Computer External Sound Cards

When it comes to your computer's digital audio capabilities you have three basic options: live with whatever your computer came with when you bought it, open up the case and add an internal sound card or add an external sound card. Each choice has its own benefits and tradeoffs. While some may be satisfied with the original audio solution, for many the easiest upgrade is to choose an external card.

About External Cards

From the outside an external audio card may look like nothing more than a box of stereo outputs, but in reality it's quite a bit more capable. Most connect to your computer through USB, so all you have to do is plug them in and let the computer find the card. In addition to all the ports, most external cards also contain a signal processor that handles additional audio processing for your system. This usually means better sound than the onboard audio can produce.

External Audio Advantages

The biggest advantage of an external audio solution is its simplicity. All you have to do is plug it into a USB port and you're good to go. This is especially helpful with laptops, which do not have internal expansion ports even if you wanted to take the system apart. Another advantage is electrical isolation. Most computers are fairly "noisy" electrically due to the fan motors and other components. External cards get your audio processor safely away from that interference.

External Audio Tradeoffs

The biggest tradeoff when going for an external audio solution is that you need somewhere to put it. You can avoid most of the problems with a dongle external sound card, but most only come with a single headphone or speaker jack, which limits the benefits it can provide.

External Audio Uses

External audio cards do more than let you play digital music. Many support up to 7.1 surround sound audio, making them perfect for home theatre applications. You can also take that shiny new sound card from one machine to another when you replace your computer.