Sound Cards: Do They Really Enhance PC Gaming?

Matt Smith 29-09-2013

Many functions that used to be a separate part of a computer have been integrated over the last decade as both motherboards and processors become smaller and more efficient. There are many modern desktops that ship without a single PCI card.


Sound cards are among the formerly discrete components that are now a part of the average PC’s motherboard. That has damaged the market for sound cards, of course, but there’s still a niche of high-end cards that promise better sound quality relative to integrated alternatives. Is there any truth to this claim, or is it expensive snake oil?

What Does A Sound Card Do?


The function of a sound card is obvious; to produce sound. What’s less obvious is why hardware is needed for the task. Audio seems simple, after all; why worry about hardware processing at all?

It is true that audio is not as demanding as video, as there’s simply less information involved, but that doesn’t mean the task is entirely trivial. Audio can consume some processor cycles, so off-loading it to a dedicated chip is preferable. Most motherboards now have a chip on-board, but those used on a dedicated sound card are typically more robust. A more advanced audio chip can also include hardware that enables features like virtual surround sound, a pre-amp, or niche audio formats.

Sound cards are also responsible for expanding audio output. Almost all motherboards, no matter the on-board audio used, offer no better than 5.1 audio via standard 3.5mm jacks. Some don’t even manage that. Software options are often limited, too, leaving the user with few ways to tailor audio output to personal tastes. A sound card is usually required to make a PC compatible with 7.1 audio and common home theater outputs like S/PDIF.


Does A Sound Card Really Produce Better Audio?


Judging audio quality is a tricky subject because, well, it’s mostly subjective. Standards exist, but reviewers generally don’t have the laboratory-grade equipment used by manufacturers to calibrate premium audio hardware. Discovering the difference usually requires blind comparison tests.

Fortunately, there’s still one site that does this: The Tech Report. They’ve conducted several discrete sound card reviews over the last few years, the latest of which covered the low-cost ASUS Xonar cards. They use a combination of testing hardware and blind listening tests to determine the quality, and have consistently found that discrete cards are preferable to integrated audio.

With that said, though, a difference in audio quality can be hard to notice in games. There are two reasons for this. First, games often focus on visuals rather than sound, which means players usually can’t concentrate on the audio. Second, games don’t always have high-quality source audio, which makes better hardware pointless.


Improved surround sound is the one benefit games can sometimes expect to receive. Certain games will have surround-sound modes that only work with hardware audio, and some audio cards have virtual surround sound modes designed to improve the quality of source content. Both can lead to a more immersive experience.

Buyers should remember their headphones or speakers The 8 Best Computer Speakers for Under $100 You don't need to spend a lot for a good set of computer speakers. Here are the best cheap computer speakers available today. Read More impact quality, too. If you only own a $100 2.1 audio system, a sound card probably won’t be worthwhile, as your audio system won’t be able to produce a noticeable difference.

What About Performance?


As mentioned earlier, audio hardware can reduce processor load by off-loading the task from the CPU. This can improve performance, but does it matter enough to be noticeable in games?


No, not really. Motherboard audio handles the task well enough, and today’s games generally aren’t bound by processor performance, so they won’t run more quickly if a sound card is installed. There’s also not much difference in latency (the time it takes for audio to reach your speakers). Discrete cards are often slower in this regard because they apply additional processing that an integrated chip doesn’t offer, but the difference is too small to notice.

So, Should A PC Gamer Buy A Sound Card?

If audio quality in games is your sole concern the answer is a definitive no. Any difference will be hard to notice, and some titles don’t output audio that’s good enough to make the hardware matter. Games also tend to focus on visuals, so there are few audio sequences that last long enough for the player to appreciate. You’ll be better off spending your money on some other hardcore gaming peripheral 4 Awesome Peripherals For Hardcore MMO Gamers [Gaming] Massively Multiplayer online games remain a unique genre. Despite a few attempts to change them, the most popular titles still use an ability-focused combat system that requires players to use a wide variety of keys.... Read More .

