I am specifically referring to PCI slot interface cards. Not PCI Express. Not USB. Not wireless. Just the plain very-established PCI interface sound card that specifically installs in PCs and nowhere else.
I don’t know of too many motherboards that don’t have a sound card built-in. For the most part the on-board sound is pretty good and does the job quite well. So why would it even be necessary to actually buy a card?
There are basically two reasons. Either a) You’re an audiophile and demand the best possible audio or b) The existing sound coming from your PC has weird interference problems. Chances are you’re a B and not an A.
Things to know up front when buying an audio card
There is absolutely no reason to buy a 16-bit card unless specifically (re)building a retro PC
Digital audio from sound cards is either 16-bit or 24-bit, and the vast majority are 24-bit. 16-bit is only required if you’re specifically looking for maximum compatibiltiy with an older PC. For example the Diamond Xtreme Sound XS71 will work in Win2000 and WinXP with no problem at all. It’s older technology, but perfect for a retro gaming PC box.
For everything else, use 24-bit.
Physical size usually doesn’t matter
Some cards are big while others smaller. Most are smaller and are only “half-high” as far as physical height in the slot is concerned. The only reason for one card to be bigger than another is if you need the extra ports. Specifically, the Line Out front/rear/center/Subwoofer/rear-center ports. If you don’t need those, you don’t need the bigger card.
Ports are color coded so you can’t get it wrong
All the standard ports (Speaker, Line Out, MIC) are colored coded the same across all sound cards. You’ve seen one array of ports on one sound card, you’ve basically seen them all.
A separate sound card will almost always clear up any interference issues
Certain on-board sound cards on certain motherboards will have interference (as in EMI) issues, and it’s usually the CPU that’s at fault for doing it.
For those with discerning ears, EMI through your speakers or headset will drive you absolutely nuts, and the only fix for it is to have a sound card as far away from the CPU as possible, and that’s where a separate sound card will cure that ill.
Bear in mind on-board sound cards are disgustingly cheap, even on premium-priced motherboards; the addition of a separate card can make a world of difference in the audio department.
Some recommended sound cards:
- HT Omega Striker
- Creative Labs SB0570
- ASUS Xonar DS
- HT Omega Claro Halo (has Hi-Fi Headphone Amplifier)
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