Importance of a sound card?

My comp has no real soundcard to speak of, and when building it I realized that I really didn't know how important a decent sound-card really is. I am sure not an audiophile, have no way of utilizing 8.23 surround sound, or 1270 degree 3d music ear-ogasmo bullcrap. For somebody who just wants to be able to listen to music and get functional, accurate sound out of games, is there really a need?

Depends. I always play with headphones, so I'm not getting much out of my old SBLive as far as sound quality goes.
What I do get is slightly better FPS in demanding games by offloading sound processing to a dedicated card.

I've measured the difference in FPS in WoW standing in the same spot (Goldshire) facing the same angle with SB Audigy 2 and onboard SoundMax audio. The difference in framerate was not fixed in one direction, and was well within margin of error.

Back when Creative put out the SB Live 32 then the 64, the big deal was offloading the audio processing from the CPU to the soundcard. Now, it seems soundcards are moving into the audiophile territory with the new features added with each new generation. 5.1 sound is nice, if the game supports it, and it seems that every on-board chip is shipping with that support at a minimum.

Something that can be missed is whether or not you have decent speakers. Those small, sit on the side of your monitor, plastic, POS speakers that come with computers are extremely limited in the sound quality they can produce. You won't know if you're missing anything even if you have a top of the line soundcard. The sound quality will be almost identical because the speakers can't reproduce what's coming out of the card. Decent speakers with a seperate subwoofer, even a 2.1 setup (right, left and sub), can make a game much more immersive. The rumble of an engine or explosion, or ambient background sounds that are more vibrant and realistic grab your attention with better quality speakers. This is also where your cards deficiencies might display themselves. You might notice that the same game you played over at a friend's doesn't quite sound right when you play at home.

If you're happy with the sound coming out, stick with what you have. Since your asking here, I think you might be wondering if you're missing out on something. I'd say if you don't have a 2.1 setup at least, a soundcard will probably make no difference in discernable audio quality. Try picking up some speakers or borrowing a friend's set, and see if you notice if the sound is flat or tinny. This might be the information you need to determine if you want to buy a soundcard.

I agree with the comment about spending money on the speakers over the soundcard if possible... I recently went from the Audigy to Audigy 2 ZS with a decent but older 5.1 Creative Labs speaker setup... not much difference really...
As an aside:
My brother in law told me that his Kenwood reciever was going to waste in the garage, so I brought it home thinking I could set it up with the Audigy 2 ZS digital line out (I recently discovered the wonders of digital sound)... after a week of research, I found out that this is useless for gamers, since CL cards only do digital decoding or passthrough, and few games do 5.1 digital out. Since the reciever did not have 5.1 analog in, I was SOL unless I was willing to play games in 2.1 stereo on a huge home theatre system.
Undaunted, I picked up a Turtle Beach Montego DDL that encodes everthing including EAX 2.0 into digital 5.1 (or 7.1).... what an improvement, I pee my pants a little everytime someone drops artillery on me in BF2... during the first few days of playing Oblivion, I was spooked out a few times because I thought I heard someone actually sneak up behind me in my office room... turns out, it was an Imperial guard doing his rounds....

One other thing to keep in mind is the SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) of your onboard solution, Morrolan. My work machine has an onboard soundcard and I could clearly hear the harddrive grinding away from time to time while listening to some dance music on my Sennheiser headphones. Onboard solutions have a knack of picking up electronic interference much easier than a quality soundcard. However, hearing that noise depends a great deal on the quality of your speakers or headphones.

If you're not concerned with minor audio artifacts like this, by all means stick to what you have and save a few bucks.

shihonage wrote:

I've measured the difference in FPS in WoW standing in the same spot (Goldshire) facing the same angle with SB Audigy 2 and onboard SoundMax audio. The difference in framerate was not fixed in one direction, and was well within margin of error.

shi is right - a dedicated soundcard is not going to boost your framerates by a great deal, provided the game uses a reasonable number of channels. Once you start going high (64 channels and up) a dedicated soundcard will start to give you noticeable framerate improvements, unless you have a monster CPU to begin with.