When we think about the computers, we are usually thinking about processors, motherboards, graphical cards or maybe hard drives. One important component is usually under our radar – sound cards. They are actually very important, but since the introduction of the integrated ones, they’ve been pushed to the side.
Although the majority of people will never really need them, there are still audiophile enthusiasts, and especially gamers, who are looking for a premium sound experience that only the best sound card models can deliver. Of course, there are also people who don’t want anything special, but would like to improve the sound quality of the integrated sound cards. All in all, there is a need for this type of product, just not as much as it used to be in its golden days.
Best Internal Sound Cards
Best External Sound Cards
How to Buy a Proper Sound Card
Buying a good quality product is never an easy task, especially if you are buying something you are not that familiar with. Because of that, there are a couple of things you should set your mind to before you make the actual purchase.
Logically, the most important thing when buying a sound-producing device is the quality of sound that it produces. Yes, opinions are different, and while some people will be satisfied with one level of quality, others would be requesting much more – especially the true audiophiles. Because of that, it would be a great idea to listen to the card’s sound reproduction before the purchase. As we already mentioned, the sound quality is mostly a subjective thing and the fact that it is pleasing one person, doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to please another.
Signal to Noise Ratio
Signal to noise ratio correlates the degree of the signal power and the degree of noise power. In other words, more dB in this department means higher signal strength, and that means a better sound experience. For instance, 90dB signal to noise ratio means that the degree of signal is 90dB higher than the degree of noise.
More connectors are always better. Every new connector adds to the versatility of a device, giving it more options for use, and just making it better. It is important to know what for and in which way you are going to use your device, and according to that, check if the needed inputs and outputs are present.
Also, it is always a smart idea to have more options than you really need, because we all change and that might also happen with your preferences, and initiate the purchase of another similar sound card if you already bought one doesn’t contain the needed options.
In this department less is always better, but just as long as it doesn’t go down on behalf of quality and needed features. It is important to find the proper balance between the needs and the price, and that is the only way to make a proper purchase.
The Best Internal Sound Cards
Creative Sound Blaster Audigy PCIe RX 7.1
A Great Value for Money Sound Card
Creative Sound Blaster Audigy PCIe RX 7.1 is a good sound card choice, especially if you are looking for something that has a great set of features and that is affordable. With this piece of hardware and thanks to its seven connectors (one optical output and six 3.5mm jacks, two of which can be used for mic ins) you are getting 7.1 or 5.1 surround capability, depending on your preferences. Other than this, you will get the E-MU chipset that is optimized for EAX technologies and Audigy Rx Control Panel, for fine tuning of your tone and bass, giving you the full experience of the advanced audio.
More importantly, with this sound card you will have a great sound quality that will be more than satisfying to every gamer or audiophile. If there weren’t the notorious Creative drivers that have issues with OS compatibility, this would be the best PCI sound card you can find. This way, this is still a great budget choice for everyone, although it’s not the perfect one.
- Good price
- 7.1 surround sound
- Unpredictable driver behavior
- No EMI shield
ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II
A Sound Card Made for Music Production
If you are looking for the best sound card for your PC, look no further. ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II is simply an amazing sound card that will bring a smile to the face of every audiophile. Cutting edge Hi-fi, swappable op-amp sockets, a built-in headphone amplifier, Dolby surround, and its own heatsink, are just some of the features that make this card such a great product.
According to some estimates, Essence STX II offers a 64 times better performance than an integrated sound card of a brand new PC. Its supreme sound quality is that great that it can be easily used for music production, which is something not that many cards can brag about. This sound card is just brilliant, its build, features, and even the looks. ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II is a premium product that will never disappoint you, except for the price, which is a hefty one.
- Great sound quality
- Swappable op-amp sockets
- Dolby surround
Creative Sound Blaster Z PCIe
A Sound Card that Brings a New Dimension to Your Gaming
Creative Sound Blaster Z PCIe is the perfect fit for any gamer. When paired with a proper gaming motherboard, it will create a miracle and blast you with its powerful sound quality, making an unforgettable adventure out of any game, from Minecraft to Far Cry.
The list of its great features includes 116dB signal-to-noise ratio for a crystalline sound clarity, five headphone jacks, 600ohm headphone amplifiers, SBX Pro Studio for the improved surround sound, CrystalVoice for boosting the microphone’s performance, two software solutions Z-Series control panel, and Alchemy for the full control of sound card capabilities, impressive even for the much more expensive options out there.
Of course, as with all the other Creative cards, this one also has a problem with its drivers and their compatibility with the OS. Luckily, the card is overall stable, but the issue is there, therefore be prepared for it if you decide to buy it. Other than that, this is a great product and the best gaming sound card you can find for your rig. The driver issue persists, but it is not that big to prevent you from enjoying your games to the max, so go for it.
- Built-in mic
- Amazing sound quality
- Great surround
- Poor drivers
- The software can be improved
ASUS XONAR SE 5.1
The Best Sound Card for Versatile Systems
XONAR SE from ASUS features 5.1 channels, working at 192kHz/24-bit, while offering Hi-Resolution audio, alongside quite good 300ohm amp for headphones, which is capable of giving you very immersive sound, thus being pretty important for gaming.
