One question asked quite often by first-time gaming PC builders is the eternal debate of whether you should spend the extra money to buy a dedicated sound card for gaming, or whether you should just stick with the integrated onboard audio that all modern motherboards provide these days.
It's a fair question, and your decision depends on a few different things with price obviously being the main deciding factor. Whilst you can get a decent sound card for fairly cheap these days (that will still provide a noticeable jump in quality over integrated audio), if you want a medium to high-end quality sound card it can get a little pricey especially if you're building a PC on a tight budget and your aim is to cut costs as much as possible. A dedicated sound card is generally considered more of a luxury component in custom computer build.
On the other hand if you're putting together a high-end gaming system and you want the best gaming experience possible with high quality surround sound to hear all of the little audio details in your games that much more, then getting a nice sound card to compliment a good set of headphones or speakers makes total sense. If you're shelling out the money for high quality headphones/speakers then you will definitely want to take full advantage of them with a quality sound card as onboard motherboard audio simply just won't do your equipment justice.
Another thing to keep in mind is whether you actually care about having the highest quality sound/music possible. The truth is that many gamers are happy with the quality of onboard audio and, as I mentioned above, unless you have high-end accessories you may not even notice much of a difference between a dedicated sound card and onboard audio. But then there are those with a more discerning ear who WILL notice the difference. It does vary from person to person.
So to sum the whole onboard audio vs sound card for gaming debate, if you can afford it and want to maximize your PC gaming experience then you should definitely consider getting a sound card (and a decent set of speakers/headset to take full advantage of it). But if you do just stick with motherboard audio then don't worry about it as these days onboard audio is actually quite decent.
If you're still on the fence I would consider just forgetting about getting a sound card and test out your new PC build with the motherboard audio and see how you like it. If you're not happy with the sound quality then go ahead and order a sound card. Alternatively you could research customer reviews of the motherboard you intend to buy to get a sense of the integrated audio quality of that board.
What's the Best Sound Card for Gaming?
So you're set on getting a nice sound card for gaming to make your games come to life just that little bit more. Good choice. Once you get dedicated sound you won't want to ever go back. But which model should you get?
Like most computer hardware, you typically get what you pay for. If you want to spend under $50, the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX PCIe 5.1 Sound Card is hard to beat in terms of value for money and will give you a nice noticeable jump from onboard audio.
If you have a little more to fork out on even better quality audio, definitely consider the Sound Blaster Z PCIe Gaming Sound Card which is very popular among gamers. Then, for those lucky few who want the absolute cream of the crop, top-tier sound card for the best gaming audio experience possible, the ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II is your best friend and will blow your mind (or ears). Again, I can't stress the importance of having a nice headset or set of speakers when using a high-end sound card like this.