Can’t stand poor audio quality? Start looking for top-notch subwoofers or bookshelf speakers. Not enough? Then a new sound card can save the day. This small device will provide you with sheer pleasure when listening to music or playing games. The only thing you should remember is to always go for the best sound card that meets namely your needs.
How to Choose the Best Sound Card
Your first step to the successful purchase of a sound card presupposes choosing between external and internal types. Both of them have pros and cons and it’s impossible to say which one is better. They are just different. The best thing you can do to choose the sound card of your dream is to know what you need it for.
Below you can find basic information that you should know about both types of sound cards.
Remember that internal cards have higher noise floor than the external ones. Thus, if your device has low noise floor get ready to raise the volume every time you want to hear sizzling sounds or buy an internal card to get rid of this habit.
Almost all internal cards are less compatible than external ones.
Internal cards have special software which is more powerful than DACs have. It includes special effects, lets you clean up messy audio and even remove vocals from tracks.
If a card is placed inside your PC its latency level will be lower than in an external one. That is why, keep in mind that higher latency can align instrumental and vocal tracks inappropriately. The best way out to avoid this is to buy an external card with FireWire interface.
Unlike internal cards, external items have more connectivity options including digital input/output jacks, MIDI and RCA. Such connectivity variety allows you to put external models wherever you want.
If internal cards have better software for high-quality sound than externals ones take care of its clarity and accuracy. The point is that DACs cope with external noises much better and don’t pick them up when delivering sound.
One of the greatest advantages of external cards is their portability. It means you can use your DAC with various devices – laptops, desktop computers, TVs, phones, etc.
Best Internal Sound Cards
Creative Sound Blaster Audigy PCIe RX 7.1
The Best 7.1 Sound Card
Need an internal sound card for a reasonable price? This PCI sound card can be the one you are looking for. This sound card comes with hardware-accelerated EAX effects that will make audio sound more vivid and lifelike.
Audigy PCIe RX 7.1 is designed with 106db SNR. Sure, it’s not something super powerful but it’s more than just good for such price. Note that this sound card allows full audio customization. The card has enhanced chipset with EAX reverb engine well-known for its high quality. Note that it won’t affect CPU work or impede PC performance on the whole.
This example of internal sound cards supports such operating systems as Windows XP SP2 (and higher), Windows Vista SP1 (and higher), Windows 7 and Windows 10.
- 7.1 surround sound
- powerful reverb engine EAX
- full audio customization
- dual stereo microphone inputs
- perfect option for Windows OS
- no S/P-DIF interface
- microphone may not work after the sleep mode, you may need to boot your PC
ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II
Great Sound Card for Audiophiles
Ready to spend more on the sound system of your PC? Then have a look at ASUS Essence STX II. This card will cost you more than $200 but you will get excellent and fast performance in return.
So, this sound card comes with an advanced 124dB SNR and 7.1 surround sound. There is a built-in headphone amplifier that supports up to 600 Ohms. By the way, STX II has got additional control options which are essential for high-sensitivity IEM headphones.
Provided with swappable op-amp sockets this internal sound card allows creating various timbres and tonal combinations. Besides, this card uses a dedicated four-pin Molex power connection and doesn’t draw power from the expansion slot like many cards do.
- 7.1 surround sound
- high-build quality
- swappable op-amp sockets
- only for desktop PCs
ASUS XONAR SE
Best 5.1 Sound Card for the Money
In the world of “aftermarket components for PCs” Asus is king, and their old-school Xonar SE makes for an affordable and well-designed high resolution 5.1 PCIe gaming sound card with 192kHz/24-bit audio and 116dB SNR, which is not bad considering the price tag of well under $50. On top of that, you’ll get a 300ohm headphone amp to drive your cans, i.e. you’ll benefit from a clear, detailed sound and enhanced bass.
To make things even better, the Xonar SE comes loaded with ASUS Hyper Grounding Technology, which delivers minimal interference and audio distortion, while the company’s proprietary Xonar Audio Center software allows you to control sound settings with ease via an intuitive user interface. Basically, if you’re looking for a solid and affordable sound card for multimedia and gaming, the Xonar SE should rank high on your shopping list. It’s true there are better options out there, but not at this price, hence if you’re not into fancy stuff, you can’t go wrong with this Asus soundcard.
- high fidelity sound
- 116dB signal-to-noise ratio (SNR)
- built-in 300ohm headphone amplifier
- immersive, cinematic sound for watching movies, gaming and listening to music
- fits SFF cases
- the installation process is finicky on Windows 10
Creative Sound Blaster Z PCIe
The Best Internal Sound Card Under $100
This internal sound card is designed with Sound Core3D Audio Processor. Thanks to SBX Pro Studio sound technology it provides 3D surround effects for speakers and headsets. Besides, it comes with 116dB SNR that brings audio quality to the new higher level. There are also CrystalVoice technology responsible for the sound improvement. Thanks to it you won’t experience any echoes or external noises.
Creative Sound Blaster Z PCIe is equipped with top-notch capacitors as well as gold-plated I/O connectivity and Stereo Direct. Such combination guarantees crystal clear sounding with 24-bit 192 kHz rate. Note that this sound card is compatible with such OS as Windows 7/8/10.
