What is a Sound Card?

Edmund_McGowan
edited August 2023 in PC Tech

Good day PC user, perhaps you are familiar with graphics cards, or graphics processing units (commonly known as GPUs)? What about sound cards? “What does a sound card do?” You may be asking yourself. Well, sound cards for PCs, also commonly called sound adapters, audio cards, and audio adapters, are processors dedicated to sound.   

Don’t worry, your PC has an integrated sound card, and it ensures that your audio works, both in and out. But it is a basic, entry level set up.

In many situations, settling for the on-board sound card integrated in your motherboard is sufficient. If, however, you are a gamer, or use your PC for music production, or photo/video editing, or simply demand high fidelity audio output, then investing in a specialist sound card for your PC is certainly something worth considering.

Sounds good? Read on to discover more about what a sound card is used for, as well as how sound cards work, and the different types of sound card. We will also cover how to choose a sound card that meets your requirements, as well as provide you with an overview of how to install a sound card in your PC or laptop.

What does a sound card do and how does it work?

Put simply, sound cards are digital to analog converters (DACs), that receive digital data from the CPU and convert it into analog sound that you hear from audio devices such as headphones and speakers. Sound cards make the sound. The process is the same if you rely on your inbuilt sound card, or opt for an external sound card, or usb sound card. More on the different forms of sound cards for a computer later. First, let’s delve a little deeper to discover the purpose of sound cards in today’s PCs.

Sound cards are small, rectangular expansion cards with contacts on the base of the card and side ports allowing connection to audio devices. They install into a PCI or PCIe slot on the motherboard, leaving the ports exposed at the back of the case for ease of access. Once installed, the sound card uses a DAC and converts digital data into analog format. This output is then connected to a speaker, headphones or other external amplifier, or device. The audio output, depending on your chosen vocation could be anything from sweet, sweet music, to game audio, or even teleconferencing!

Not so long ago, sound cards used up hefty chunks of CPU processing resources. Thankfully, contemporary inbuilt sound cards have a minimal impact on processing power. However, if you need to maximize your computing capacity, adding a sound card can give you a much needed boost. This scenario may apply to gamers who need CPU processes to be loaded, demanding both high quality sound as well as crystal clear, lag free graphics. Note that for many users, the emphasis here is not on obtaining the best sound possible (although that is a welcome side-effect), but on freeing up the CPU to perform at its best.

Moving on to sound quality as priority, sound cards are definitely a necessity if you are working with audio. Monitors, microphones, and headphones all benefit from sound cards, enabling users to monitor output, and much more. Depending on your requirements, sound cards and associated equipment for music production, professional recording and audio processing is a (potentially very expensive) can of worms, and a subject for a separate article. Suffice to say that sound cards also function as analog to digital converters (ADCs), taking analog input from microphones and converting it to digital form to store and process.

What are the different types of sound card, and how to install them?

There are a plethora of sound cards on the market, but they can be conveniently divided into three types of sound cards:

  1. Integrated sound card 
  2. Expansion card (for desktops) 
  3. External sound card (for laptops and desktops)

Firstly, integrated sound cards are sound cards that are integrated into the motherboard of all laptops and desktops. You need not worry about the integrated sound card in your motherboard if it is working. If, however, you demand better sound, or have any of the other requirements discussed above, then an expansion card or external sound card may suit you.

Secondly, expansion cards are PCIe-based cards (also known as integrated sound cards and discrete sound cards). Expansion cards can be directly plugged into the motherboard, and the software and drivers included with the card installed appropriately. As long as your PC has a PCIe x1 slot available, then the installation should be both simple and swift.

The third type of sound card is an external unit, commonly used to augment laptop and desktop audio. External units connect to the computer via USB cable, providing analog output in the same manner as an integrated sound card, but are located outside of the computer. Some users prefer the external units for ease of access, and their simple plug, (install software and drivers), and play features. Due to standard interface and accessibility, USB sound cards are the preferred sound card format for many electronic music performers, while others prefer external sound cards that offer more control over the audio signal.

Remember, individual sound cards will have slightly different installation requirements, as well as software and drivers. Before purchasing an expansion card, ensure that your PC has an available PCIe x1 slot, install the drivers and software, and you should be good to go!

What to look for when buying a sound card? 

Before shopping around for a sound card, first it is useful to have a clear idea of your intended use. Are you a Diablo fan looking to squeeze every last drop of processing power from your CPU, or a music enthusiast who wants to hear Jimmy Page solos in the highest fidelity possible? Different requirements need different sound cards.  

It's clear as a bell: if we are dealing with sound then audio quality is of utmost importance. We recommend looking for a sound card with signal-to-noise ratio of over 100dB. Connectivity is also key, so ensure the sound card that you have your eyes on has the correct jacks to connect to your headphones, speakers, or other audio equipment. Finally, be sure that the sound card supports the channel audio that you require. For immersive, lifelike sound, 7.1 surround sound is the way to go.

The takeaway

Your PC most likely has an inbuilt sound card, and of course, for most purposes, this may be sufficient. But, if you are pushing the limits of gaming, music or whatever noise sounds good to you, then why not take it to the next level with a high-end sound card? Adding the right sound card to your PC build or laptop, does in the realm of audio what a decent graphics card does for graphics quality.

Edmund is an English copywriter based in New Taipei City, Taiwan. He is a widely published writer and translator with two decades of experience in the field of bridging linguistic and cultural gaps between Chinese and English.

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