Up For Debate - Is It Worth Getting A Dedicated Sound Card In A Gaming PC

Written by Jon Sutton on Sun, Aug 30, 2015 12:00 PM

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!

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11:50 Sep-01-2015

I think discrete sound card is not a must have if onboard card is still working. I mean back then I only bought sound card when the onboard chip is unusable anymore.


I'd rather spend money on decent headphone/speaker

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12:15 Sep-01-2015

soo true :)

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10:19 Sep-01-2015

As long as it give me a few FPS, why not?
But id doesn't

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10:25 Sep-01-2015

:D

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05:09 Sep-01-2015

Dedicated sound cards have become unnecessary. Most motherboards have excellent sound solutions which are adequate for most users. If you need something that will your expensive high impedance headphones then a dedicated USB ODAC amplifier would be far better than any sound card.

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03:17 Sep-01-2015

(cont) listening to music that is in high quality.Also Soundcards would match very well with high quality speakers/headphones/studio monitors.Last of all there are exceptions to all of these examples, so you might want to try a soundcards

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03:14 Sep-01-2015

Many motherboard integrated soundcards are enough for playing games that don't have any high quality audio,or listening to some 128 kbps mp3 music files. PCI soundcards are for music production,playing games that have high quality audio,

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20:42 Aug-31-2015

the misinformation in the comments is over 9000

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15:11 Aug-31-2015

Not anymore. Onboard audio is getting better and if you don't have any high end headphones and no lossless audio files, you won't notice a difference between a 5 year old pc and a pc from this day. Besides that, I won't pay 100 euro to buy a 5.1 soundcard when my onboard can do 7.1. Soundcards are expensive.

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15:56 Aug-31-2015

Most new mid-high end mobos already have headphone amps as well, my msi comes with 2 so even with high end headphones up to 600ohms ill be fine.

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17:08 Aug-31-2015

Use a Sound Blaster Z with high end speakers and you'll notice the difference.

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19:03 Aug-31-2015

Already have a 7.1 klipsch surround sound i can just plug the computer in that lol

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19:14 Aug-31-2015

Very nice, decent sound card to run it or not?

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09:56 Sep-01-2015

Running it off a pioneer receiver might go denon or yamaha next not sure

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19:23 Sep-01-2015

Got an old Denon Amp with more inputs than NASA's main computer, that thing still pumps more than I ever need so yeah haha I'd opt for a Denon only for the fact I use one and I know it's good providing you spend the right cash on it

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18:03 Sep-03-2015

It could be since every sound can be outputted differently, but in general, a big improvement won't be noticed

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14:01 Aug-31-2015

There is one thing most overlook when dealing with onboard sound vs. dedicated, and this is really noticeable and important. The volume levels for onboard are usually 50% that of dedicated. You just can't crank those headphones/speakers up when using onboard unless your onboard has a 100+SNRdb which most do not. All those cheap priced motherboard using the ALC chips are usually in the range of 80SNRdb. This means you can crank your headphones up full blast and still feel like there low...

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14:02 Aug-31-2015

Now dedicated sound cards even in the 50 dollar range do not have this issue...

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14:17 Aug-31-2015

I have a 20$ one which poops all over the one on my mobo which usually cost 50cents-2$ total to the manufacturer and has a lot more connection options... BUT that is talking about Pc specific audio :p

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14:23 Aug-31-2015

not my he-6 + audio-gd master 10 (got the combo used from a friend I've known from university for 2200$), quite the investment I know but good audio gear lasts decades while the caps are healthy while pc parts get old after 5-7 years :/

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15:58 Aug-31-2015

My msi gaming board is rated at 94db at the time of review. Its supposed to be even higher with the recent updates but who knows. 94db is still plenty.

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17:15 Aug-31-2015

94dB what?
my Eris E8's speakers have 105 dB peak SPL @ 1m

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19:32 Aug-31-2015

94 is piss poor mate sorry...

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09:58 Sep-01-2015

Cant be that bad my klipsch speakers are only rated at 96 and i use those and there plenty loud at 125w a piece with a 200w velodyne sub lol. Even a soundblaster z at 100€ is 100

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09:59 Sep-01-2015

Techpowerup says 94db is very good so who knows.

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10:06 Sep-01-2015

dB rating doesn't tell much of useful info, don't worry about that :)

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10:18 Sep-01-2015

Well thats how they rate snr using decibels. Between 94 and 100 only an audio engineer would be able to tell the difference. Its better then 60-70 a lready. He says 94 db snr is piss poor but 100 is excellent. 6db is nothing.

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18:34 Sep-01-2015

Signal-to-noise ratio is not the same as for example Sound pressure level (both are expressed in dB). So make sure you know what you're referring to, which might cause confusion.


While for SNR 94dB is great, for Sound pressure level it's average.

