Integrated vs Dedicated Sound Cards: What's the Real Difference?

By Matthew Braga

These days, nobody thinks about sound cards. After all, every computer has one built in. But dedicated cards still have their place too. Here's why.

These days, nobody thinks about sound cards. Every computer has one, built onto the motherboard, and they aren't half bad either. Company's like Asus and Gigabyte even throw 7.1 channel outputs on some of their higher end models, more than capable for your basic surround sound needs. But as handy as these integrated chips may be, dedicated sound cards still have their place in the computing world.


Motherboards used to include simple chips like this to handle audio duties. 

Fast forward to today, and you'll find these problems are almost nonexistent. As chips are produced in increasingly smaller sizes, manufacturers are able to fit more higher quality components on a standard-sized motherboard. As a result, static and interference are rarely an issue, and output on most two speaker setups should sound just fine.

But while integrated chips from the likes of Asus and Realtek perform reasonably well, the differences become more apparent the more you try to do. Many recent integrated cards include 5.1 and 7.1 capabilities, allowing users to appropriately take advantage of their surround sound sets. However, a DVD or game must contain surround sound signals for this to work; in fact, most current cards are unable to generate 5.1 or 7.1 signals of their own from a stereo signal, unlike a comparable dedicated card.

 M-AUDIO boxes like this one make up for the sub-par audio inputs on most integrated sound cards.

Laptop users can get dedicated sound cards via USB or Expresscard, like this model from Creative. 

As recent as a few years ago, most computer geeks and system builders would have warned you to stay far, far away from integrated sound cards. But with the quality of integrated solutions reaching that "good enough" plateau, and once-great brands like Creative's Audigy falling by the wayside, dedicated sound cards are less important than they once were. However, there's no doubting the immense power and advanced features that a more expensive and discrete card can buy — the choice you make all depends on what you plan to do.     
Images via Flickr user clearf, jeffcarvalho,