Internal vs External Sound Card (Differences & Which Is Best?)

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  • Learn the differences between external and internal sound cards
  • Why might you need a dedicated sound card? 
  • What is the best option for you?

Building a PC for music production or gaming can be a daunting task. There are many considerations for what equipment you’ll need for everything to run smoothly.

If you are an audiophile and/or are in the music industry, audio is your top priority. Internal/external sound cards are essential for music producers and are a good addition for those looking for a heightened audio experience.

Sound cards are also an essential component for the PC itself, as it allows them to receive and output audio signals.

In order for us to be able to hear audio, all PCs require what is called a DAC, which is an analog converter, turning all digital information into analog sound that we can hear.

All PC motherboards have onboard sound cards and DACs, however, as the motherboard needs to fit within either a tower or a laptop there are limitations on the size. This can also mean a limit in audio quality or overall functionality, especially if you want to record music.

Internal vs External Soundcards: Which Is Best?

This depends on your needs, as both options can produce high-quality audio. However, for music production, the obvious choice would be an external sound card (audio interface). This is certainly the most streamlined choice as you can easily connect microphones and instruments without fiddling around with connector leads.

Do You Need A Sound Card And What Are The Benefits?

If you are a casual PC user, a decent sound card may not be essential to you. However, if you are serious about music production and/or are an avid gamer, a sound card is a core part of your setup.

Whether external or internal, a ‘third party’ sound card will increase audio quality, lower noise, and provide you with a better overall experience than a stock sound card.

Can I Use My PC’s Onboard Sound Card for Audio Recording?

In short, yes. However, there are several issues with using a PC’s onboard soundcard for music production and recording.

Firstly, most of the time you will need a 1/4″ to 1/8″ adapter so that you can connect a microphone or instrument. Some sound cards may have RCA inputs (the red and white sockets) or even breakout cables so you don’t need to reach around the back of your computer.

The problem with recording this way is that you will experience latency and an increased amount of noise. You also do not have any separate gain control for the recording.

There is also a limit to the type of gear you can use as onboard soundcards don’t have phantom power. This removes the option to use most condenser microphones.

Also, a limit on outputs means there is a lack of options for monitoring, which means no cue outputs.  All of which can be avoided with a dedicated sound card (more commonly known as an audio interface).

The real question is – which option is best?

Pros/Cons of An Internal Sound Card

Pros:

  • There are a lot of cheap options for internal cards.
  • Can be a good for those looking for a budget surround sound setup.
  • Smoother user experience.

Cons:

  • Potential software incompatibility issues after automatic system updates.
  • Limited recording options – no XLR or TRS connections.
  • Difficult to access when located on the rear of a computer.
  • Most domestic internal sound cards have unbalanced inputs which are not as effective at eliminating noise.

A good option for a PCI internal sound card that allows for monitoring speakers and audio recording is the ESI MAYA44 eX.

ESI Maya 44 eX PCI Express Audio Interface
$299.00

The MAYA44 eX is a high quality ultra high performance 24-bit / 96 kHz 4-in / 4-out PCIe audio interface, providing a number of powerful and amazing features optimized for home recording.

Why We Love It:
  • Optimized for modern audio
  • Great price
  • Low latency EWDM drive
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12/08/2022 06:57 pm GMT

However, like many internal sound cards, some Windows users have run into issues after installing updates.

Pros/Cons Of An External Sound Card

An external sound card is better known as an audio interface.

This is the obvious choice for someone who is serious about music and there are several reasons for this…

Pros:

  • 1/4″ and XLR inputs and outputs for recording and monitoring. This allows for all microphone types and instruments.
  • External cards have independent gain control for each input. This is an essential feature if you want to use multiple microphones to record.
  • Less susceptible to malfunctioning. Especially after an operating system update.
  • Easy to access inputs and outputs (compared to a sound card).
  • Portable. Isn’t fixed to just one computer

Cons:

  • More expensive than an internal sound card.
  • Requires spare desktop or rack space.
  • Can become disconnected while recording if someone trips or if the cable is faulty.

A classic and well-designed option is the Focusrite Scarlett series of audio interfaces.

For not much more money than a standard internal sound card, you can get the Scarlett 2i2, which has become a go-to interface for beginner producers.

OUR PICK
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio (3rd Gen)
$279.99

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio recording bundle gives you a great front end that includes everything you need to record.

Why We Love It:
  • Super-low latency
  • Intuitive halo feature
  • Simple, compact, and eye-catching design 
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Internal vs External Soundcards: Wrapping Up

In summary, if you’re looking to get into the world of music production, opt for an external soundcard. They’ll generally offer enough inputs and outputs to suit most bedroom studios. When it comes to accessibility, you can use an audio interface for multiple devices. So for producers on the move, this is something to keep in mind.

However, for gaming and entertainment, internal sound cards may be the best solution.

Certain sound cards will make surround sound a whole lot easier, and if you’re not doing any recording or producing then it’s very unlikely that you will notice any noise.

If you’re a music producer and just doing a rough mix, this will be sufficient. An internal sound card will still give you a good idea of volume and panning.

However, with internal sound cards, there is always the glaring potential for software issues.

This is extremely problematic for both music and gaming. The last thing you want to have to deal with when trying to be creative is software problems.

So if you want to go this route, make sure the sound card you are buying is reliable and trusted by others.

If the idea of an audio interface is totally new to you and you want to read more, check out What Is An Audio Interface Used For? (Read This Before You Buy).

FAQs

Do external sound cards make a difference?

Yes, they do make a difference to the sound and user experience.

For professional audio engineers, the higher quality DACs found in audio interfaces are needed for accurate mixing and mastering.

For recording musicians, external sound cards make a huge difference as it is much easier to plug in microphones or instruments and record in a DAW.

Do sound cards improve sound quality?

Yes, any third party sound card is designed to sound better than a stock sound card, and this is one of the key selling points. Though you probably will not notice the difference if you are just casually gaming.

What makes a good soundcard?

Good drivers, a good DAC, a high signal-to-noise ratio, low harmonic distortion, and a wide dynamic range.

What is bit depth?

Bit depth is the precision of each sample in a digital audio signal. A sample is like a ‘pixel’ but for a digital audio waveform.

What is sample rate?

Sample rate is the number of samples per second in a digital audio signal. 44.1 kHz has traditionally been the industry standard however there has been a shift to 48 kHz in recent times.

If you want to learn more about how digital audio works, check out What Sample Rate You Should Use? (+Myths & Misconceptions).