To even further improve the audio, there is Realtek ALC1220X codec, which is used to bring you an extremely clear sound, with 116dB SNR (signal-to-noise ratio).
In order to avoid distortions and interference in the audio, this sound card uses ASUS Hyper Grounding technology, which further helps with immersing yourself in the gaming world.
Along with that comes Xonar Audio Center, which offers a great interface for complete audio control, as well as Low Profile Bracket, which will allow Xonar to work well with different systems.
As for the supported operating system, ASUS XONAR SE is completely compatible with Windows 10 Operating Systems.
- Hi-Resolution audio
- Clear sound, because of good SNR
- Excellent audio control
- Low Profile Bracket, for compatibility with different systems
- Fully compatible with Windows 10 OS
- Drivers can be tricky to deal with
Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5
An Amazing Sound Card Choice for Every Die-Hard Gamer
Although a bit pricey, Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 is an excellent decision if you want to upgrade your current sound card. Thanks to its virtual 7.1 surround sound and the production of realistic positional audio, you won’t need special gaming headphones with a lot of drivers. You will be able to use high-quality headphones for games and music, with just a small adjustment in the settings.
Even though primarily intended for gamers, which is obvious from its cool looking RGB lighting and specific software, music reproduction is where the Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 shines the most. Equipped with just two drivers, DSP and a quality amplifier, this sound card offers simple construction, yet amazing sound for full enjoyment in your games, movies and music.
With this one, you can’t be wrong. If you are looking for the best sound card for gaming or music experience, and its price doesn’t bother you, just buy it. You’ll be more than pleased.
- ESS Sabre DAC
- Excellent 7.1 virtual surround sound
- Aurora RGB lighting
- Great sound reproduction
- A bit pricey
- Power lights cannot be connected to all the motherboards
EVGA Nu Audio Card
Sound Card with Excellent Audio Support
EVGA Nu Audio Card is built of top-notch audio components, that will help you to completely immerse yourself in your favorite games.
Along with that comes excellent DSD Audio support, which can go up to x256, as well as having all important output and input options.
With that comes NU Audio Software, which is pretty good and allows you to customize your sound and create different EQ profiles.
To make your rig a bit prettier, there is excellent RGB lighting, which you can completely customize to your wishes since there are 10 different Audio Reactive Lighting modes.
Headphone Amp is also quite good, offering the range from 16-600ohm with the independent analog control.
As for the output configuration, this sound card comes with analog 2 Channel and 5.1 Digital channel via S/PDIF.
- It is built of excellent components
- Excellent DSD Audio Support
- Good-looking RGB lighting with 10 Audio Reactive modes
- Great Headphone Amp range
- Pretty good output configuration
- Price is quite high
The Best External Sound Cards
AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt
The Best for Natural Sound
This portable USB DAC features extremely good audio effects, with different frequencies, starting from 44.1kHz and going up to 96kHz.
With Dragonfly Cobalt, you can expect only top-notch sound, whether you are listening to YouTube, Vimeo or Bandcamp, and Spotify.
Dragonfly Cobalt comes with DAC Chip ESS ES9038Q8M that features a minimum-phase slow roll-off filter, which is capable of delivering completely natural sound, allowing you to fully immerse in everything you listen.
With this Portable DAC, you can play all types of music files, from the MP3 to MQA and other H-Resolution formats.
When it comes to compatibility, it is where the Dragonfly Combat shines. It is fully supported by both iOS and Android systems, as well as Windows devices.
In order to use it on Apple devices, you will need to get Lighting-to-USB adaptor, while Android users need simple USB adaptor.
- Features excellent audio resolution
- Provides perfectly natural sound
- Capable of playing all types of music formats
- Quite small dimensions can fit everywhere
- Fully compatible with iOS, Android and Windows devices
- It is quite expensive
Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1
An Affordable, High-Quality External Sound Card Destined for Gaming
If you are looking for a great sound card that is portable and excellent for gaming at the same time, look no further. Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1 offers exactly that, with the addition of many valuable features that include Dolby 5.1 surround, built-in dual array mic, SBX Control Panel, and even the volume control knob. With a discrete black design, it will easily blend with most today’s PCs without being intrusive.
Among the best USB sound cards, Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1 offers plenty of connectors (two RCA ports, two 3.5mm jacks and an optical out port), can be used as a DAC and supports up to 600 ohms impedance, which is impressive for an external sound card. Reasonably priced, with full support for PC and Mac, it offers a crisp and clear sound thanks to its 100dB SNR. It is also equipped with an SBX Surround that guarantees for an unforgettable experience for both various speaker setups, and headphones. All in all, Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1 presents a great opportunity for you to enjoy your games to the max without breaking the bank.
- 5.1 surround sound support
- Built-in mic
- Built-in headphone amp
- Dolby Digital support
- No echo cancellation
An Amazing External Sound Card that Proves that David Can Really Beat Goliath
The best things in life happen when you least expect them, and it’s a similar situation with this external sound card. Made by a not-that-famous brand, FiiO E10K delivers simply an amazing performance that easily beats a couple of times more expensive DAC solutions out there. If you are looking for a high sound quality and real value for the money, this is the card to buy.
