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.
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.
1. StarTech ICUSBAUDIO2D
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
2. Creative Sound BlasterX G1 7.1
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
3. Audioengine D1
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
4. Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro
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
5. FiiO E10K
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
6. Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1
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
7. AudioQuest – DragonFly Red
Compact and very convenient, AudioQuest – DragonFly Red is a great solution for anyone looking for a portable, but at the same time powerful, option for their sound requirements. Although more expensive than the competition, this portable sound card delivers detailed and rich sound to any gaming or music experience, making itself worth the money and one of the best external sound card alternatives out there.
Characteristics that made its previous version popular are still present, and besides its flunky, but still pretty finish, there is not that much you can dislike about this card. Overall a quality product that can basically work with everything, with an ESS Sabre ES9016 DAC inside and a compliment to only USB Audio Class 1.0 standard in order to make things simpler and overcome needs for additional drivers in Windows surrounding that USB Audio Class 2.0 requires, AudioQuest – DragonFly Red is a great choice for anyone looking for a decent DAC/Headphone amp.
Basically, the only issue with this sound card is that it doesn’t support the direct 192kHz or higher decoding, like the DSD one. In other words, if that is not a problem for you, there is nothing else that should be preventing you from purchasing it.
- Subtle sound
- Compatible with smartphones
- A bit cheap red finish
8. ASUS Xonar DGX PCI-E GX2.5
ASUS Xonar DGX PCI-E GX2.5 is a multipurpose sound card, intended for VoIP, gaming and listening to music. Thanks to its C-Media CMI8786 High-Definition Sound Processor, it offers good sound reproduction with a sample rate of 96KHz on a 24-bit scale. According to performance, it’s almost the same as the Creative Soundblaster FX – this card is among the best PC sound cards you can get for your money.
Its Dolby headphone 5.1 HD sound offers a precise and profound sound that will help gamers focus on their play, while the jack-sending front panel allows for practical quick switching from back to front when headphones are inserted and fast adjustment of the sound while you are playing without the need for additional manual changes. For the improved performance of the ASUS Xonar DGX PCI-E GX2.5, you can also thank the SNR of 105dB that reduces the buzzing, adding to the overall great impression of this sound card.
Low profile (which makes it suitable for almost every PC case), a great ASUS software package, plus the good price are just some more benefits that this great card brings with itself. Very versatile, with quality performance, ASUS Xonar DGX PCI-E GX2.5 presents a good value for the money and a great choice that won’t disappoint anyone.
- Good price
- 5.1 surround sound
- Good SNR
- Built-in headphone amp
- It isn’t portable
- No EMI Shield
9. Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5
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
10. ASUS Xonar DSX PCIe 7.1
If you need a quality sound card that will perform well on a variety of fields, ASUS Xonar DSX PCIe 7.1 should be the card to pay your attention to. Good for movies and games, this card offers great overall audio performance with exceptional depth of sound thanks to its Xonar’s GX2.5 audio engine and minimized signal-to-noise ratio that comes as a result of Xonar’s 192K/24bit support.
Although it has a small number of extra features, it is relatively inexpensive and has a 7.1 surround sound and support for DTS, ASUS Xonar DSX PCIe 7.1, which makes it a perfect choice for home theatres. It would also be a great option for headphones if it had a Dolby headphone support and headphone amp. This way the whole headphone experience, although still great, is a bit crippled by the lack of these features. On the other side, thanks to its drastically boosted sample rates and SNR, its sound is much clearer than with the majority of sound cards in its class, making it one of the best internal sound card options you can find for yourself.
- Fair price
- Excellent SNR
- 7.1 surround sound support
- It is not portable
- No Dolby headphone support
- No headphone amp
buy here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B007TMZ1MY
11. Creative Sound Blaster Z PCIe
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
12. ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II
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
13. Creative Sound Blaster Audigy PCIe RX 7.1
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
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!