For years, installing a separate sound card was the only way to receive quality sound through a computer.
As technology progressed, sound cards began to be integrated into motherboards.
With this advancement in technology, the question remains…
Do I Need A Sound Card?
No, a general user will not need a separate sound card installed on their computer to receive sound.
Most computer motherboards are equipped with built-in sound cards that are sufficient for standard user needs.
However, dedicated sound cards still exist and may be needed in specific situations for increased functionality and higher quality of sound.
What Is A Sound Card?
A sound card is a hardware component with a processor that is dedicated to a digital-to-analog converter, or DAC.
A DAC takes the digital signals produced by the computer and turns them into analog signals which can be heard through a listening device such as speakers or headphones.
A sound card can be integrated into the motherboard or added as an expansion through a PCI or PCIe slot.
Most modern devices, such as computers, laptops, tablets, and phones, have an integrated sound card pre-installed on the motherboard to save space within the casing.
Expansion sound cards can be added directly to the motherboard in the casing on devices with open PCI or PCIe expansion slots.
Adding a sound card directly to the motherboard allows the card to take advantage of the power and resources of the motherboard it is connected to.
What Is An Audio Interface?
While the audio interface and sound card have become interchangeable terms in most circles, they are technically different components.
While a sound card is installed within the housing of a device, either integrated or through an expansion slot, an audio interface is strictly an external device connected to the host device through cabling.
An audio interface performs the same functions as a sound card by acting as a DAC for audio signals but adds the increased component of allowing for multiple inputs and input types.
Can You Have Audio Without A Sound Card?
Yes, you can have sound without a sound card if a speaker with an integrated DAC is connected to your device through a port such as a USB.
However, the most effective way to produce sound on a device is through a sound card of some type, whether it is integrated, added as an expansion, or an external audio interface.
The sound card is responsible for converting digital signals into analog signals and vice versa, which is the process by which an audio signal is understood by the computer and changed into an acoustic signal that can be heard by the user.
How Does A Sound Card Work?
Sound is created through vibration and is itself an analog signal.
An analog signal capture of a sound wave is the exact capture of the waveform created by the sound.
This waveform varies in voltage, currency, and frequency to represent specific sounds.
When a human ear hears a sound, the analog vibration is sent into the inner ear which turns it into an electrical signal that our brain can process into what we know as sound.
Computers do not run on analog signals.
Computers use digital signals to communicate.
A digital signal is a series of binary numbers, 1s and 0s, that a computer can process.
A digital signal is created by taking a sampling of the analog signal at a specified rate to create a sound.
No matter how advanced the digital technology is, there will always be some loss, however minute, in the conversion of an analog signal to a digital signal.
Picture it this way: Let’s say you are watching your dog catch a ball.
When you see the dog catch the ball, you are seeing every bit of what is occurring.
Now imagine you are watching a video of your dog catching a ball.
To create the video, the recording device takes a series of pictures of the process and puts them all together to create a video.
As we all know, though, each individual picture is a single instance of the process and not a purely continuous flow like viewing your dog in real life.
The same is true for analog-to-digital conversion.
The reverse process, digital-to-analog conversion, is akin to the playback of the video created.
All the sound samples are spliced together to create a continuous analog signal which can be heard through analog devices such as speakers and headphones.
Do I Need A Sound Card For Recording?
To record, you will need a microphone of some type, whether it be an integrated microphone or an external mic.
A microphone captures the sound waves produced by a sound as an analog signal.
Some microphones also house a built-in analog-to-digital converter, bypassing the need for a sound card or any type at all.
If the microphone does not have a built-in DAC, it will require a sound card of some type to convert the signal into one which can be understood by the computer.
In general, however, you do not need a separate sound card for recording.
The built-in sound cards on devices such as laptops, phones, and tablets are capable of recording and typically sufficient for the average user.
However, if your needs are more complex and require more precise audio recording, a dedicated sound card or an audio interface can be highly beneficial as it allows for the creation of clear, professional-quality recordings.
Do I Need A Sound Card For Speakers?
A speaker, like a microphone, can be integrated into the device or external.
A speaker is a transducer that converts electrical energy into acoustic energy.
