Should You Buy a Sound Card? An Enthusiast's Perspective




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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Procrastinating Member
Interesting read, but I'd argue useless to end the debate on onboard sound vs. discrete. But my bias goes back to decades of reading Stereo Review and properly conducted tests. Their lab tests were rigorously done and listening tests were double-blind. Even a small difference in level will shift a listener's opinion, so a crude listening comparison like this one has little to no value. And done though a DSP eq setting?
If anyone has a link to a well done test of a premium onboard chip vs. a discrete card, I'd love to read it. I stopped reading about audio when SR morphed into Video Review and regret the loss of expertise.