There’s one feature that can make a sound card sensible; surround sound. Not all integrated audio chips handle it well, which may lead to sound that seems flat or poorly staged, even with a headset Creative Sound Blaster Tactic3D Omega Wireless Headphones Review and Giveaway You wouldn't want your entire household to know that you're busy playing games on your Xbox 360 or PS3, would you? Sure, it might be fun, but if your games require you to keep an... Read More that’s designed to provide great surround. In this case you’ll need a sound card to receive the best results.

Sound cards are most important to users who often watch movies or listen to music. In these situations a difference in quality is easier to notice, and the quality of the source is often quite good, even excellent, so better hardware will shine. These users might also want to hook up a premium 7.1 system or a larger subwoofer, hardware most motherboard audio can’t support.


Image Credit: Evan-Amos/Wikipedia

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  1. miracle faatoa
    October 8, 2018 at 9:44 pm

    i love you so much

  2. e
    September 3, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    I know this is a very old article but it is very bogus. The author was either clueless at the time or just having some not so honest agenda.
    "You’ll be better off spending your money on some other hardcore gaming peripheral." - and then there's a link to some really creepy useless things recommending 150-200$ keyboards. Guess what a 80-100$ asian keyboard does just the same (cherry mx or similar quality switches) and with the rest you can still buy a decent sound card. Sure it won't have all the leds at that money but I guess we can agree if we look at function a sound card offers something more worthy - proper sound - then some keyboard leds and flashy logos from companies that order their keyboards from same Asian factories and only put their logo on it.
    Also, sound is NOT entirely subjective, it really should not be, if it is then you're comparing very similar equipment where you can't measure and clearly hear difference.

  3. turpo911
    June 20, 2016 at 9:49 am

    so u say a gammer did not realy need sounds improvment ? lol

    omg what is that?

    u know that fps or shooter games need 7:1 sounds so u can know locations of other players or what ever?

    u should say does it make diffrent between modern mobo than installing sound card in gerenrally

    do not just say gaming does not depend on sounds !

    • Nick
      August 29, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      In fact, with some headphones and some stereo magic, any computer can emulate a surround pretty well. I don't game much, but I am a producer-in-training in my free time. Sound cards will be justified in this case.

  4. Rohit Jain
    April 7, 2016 at 11:01 am

    I am a user whose requirement is optimal sound for movies and audios, I don't do gaming.
    Should I buy a sound card? If yes which ones you would recommend concerning the budget?

  5. Zero Angel
    October 27, 2013 at 2:17 am

    I had a Hercules Gamesurround Fortissimo II back in the day (in 2002), awesome soundcard, it was definitely killed the normal soundblasters that most people were rocking. Surprisingly, sound card technology hasnt advanced much over the years. My tests with a really low end Xonar DG and my onboard Realtek sound dont show a huge difference. I imagine you do get what you pay for as far as soundcards are concerned, and mobo audio has advanced quite a bit.

  6. Zoe
    October 11, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    In my case at least I already have a Audigy2, but didn't use it for a couple of years since on-board was easy to go with.
    Kept my same system but upgraded to Windows7 and while the on-board sound did work, W7 drivers were not provided so I couldn't adjust any Environmental Audio. i.e. just basic sound(stereo)
    I contacted the manufacture of that sound chip and they said they don't have support for Windows 7. So I put in my Audigy2, and voila, back in proper audio business.
    My system is generally modern save for the Intel D975BX2? MB which is 5 years old.
    Everything gets obsolete in a few years. BUT, the Audigy2 is probably 10 years old and going strong. Software/drivers for Windows 7 and 8. Thanks Creative.

    • Nick
      August 29, 2016 at 6:17 pm

      I agree. I myself am running a Windows 7/8/10 machine with a SoundBlaster 2 ZS. The rise in performance (at least in DAWs) is noticeable. Creative for the win!

  7. Jack Russ
    October 1, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Very good explanation. Gamers still need audio card however. I also consider myself to buy one later. You cannot beat the sense of perfection, and some gamers think their playing only perfect when they buy sound card.
    This article is helpful, but people still need audio card.

