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An external sound card is an incredibly useful piece of equipment for computers and offices. Its numerous functions and features allow it to turn any average computer into a full home-theater audio solution.

What IS an External Sound Card?

External Sound Card

To the eye of the consumer, it is simple enough. An external sound card is a box that you connect to a computer to add audio ports. Easy, right? Very. A USB Sound Card is even simpler. It is a trade-off of 1 USB port for multiple audio ports, which can include:

  • 3.5mm Output jack
  • 3.5mm Input jacks
  • Coaxial S/PDIF jack
  • Optical S/PDIF jack

That is basically all one needs to know about an external sound card. However, there is so much more going on inside the box. It is truly fascinating. Unless you are an audiophile or an engineer, you may not know what it does.

The USB connection offers one channel of digital bits, the computer’s language of 1’s & 0’s, to be sent and received from the box. The sound card then has to decipher the data and decide what to do with it. The sound card translates everything for us.

The Need For a Sound Card

A computer uses bits to communicate. The bits could be imagined not as a wave, but as blocks in a line on wires. Bits are flying everywhere on wires inside our computers and digital devices. Imagine a song in the computer. It is zipping as a group of 1’s & 0’s through wires from one side of the computer to the other. Can you hear the song as it is doing that? I can’t. It is stuck in the wires. The song needs to be released into the air to hear it. In addition, our brain isn’t designed to understand 1’s & 0’s of a computer. We hear in an analog form, which resembles a wave. It is much more curvy and wobbly. The bits need to be changed to a wave and sent through the air.

Speakers and headphones are what make part of the magic happen. They are a basic system. Electricity and magnets react to each other. When an electric current runs by a magnet, the magnet moves. A speaker is made up of a wire with an electric current, magnets, and a cone attached to the magnet to make sound. A microphone does the reverse. It moves a magnet to produce an electric current in the wire.

The computer isn’t compatible by itself to pass music to our ears. It requires a sound card to translate the signal to what speakers can use to produce sound in the air. After those two steps of conversions, we can finally hear what the song from the computer is.

How Does the Sound Card Do This?

A sound card needs to convert the bits from a computer. For going from the computer to speakers, a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) receives the train of bits from the computer and transform it into a wave form. The DAC will take samples from the bit train and create the shape of a wave from it. This wave becomes the electric current to be sent to speakers.

The newly created wave starts as more of a ripple. A built-in amplifier makes it grow. The amplifier provides more power, feeding the wave until it is large enough for speakers. The electric current needs enough power to drive the magnet. The speakers and headphones ride the powered current to make wonderful orchestral performances, rocking concerts and inspiring speeches to be heard.

An external sound card usually has a way to input sound as well. A microphone can capture sound and send it to the sound card. The sound card will then amplify the electric current in order to translate it to 1’s & 0’s for the computer. This process is done through Analog-to-Digital Converters (ADC). These are also built-in to external sound cards.

What Benefits Does an External Sound Card Have?

External sound cards have a few advantages over installing an internal sound card:

  1. Easy installation - You won’t have to open up your computer at all. Not everyone is comfortable with taking their computer apart and adding extra pieces here and there. One can easily get lost. External sound cards are simple plug and play.
  2. No risk of shock – There is always a little risk of a static shock damaging the internal components of your personal computer when opening it up. Why risk it?
  3. Small, compact and portable
  4. Protection from dust, bugs and other unwanteds
  5. Add surround sound capabilities to a laptop

What Would I Use an External Sound Card For?

There are multiple reasons to use a sound card. Let’s list a few good things to help with:

  • Connect up to 7.1 surround sound system
  • Connect to a Home Theater sound system
  • Replacement for a broken sound card
  • Spruce up an old laptop
  • Recording device – Get multiple microphone ports to record your garage band
  • Whatever else you can imagine
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