If you’re looking to improve your audio or build a PC, you’re probably wondering if you need to buy a sound card. Fortunately for you, the age where this was a necessary buy for a PC is long gone, but there are still some situations where you may want to consider buying one. Let’s go over them quickly.

A sound card is a component that translates digital signals to an analog one

A photo of a sound card installed in a PCI slot inside a dusty computer tower.

PCI soundcards are a dying breed, but they have their uses.

In short, a sound card is an optional component that converts the digital signal your computer outputs for sound, and translates it into an analog signal for your headphones or speakers. While you might be saying to yourself: “Hey, that’s just like a DAC,” you’d be right. These components are both designed to take the job of parsing signals into sound away from the computer.

But where a sound card differs is that it is almost always installed inside the computer case itself, not an external component. It’s usually connected to the motherboard via a PCI or PCIe card slot.

A photo of the inside of a computer, showing both the PCI and PCIe card slots for inserting sound card

The black rectangular sockets shown here are the PCI (long) and PCIe (short).

By using these connections, the card can supply ample power to your speakers, surround sound system, or headphones—provided they don’t have special power requirements, that is. Additionally, it won’t take extra wires to link everything up to the motherboard: you can just drop the card in the slot, and screw the backplate into place.

Pretty simple, right?

When should you buy a sound card?

In general, most computers will handle the sound card’s job with an integrated circuit on the motherboard. Laptops especially will rarely use a separate sound card, as space is at a premium in today’s thin notebooks.

When your computer's audio is noticeably worse than your phone's, you want to get a soundcard.

But sometimes your desktop PC will provide crackly sound or have difficulty supporting the standards you want with your music. When your computer’s audio is noticeably worse than, say, your phone’s—you want to get a soundcard. Almost nobody will need to, but there are still certain circumstances where you’ll want one.

When your music sounds bad

Crappy PC audio is almost universally caused by noise created by other components, and a lack of shielding around the motherboard. A sound card sidesteps this issue by giving its internal components shielding and distance away from the noisiest parts of your PC. Even a crappy sound card will usually offer a slight improvement over your motherboard’s noisy circuitry if and only if you can audibly hear an issue with the stock setup. Nine times out of ten, though, a soundcard isn’t something you need to buy for better audio.

When your music isn’t supported

Some ultra-cheap computers will simply not have any audio output at all. While it’s excessively rare nowadays, every so often there’s no way to listen to your music with a computer, or you’re limited to crappy Bluetooth. In this instance, you’ll want either a sound card, or an external DAC and amplifier.

A diagram showing jitter.

Getting a soundcard that supports your sample rate can ensure you don’t run into high-frequency errors in your music.

If you’re a collector or FLAC or lossless audio files, even some high-end motherboard-based audio chips won’t support playback at your collection’s native sample rate or bit depth. In that case, you’ll want a sound card to get your audio at the quality it’s supposed to be at.

When you need more ports than your computer provides

Those of you with sick desktop setups with studio monitors, microphones, and headphones might need more inputs and outputs than their PC currently provides. In this case, sound cards will often allow you to add optical out, surround sound out, and more.

A photo of analog ports of a sound card at the back of a tower computer.

What the heck do those colors mean? Check out the table below.

If you’re a music producer—or are looking into recording with your computer—a sound card is probably the best way to go when you consider that many of the components you’ll be using need certain inputs and outputs that only a sound card provides. In this case, we recommend getting a high-end sound card or interface to meet your rack’s needs.

What do all those ports on the back do?

 ColorShape
OpticalBlackSquare
Headphone/line outGreenRound
Microphone inPinkRound
Line inBlueRound
Digital outYellow/WhiteRound
Subwoofer outOrangeRound
Rear surround soundBlackRound
Center channelGrayRound
MIDIGoldRounded trapezoid
FirewireNo color/metalRectangle with rounded side

Taking a peek at the back of your soundcard can be a bit intimidating, especially if you’re trying to figure out where to plug in all those blasted wires. Luckily, they’re all color-coded to avoid obvious problems.

You will likely not need to use all of these ports, they’re there to meet the most demanding users. In all likelihood, you’re going to use the 3.5mm ports and little else.

When should you buy an external DAC and amplifier?

If you have a laptop or a compact computer unit, adding a PCI or PCIe-based sound card just isn’t in the… cards.

A photo of a hand turning up the knob of a headphone amplifier

In that case, you’ll want to pick up something called a DAC (or DAC and amplifier) to stand in for the sound card outside of the computer. These will often connect to computers or phones via a USB cable (and before you ask: no, the cables don’t matter). The DAC and amp unit will perform the same functions as a soundcard, just outside of the computer.

Before you leave the store, be sure to check to see if the DAC has a volume knob or buttons. You may also need to pick up an amplifier if the DAC unit doesn’t provide enough output for your speakers or headphones.