Some speakers, such as USB speakers, do not require the use of a sound card at all.
These devices have an integrated DAC which allows for the conversion of the digital electrical signal into an analog signal that can be reproduced by waves.
The sound card integrated into your device can handle the conversion of digital sounds to analog for use with speakers that do not have an integrated DAC.
While the quality of the sound produced through the built-in sound card works well for the general user, users with more advanced speaker systems that include amplifiers and multiple speakers for surround sound will benefit from the addition of a dedicated sound card or an audio interface might be worth the output.
Do I Need A Sound Card For Streaming?
Streaming audio is the process of listening to audio over a network through a continuous transmission of files from a server to a client.
For most streaming options such as listening to music on Spotify or Pandora, the quality of the sound generated by the onboard sound card is more than capable of creating clear, pleasing sounds for the user.
Built-in sound cards are also capable of capturing sounds during streams you create yourself and can produce quality sounds without the need for additional hardware.
If you are a streaming content creator who requires a higher quality of sound, you may consider the addition of an upgraded external microphone rather than an upgraded sound card to produce the desired quality of recordings.
Do You Need A Sound Card For Lossless Audio?
There are three main types of digital audio files: uncompressed, compressed lossless, and compressed lossy audio files.
The difference between the three types is how the audio file is compressed when it is converted from an analog signal into a digital signal.
Digital audio files take up a lot of space, which leads to the need for compression.
An uncompressed file is typically seen in CDs and retains all of the sampling of the audio conversion.
A compressed lossy audio file is usually used when listening on smartphone applications of MP3s.
This type of file reduces the file size by eliminating some frequencies.
While this reduces file size, at the same time, it deletes some of the original audio data.
A compressed lossless audio file does compress the audio file but retains all the audio data, which can then be recreated through decoding by compatible software.
To take full advantage of lossless audio, you do need an upgraded sound card beyond the scope of the preinstalled sound card on the motherboard.
Since a lossless audio file retains all the frequencies generated by the original analog signal, a sound card capable of producing these frequencies is required.
An integrated sound card will usually not be able to keep up with the native sampling rate or bit depth of lossless audio files.
Also, integrated sound cards are susceptible to electrical interference, which can degrade the sound of your lossless audio file.
Why Would You Need A Dedicated Sound Card?
After reading all the above, you may wonder why you would possibly need a dedicated sound card.
The answer really depends on you and your needs as the end-user.
The biggest issue faced by integrated sound cards is the amount of electrical interference which can be heard through the listening device.
While most motherboards do shield or isolate their sound cards, the interference can still be heard, especially when the computer is working hard, when the volume is turned all the way up, and when there is no audio to be heard.
This interference is typically heard as a hiss or a buzz.
A dedicated sound card removes this interference completely and can allow the user to hear sounds more clearly and crisply as well as any underlying sounds which may have been drowned out by the electrical interference on the integrated sound card.
Another potential reason for needing a dedicated sound card is the need for additional ports for sound-related devices.
An integrated sound card has a limited number of ports available for use, typically with a single port available for a specific input or output type.
For example, there may be only one connection port available for an output such as a speaker.
Additionally, the type of connection an onboard sound card is compatible with is usually a standard jack or Tip/Ring/Sleeve (TRS) connector.
If your audio setup includes items such as studio monitors, headphones, microphones, and a variety of connection types, you may wish to invest in an expansion sound card.
How Do I Know If I Have An Integrated Sound Card?
Today, it is safe to say that all computers have a sound card.
The question is whether the sound card is integrated into the motherboard or attached via a PCI or PCIe expansion slot.
Checking for which one your computer has is quite simple and, thankfully, does not involve removing the side panel to view the internal components of the computer tower.
To check your computer’s sound card, simply look at the back of the tower.
With a sound card that is integrated into the motherboard, the sound ports will usually be right by the USB, mouse, and keyboard connections.
If the ports are located near the bottom of the computer tower or significantly separated from the other components, then chances are that it is an expansion sound card.
What Do The Different Colors Mean On The Sound Card Ports?
For ease of use, sound card ports are color-coded according to a set standard for connection type and function.
