It used to be that a computer would require a lot more separate components, and the motherboard did not include any on-board devices as it does now.
Nowadays, motherboards have the chipset, SATA/Hard Drive controller, RGB control, and many other devices built-in, when it used to require several different add-in cards just a decade ago.
Sound cards have now mostly disappeared as motherboards embed audio hardware directly. For most motherboards, the on-board audio is more than sufficient for most people. That doesn’t mean that anyone who buys a separate sound card is just wasting their money.
There are still several reasons why people would want to purchase dedicated audio hardware for custom gaming PCs.
How is Sound Produced on a Computer?
For starters, sound cards and audio sections of motherboards consist of a few different subcomponents.
The first component is a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC), which takes the ones and zeros that a computer understands and translates it into a continuous wave to recreate the sound. Older sound devices used 8-bit and 16-bit DACs, which do not recreate the sound as accurately as modern 24-bit DACs.
The more bits you use, the higher the resolution of the sound, and the more accurate the sound will be to the source. This is similar to how screens and TVs with a higher resolution look better with high-quality movies. This is also part of why old pixel games and computers had a distinctive electronic tone when recreating sounds and music, because the DAC couldn’t recreate the sound accurately enough, among other reasons.
Most modern devices use 24 or 32-bit DACs, which can very accurately recreate instruments, voices, and other sound effects. 32-bit audio is often no more discernable in quality than 24-bit for most people.
In Windows, you can get the best audio by going to the sound control panel, right-clicking on your audio output device, clicking properties, and choosing the highest quality from the advanced tab. Additionally, MP3 files will only store music in a 16-bit format, so it is recommended to use M4A, WAV, and AIFF files, which store 24-bit high-quality audio. They will require a bit more disk space since it is storing a higher quality audio file.
The second subcomponent is the amplifier (amp), which increases the volume/power of the audio. DACs output an analog signal that is very quiet if speakers or headphones were connected directly to it. The amp takes the source analog signal, then amplifies it or increases the amplitude of the signal. Computers and other devices implement volume control by adjusting how much power the amplifier uses. Without going into too deep of detail about the many types of amplifiers, different amps can change the sound slightly and is commonly referred to as ‘coloring’ the sound. For example, a ‘warm’ sound amplifies low and mid-tones like bass guitars and voices.
All sound cards, motherboards, and phones embed a combination of DAC and amp. So naturally, the question is, what makes one better than another? For most people, the built-in hardware is good enough for music, movies, and gaming. There are still some problems people might encounter with integrated audio, as well as people who may desire some features that often are lacking from built-in audio.
Common Issues with Built-In Audio
People with very sensitive ears may hear a hiss, static, or some other form of white noise when using the on-board audio. This can be due to electrical interference caused by the rest of the computer. Common causes that can produce noise are the CPU/GPU while gaming, poor quality power supplies or power strips, or even just a rattling fan. Many motherboards isolate the audio section from the rest of the motherboard, and some high-end motherboards will even surround the audio section in a ground-shield to reduce any interference. But despite all of these improvements, some interference can still come through.
What to Look for in External Audio Equipment
Most audio hardware has now moved external to the computer to overcome the electrical interference issues. There are still products, like the Sound Blaster AE-9 or EVGA NU Audio Card, which still slot into the motherboard, but this is rare now. Products like the Schiit Fulla 3, Sound Blaster X3, and FiiO E10K are external AMP/DAC combo units. The former two external units also provide microphone inputs, which will help improve microphone quality. These amp/DAC combo units are great for entry-level audiophiles that want to hear their music as the artist intended, a must-have for expensive headphones that need extra power, and gamers who desire the most immersive audio experience. You can get separate DACs and amplifier units to tune the audio to be specific to what you need; however, this should require significantly more research for what precisely will benefit your setup. For PC gamers, amateur video editors, and hobbyists, the high cost of separate amplifiers and DACs makes the benefits of that setup challenging to justify.
The DACs and amps that provide extra software to tinker with the features of the audio hardware are almost always directed towards PC gamers. The Sound Blaster G6, Sound Blaster X3, and Sennheiser GSX1200 are devices that feature ways to modify the sound output. There are features such as virtual surround sound, equalizer controls, bass boosters, voice enhancers, and microphone sound effects. To many people, these features don’t make music or games sound any better, as fun and exciting as they may be. Almost all modern video games have an audio engine that capable of giving spatially accurate sounds, so virtual surround sound isn’t very relevant anymore, and it’s not a feature any pro-gamers or streamers will use. The equalizer is helpful to tune earbuds and cheap headphones, however, a nice pair of headphones typically won’t need any extra tuning or EQs sound their best. Check out our headphone recommendation blog post to see what we recommend.
So what should you do with all this knowledge? Well, if your motherboard can make your headphones loud enough for your tastes and you don’t hear any static, then you are probably fine. If your ears feel fatigued or your computer is causing unwanted white noise, then you probably should look at an external audio solution. If you can’t afford one of the previous amp/DACs listed, then the Sound Blaster G1 is a great little amp/DAC for the price. If you are looking into buying a quality pair of gaming headphones or an audiophile-grade pair, then an amp/DAC is also recommended, though not necessary. Again, check our headphone round-up to see what headphones may need an amp/DAC. The general rule for all things (computers, headphones, cars) is if you are satisfied with what you have currently, then you don’t need to upgrade or change anything. It’s those times when maybe you can’t hear exactly where the enemy is walking from in-game, or the music sounds more dull than usual for when a sound card or amp/DAC is a worthwhile purchase.
Videos for Additional Research
History of Sound Cards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5kGXI8vUKg
AE9 Review and EMI Examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9-ulTBgd9I
Additional Explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPkJgiVb_C4
EMI Experiment with Microphone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5FHESwZ0bw
Schiit Hel and PC37X (My personal audio setup): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HLlmBtyYGw