Elegantly designed and built with quality in mind, this card offers DAC, S/PDIF interface and the headphone amp, all in one device. With a pleasant sound and nice tonality, this piece of hardware is an excellent choice for every user of high-quality headphones. Equipped with plug-and-play capability, and with only two 3.5-millimeter connectors (one in the front and one in the back) and one coaxial line out on the back, FiiO E10K offers the simplicity of design that will make every user happy.
Overall, FiiO E10K is compact and simple to use. This sound card will work flawlessly with your gaming laptop, bringing your gaming adventure to a much higher level. For this price, it is definitely the best sound card you can find.
- Great price
- Quality build
- Good sound
- Not that good bass
- It doesn’t seem that durable
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro
A Cheap External Sound Card that Will Bring Your Gaming Closer to the Stars
Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro is an affordable external sound card, with plenty of features that will give you the most out of your movies and games. Compact, with plenty of connectors (two RCA, five 3.5mm jacks, and an optical S/PDIF output) and with the support for 3D positioning effects in games and environmental audio, this card is a great choice for any serious gamer.
Although also allowing an audio production, its modest recording capability of 96kHZ/24-bit and the lack of ASIO driver (responsible for low-latency recording), prevents it from being used for anything more than video calling. Equipped with a driver that includes virtual surround sound, Crystalizer (interpolates audio parts that are lost in the compression) and THX TruStudio Pro effects, and with the support for EAX and X-Fi technology, Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro presents one of the best well-rounded external sound cards that will satisfy most people.
With an extraordinary sound quality and plenty of options, this is the best external sound card for laptop money can buy. Desktop users should stick to Asus Xonar DX that is a bit cheaper and offers even more, but for laptop consumers, it cannot be much better than this, especially for this price.
- Reasonable price
- A great set of features
- A lot of different connectors
- 5.1 surround sound
- EAX and X-Fi support
- No Mac support
One of the Best External Sound Cards for Audiophiles
Audioengine D1 is an external sound card that offers the DAC and a headphone amp in one device. Portable and powerful, this card offers a refined sound, with a well-balanced tonality that will please most users. Compatible with both Mac and PC, this card is a great solution for people looking for more out of their sound card.
This card supports content with a maximum sample rate of 96KHz on a 24-bit scale when signal goes through the USB, which is usually the supported sample rate for the majority of sound cards, but also the excellent 192kHz/24-bit when signal goes through the optical connection, which gives the opportunity for a much more detailed sound that will be gladly accepted by every audiophile.
Although lacking a bit of fluidity and precision, Audioengine D1 can still be considered one of the best audiophile sound card models out there – maybe not the best, but because of its versatility and plenty of features, surely among the top three.
- Well-balanced sound
- A good set of features
- Very portable
- It lacks precision
Creative Sound BlasterX G1 7.1
A Sound Card that Gives You a Real Value for Money
If you are looking for a decent, yet not too expensive option for enhancing your sound, you should seriously consider Creative Sound BlasterX G1 7.1. Affordable, with a virtual 7.1 surround sound support, quality sound and support for both PC and Mac, this card comes as a serious contender for anyone looking for crisp audio recordings and satisfying experience for movies, music, and especially games.
Small and very portable, with 93dB SNR, support for a maximum sample rate of 96KHz and a 24-bit resolution, this little fellow will deliver more than satisfying sound results in various departments. When it comes to connectors, this card only has a USB male jack for power and input, and a 4-pole headphone-mic combo port for output – modest but enough for this type of device.
Although this card is intended for the gamers, its performance will please everyone looking for sound improvement. All in all, Creative Sound BlasterX G1 7.1 is cheap, but at the same time high-quality sound alternative, that offers true value for money.
- 7.1 virtual surround sound
- No separate mic/line input
- There are no volume controls
A Low-Cost Solution for Your Troubled Sound Card
StarTech ICUSBAUDIO2D is a low-cost external sound card that offers the basic features. Its sound quality is nothing spectacular but is probably better than your built-in audio. Primarily made for notebooks with broken or troubled audio, its intention is not to impress, but to do the job and give you a decent sound.
Its home theater audio support over the S/PDIF, volume control knob, control of the bass over the dedicated switch, and its possibility to produce a high-quality audio, are just some of its practical features that are going to be useful, but are not a decisive factor and won’t make a large difference compared to your onboard audio. If you want to purchase this card in order to enhance your laptop sound, just don’t. Yes, you are probably going to get a bit of a better sound, but just a bit. It would be smarter to invest more money and get yourself a better deal.
- Low price
- Surround sound support
- Onboard controls
- Low SNR and sample rate
- Outperformed by similar class sound cards
As previously mentioned, finding an ideal fit is never an easy task. If this article helped you in that quest, it has fulfilled its purpose. Even if your right sound card isn’t on this list, we hope that you now have fewer questions and doubts, and will have an easier time finding it!