vs onboard audio fight, there is no clear winner. It purely comes down to personal choice. While an internal sound card provides greater dynamic range, deeper bass, clarity of sound, and overall better audio quality, you may need speakers or expensive headphones to fully appreciate the difference.
Instead, you can go for a DAC or stay with the onboard audio, which is more than enough for most casual users. But if you are a music producer or an avid gamer, it does make sense to spring for a good sound card.