Dedicated sound cards offer extra ports and other features that make them sound like they can do anything. However, do they really make that much of a difference, and are they worth the extra cost? Many audiophiles out there will say that a dedicated sound card is completely worth the cost and time spent making sure it works properly. At the same time, others will point you in a different direction.
The main thing to keep in mind when you're looking into getting a sound card is that in addition to the sound card, you will also need new speakers, an amp and other extras. Sound cards will improve the sound quality of your system, but if you don't have the appropriate speakers or headset, you will never notice the difference.
One of the major reasons gamers use dedicated sound cards is for the reduced CPU usage. The sound card offloads work from your CPU, which in return gives you better overall frame-rates while gaming. If you're not a gamer, this may not make a lot of sense, but for gamers, this is a huge deal. You will, of course, also receive improved sound, which is ideal for games that use surround sound to help you identify where enemies are located or where they are shooting. Sound enthusiasts will also find a little extra joy from games like "Battlefield 3" and "Star Wars: The Old Republic." These game makers spent thousands if not millions of dollars making sure the sound quality and sound tracks of their games is well above par.
Onboard audio (the audio that comes with your motherboard) is by no means bad in any way, and for most people, it is more than enough for everyday use. If you do choose to purchase a sound card, almost anyone who knows what they are talking about will tell you to spend the extra money and get a high-end or professional card. Purchasing a mid-range card will give you little to no noticeable difference and will still end up costing you a lot of money.
Higher-end cards include digital input and output ports, and many other ports needed for gaming, sound recording or simply listening to your favorite music. However, if you're buying a sound card to listen to the latest MP3, all you're really doing is throwing away of lot of money. Dedicated sound cards require the correct audio files and, of course, the right equipment to perform at their peak level.
So, are dedicated sound cards worth it? If you're willing to spend the time and money to get the right card and equipment, they are definitely worth the improved sound. If you stand more on the casual side of things, the onboard audio that comes with your motherboard will most likely be more than enough for your gaming or music needs.