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Sound Cards vs. Onboard Audio

If you are new to the world of sound cards, you may wonder what the differences are between onboard sound (sound built into your motherboard) and a dedicated sound card. You may also wonder if it's worth the extra cost or time spent setting it up and configuring the settings on your computer. The reality is that unless you are an extreme gamer or are looking to get into the world of hardcore audio, sound cards are not going to be that much of an improvement. However, I would like to go over a few of the pros and cons of onboard audio and sound cards to help you decide which is best for your needs.

How Do Audio Signals Work?
Audio comes in two different formats: analog and digital. Computers are what we call digital systems, which means that they can only produce or manipulate sound in a digital format. The problem is that in the real world, all audio is found or created in an analog format. All speakers produce analog signals; digital speakers, the ones we use for computers or home theater systems, are in fact analog speakers that are able to convert the digital signal to a analog format. A digital-to-analog converter (DAC) is used for this process and is incorporated into many of the speakers we see from day to day. All motherboards have a chip called a codec (coder/decoder) that is able to covert digital signals to analog signals and vice-versa. 

Onboard Audio
All motherboards on the market come with embedded sound cards, or onboard audio. The problem is that since motherboards need to be small enough to fit into your tower, they have limited space for the sound card. As such, onboard audio is not able to produce the same quality of audio as a dedicated sound card. Many of the features needed to produce clear, crisp sound simply can't be added to onboard sound cards.

One major advantage of using onboard audio is obviously the cost. Not only do you save money on the sound card, but you also save a lot of money on new speakers or an expensive headset. You will still be able to listen to the same music or play the same games as someone with a dedicated sound card, but you won't have the same level of sound quality.

Dedicated Sound Cards
Dedicated sound cards have a number of improved or added features, which in turn produce better sound quality all around. Features like higher signal-to-noise ratios, lower harmonic distortion, 24-bit sample rates, 192-kHz resolutions and of course additional APIs. These additional features are what truly make a dedicated sound card worth the time and money it costs to install them and set them up to work properly. One thing to keep in mind is that you will need a good set of speakers or a nice headset to truly hear the difference.

Sound cards are not for everyone. Not only do you need to buy the sound card itself, but you also need additional equipment to get the most out of your new piece of hardware. However, there are a variety of price ranges and types of sound cards, which makes it easy to start simple and upgrade once you have a better understanding of how sound cards work.