Discrete sound cards are a divisive topic in the performance PC community. Some people love their sound cards and can’t imagine playing games or listening to music without their card.
Others think that discrete sound cards are overrated and unnecessary.
But most people fall somewhere in between and don’t know or don’t care about sound cards.
So where should you fall? Do you need a discrete sound card? Do sound cards really improve PC gaming framerates? Today, I’m going to answer all of those questions for you – and more!
Over at TechSpot.com, Matthew DeCarlo compared his experience using an average $80 sound card and his on-board motherboard’s sound card. He switched his sound card on and off throughout the test. Some of the information from this article is borrowed from DeCarlo’s research.
Sharper notes, higher highs, and lower lows
Compared to an average onboard motherboard sound card, a discrete sound card (even an average one) will produce noticeably sharper notes, higher highs, and lower lows.
You’ll hear and feel the rumbling of bass. You’ll be able to distinguish individual treble notes from one another. Soft background noises will become more distinct. The fuzzy guitar solos and vocals will be sounds of the past.
Just like Dr. Dre said on his Beats commercials, you’ll be able to appreciate the amount of work that goes into producing a single song.
I’m not exaggerating: even on modest speakers or headphones, and even to the most novice audiophile, there will be a noticeable difference. Of course, the major question is whether that difference is worth spending $60 to $150 on a sound card.
The quality of your audio files matters – a case for FLAC
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. It’s a high-quality audio format that compresses digital audio files in order to reduce file size but not quality. FLAC files tend to be significantly larger than your average .mp3 files and other formats, which means better sound quality.
But most people won’t get to hear this better sound quality because most people don’t have high-quality speakers, headphones, and sound equipment that’s needed to tell the difference.
If you can tell the difference between 320kpbs .mp3 files and FLAC files on average audio equipment, then congratulations: because I can’t.
So when does bit rate matter?
Bit rate is extremely important when it comes to sound quality. But there’s certainly some diminishing returns. With bit rate, most people can notice a difference up to 256kbps for .mp3 files. Bumping from 64kbps to 128kbps provides a noticeable boost, for example, as does bumping from 128kbps to 256kbps.
It’s difficult to notice a difference between 256kbps and 320kbps for .mp3 files, so don’t get too stressed out if your songs aren’t all in 320kbps.
As mentioned above, it’s difficult (impossible?) to tell the difference between high-quality (320kpbs) .mp3 files and FLAC files. So as long as your music files are 320kbps, FLAC, or 256kbps, you’ll be able to enjoy a top-quality audio experience.
No boost in frames per second
Unless your video card and processor are severely lacking in resources, you will probably not notice a difference in speed or performance after installing a sound card. Sound cards will lighten the processing load on your CPU, but not by much.
How does this work? Well, audio information needs to be processed by your PC. Without a sound-card, this information is processed by your motherboard’s on-board sound card and your CPU. With a discrete sound card, all audio processing takes place on the sound card, freeing up PC resources for other things.
But the fact of the matter is this: your computer is rarely going to be processing so much audio information that it has a noticeable impact on performance. So don’t expect a frames per second boost after buying a sound card, because you’re likely to be disappointed.
It’s like bumping from standard definition TV to HD TV
Matthew DeCarlo, the guy who compared a discrete sound card side-by-side with an onboard sound card, claimed that shifting from onboard audio to a discrete sound card was like moving from low resolution to high-resolution video. That’s quite the compliment.
Don’t buy a sound card if you listen to all your music online
If you listen to all your music online through streaming services, then a sound card may not be worth it. Online streaming music has been compressed and transcoded, weakening its quality and reducing the beneficial effects of your sound card. So if you purely stream music online and don’t play PC games, then a sound card may not be for you.
Conclusion: You don’t know how good sound can be until you have a sound card
If you spend a lot of time playing games or listening to music at your computer, then your sound card will likely be worth the price.
Whether you’re listening on $400 headphones or a budget pair of speakers, there will be a noticeable difference after installing your sound card. This most noticeable difference will be in sound quality, not necessarily frames per second in your video games.
Once you’ve installed your sound card, you’ll realize that switching back to your motherboard’s on-board sound card is virtually impossible. The more you listen to audio with your discrete sound card, the more your old onboard sound card sounds like a device from the 1960s.
Should you buy a discrete sound card? Probably. But buy it for the higher quality music playback and PC gaming audio – not for the increased framerate performance. And don’t buy it if you only have 128kbps audio files or if you stream all your music online.