Sound Card Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

The audio quality of your computer can make a significant difference in your entertainment experience. With a great sound card, you can get the best sound possible from your movies, music and games. This sound card buying guide is meant to give you in-depth information about sound cards and how they fit with your entertainment PC.

Buying a Sound Card:

Sound Card Buying Guide

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  • Audio processing:

    Many computers have basic audio support, usually as an integrated audio chip on the motherboard. With regular, two-channel audio, this type of motherboard-integrated audio sound card works fine. However, on-board audio cards have a few drawbacks.

Two-channel and On-board Audio

Processing load: Integrated sound cards often require your computer's central processor to do most of the audio handling. This takes resources which could otherwise be used for graphics and video processing for games and movies. With graphics-heavy programs, this extra processing load may introduce some skipping in your movies or a slowdown of games.

Dynamic range: On-board sound cards may not have the dynamic range of a dedicated sound card, giving you audio that's less clear and authentic.

  • Expansion sound cards:

    Sound cards are usually inserted into expansion slots on your computer's motherboard. Be sure to match the slot types your computer has available with the card type. A PCI card won't fit into a PCI-E card slot, for example. If you don't have a free expansion slot, you can look for USB sound cards that connect through computer ports supporting USB 2.0 or higher.

  • Computers as home theaters:

    Your computer is capable of providing a surround sound system for your video games, movies and music. Many games and movies have audio encoded for Dolby Digital and DTS with 5.1 or 7.1 audio channels. If your sound card has a decoder for one or more of these surround sound formats, then you'll be able to enjoy your games and movies the way they were meant to be experienced. Check to see whether your sound card supports 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound and has the connection ports for a multichannel speaker system.

  • Separate receiver or hub:

    If you've already invested in a home theater receiver and speakers that you want to connect to your computer, look for a sound card with a TOSLINK or other similar connector that can send the audio to your external receiver. Your sound card may even include an external box with a variety of extra connectors for speakers and audio controls. This external sound-card box may sit on your desktop or fit into one of your desktop computer's spare drive bays.

  • Remote control:

    No home theater is complete without a wireless remote. If your sound card includes a remote, you'll want to make sure the receiver box is visible from your seating area to receive infrared remote signals. Sound card remotes may also work wirelessly with a USB wireless adapter. If your sound card doesn't include a remote, you can use a wireless mouse or keyboard instead.

  • Audio for games:

    Amazing audio from a sound card creates a more immersive gaming experience. Great computer speakers are a good start, but today's high-end gaming sound cards are capable of much more:

Gaming Sound Cards


Some manufacturers of high-end sound cards will offer a variety of similar models of sound card, with one or more of them being specifically tailored to gaming. These specialized cards will include features that emphasize real-time effects, in particular, positional effects and environmental effects. A top-of-the-line sound card can do effects such as 3D audio positioning for astonishing realism.

3D Sound:

Positional audio and 3D sound effects require more than just two speakers, so you may want to have a 5.1 or 7.1 speaker system for a truly superior gaming experience.

  • Sound cards for musicians:

    With the right equipment, your laptop can be used as a home recording studio.

Sound Cards for Music

S/N ratio: Sound cards for music recording should include a high signal-to-noise ratio and low distortion. Recording sound cards support multiple audio channels and ASIO driver support for recording software.

External boxes: Sound cards with an external box are often your best choice for home recording because those external boxes will provide a variety of connections to microphones and other audio devices. Of course, if you've already invested in an external mixer and other music studio equipment, then you may be able to connect it directly to your sound card through a USB connection.

Ideas from has a wide selection of computer speakers for your computer. Check to see which connectors your sound card will accept and match some computer speakers with those cables or an adapter to connect the two. has the computer hardware you need to put together a great system for gaming, for work, or for whatever else you're into. You can find processors, video cards, motherboards, cases, power supplies, memory, hard drives and more, all at prices you'll love.