Whenever you buy a computer, you expect that it will have at least a video card and a sound card. In most cases the sound card will actually be integrated on the motherboard. And in the case of laptops, both video and audio card will be onboard devices.

So when would you need an external sound card?

There are a few reasons why you might want to consider an external sound card actually.

The first is probably obvious, if your internal sound card is broken. If you have a desktop computer, you could decide to get an internal sound card again. If you have a free PCI slot, you can add an internal sound card. If you remove the old sound card, you would automatically have a free slot of course. But if old sound card is an integrated sound card, you need to check if an extra PCI slot is available. In that case, also make sure you disable the onboard sound card in the PC BIOS. That will prevent any conflicts with the old (broken) sound card.

In case of a laptop, or notebook computer, the audio will always be onboard, so the only option to replace the sound card is to add an external sound card.

The second reason is if you feel the internal sound card is insufficient. Typically this will only be the case for older sound cards, but if you are a gamer or need high quality audio, the internal sound card might also be inadequate. A modern, external sound card is the solution.

Maybe not really a reason but a benefit of external sound cards is that you can use it on multiple computers. As long as the computer has a compatible USB port, you can hook up the external sound card and use it.

What to look for in external sound cards?

In general when purchasing computer hardware, you would look at the price. External sound cards also come in a wide range of prices, varying from US $20 to over US $100. The price depends on the quality of the external sound card, but also on the features available.

The latest external sound cards support 7.1 audio, which can be great for surround sound effects. But consider if you need that, or whether a 5.1 or even 2.1 sound card will suffice.

Check whether the external sound card supports your operating system. Most external sound cards are compatible with all Windows versions, and mostly also Macs. You do need to check if a high speed USB port is required (USB 2.0) or if the external sound card also works on a standard USB port (USB 1.1). Check your computer to make sure you have the right USB port available (You can see this in the Windows Device Manager).

Depending on the type of use you can connect earphones or speakers. But check the connections available on the external sound card, some only support earphones and a microphone. For 5.1 and 7.1 sound cards, you need multiple outputs to connect all speakers. High end cards will also have a S/PDIF connection for multichannel audio.

External USB sound cards often use the USB port for power. Not a problem in most cases, but something to be aware of if you already have more USB devices that draw power form the USB ports. There are external USB sound cards that have their own, external power supply, but an external USB hub can also be of help. For a laptop you would probably not want to use an external sound card with its own power, as it means more weight and more cables.

For multichannel audio, check the CPU usage taken by the audio processing. In general this would not be a problem, but for gaming you would not want to lose too much extra CPU time on the audio processing.

External Sound Card Brands

Creative and Asus both have good quality external sound cards, but of course there are more brands that offer decent external sound cards. If possible, use online user reviews to select the right product for you.


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