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Sound Cards Buying Guide

We buy modern computers and expect them to have the very best gear already installed. However, a lot of buyers seek to cut costs by purchasing computers that are for "everyday" purposes when they should be buying entertainment ready systems. Why? This has to do with a few of the features and devices that an entertainment specific computer would require, but which some traditional systems don't offer. A good example would be the sound card that would be installed in a system designed for normal use versus the one installed in a system meant for gamers and music fans.

Now, you might think that going straight to the laptops would mean that a game ready or movie ready sound card would be available, but that is not the case. It is important to understand what you intend to do with the sound system on board a computer in order to make the best decisions where sound cards are concerned.

Sound Card Options

Let's take a few moments to explore what options you have to choose from when buying these devices:


Many desktops and laptops have CD quality sound cards installed at the time of purchase. This is known as "16 bit" sound. It will play back at around 44.1 KHz. If you are interested in a quality that is far better than "average", you can upgrade to a 24 bit sound card that samples at 48 to 96 KHz. It is this latter quality that will allow you to make music, enjoy THX sound equipped movies, and use any Dolby Digital recordings.

Signal to Noise Ratio

Often it is necessary to explore the sound card's sound to noise ratio that is depicted in decibels or dB. Generally, the higher the dB level, the better the quality of the sound that the card can reproduce.

Internal or External

Most experts point to internal sound cards as the best option because they are capable of 5.1 sound, but you can get even finer quality from them as well. The external cards are for those hoping to upgrade their computers' sound quality without a lot of software tweaking and configuration.


Because you won't use the sound card for streaming alone, it needs to accept a lot of different connections. These can include the most obvious, such as headphones, but should also include microphones, speakers (front and rear), joysticks, and more.

Support Options

If you are a gamer of any kind, you want the sound to be of the utmost quality. This can only happen when the sound card can support the most common gaming formats such as Direct Sound 3D, EAX, and A3D.

Pricing Points

Naturally, there are likely to be a lot of different prices where sound cards are concerned. For example, an external, plug and play model is going to be much less expensive than a sound card designed for people who intend to make music using their laptop or desktop systems.

It is also important to remember that some sound cards require installation within the machine in question, and these high-end devices can also have additional fees or costs associated with the use of technical experts to install them.

Also, keep in mind that the prices for some of the higher end sound cards may include the various cables and software necessary for proper installation and use. Some have control features as well, such as the advanced devices meant to convert a computer into a pseudo recording studio.

For instance, these devices might have several inputs, a lot of software, compatibility with PC or Mac systems, and digital technologies that require advanced knowledge to use. These are going to come in at the highest prices and are not really required for those using the sound cards for gaming.

This tells us that you want to be absolutely clear about the need for top of the line sound, and how you need to ensure it is available in the system. Purchasing a pricey external sound card with mixing capabilities may be fun, but it is not necessary if you are a gamer or movie enthusiast. Instead, you would want an internal card that provides the kind of optimal sampling necessary for clarity from the built in speakers or more advanced gear attached to the system.

Popular Brands

The most commonly recognized names in top of the line sound cards include Creative, Asus, M-Audio, and Auzentech, among many others. Most of these can be found as basic upgrades to high tech models, and most will come with the essential features described above.

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