Back in the day every PC advert you could lay on your eyes had the likes of SOUND BLASTER! SONIC BOOM AUDIO!! plastered across it, letting you know it could crank out a chiptune soundtrack that could blow your ears off. It was a big selling point then, like graphics cards and massive SSDs are now.
Over the years though, the public clamouring for dedicated graphics cards has slowed. Motherboard manufacturers increasingly began to put integrated chips on the boards, and over the years the quality of these chips became good enough that for most end users, there was no need to pick up a more expensive, discrete sound card. Sound cards are still out there though, and people are still buying them, so the big question is whether it’s worth getting a sound card at all these days.
Out there in the wilds of the internet, and no doubt among GD’ers as well, you’ll find audiophiles that swear blind it’s the only to go. They’ll be loaded up with Sennheiser headphones and terabytes of FLAC music libraries, embracing acoustic heaven.
Listen to an integrated chip side by side with a dedicated sound card and the former appears muddy and tinny, while the latter sounds crisp and punchy. Without a side-by-side comparison this is easily lost, so there’s a big debate as to whether something that will eventually fade into the background is even needed.
Like 60 frames per second however, the rest of us have no idea what we’re missing out on when it comes to audio - until we actually use it. For general use there’s nothing wrong with the integrated sound on your PC. Every game you play and every track you listen to sounds perfect, and it’s hard to picture how it can possibly improve. Head to a hifi shop and give the real deal a go and it all becomes apparent. In that sense it’s almost worth never attempting, because you won’t even be aware what you’re missing out on until you slap a pair of top tier cans.
One of the major reasons touched upon to use a dedicated sound card is to offload usage from the CPU. This used to be the case but it seldom is any more. Games are rarely bound by CPU performance and if they are on your rig then that’s the higher-priority upgrade. In fact, using a discrete sound card can layer additional processing effects that can make the CPU run slower than an integrated chip .
The thing is with a sound card, the $50 card itself is the cheap bit. It’s the $300 headphones or the $500 speaker system that can take advantage of it that’s the real cost. That’s $500 that could be spent on a GeForce GTX 980 or a an R9 Fury, and would deliver immediate and tangible improvements to your gaming.
So what do you think then, is a sound card a necessary purchase for you? Or is it money that’s better spent elsewhere? Get involved in the comments below and let us know you think!