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What Is a Sound Card?

Sound cards are processing units that have historically had two main functions: to process your computer’s audio and to drive your speakers or headphones by converting a digital audio signal into analog via a digital to analog converter or DAC. Although advances in computer audio have made sound cards unnecessary for many users, they are still a crucial element of some audio setups.

Does My Computer Need a Sound Card?

Modern motherboards and CPUs include onboard audio processing and DAC right out of the box, which means the average user does not need a separate sound card - even when building their own PC. There are several exceptions, however, in which an audio card can be a sound investment - pun intended:

  • You are an audiophile who wants a high quality DAC and amplifier for driving premium audio devices
  • You need to convert an audio signal into 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound for your home theater setup
  • You want an easier way to control and mix your audio output while streaming
  • Your computer’s onboard sound no longer works, and you don’t want to replace your motherboard

Choosing a Sound Card for Your Computer

Not sure where to start? Consider these factors when shopping for a sound card:

Internal vs. External Sound Card: Internal sound cards are convenient for those who want a simple onboard option they can install on their PC. However, they are sometimes more prone to electrical interference in their analog signals from the many electronic components inside a PC case. External sound cards are a common choice for audiophiles due to their resistance to interference and ease of use.

Connectivity: Internal cards typically connect to the motherboard via PCIe, while external DACs use either USB A or USB C connectors. Be sure to also check for any special ports you might need, such as an SPDIF connector for home theater setups.

Controls: Verify that the sound card includes any advanced controls that you need, such as multi channel audio mixing for streamers.

Audio Channels: While some sound cards support playback in only two channels, most models support either 5.1 or 7.1 Dolby Surround sound for an immersive audio experience.

Bit Rate: This refers to the amount of information the sound card can encode or decode. A higher bit rate generally means better sound quality.

Amplifier: Some sound cards have built in amplifiers, while others only include the DAC. We offer a large selection of audio amplifiers for great headphone amps and more

Platform Compatibility: Check whether your sound card supports Windows, Mac, or both. In addition, many gaming sound cards are now compatible with game consoles like the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X.

Improving audio quality doesn't have to be complicated. Micro Center’s selection of sound cards and DACs has the solution for whatever type of audio performance you are looking for. Shop our whole lineup of sound cards here and find the top deals on brands like Creative Labs, ASUS, and more.

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