  8. darrin
    September 30, 2013 at 11:17 am

    i have been a DJ for years and you have to have a ear for sound. for me its in the blood

  9. Brandon R
    September 30, 2013 at 5:01 am

    Good info

  10. Wiry A
    September 30, 2013 at 4:56 am

    Sound cards for gaming are important for some games. Like FPS games. With stereo, player will need more time to locate where the sound was coming from. With more channel like 5.1, it is more easier and faster, making fast reaction become even more better.

  11. MIRZA
    September 30, 2013 at 3:01 am

    Thanx for good information.

  12. Wilfredo Jr. D
    September 29, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    I'd rather invest on a good quality of multimedia speakers..

    • dragonmouth
      October 1, 2013 at 12:58 pm

      Good quality speakers should go along with good quality sound card. Otherwise all that good speakers will mean is that you will hear the pops, crackles and hisses better.

  13. Chris M
    September 29, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    So, I'm building a new comp and have already bought my sound card. (Its nothing to brag about, because I'm a gamer and that wasn't a priority.) The Mobo I am looking at does, in fact, support 7.1. the stat I am looking at is the sample rate. The Mobo sports 24 bit/192kHz while the discrete is 24bit/48kHz. So, is this telling me that my Mobo is that much better than the discrete?

  14. Tim
    September 29, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    An external sound card (or any with XLR inputs) is a must have for anyone who wants to use a condenser style mic for gaming

  15. Jorge B
    September 29, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    I haven't found myself in the need of purchasing a sound card. Both my motherboards had 5.1 sound integrated in the board.

  16. Alan
    September 29, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    Anyone who says that a discreet card is not worth the money has never listened to an Asus Essence STX. unless you have you can't comment.

    • OhPLEASE
      November 19, 2013 at 8:24 am


      I bought a sound card for the first time when I was playing Battlefield 2142.

      The difference was enormous. I mean, absolutely enormous. Even a layman could tell the difference.

      I don't know exactly how much onboard audio has improved, but honestly I don't believe it can compete with high end sound cards.

      This review is also hogwash. The reviews of sound cards say there IS a difference, and you should definitely get one if you care for audio. This author even states that TechReport "...have consistently found that discrete cards are preferable to integrated audio."

      Then right afterwards, dismisses it as if that means nothing? Total BS. That's like saying "Repeated Scientific Experimentation done in the year of 2023 proves that Dark Matter in fact does exist. Multiple research organizations have reported it exists. But really, it doesn't exist. Just forget about it. I wouldn't get a Dark Matter detector if you want to detect Dark Matter. It is barely any different than a regular matter detector."

  17. Igor R
    September 29, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    I actually never considered buying a sound never popped my mind..good thing btw that i would be a waste of money.

  18. Adrian
    September 29, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    I remember the days when a Sound Blaster 16 was a revolution for the PC. Sometimes it was a royal pain the ass finding the right IRQ settings to get the darn thing working but when it about amazing.

    I had also liked the Sound Blaster Live! series because of the advanced audio adjustments like Subwoofer, echo, parametric equalizer etc. But processors are so powerful nowadays many of those functions can be handled in software.

    But I agree, nowadays on board audio is usually sufficient though I keep an external one around just in case there happens to be a hardware failure.

    • Larry Rieder
      September 29, 2013 at 5:32 pm

      Haha! I remember those days when installing DOS games.

    • Edwin
      September 29, 2013 at 10:06 pm

      OMG. Remembering this as if it was yesterday. Or the day before that.

    • Matjaž M
      September 30, 2013 at 6:05 am

      Oh, yes. Those IRQ settings. And adding lines in config.sys and autoexec.bat, memory management ...

    • Chad
      March 26, 2014 at 9:19 pm

      Hahah.... Hearing the SB16 all over again makes me feel so old. I remembered trying to recycle it for the newer 32-bit slots but had mixed results. I guess that was time to retire the thing :(

    • donjoe
      April 15, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      ... and then getting to hear that triumphant "Your sound card works perfectly!" at the end. :P