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18:58 Sep-01-2015

Not to mention the quality & Ohm rating of the speakers connected. Higher Ohm speakers have more resistance & produce a cleaner sound at lower dB. Lower Ohm speakers give reduced sound quality but offer high dB. Many speakers are either 4 Ohm or 8 Ohm. The 8 Ohm will give better sound quality, but produce less dB due to the higher impedance. Another example is car audio sub-woofers which come 1,2, & 4 Ohm. The 1 & 2 Ohm speakers can produce extremely high levels of dB.

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18:44 Sep-01-2015

Short for signal-to-noise ratio, the ratio of the amplitude of a desired analog or digital data signal to the amplitude of noise in a transmission channel at a specific point in time. SNR is typically expressed logarithmically in decibels (dB).
SNR measures the quality of a transmission channel or an audio signal over a network channel. The greater the ratio, the easier it is to identify and subsequently isolate and eliminate the source of noise. A SNR of zero indicates that the desired signal is virtually indistinguishable from the unwanted noise.

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19:28 Sep-01-2015

Leastar my klipsch are indeed 8ohm not monitors but they sound fantastic especially with quality cables and very short lenghths(affects snr the linger it is). And yes its 94 snr. Mine are 8ohm 96db. 34hz to 24khz range.

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13:26 Aug-31-2015

Dedicated is always the way to go BUT if you can get a really good motherboard, today's onboard can be really good. I'm currently using SupremeFX on my ASUS ROG Hero VII Z97 and is it is by far the best onboard I have heard and used. I would say it is on par with an ASUS Xonar DS card...and it should because the Hero retails for over $250...

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11:05 Aug-31-2015

I felt really hurt when I got my new audio rig, I installed oblivion and replayed it for a few hours and ran around and was really sad that I had not heard it's lovely music score on my rig during my first play through.

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11:08 Aug-31-2015

I felt that I had missed out on a large and important part of the game, even more immersive than the graphics, I was neglecting a large part of the whole experience which was hearing and just focusing on what I was seeing.

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11:12 Aug-31-2015

I couldn't even hear my low res. mp3 files anymore, it was like I had a small 640x480 tv and all of my movies were that resolution and all was fine but suddenly got a 4k 80" TV thus all of my movies looked dull and not as they should be :/

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11:13 Aug-31-2015

BUT once you get the high quality files for your tracks and play them it would be a revelation, you'll be shocked at how much you were missing out on :)

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12:25 Aug-31-2015

haha true,
I think good sound really adds immersion in certain locations such as caves or tunnels :)

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09:59 Aug-31-2015

I dont think its worth it for gaming might be for other purposes.

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11:03 Aug-31-2015

I won't game without good audio, just not happening... your standards might be different :)

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07:28 Aug-31-2015

Too true.I had Sennheiser HD 202 and when i got the SteelSeries Siberia V2 headphones i literally cried when i realized what i was missing out on. The audio was superb, then i downloaded the Razer Surround and was like wow omg! I really did not know what i was missing out on. In games like CS:GO, sound is vitally important to hear your enemy, to pinpoint their location and direction they are running. New headphones must have increased my game play by 10-15% as now i know where they are and get ready for them. I have wondered what i dedicated sound card would do, but im happy right now, no need

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11:01 Aug-31-2015

you've gone from smelly crap to not-so-smelly ones so you still have a long way to go in your audio journey...spoiler prepare lots of tears if you go to audition serious headphones connected to a good amp :)

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14:14 Aug-31-2015

I find your post rather arrogant and insulting. Maybe i don't have the best of the best, but its what i can afford with what little i have left after responsibilities, if using terms like "smelly crap" and "less smelly crap", would that mean everyones hardware is "more or less smelly crap then others"? My hardware does what it needs to, and if its crap by your standards that's fine. spoiler :) doesn't make your post any better

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16:00 Aug-31-2015

Well its not arrogant but true, your headphones are pretty much considered normal. Compare them to audio technica or mid range sennheisers and it wont even come close.

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17:59 Aug-31-2015

Be that as it may I agree with Deadstraight it could have been phrased more diplomatically.

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00:50 Aug-31-2015

I use a USB DAC for my audio

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07:09 Aug-31-2015

Yes, they should of talked about them here.

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07:58 Aug-31-2015

USB is generally very bad for any audio stream, because it's packet-based,
compared to PCI devices, USB requires significantly higher latency and buffers and still produce artifacts at higher loads (sending multiple channels at once for ex.)
I noticed that when recording or playing from multiple sound sources, it was a clear no for me, so I got PCIex audio interface :)

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09:05 Aug-31-2015

100% true. Along the line of the port might not provide the 5v it needs all the time. My msi mobo has 2 special ports designed just for using a DAC supposedly providing 5v at all times. Idk how true or how well it works though haha.

