Having a computer without a sound card really sucks. Most computers and laptops have soundcards and people expect this these days. But if your computer is fairly old or you are building one from scratch then there is an alternative to installing a conventional sound card.
The answer is a USB sound card. This is a device that you simply plug into a free USB port and you will instantly have sound. In this article, I will explain how a USB sound card works and take a look at the main advantages and disadvantages of using a USB sound card.
I have helped other people setup USB sound cards on their computers and laptops so I have some experience here. There really is nothing to be worried about as you will see from reading this article. So let’s get on with it, shall we?
How does a USB Sound Card work?
As you may already know a computer uses “1’s” and “0’s” known as bits. Every file on your computer is a series of bits organized in a specific way. Audio files use bits as well and what a USB sound card does is convert them into audio sounds that we can hear and understand.
A USB sound card performs a digital to analog conversion. We can’t hear a piece of music in digital format. We can only hear analog sounds. So a USB sound card processes the audio bits and converts them so that we can hear them using speakers or headphones.
There is an amplifier contained within a USB sound card. When the initial digital to analog conversion takes place the analog waves are very low and they require amplification so that they are audible to us. So the amplifier inside your USB sound card supplies power to these small analog waves to make them much larger to output to speakers or headphones.
A USB sound card will convert analog signals into digital signals as well. You could plug a microphone into your sound card and then create an audio file of your voice on your computer. A computer cannot deal with analog waves so this digital conversion process has to take place. Your USB sound card makes all of this happen.
The Digital to Analog and Analog to Digital converters in your USB sound card work very fast and to us, it all seems to happen in real-time. This technology is used for other applications too such as telecommunications. Your mobile phone converts digital to analog and vice versa.
Setting up your USB Sound Card
There are several different types of USB sound cards available. In their simplest form, they are just a small box with a USB cable and connector with two 3.5 mm jacks for your headphones and microphone. You can also get a USB sound card that resembles a hi-fi system with speakers, a graphic equalizer and more.
It doesn’t matter what kind of USB sound card you have the setup process will be similar. Most USB sound cards will have an installation disc that contains the necessary driver files to make the device work properly. Run the installation disc before you insert your USB sound card into a free USB port.
Once the installation files are setup you can then plug in your USB sound card. If you didn’t receive an installation CD with your USB sound card then go to the website of the manufacturer and find the latest installation files there and download them. Windows has some drivers for sound cards but not all of them.
As soon as you plug in your USB sound card it should work straight away if you have used the correct installation files. You can check everything is well by going into your Control Panel and then select “Hardware and Sound”. Go to “Manage Audio Devices” and check to see if your USB sound card appears and is enabled.
The Advantages of a USB Sound Card
Compared to installing and setting up a conventional sound card in your computer, USB sound cards have the following advantages:
It is really easy to install a USB sound card. You do not have to remove the cover from your computer and add a conventional card to a slot on the motherboard. It is simply a matter of using a free USB port, installing the right driver files and plugging the device in.
If you are not an experienced computer person, then it can be a daunting prospect to open up your computer to install a sound card. Then there is the potential for static shocks which can cause a lot of damage to the motherboard and other components.
USB Sound Cards are Compact and Portable
Most USB sound cards are pretty small and you can take them anywhere with you. If you have more than one computer without a sound card you can use it on both of these machines. You only have to install the driver files one time. After this, your computer will instantly recognize your USB sound card every time you plug it in.
Some USB Sound Cards produce better sound quality and are often Cheaper
It is often the case that a modern USB sound card will create better sound than a conventional sound card that you have to install inside your computer. They are usually significantly cheaper than traditional sound cards as well.
Some people will use a USB sound card to add surround sound to their laptop or computer even if they have a sound card in them already. This is because they can get a better sound experience from the USB sound card.
Electrical Interference Minimized
Sometimes internal sound cards suffer from electrical interference from other computer components. This is very likely to occur with a USB sound card.
Disadvantages of a USB Sound Card
You need to consider these disadvantages of a USB sound card over a conventional PCI-E sound card:
Performance and Latency
A PCI-E sound card is always going to produce higher performance with less latency than a USB sound card because it is directly connected to the computer motherboard. If you are running intense audio applications on your computer then you may find a traditional card is the best option.
USB Cards can be expensive
If you are just looking for a basic USB sound card then you will not pay much for this. But if you want a lot of extra features then you can end up paying more for a USB sound card than a PCI-E sound card that has the same features.
You take up a USB Port
If USB ports are at a premium on your computer then using one permanently for sound may not be the best idea.
If you want to upgrade the built-in sound quality of your computer, the USB sound card is a must-try. A simple USB sound card can literally change your listening experience.