Welcome to another of the bees in my bonnet – the use of an external sound card while DJing from a laptop.
First question: what is an external sound card?
Very simply: it’s a gadget, usually USB-powered. You plug one end into your laptop. You plug the other into a mixing desk, some kind of speaker, headphones, you name it. Sound comes out.
Second question: I have a perfectly good headphone socket on my laptop – why on earth should I spend money on something like this?
Well – there’s a host of answers to this.
First – if you use the right DJing software, you can preview – in other words, you can listen to tracks on your headphones while playing – so it makes it easier to find the next track you want to play.
Second – redundancy. Headphone sockets break. The one on my last laptop did, during a gig, which would have been highly embarrassing had I not had one of these widgets handy.
Frankly though, both the above reasons are just useful extras. The real reason is that laptops are not designed as high quality audio devices. Apple laptops have far better sound quality than most, and they sound dreadful if you pipe the music out over a decent set of speakers. Netbooks, which a lot of DJs use, are cheap, with cheap components, and they sound diabolical. Add in the fact that much of our music comes from very old sources, and the sound quality is pretty iffy to start with… so it’s far worse once piped through a laptop’s dodgy sound output. Sound cards, on the other hand, are designed for only one purpose – to play sound. Even a fairly cheap sound card will generally sound better than the best built-in headphone socket. Add a quality one – and the difference is night and day. Sadly, this is not something I can demonstrate via samples on a blog… but it is something I can easily demonstrate in person, and I’m more than happy to do that – so do ask me about it if you see me at an event.
As an aside, I’ve seen people advocate the use of sound cards purely to preview, while using the headphone socket as the main sound output. This is terrible advice. You don’t need the quality for your own headphones. You need it for the dancers.