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What is a Sound Card?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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A sound card is an internal computer component that processes audio files in order to provide high-quality playback through computer speakers. It plays voice as well as music files and can handle various audio file formats, including .wav, .mp3 and .cda to name but a few. The quality of the sound card and speakers both affect the overall sound quality of the computer system. The typical card has an interface available at the back of the computer with various input and output ports, including the speaker plug.

Most cards also have a line-in port for listening to or recording from an external device such as a digital audio player. If the source device does not have a line-out port to connect to the sound card, a stereo cable can be run from the headphone jack on the source device to the line-in port on the card. Software configurations may be required to hear the device playing.

A microphone port is also included. By plugging in an external mic, one can record notes, lectures, daily personal logs, audio blogs or podcasts. For private listening, every card features a headphone jack, which offers the perfect way to enjoy MP3s, DVDs or other audio files without disturbing others.

A sound card typically comes with proprietary software and drivers, though standard Microsoft® operating systems automatically detect and load drivers for popular cards. The software interfaces with the card to allow the user to set parameters and controls, and to perform checks on the hardware. It might also come with tools for recording, burning, editing or composing.

Advanced devices come with added versatility for audiophiles. The card might include a digital sound port, midi interface or Sony-Philips Digital Interface Format (SPDIF) in/out ports. Some include a front bay interface that might feature a second line-in, instrument ports for recording original music, a headphone jack with its own volume control, Firewire®, or other options. Having these ports at the front of the computer in a bay, rather than at the back, is highly convenient for using the computer as a personal recording studio.

Generally, more expensive sound cards come with advanced software programs for editing and recording. They also support surround sound for a high-quality audio experience. This is important to audiophiles and gamers alike.

Many motherboards today have built-in sound cards. These can be disabled in order to use a superior third-party card purchased and installed separately, although the built-in device is likely adequate for those less fanatic about their sound quality. Third-party components are available everywhere computer components are sold.

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Discussion Comments

By anon957929 — On Jun 23, 2014

Skype keeps telling me to check my sound card. What is that?

By anon929718 — On Feb 02, 2014

My computer sound system crashed. I am not able to listen to music with or without my head phones. I don't hear anything. someone advised me to go for an external sound card with speakers. Will it work, and where can I get them and how do I choose what to buy for my computer?

By anon311535 — On Jan 02, 2013

May I chime in? I first used computers when they were "room-sized monstrosities" (N.O.R.C. ~ University of Chicago), eventually making my first PC (including the motherboard) in 1989. All of the above was preceded by a Julliard Scholarship (declined) and two summers as first french horn with the Boston Pops Summer Program.

So, I've got creds as both a geek and an audiophile.(The first horn's position is dead center in an orchestra/band, so we *know* what "perfect and balanced" sound like.)

That said, despite my 24-plus years with computers and experimentation with speakers from high-end to low, I have *never* experienced the quality sound I now get with a sound card.

I've a (low end) Toshi laptop with a broken audio output jack that's a part of the motherboard. I needed the jack to connect my PC (no HDMI) to my LCD TV, so I needed to replace the motherboard or buy a new PC. The latter is less costly. Then my "PC expert" saved the day, and suggested a sound card (I didn't know they had input/output jacks) and I took his advice.

The sound *with* versus without a sound card? The equivalent of a full orchestra versus the tinny sound of an old pocket radio.

In other words, no matter how good your speakers, built-in or external are, you've not lived until you've heard audio on your PC with a sound card! (Strictly in my opinion, of course.)

By anon275950 — On Jun 21, 2012

@anon240023: It doesn't hurt to have one. In fact, it's worth it and you don't need to break the bank to get one. Bear in mind that some require a 4 pin connector (i.e. a floppy disk connector).

Like some have said, it's best to invest in quality speakers as well as having a sound card. Although the onboard audio has improved over the years, sound cards still give better audio and it's a big plus for watching movies, listening to music and definitely a big plus and advantage for gaming.

By anon275949 — On Jun 21, 2012

I agree Klore. I invested in an Asus Xonar D2X and Corsair Audio SP2500 2.1, and wow, the sound is immense for everything - gaming, music, films. Before that I was using the onboard audio with Sony SRS-Z500 speakers (M4A89GTD Pro/usb3) and I upgraded the sound card first. The sound is better, even with my Sony speakers and then I upgraded to Corsair speakers and I am completely blown away by the clarity, the richness of sounds, the sounds I never heard before. And, I can crank up the volume and the sub and I get no distortion at all, however I am killing my neighbours' ears!

Sound cards are definitely not scams and I think it's a waste of money just having great speakers and no sound card. You must get a sound card as well.

By anon240023 — On Jan 12, 2012

I am building a PC and am wondering if I will need a sound card, or is something already included on my motherboard?

By anon165639 — On Apr 05, 2011

Klore is correct. The sound card on your listening device makes a huge difference. As an example, an mp3 played directly from your computer (with a likely powerful audio card), through a good set of speakers will sound great. Play that exact same mp3 through an ipod nano for example (with a far less powerful audio card than the computer), through the exact same set of speakers, and the sound will flatten out in a way that is very noticeable (details in the song lost entirely, and the volume may even seem minimized). Make sure you've got a great sound card and a great set of speakers (headphones) for all of your listening pleasure.

By anon125067 — On Nov 08, 2010

@bigblind: In my opinion, sound cards are a bit of a scam. Computer speakers just aren’t going to sound good no matter how much money you put down on them.

That's why recording artist use PCs with the best spec in sound cards to get the best sound!

By anon123604 — On Nov 02, 2010

just plug it into your hifi instead of wasting money and time on speakers.

By klore — On Jul 07, 2010

@bigblind – I would actually argue that sound cards can be very important. That’s not to say speakers aren’t going to give you way more power and quality than built in speakers on their own, but sound cards serve their own purpose. Mp3 files and other digital sound files must be compressed to fit into their digital form. What this means in terms of sound quality is that all the tracks are flattened, creating a less punchy, less volumetric sound overall. What a sound card can do is to help mitigate the negative effect that digitizing a sound source can have. A good sound card will do a better job of this than a junky one. So, for optimal sound quality from a digital source sound file, you should upgrade your sound card as well as invest in a set of good speakers.

By bigblind — On Jul 07, 2010

In my opinion, sound cards are a bit of a scam. Computer speakers just aren’t going to sound good no matter how much money you put down on them. Rarely do built-in computer speakers (with any sound card) allow the listener to hear bass. Instead, bass will sound blurry and may even cause speakers to feedback. If you want good quality sound for the sound files on your computer, you’re going to have invest in external speakers. External speakers allow for a much clearer, more accurate bass range and less scratchy sounding treble.

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