- Pink: Microphone input
- Green: Headphone or Speaker output
- Blue: Audio input line
- Black: Rear surround sound
- Yellow: Digital output
- Orange: Subwoofer output
- Grey/Gold: Game port/MIDI
How Can I Find Out What Sound Card My Computer Has?
Once you have figured out if you have an integrated or an expansion sound card on your computer, you may wonder what sound card you actually have.
There are various simple ways to do this.
Method 1: Use The Search Bar
- On the Windows operating system, look for the search bar, typically located at the bottom left corner next to the Windows logo. Type Device Manager into the search bar and press search.
- When the search results appear, click on Device Manager in the right-hand box. This will open the device management dialogue box.
- Scroll down until you see Sound, Video, and Game Controllers. The list is in alphabetical order. Click on the expand arrow next to Sound, Video, and Device Controllers.
- A drop-down list will appear with the audio devices installed on your device. To view the specifics of a particular device, double click on the desired device to see information such as the name of the device, whether or not the device is working properly, the driver information, details, and logged events.
Method 2: Using System Information
- On the Windows OS, press and hold the Windows key and press R. This will open the Run dialogue box.
- In the box next to Open, type msinfo32.exe and press Ok. The Systems Information box will appear.
- In the box on the left-hand side, look for Components and press the + box next to it. A list of the components in the computer will appear.
- Look for Sound Device. It will appear underneath the Multimedia tab.
- Click on Sound Device and the information of the installed sound device will be displayed. The information includes the name, the manufacturer, the status, the PNP Device ID, and the Driver the device uses. If there is more than one sound device installed, they will also be listed here.
Method 3: Use DirectX Diagnostic Tool
- On the Windows OS, press and hold the Windows icon and press R. This will open the Run dialogue box.
- In the box next to Open, type dxdiag and press Ok. A popup box might appear asking if you want to check to see if your drivers are digitally signed. You can press No and the DirectX Diagnostic Tool will begin to load. This may take a minute to completely load.
- Once loaded, there will be four tabs at the top of the page. Click on the third tab Sound. The information on your sound card will be displayed as well as information on the driver the sound card uses. At the bottom of the window, the status of the device will also be displayed.
What About The Sound Card On A Mac OS?
Apple holds the exact specifications of their sound cards close.
All Mac products do, however, come with an integrated sound card that is compatible with audio input and output, stereo speakers and wide stereo sound, and a three-mic array and directional beamforming for audio recording.
You can add an internal sound card to some Mac products if there is an available PCI or PCIe slot, enough room in the case, and the sound card is compatible with the Mac OS.
Another, and perhaps better option, would be to add an external audio interface to the Mac rather than an internal sound card.
The options for compatible external audio interfaces are more diverse.
When Should I Get An Audio Interface Rather Than A Sound Card?
It is time to upgrade to an external audio interface when your needs exceed the capabilities of a sound card, integrated or expansion.
An audio interface allows for the creation of sophisticated sound production which can be vital for podcasting, music production, or multi-track recording.
Such an interface can also offer more and a wider range of ports and connection types.
An audio interface can be connected externally through a USB cable, FireWire, or a Thunderbolt connection.
Standard inputs for an audio interface include the microphone, direct injection/line input which is used to connect devices such as electric guitars, and MIDI inputs that are typically used to connect keyboards or electric drum sets.
Standard outputs for an audio interface are Balanced XLR used for microphones cables, Unbalanced TRS used for instrument cables, MIDI, and RCA outputs for speakers.
An external audio interface also gives the user more control over sound production by providing gain control, clipping, and an equalizer among others.
“Sound Card Connections and Color Codes.” CCM, https://ccm.net/contents/379-sound-card-connections-and-color-codes. Accessed 3 Mar. 2022.
“What Is a Sound Card?” SoundGuys, 23 Nov. 2021, https://www.soundguys.com/what-is-a-sound-card-26851/.
“What Is an Audio Interface?” SoundGuys, 11 May 2021, https://www.soundguys.com/what-is-an-audio-interface-23048/.
“What Is Lossless Audio? Everything You Need to Know.” XBitLabs, 6 Apr. 2021, https://www.xbitlabs.com/what-is-lossless-audio/.