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09:24 Aug-31-2015

it's about USB itself,
usb is like highway with cars - they may sometimes get stuck or crash so the stream transfer can easily get flawed - usually doesn't matter when listening to music unless the lag is long enough to notice; but for recording it produces non-repair-able errors :/

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12:03 Aug-31-2015

This is what i game on when i play ps3. Having moved though i have no more room so there sitting in the garage. For music/movies/gaming its AMAZING. http://i11.photobucket.com/albums/a197/bluej511/IMG_6710.jpg sub in the corner 4 rears.

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17:53 Aug-31-2015

Thanks for the info, I was about to ask if anyone knew if an external sound card was equally good. I still have a sound blaster usb sound card lying around. But here's my answer ;-)

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18:10 Aug-31-2015

you can write the exact model if you wish more accurate feedback pal :D

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18:37 Aug-31-2015

Thanks mate,
I'm not at home for 2 weeks so I can't check, but I'm almost 100% sure it's the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro

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19:53 Aug-31-2015

ah I checked it's nice mainstream audio interface,
it's primarily supposed to be replacement for laptop crappy onboard audio :D it should definitely provide more requency-balanced sound, but it's again matter of "personal ear EQ", nice thing is remote control :)

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07:17 Sep-01-2015

When I'm back home I'll try it out and see if I hear any improvement over my onboard audio.
Thanks for the info

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02:53 Sep-01-2015

Another thing with PCIE is it's all in the PC. Which is good.

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22:50 Aug-30-2015

Everything improves gaming experience, the sound card is no exception. But when prioritizing the purchase of a new computer, for me definitely becomes secondary.


I spent € 20 on a dedicated Asus ... They were € 20 which could be added for better cpu. For me it is very difficult to change the CPU and assume the cost of purchasing an upgrade. However when I can buy a sound card (included in malls) 20 €? How slow to open the case and connect the mobo? Do not buy or upgr

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22:02 Aug-30-2015

I've put up a blog about this a while ago. The problem with internal (PCIe) sound cards is that they never or rarely get new products or updates. New external sound cards (specs wise) just put those old sound cards to shame.

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07:59 Aug-31-2015

there is no need to receive upgrades I think, so not a problem

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09:06 Aug-31-2015

Theres updates for sound drivers on a monthly basis. I think on my mobo msi has more sound updates then AMD has driver updates haha.

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21:17 Aug-30-2015

Just get an external card/DAC for that quality crave. If internal - integrated is more than enough these days, they've gotten infinitely better over the past decade that it's just not even a debate anymore. For more info - see Linus Tech Tips.

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20:48 Aug-30-2015

sound cards can be far more expensive than 50 dollars, I've seen them reaching till 200 d* as well, a high end sound system is for spoiled rich fanboys.

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10:55 Aug-31-2015

"a high end sound system is for spoiled rich fanboys", same with high end projetors ? high quality chairs ? high quality mattresses ? high quality tea/coffee ? etc...etc.. grow up please.

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12:23 Aug-31-2015

I just noticed my audio card is being sold on eBay for 899$ lol xD

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13:42 Aug-31-2015

It's a matter of taste bro, also you don't know the kind of setups people might have. Maybe some people use their rigs as part of their hometheater setup, in which case a good sound card can be vital.
I resent that people who are looking for quality are being called names like that bro. It is no reason for them to get picked on. Just because it's not something you think is important doesn't mean it can't be for someone else.
Either way, on Game-Debate we strive for a mature way of stating our opinions so everyone can feel free to express themselves without the risk of getting ridiculed, so please refrain from using such inflammatory language in the future bro.
Thanks for understanding.

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20:46 Aug-30-2015

i find sound cards if u using surround sound? it is a better option in configs that have 5.1 or 7.1. cause u get a better experience. don't get me wrong realtek hd has improved over the years. but some games get the stupid crackle. it all depends on the game u want to play so yeah :)

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19:30 Aug-30-2015

Depends on the motherboard. Great audio makes gaming that much more enjoyable. Even cheap headphones youll notice. My msi mobo has as good if not better sound then most cards. I forgot which site did a review of it but sound is superb.

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19:36 Aug-30-2015

And as far as tv/movies i got a klipsch 7.1 surround system. Its a totally different experience especially in games that support it like uncharted 3.

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21:19 Aug-30-2015

My Alienware18 has Klipsch audio and it's great. Integrated too, duuh :D
Integrated cards are very good these days, especially on more expensive mobos.

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23:36 Aug-30-2015

Yea my msi onboard is as good as a creative soundblaster card at 100€. Ususes external psu power and has 2 headphone amps so even a dac wont improve it much.

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08:59 Aug-31-2015

True! The onboard audio on MSI gaming boards are equivalent to Sound Blaster Z.

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17:45 Aug-30-2015

For me it's not needed. I'm looking only after performance if it's a gaming rig. Jon's right, card's cheap, but the proper headset/speakers can be expensive and I'm using some cheap $5 skype headset.

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