A lot of gamers prefer to buy themselves an expensive gaming headset. There are also those who would rather buy themselves a sound card for gaming purposes. And then, there are those who get both. For the sound junkie gamer, it can be confusing.

Here at Sentient Audio, our mission is to help you have a better understanding of how a sound card works, whether or not it would boost your gaming experience, and which sound card to choose.

Let’s get started.

But first things first…

HOW DOES A SOUND CARD WORK?

Obviously, a sound card’s main function is to produce sound. But why exactly do we need a sound card for it?

Simply put, a computer can’t produce sound from a music file or game, on its own. It requires hardware processing called DAC (digital-to-audio converter) to convert bits of audio data into an audible sound output from your speakers, earbuds, or headphones. This is the reason why a computer needs a sound card.

Most of today’s motherboards come with built-in sound cards. Some of these sound cards are 5.1 surround ​sound capable via 3.5mm jacks, which are usually found at the back panel of a PC (or in the case of MACs, in the optical digital audio output port).

For PC users who don’t have a 5.1 audio system, you can always try out a gaming headset like the ROCCAT Kave CTD which comes with 4×3.5mm audio jacks + USB to deliver a super 5.1 surround sound gaming experience.

AUDIO PERFORMANCE WITH SOUND CARD

Listening to sound and appreciating its ‘quality’ is mostly a subjective matter – it differs from one user to another. Basically, it’s like a blind comparison test. For an audiophile and a gamer like me, there’s a significant sound performance gap between using an on-board sound card and a dedicated sound card.

For example, when I plug in my Logitech G230 Stereo Gaming Headset to my PC’s front audio port, sound tends to be much lower than when I plug it on my external sound card, the Creative Labs Sound Blaster ZX with DAC. This is because sound processing is done separately by the external sound card and the on-board sound card, thus making sound clearer and louder.

Additionally, when using the on-board sound card, you tend to hear static and muffled noises. The reason is that the audio chip is located near the USB and audio ports, on both the back and front panels.

The same is true with plugging in a microphone to an on-board sound card, in that sound output produces static and muffled noise. With an external sound card, however, audio from music, games, and mic input are processed separately, delivering a much clearer sound output.

Using a low-quality speaker, earbuds, or headset will still yield better-quality sound output when combined with a good sound card. But it’s an entirely different story if you use a low-quality sound card to go with your $200+ headset (even with 60+ ohms) or audio speaker with high impedance. These require more power to produce the best quality sound!

Here is a video explaining why sound cards are important for audiophiles:

GAMING SOUND PERFORMANCE WITH A SOUND CARD – IS IT WORTH IT?

If you’re just after the sound quality, then my answer would be no. Most of today’s games tend to focus more on the visuals and less on sound quality (unless, of course, if we’re talking about the likes of Civilization, Counter Strike, BioShock, etc.).
But if there’s something sensible to a sound card, then it’s definitely its surround sound capability. Not all integrated sound cards can handle surround sound well. Most on-board surround sound output is usually flat and poorly stage, with low bass. The output even remains poor even if you use mid-range or high-end headsets. In this case, a sound card is a must-have.

This video below compares various sound cards on how each of them boost the quality of the sound coming from the game DOOM E1M1. (Please make sure you are wearing your headset)

SOUND CARD COMPATIBILITY

Are sound cards only for PCs?

The answer is a solid NO.

Although not as widely available as its PC counterparts, there are sound cards that are designed specifically for MAC, too. For instance, the 2006 and 2009 MAC Pro models were built to have hardware expansion through PCIe slots, one of which is for a sound card. Unfortunately, the following models no longer have these PCIe slots for expansion, so MAC users settled with USB audio adaptors with optical cable, like the Creative Sound Blaster Omni.

Just recently, however, Apple revealed that PCIe slots will make their much-anticipated comeback to the MAC Pro 2019.

Are all speakers, headsets and earbuds compatible with sound cards?

Generally, yes. However, there are somethings to keep in mind regarding audio jacks. The 3.5mm jacks come in two types: the three-combo jack (or the standard jack) and the stereo jack.

