Who Needs a Sound Card, Anyway?

The last sound card I purchased was in 2006, and that's only because I'm (occasionally) a bleeding edge PC gamer. The very same card was still in my current PC until a few days ago. It's perhaps too generous to describe PC sound hardware as stagnant; it's borderline irrelevant.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2011/05/who-needs-a-sound-card-anyway.html

I agree fundamentally with your post, but I have to disagree that “Unlike your computer, or your car, your headphones will never wear out or become obsolete.” Maybe I unknowingly turn into a violent maniac whenever I handle headphones or something, but even the expensive ones I’ve owned have developed problems in a year or (at most) two. It’s much, much worse if I carry the headphones around with me instead of leaving them at a desk; I think I’ve gone through four of them since starting college. I generally consider them the most fragile piece of hardware I own.

Curious how that compares to my Fubar III ( http://www.audiophileproducts.com/usbstereo ). I wouldnt even think about trying to work without my headphones ( shure e4c in ear monitors and Sennheiser HD380 cans).

You’ve never had the motherboard interfere with the sound card? I get noise whenever the CPU and/or bus do anything intense from both of my most recent desktop onboard sound chips. It’s audible through headphones when the music is below averagely silent or when there is no sound at all. I usually wait for another song to begin before I scroll down a long webpage :slight_smile: That’s reason #1 for me to own a sound card.

I have to agree with Adrian. Any headphones I have ever owned seem to have crumbled apart after about three years or so. I live wearing my headphones at work, at home, and on the commute between the two.

I’ve tried owning multiple sets and leaving them attached to individual computers, but they still seem like they fall apart after a while. It doesn’t matter how much they cost; I consider them extremely fragile as well.

I have the same problem as Gregopet. I’ve never had an on-board chip that didn’t leak buzz and hum whenever the hard drive was active, or whenever I just used the scroll wheel on the mouse, or something else that really should be isolated from the sound output.

If you are going to be working out of an office, buying something like the Total BitHead is something you can use at work and take with you from place to place when you change jobs. I’ve got one that I’ve been using for seven or eight years, and it’s made the trip with me to four different offices.

As for headphones, if you buy a good set (like those Sennheiser HD-600s that apparently both Jeff and I use), you can get ones with replaceable cords. And that’s what usually goes out. My Sennheisers have been working great for the same period of time as my amp, and I’ve had to replace the cord two or three times, but that’s $15 or so each time.

Choosing a good headset is a lot harder if you’re a gamer that also requires a mic. It’s either you get an awesome pair of headphones and then MacGyver (my current solution) on those cheap lavalier mics on to the wire, or a headset with a good mic, and mediocre headphones.

Unless someone has a recommendation for a good headset…

I guess my G35 (http://www.logitech.com/en-us/webcam-communications/internet-headsets-phones/devices/5095) doesn’t need an amp…

On Broad Chip will never be good due to the fundamental nature of interference. The best way to do is an external sound card.

I think more and more traditional Hi-Fi manufacture are coming out with USB Audio Amp, Like this one here


Yes this is going into Hi-Fi cataegrory, but it sounds a lot better.

Pretty much anyone that wants to use their front audio ports will want a sound card. I have never had a motherboard with which the front port audio properly worked. Back audio has been fine, but not as great as a dedicated sound card.

I honestly believe that everyone should spend the thirty needed on the sound card. Even with relatively cheap headphones, it will sound better. Sony MDR-V6 are pretty cheap nowadays and still pretty fucking fantastic.

arguably the best sound card on the planet, the Xonar DG, is all of 30 measly bucks.

I’m sorry to break it to you, but there is no such thing as a good internal soundcard.

There may be mediocre internal soundcards, but the best you can do internally is mediocre.

If you want a good soundcard, or “Audio Interface” as the manufacturers like to style them, the simplest way is to simply discard every computer component manufacturer from your list.

Firewire is best (lower latency), though USB is more prevalent. No matter what you go with, expect cranky drivers.

There are alot of other brands that make audio interfaces, but I do not have personal experience with them.

Fundamentally, there is a difference in design philosophy between audio interfaces and generic soundcards.

