Sound Cards for your Homebuilt Computer
A computer's sound card converts digital data into sounds that humans can hear.
The first PC's had no sound card. They did have little tiny speakers, through which users could hear the occasional beeps and alarms that the computers generated, but that was the extent of the sound system.
Nowadays, computer sound cards range from cheap devices that are satisfactory for reproducing operating system and program sounds (opening and closing windows, etc.) and the spoken human voice, to high-end cards that are capable of producing true audiophile-quality surround sound.
There also are specialized sound cards for musicians that are specifically designed to be used with professional audio studio and sound editing equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars. If you're in that line of work, then you probably already know about all the latest goodies for people who make music for a living; so I'm not going to go into detail about professional sound processing equipment for computers.
Choosing a Sound Card
When selecting a sound card for your homebuilt computer, the first question to ask yourself is whether you should bother with one at all. Even inexpensive motherboards usually have integrated (built-in) sound cards that are good enough for the majority of users. You may want to just go with the integrated card, at least until you have a chance to hear it and decide if it's good enough for your needs.
If you're really into music, however, or if you're a gamer and you want to experience the full experience of your games, then you should think about the following factors:
How important is computer sound to you? If you want to listen to (or create) music on your PC, then obviously you should lean toward a higher-end sound card or dedicated audio studio system. So if music is your passion, then consider some of the very best cards.
Are you going to be using your computer to watch movies? Do you like movies with lots of action and special effects? Special effects aren't just visual. There's also intricate sound and music editing that's part of the total experience. But you may miss out on all that if you don't have a high-quality sound card and speakers.
What operating system are you planning to use? Almost any sound card will work with Windows, but if you are using Linux or some other operating system, be sure to make sure that card will work before you plunk down good money for it.
What kind of speakers do you plan to use, and how many? All sound cards have universal connections for two speakers, and many have connections for surround sound and other high-end sound schemes. Some, however, are designed to be used only with specialized speaker systems or editing consoles.
If you are a professional musician, producer, or mixer, then you will want to purchase a sound system that is compatible with your instruments and mixing/recording equipment. Sometimes this means an ordinary MIDI input, but other times you'll need a special interface.
How much do you want to spend? Sound cards vary in price from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars (or even thousands of dollars for high-end break-out boxes).
As mentioned previously, almost all motherboards come with integrated (built-in) sound. Depending on the quality and price range of the motherboard itself, on-board audio processors can range from just okay to quite excellent.
Even if the motherboard you're thinking about has decent sound, however, I suggest you also make sure that it has expansion slots. This is because in the event that the on-board audio fails, or in case you later decide to disable the on-board audio and upgrade to an higher-quality sound card, you'll need a slot to accommodate it.
Finally, as I stated before, bear in mind that most on-board audio cards are designed with Windows in mind. If you plan on installing a different operating system either as a sole OS or as part of a dual-boot or multi-boot system, make sure that the on-board sound will work with that OS before you spend any money on the board.