I've been on the fence about buying a discrete sound card since building my first PC in 2002. The equation for buying most desktop parts is pretty straightforward: a video card can handle your games or it can't, a hard drive has enough storage for your data or it doesn't, memory is compatible with your platform or it isn't, and a chassis can accommodate your hardware or it can't. Audio gear is trickier.

There's no clear-cut metric to use as a guideline if you're shopping for a sound card. Lengthy audiophile reviews are available, but they generally don't offer a quantifiable takeaway if you have a limited point of reference and don't know much about the subject to begin with. I fall into that category. I've never had anything except onboard sound and my knowledge of acoustics couldn't fill a thimble.

From that position, buying a sound card has always felt more like a gamble than an investment. At the same time, I know audio snobs with thousands in equipment and all-FLAC libraries, and I'd like to believe they aren't delusional -- surely there's something to be experienced beyond my basic setup. But I mean, just how much better can music, movies and games sound? Enough to prevent buyer's remorse?


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