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In the past Ive always brought dedicated sound cards for my computers, however these days most motherboards have some sort of audio support built in, in fact many even are capable of surround sound, and a large amount of the audio processing can be done completely in software anyway (eg as I understand, XAudio2, which is set to replace DirectSound does all processing in software, just using the hardware to actually send the final audio data to the speakers).

So considering those things is there actually any point to fitting a dedicated sound card in modern computers?

EDIT: So does the improved quality of dedicated audio hardware apply to software based audio solutions which seem to be becoming more popular?

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The only reason I can come up with, is for more inputs. –  Brad Gilbert Jul 20 '09 at 17:53

7 Answers 7

up vote 21 down vote accepted

The motherboard integrated soundcards usually have much more noise, noticeable at higher gains, due to proximity to other components and not being shielded. This noise can be very unpleasant, and if you have good speakers/headphones, it's even more noticeable.

If you care about the sound quality and/if you have good quality speakers/headphones, you should get a good soundcard, perhaps an external one if you plan on recording something aswell (easier to connect, no interference).

On another note: did anyone ever notice in some computers you can hear a static noise when moving the mouse with max volume?

EDIT: If you really want to see how your soundcard performs comparing to others in the market, download the audio benchmarking tool at audio.rightmark.org and compare your results with some commercial and professional sound cards out there in their site. You'll probably need a cable to connecto the speaker and microphone jacks. (though I think this might be a little bit too much if you're not into audiophile/professional stuff)

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That mostly occurs with wireless mice, but yes, I've noticed it. –  Stefan Thyberg Jul 20 '09 at 18:13
    
I had that problem with some HP Walmart speakers. A decent pair of Creative's cleared it right up. –  Travis Jul 20 '09 at 18:26
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I hear that noise everytime the CPUs change speed or the GPU fan kicks on. Very annoying. –  Brian Knoblauch Jul 20 '09 at 18:45
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Yes, this is one of the exact reasons. It drives me crazy with my professional studio monitor headphones cause I hear everything. –  Troggy Jul 20 '09 at 18:51
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Use a digital output to your speakers and motherboard crosstalk is not an issue. My speakers have a headphone jack built into the decoder as well, so it covers my headphones as well. (Logitech Z-5500) –  TM. Jul 20 '09 at 19:56

I'm using the motherboard's sound in my HTPC, with optical output to my receiver; it does 7.1, DTS, AC3, and other three letter acronyms. I also game on the system, and have no noticeable performance impact from not having a "dedicated sound processor" or whatever the marketing folks are saying these days.

I find that sound perception is subjective, and there's more variables in the equation than many other system components. Various hardware can affect how something sounds, and not everyone can even tell there's differences. Some people (like me) cannot detect certain kinds of white noise or interference.

The speakers and/or headphones you use can have more impact on your sound experience than whether you use onboard sound or a standalone sound card. If you're hooked up to a receiver (like I am), that will affect sound output. Some receivers will do additional processing (for good or bad) on the signal they receive.

I didn't install a sound card in my system to save on money - I have a $500 receiver after all - I did so because its an additional component with another set of drivers, and possible area for conflict. The onboard sound chip provides what I need at no additional cost, and the quality is good enough for me.

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The real trouble with measuring audio performance is the placebo effect. That is why you need to double blind things to see if you really notice difference. –  James McMahon Jul 20 '09 at 19:42
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The important thing is that if audio is good enough you then it is fine. If you can't hear any differences don't strain yourself trying to find flaws. –  James McMahon Jul 20 '09 at 19:50
    
I do the same thing, I use optical out to the digital decoder built into my speakers. –  TM. Jul 20 '09 at 19:51
    
@nemo, definitely! Sound and particularly sound quality is subjective. –  jtimberman Jul 20 '09 at 20:11

I use an older Sound Blaster 5.1 card in my desktop. I use it mostly because, by virtue of being a Sound Blaster, it will work with nearly any OS I throw at it with out me having to screw around with it for hours.

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I also use a Sound Blaster Live 5.1 card in all of my systems. They are super cheap, and really good quality. Where my on-board sound cracks and pops, even on an Asus P5N32 gaming board, my Sound Blaster comes through nice and clean. –  Neil Oct 14 '10 at 19:57

As of Windows Vista, Microsoft started requiring a minimum quality level out of motherboard audio. Any machine with the Windows Vista (or Windows 7) logo has a minimum sound quality level requirement. The idea that motherboard audio is really noisy and that you need another sound card to compensate for this should be a thing of the past.

The biggest uses for external audio would be more inputs, different connectors (e.g. balanced connectors), and prosumer quality levels. For listening to audio, you shouldn't need anything but the HDAudio controller on your motherboard.

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Dedicated sound cards are also useful if you want to record/play from multiple sources. For example I run most of my sound through my integrated sound card for things like email and IM sounds, synthetic speach etc where quality doesn't matter. I run my media player through an external sound card that is hooked up to my stario for the extra quality.

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Using sound in your PC in any way that is non-standard or non-mainstream or just different from what your motherboard can provide is the reason to add a card. For example, digital in is still fairly rare. Or an odd sample rate. Or multiple simultaneous recording.

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I have found a very specific problem on my laptop that makes an external soundcard very useful. The sound card on this laptop (a zepto 6324) is situated in the lower right corner of the PC and that is also where the headphone and mic plugs are. The sound card is not shielded at all from mobile phone interference. Can you see the problem yet?

Even though the mobile phone has to be quite close to trigger this, if you have the laptop on your LAP and you carry your mobile phone in your right front pocket, this will cause constant interference from the mobile phone whenever it does anything, including looking for a network. This makes it impossible to keep your phone in your pocket while watching movies on trains, buses, etc. and is one, albeit very specific, area where an extra soundcard would be useful.

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