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What exactly is a sound card used for?

Last response: in Components
February 9, 2013 6:23:08 PM

I'm an audiophile and enjoy listening to music, and I'm also an avid gamer so I've been looking into investing in a better sound solution. The problem is I don't know if I'll need a sound card or not, in fact I don't even know exactly what a sound card does.

If you skip to 2:50 ( ) he says that you don't need a sound card because the drivers allow it to have it's own built in sound card? So all a sound card does is facilitate virtual surround sound? I'm really confused and don't really know what I'm talking about, I would appreciate some help.

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February 9, 2013 6:24:57 PM

Sound cards are usually used today by people who want higher quality sound than is found on most motherboards.
February 9, 2013 6:37:00 PM

as of the curernt moment, the built in sound in modern motherboards are good enough in general. Sound cards are aimed for those who want to squeeze out the upmost highest quality sound, as sound cards aid on fixing bits of sounds.
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February 9, 2013 7:15:52 PM

With good speakers a $50 Asus sound card is noticeably better than onboard sound.

If you have $100 for speakers it's probably best to get higher quality stereo (2.0) speakers rather than a 2.1 system (stereo + subwoofer).

I used to recommend the M-Audio AV30 speakers for about $100. I have the $150 AV40's. They have a 4-inch main driver for lots of bass. Subwoofers give MORE bass however there are several disadvantages to subwoofers:
- sound can carry a lot (especially below)
- power button is sometimes located in the subwoofer (turn off when not using, they use a lot of power).
- must spend MORE money for 2.1 than 2.0 to ensure quality due to the subwoofer cost (so $100 is best spent on AV30's or similar but at $150 and above it's hard to say except the above two points)
February 9, 2013 7:46:58 PM

Thanks for all the input, really helpful. I was really only thinking about getting a headset for now, and speakers later. So a sound card is only useful for speakers?
February 9, 2013 7:49:21 PM

I've read that sound cards can help with some high quality headsets too. I usually just use the on-board myself.

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February 13, 2013 3:41:06 PM

You should check out the latest sound cards being released by Creative Labs. The ZXR is the flagship and will be shipping 2/25. Not sure what you want to spend but you can at least get some information on what's good and what's not so good. I also recommend visiting the AVS Forum and These are two sites that specialize in audiophile quality hardware of all kinds. Also check out which specializes in headphones and amps/DACs designed specifically for headphones.
February 13, 2013 3:44:17 PM

blazorthon said:
I've read that sound cards can help with some high quality headsets too. I usually just use the on-board myself.

This is true. I have a pair of Denon AH-D7100 headphones and they will not work without a decent amp. My computer at work will power the phones enough to hear but only barely. Some soundcards provide a sufficient amp but even that is not guaranteed. Quality sound with accurate reproduction will not be heard on most cheap headphones no matter what the manufacturer says. I paid $1200 for mine and people think I'm crazy until they hear them. It's fun to see the look on their face when they hear what they've been missing.
February 13, 2013 4:31:46 PM

I have no doubt that I'm missing a lot. What I do doubt is that it's worth far over $1000 in audio hardware ;) 
February 14, 2013 1:11:21 AM

blazorthon said:
I have no doubt that I'm missing a lot. What I do doubt is that it's worth far over $1000 in audio hardware ;) 

I understand. We all have our passion about things. I love listening to music so high quality headphones are a no-brainer for me.
February 15, 2013 12:28:03 AM

yeah, forget emulation in headphones... go take a look at some audio recording gear (snoop around at musicians friend to start). You are best off getting some reference monitors to hear audio the way it was recorded. There are a lot of high quality self powered units out now at at decent price.

A good quality card will make up for a crappy/older mobo, and perhaps drive a high ohm set of headphones. Dedicated outboard gear and headphone amps are still better. Especially if you are a true "tube" guy audiophile.