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Beginners Guide to Sound Cards

This guide aims to cover basic questions many customers have today over what a Sound Card is, what place it has in a modern system and why they should consider purchasing one.

What is a soundcard?
A sound card is the component within your computer that processes audio files in order to provide sound through the computer speakers. Speakers plug directly into the soundcard at the rear of the computer. The soundcard can be an individual PCI or PCI-E card or installed on the motherboard. (Integrated or Onboard Audio)

What is Integrated Audio?
Almost all modern computers come with some basic form of audio integrated into the motherboard. Audio processors have been widespread on motherboards since the middle of the 1990s and are easily the most common way people experience audio on their PC. Integrated controllers are readily used due to their inexpensive nature, good sound quality for less-discerning users and ease of use.

Integrated solutions offer good sound quality but it is lagging behind what is available on dedicated sound cards. On paper the onboard soundcards offer impressive sound qualities. However due to the audio processors and associated wiring being built into the motherboard interference can be common. This is due to motherboards featuring tens of thousands of wires packed very closely together and the current flowing down one wire will affect the current flowing down another.  This means at higher volumes especially lots of background noise can manifest itself in bangs, pops and buzzing sounds.

Why buy a soundcard?
A soundcard can offer advanced audio effects and standards that integrated audio cannot offer. At higher volumes a quality soundcard will deliver a much higher standard of audio than that of an integrated audio device. A soundcard will offer more options for connecting speakers, external devices and breakout boxes.

What features should I look for in a soundcard?
The most important point to remember when buying a soundcard is to set a budget and stick to it.

When buying a soundcard it is important to ensure that you buy the correct one for your needs. There is a wealth of models available and each is targeted towards a specific use. You can get gaming cards, low-profile home theatre cards, high performance HDMI pass-through home theatre cards and professional sound cards. Each will have its own variety of ports suitable for its use.

For example a high end gaming soundcard is likely to feature a front breakout box that fits into a 5.25” or 3.5” front bay to allow the easy connection of a gaming headset with microphone. A home theatre soundcard will likely feature HDMI and all the home audio standards for surround sound in movies while a professional grade soundcard will have most of its features dedicated to exacting sound reproduction and an excellent complement of audio inputs for use in recording.