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I was wondering about this today, there was a point when building a new computer meant having to buy a sound card to hook into the motherboard. But with most modern boards sound cards are built into the motherboard.

What kind of advantages do modern discreet sound cards have over their on board counterparts? Is there a huge difference in sound quality can reproduction? Or is it more of status symbol of a high end build in this day and age?

marked as duplicate by Ƭᴇcʜιᴇ007, Tog, Kevin Panko, Olli, David Feb 4 '14 at 1:40

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I suppose for the most part, the big difference is in the Input/output options. I use a 'proper' external soundcard and good headphones for music, but for 90% if purposes it dosen't matter. I've an unpublished article about the three main options for sound cards, and this is taken from there.

Firstly, the traditional sound card and your integrated sound devices.Integrated sound devices usually are designed around providing the bare minimum of outputs at the lowest cost. While there’s some motherboards with fancy features, in most cases you’d have 5 channel sound and SPDIF. While soundcards were similar, since basic features have been commodified, these often offer better headphone amplification stages, more options, and ostensibly better sound chips. If you’re a gamer, soundcards are likely the best option, since they’re built around gaming needs, such as surround sound

The second is the DAC or digital audio converter. These are units used by audiophiles which usually do purely output and either have a headphone out, or can be connected to an amplifier. These tend to be somewhat expensive, you’ll need to do your research but in many cases should offer the best sound quality for music. These are usually connected to your PC via USB and are detected as a soundcard. These tend to be expensive (though prices have been dropping), and as with any audiophile grade equipment, you can’t always trust reviews. Do lots of research, and check out as many reviews you can.

The third is the DAW or digital audio workstation - these are basically DAC-type devices with better inputs - I use one of these for playback, and if you do your homework, it offers good sound quality, often at lower prices. They’re pretty good if you want to use proper mics (with RCA/Phantom Power), or want something that can output to RCA - my music playing setup is built around a relatively inexpensive, rather old M Audio fastrack, so I obviously believe this is a good option.

If you have specific needs, a discrete sound card can be a very good idea. For most people, less so. If you do, you're probably going to have to do some legwork to find the right soundcard, often based on the choice of amplification (if any) and output you'll need. You can find some with kickass headphone amplification, or use RCA for an external amplifer. If you need to ask if you need one, chances are no, modern soundcards are good enough.

  • Very insightful, thanks. I had thought of this while I was looking at a Sound Blaster Z for my new WS/Gaming rig. My board has a RealTek chip on it with my new headphone I was wondering if it would give "everything" a little boost. My headphones are AudioTechnica ATH-m50s. – ianc1215 Feb 2 '14 at 7:59
  • Those are my previous headphones - and yeah, I do believe they can benefit from a better sound card, though they sound great in most situations. I've eyed the SBs for a while, those pods are sexy, and the beam forming microphones on the higher end models are useful too,. – Journeyman Geek Feb 2 '14 at 8:00
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Good answers posted thus far, but there is one other big benefit that external add-in sound cards have that built-in motherboard audio doesn't have. With some sound cards (typically higher end), they have their own processor built into the card, so all audio processing is handled by the card instead of the CPU (same logic as an external add-n video card having its own processor to handle graphics processing). For certain crowds, like gamers, this is attractive, as it frees up the CPU to focus more on frame rates instead of sound processing. So, if you're looking to maximize your CPU's resources, then consider an external sound card with its own built in processor.

For a very long time the Sound Blaster Audigy card was known for this feature, and there are surely many other cards on the market now that offer similar functionality.

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The only thing that matters is the sound card.

  • A high-end sound card will always produce a higher quality sound
  • A low-end sound card will always produce a lower quality sound
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    A high end sound card feeding into a poor quality speaker will likely end up sound crap. Most modern sound cards are good enough for most needs. – Journeyman Geek Feb 2 '14 at 6:29

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