Say I had a reasonable $100 headset. Would having a sound card make much difference? Would it be negligible? If I got the best headset available ever in the entire universe, would I need a good sound card to be able to differentiate that headset from one of lesser quality?
A soundcard is like a million times better than onboard audio and yes, you would need a decent soundcard to drive high end headsets and be able to differentiate between lesser headsets :)
YES!!! Get a sound card. They make a HUGGEE diference, if you had the best headset evar! Then you would need to have an amazing sound card. Pretty much any asus xonar sound card will be good but the best for headsets are probably the xonar essence stx and xonar essence st.
YES!!! You will notice the difference!!!
But be sure to buy a soundcard with a headphone amp, to really get the best sound from you headset.
Just to clarify, headset = headphones with a mic, headphones = no mic. If you're looking for good sound there aren't many headsets to look for, and headphones are always a better choice regarding sound & price.
To be honest you're going to have to bump it up a bit more than 100$ for headphones to really make a difference with a sound card. And the need for amplification got nothing to do with how expensive headphones you have. Just as an example the Sennheiser Amperior costs about 350$ and has an impedance of 18 ohm meaning no amp needed. You should still have a descent DAC for it though.
The "best headphones in the universe" definitely needs specialized ways of driving them, the Sennheiser Orpheus which is by many considered to be the "best" headphones in the world comes with its own amplifier for optimal performance. Headphones like Stax SR-009 and Audeze LCD-3 are also to be paired with amplifiers and DACs usually worth around 2000$ or more, especially the Stax since they're like the Orpheus electrostatic headphones. If you want to get the Orpheus by the way you need to lurk ebay, there was one for sale awhile ago for 38 000$ ;)
Late reply, but thanks. That cleared up a lot.
oh yes they do... its not fair to subject your ears to integrate sound.
Do yourself a favor and go ahead and get a sound card.
Talking about the best...
The current best rated sound card in the world is the ASUS Xonar Essence STX.
The current best rated headphone is the Sennheiser HD800; but it has no mic, it is purely for audiophiles like myself.
The best headphone (not rated, but I think so) would be one of Sennheisers PC350 or 360 series, one slightly differs from the other.
Also don't get something like one of the Creative series sound cards then upgrade to a Xonar, just save up for a Xonar (or whichever you end up purchasing) because the sound difference between one sound card vs another is tiny compared to the sound difference between onboard and the biggest, baddest, sound card.
In fact it is almost a religious experience to hear for the first time what your audio sounds like going to a dedicated sound card from onboard.
EDIT: Bear in mind that those cards are for headphones and headsets. If you want "best in the world" quality type stuff with stereo get a THX card.
Also in my opinion 7.1 and all that is a gimmick. I have tried it. Two large high quality speakers (stereo) will always surpass 6 miniature speakers that crackle if you crank up the volumes too much.
Most bang for your buck would be an external Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD partnered with Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pros 80 ohms. As far as headphone amps go, unless you want to spend ~$1000 or more, they hurt the audio more than enhance it, raising gain by introducing electricity into the signal causes distortion, though that is the goal of some tube amplifiers, a cheap $100 amp won't cut it. :D However, if your headphones require heavy amperage like 600 ohms+ models, a headphone amp then becomes necessary since you can destroy your cans by underpowering them.
I disagree with quite a lot in you said there.
"The current best rated sound card in the world is the ASUS Xonar Essence STX."
- Add "that uses PCIe interface" and it might be even remotely true. Change interface and even Asus themselves got better alternatives like the Xonar Essence One.
"The current best rated headphone is the Sennheiser HD800; but it has no mic, it is purely for audiophiles like myself."
- The HD800 might be one of the best if not the best analytical headphone. However even audio purists like Tyll Hertsens from Innerfidelity has admitted that for just listening to music there are nicer alternatives, like the Audeze LCD-3 & 2, Hifiman HE-500 and so on. From a technical standpoint they might be the best. A very good quote from a Head-fi member though would be "use your headphones to listen to music and not music for listening to your headphones". If you'd give the HD800 to a "normal" beats by dre kind of guy and let him listen, he'd probably find the sound cold and fatiguing.
"The best headphone (not rated, but I think so) would be one of Sennheisers PC350 or 360 series, one slightly differs from the other."
- The PC360 headset is allright, but not the best. The best headset soundwise is probably the Beyerdynamic MMX300 which I think is a 32 ohm DT-770 with a new design and mic.
"Bear in mind that those cards are for headphones and headsets. If you want "best in the world" quality type stuff with stereo get a THX card."
- THX is just a certificate that doesn't say much, telling people to look for that is terrible advice. If you are serious about your equipment that's not what you're looking for, nor do you get an internal sound card. You get stuff like this and this, and that's still far from "best in the world" obviously.
"In fact it is almost a religious experience to hear for the first time what your audio sounds like going to a dedicated sound card from onboard. "
- Provided you have descent gear, sure. But with a generic gaming headset it probably won't matter much.
Regarding 5.1 and 7.1 sound for headphones, that is a gimmick and any good open stereo headphone with a wide soundstage like Beyerdynamic DT-990 as an example paired with Dolby virtual surround will give you a much better surround experience.