Nearly all PC rigs come with front and back audio ports. However, only the front audio port has this symbol:
This indicates that it’s compatible with the 3.5mm three-combo hack. The back panel have separate audio ports and a mic port. Below is an image of an integrated 5.1 channel surround sound card:

WHAT SOUND CARD DOES MY COMPUTER HAVE?

For the folks who bought a pre-built computer or OEM machine (HP, Dell, Sony, Apple, etc.), visit the manufacturer’s website and search the model number of your machine to check for the specs. From there, you can find what type of sound card is installed.

FOR PC USERS

Checking a Sound card with the Dxdiag Command

 

Step 1: Right click on the “WINDOWS” menu and then click “Run.”

 

Step 2: Type “dxdiag” in the empty box, then click “Ok” or press the “enter” key

 

Step 3: A diagnostic pop-up window will appear. Click on the “Sound” tab or tabs on the diagnostic pop-up window for detailed information about your sound devices.

Checking a Sound Card information with the Device Manager

 

Step 1: Right click on the “WINDOWS” menu and then right click Device Manager

Step 2: Locate “Sound, Video and Game Controllers” in the list of devices, expand the list by clicking on the arrow button beside the text

Step 3: Right-click on the audio devices listed and select “Properties.” Tabs will appear, showing information about the sound card, the driver, and its current status.

*Note: There might be several devices on the list, so you need to know which are the plugged-in devices. What is left will be your sound card.

Physical checking of a Sound Card

 

Step 1: Make sure that the computer is turned off and unplugged.

Step 2: Open the left side panel using a screwdriver

[You can find the sound card by checking where your speakers are plugged in to. If your audio system is plugged into the motherboard through the back panel, it is called an integrated sound card. The audio chipset is usually closer to the audio jacks.]

Step 3: If you see that your audio system is plugged in to the jacks of a device installed on the PCIe slots, then you have a dedicated sound card. You can find more information about the card by checking the brand and the model number.

Step 4: Close the case once you’re done

Checking an Audio Device on a Mac (OSX)

 

Step 1: Click on the “Apple” menu.

Step 2: Click on “About this Mac.”

Step 3: Click “More Info.”

Step 4: Check “Audio” on the list of devices on the left column of the opened window. There will be a list of audio devices where you can check the manufacturer.

BUYING A SOUND CARD

There are few specs to consider before buying a sound card.

 Channels – This pertains to the number of speakers your device or machine is compatible with. The more channels there are, the more speakers it can handle. The same is true for some high-end headsets, with more audio jacks for more audio channels.

Sample Rate – This is measured in KHz. The range is from 44.1 to a high of 192. For audiophiles, the high numbers the better. More information about sample rate here.

Bit Depth – This measures the range or degree to which something is audible, usually within 8- to 16-, sometimes even up to 24-bit. With a 24-bit depth, you can hear near-perfect audio accuracy. The lower the bit depth, the harder it will be to distinguish sounds from one another. So if you have a high=bit depth sound card, low-quality audio can benefit from it by lowering floor and ceiling noise.

SNR – This stands for Sound-to-Noise Ratio. This is the buzzing noise you hear when you put your speaker’s volume to max, while nothing is playing.

 

COST

Most of the sound cards being sold in the market today operate at 16-bit or 24-bit depth. The 16-bit ones are just fine for playback on CD quality audio. Most of these have a price tag of $70 or below, like the KEKU Virtual 7.1 USB Sound Card.

Meanwhile, if you’re into sound recording and your device can support up to 24 bits, then prepare to shell out $100 or more for a decent 24.bit sound card, like the ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the need for a sound card all depends on a person’s preference, as well as the device/machine they currently use. Let’s say you have a $200 worth of sound card and a $50 audio device to combine it with. Yes, the sound quality will improve, but don’t expect to have the best quality even if you have a high-end device.  Simple as that.

Here’s our top ten list of the best sound cards for gaming this 20XX. Make sure to check it out.

If you have questions and suggestions, feel free to leave a comment below.