  • Audio interfaces almost never support any sort of onboard "enhancement" crap. EAX, etc.. is out. If you buy something like this, it's because you want the most accurate representation of whatever you are playing possible, not some DSP processed garbage.
  • Greater Bit-Depth : 24 bit recording/playback is pretty much universal
  • Greater sample rate : 24 bit / 96 Khz is common, many support 192 Khz.
  • Openness about ADC/DAC and op-amp selections : This is not as common, but a some manufacturers explicitly state what devices they use in their analog sections, which you can then look up.

Whatever soundcard you use may be nice, but it’s still just a internal soundcard. Please don’t claim it’s better than it is.

Personally, I use a M-Audio Firewire 410 as my daily soundcard. The firewire interface is getting cranky in it’s old age (I think I’ve had it 5 years), but it still works, and all I have to do is disconnect and reconnect it about once a week.

I mostly listen to music, but I do occationally use it for record >> .wav dubbing, and it works very well.

I agree with you, internal chips are “surprisingly decent”, but another reason to use a Sound Card is for the external inputs: most of the built-in solutions have plugs for mic, headphones and speakers, but not for line-in (I use sometimes line-in to record from external devices, e.g. tapes or vinyl).

I was quite happy with an on-board sound card, but when I got 5.1 speakers the occasional crackles from interference were quite noticeable. Getting a good plug-in sound card (in my case, a Xonar DX) made it all go away. Plus, the overall quality is significantly better as well.

I totally agree that a great headset is imparative. Personally, I don’t think you can do much better than the Bose QuietComfort 3 headset. I have one, and it’s the very definition of HiFi IMO, and has good noise-canceling to boot. Also comes with some nice extras for traveling. I work in an open office landscape, and for that the noise-canceling is a god-send.

I have a Koss Porta Pro. Would I benefit from a sound card? I do hear some noise when using onboard sound.

@Cat176 talks about interfaces aimed at those who are recording audio. They are probably OTT for just listening.

I see the Xonar DG can do 24/96 conversion. That’s technically far better than CD quality, but the audible difference may be minimal. Some people are releasing music in 24/96 FLAC, but I generally buy 320kb MP3 and am happy with it.

Most of my listening is on my work HP box into Grado SR60 headphones and that sounds great. I’ve had those headphones a few years, but had to replace the foam pads which wore out. Got some Sennheiser pads that fit and cost a lot less than those from Grado. I also have some Sennheiser PX200 for mobile listening, but the cushion pads on those are wearing out. Those are harder to replace.

Like @Cat176, if you’re doing any music creation or audio recording, cheap internal sound cards are no good - you need an external audio interface to reduce latency for your midi devices or conventional instruments or mikes. Another benefit is that they have more kinds of i/o ports, etc. Probably over the top though for merely listening to music where latency doesn’t matter.

Now maybe I just don’t tend to like the feel of headphones, but is there really any advantage of a pair of headphones over a good set of speakers?

Hi Jeff,

I saw some of your posts on twitter about audiophiles, and now this one about sound boards.

I’d never noticed how bad is these integrated sound boards. The ones from brazilian Dell computer, sucks. Too much noise.

As a bass guitar player, I used to deal with some professional hardware. I found as a good cost/benefit the M-Audio Fast Track. It’s an external USB recording interface, but works fine as a sound board too. Since then, in all my jobs I carry my external sound board and my Sennheiser phone (the one I can affot is the HD202).

Not too expensive stuff and solve my sound problem at work.

But… to really “appreciate” some sound quality, I really like my home setup. It’s a Technics LP Player (not the MKII, that one from the 70’s) with an old Super-A amplifier and Lando speakers (Lando is a entry-level audiophile hardware manufacturer from Brazil).

I really encourage sound lovers to try some “analogic” stuff.

The right technology for the right job, allways.

The problem is that after you’re used to analogic audio, You’ll hate your old digital setup. And I have some testimonials from non-audiophile people that agreed with me after I did my “blind-test” from analogical and digital.

If you have nice speakers, a good amplifier, you can note the difference
between MP3, CD (or loss less encoding) and analogic, specially in very low frequencies and very high frequencies. The cymbals sound squared in digital sound.

And of course you’ll have clean and non-scratched LP’s to have good quality in analogic audio.