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A Guide to Computer Hardware

Written on July 31, 2006 by Richard Millard

Sound Card

If you read the Video Card section, then this Sound Card section might give you a sense of déjà Vu. The sound card does exactly the same sort of stuff.

The sound card prepares an audio source to be sent to your speakers, headphone, or other audio device. It takes the audio processing load off of your CPU, and does all the hard work. It has special features built in which make it much more efficient at this sort of work.

For a majority of users, the most basic sound card is sufficient for everything they do. High quality motherboards even include a basic on-board audio card, giving you all the basic features of a sound card without needing to purchase one.

Higher end sound cards will include support for surround sound, better audio quality, faster compression when recording, and a wider array of inputs and outputs. High end sound cards are typically associated with sound recording, surround sound home theater, or video gaming.

Typically, a sound card has 3 ports:

Line Out - Lime green, this jack connects to your speakers or headphones.
Line In - Light blue, this jack is for input.
Microphone - This pink jack connects to a microphone.

A higher end sound card might provide you with many more ports. Some will give you additional Line Out ports, offering up to 8.1 surround sound and more. High-end sound cards will even have S/PDIF Digital output or Optical outputs for high-quality data transmission to a receiver or other digital audio device.

The sound card also has a sound chip, which is a digital-to-analog converter, used to record audio and convert it to a digital file on your computer. Newer and faster models of sound cards have better sound chips. Most users do very little audio recording on their computer, and so a high-end sound card is not a high priority for them.

Two easy questions can diagnose your sound card needs.

  • "Do you plan on doing any audio recording with your PC?"
  • "Do you want surround sound output?"

If you answered "No" to both these questions, you don't need a fancy sound card. Check your motherboard, many of them include a very basic sound card. If so, you're probably all set. Don't forget, a sound card is something that's fairly easy to upgrade should you suddenly need a better one.

With the integration of sound cards into most modern motherboards, I think that most people don't need a dedicated sound card.

That said, if you're into gaming, or want to set up your computer as a Media Center for watching movies, a great sound card is a very important investment.

Really, to the consumer, it always comes down to the question "What does it mean to me?" In most cases, the difference between a basic level sound card, and an expensive $300 sound card is minimal. Only a true audiophile will notice the difference in audio quality. The biggest concern should be the inputs, outputs and features of a given sound card.

If you already have speakers, you should have a good idea of what sort of inputs you need (5.1 surround, 8.1 surround, etc.). If you're ordering new speakers with your system, just check and make sure your sound card has the proper outputs to connect to your new speakers.

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