- high-quality audio
- great microphone
- perfect for gaming
- easy to install
- Scout Mode is not very effective
- the audio output doesn’t auto switch between headphones and speakers when you plug/unplug headphones
Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5
Great Internal Sound Card for the Money
Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 comes with a custom-designed discrete headphone amplifier – Xamp. It means that all audio channels are amplified individually and this results in an accurate and clear sound that comes equally to each earcup.
Those customers who like bright lights will appreciate its Aurora Reactive Lighting System. It includes up to 16.8 million colors in different patterns with the free downloadable Sound Blaster Connect software for PC. By the by, AE-5 is provided with SABRE32 Ultra Class PCIe DAC what makes it a perfect sound card for HR audio.
- top-notch sound
- high-quality built-in DAC
- Xamp discrete headphone amplification
- uncomfortable RGB Led light plug location
EVGA Nu Audio Card
The EVGA Nu Audio Card is a dedicated PCIe 2-channel sound card with a hi-fi pedigree. i.e. this is a stereo (the horror) soundcard built with audiophiles in mind, which is kind of rare in this day and age. So, if you love music, keep in mind that the EVGA Nu comes with premium components, stuff like DAC: AKM AK4493, ADC: AKM AK5572, OP-AMP (Headphone): ADI OP275, OP-AMP (Line Out): ADI AD8056, Capacitors: WIMA, Audio Note(UK), Nichicon and so on and so forth, and, on top of that, offers Native DSD Support (up to x256) and Audio DSP: XMOS xCORE-200.
If you have basic notions about audiophile grade stuff, you’re already sold. If not, all you need to know is that the EVGA Nu Audio Card is built in cooperation with a brand (Audio Note) that is specialized in Hi-Fi gear, the likes of integrated amps, power amps, loudspeakers, CD Players and DACs, hence if you’re looking for audiophile-grade hardware for your FLAC collection (and you also own above-average headphones/speakers) look no further, as you’ve just met your match.
- cool design and Audio-grade components
- great value for money if you’re a music aficionado
- stellar sound quality
- superior analog capabilities for audiophiles
- works great as a DAC for dedicated amplifier and speakers setups
- rather expensive
Best External Sound Cards
AudioQuest – DragonFly Red
The Best External Sound Card for Laptop
AudioQuest DragonFly Red has improved 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC chips with the latest ESS headphone amp and a digital volume control for authentic sounding. It provides 1.2 volts what is enough for modern headphones. Still, this sound card can also reach up to 2.1 volt and such option guarantees a wide spectrum of devices it can be compatible with, including low-efficiency and power-hungry models.
Note that it’s very easy to use as its capabilities cover 24-bit/96kHz resolution. It means complete compatibility with PCs without any additional drivers which are often required to be downloaded and installed.
What is more, you can download a free Windows or OS X desktop app to update your sound card every time there is such a chance.
- sound quality
- stylish look
- highly compatible with modern devices
- a bit poor compatibility with Android
Great USB Sound Card From Audioengine
Audioengine D1 is a premium DAC using which you can get high-quality sound. This converter is compatible not only with PCs but also TVs (including Apple TV), DVD/ BluRay players and CD players. Besides, it can be used as a portable computer headphone amplifier.
One more thing which makes Audioengine D1 popular is its easy setup. Sure, nobody likes spending more than a couple of minutes on the tiresome instructions. Besides, it guarantees digital audio processing at any bit depth (up to 24 bits) and at any sample rate (up to 192 kHz).
- sound quality
- build quality
- headphones amplifier
- USB and optical input
- mini-jack for headphones only
Great Choice For a PC
One more external DAC which is worth your attention is FiiO E10K. It attracts customers with its sleek and stylish look gained due to brushed aluminum chassis. The combination of such construction and material make it robust what is very important for a portable headphone amplifier.
FiiO E10K is provided with an optimized low-pass filter and selectable bass boost circuit what is necessary for a low noise floor. What is more, it can handle PCM files up to 24-bit/96 kHz. Note that it converts audio quality into a higher level using a linear filter. It means there won’t be any phase shifts and delay as well as internal silence will be immediately reduced.
This DAC can be proud of its connectivity variety. It supports USB connection, includes a front-panel 1/8” headphone jack, a rear-panel 1/8” line output, and a rear-panel coaxial digital output.
- affordable price
- has line-out
- stylish look
- compact size
- durable and practical
- poor bass
- only Mini-USB connection
- no optical and 1/4” jack
Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround 5.1
A Bit Bulky But Powerful External Sound Card
One more external sound card for a reasonable price is Omni Surround 5.1. It is also known for its audio quality that includes advanced audio technology. This card supports 5.1 discrete channels of vibrant sound and takes audio quality to a new level.
There is also a built-in dual microphone designed in accordance with Crystal Voice Technology to provide you with clear sounding for headset-free performance. This external sound card is suitable for such OS as Microsoft Windows 10/8/7/Vista, Mac 10.6 and higher.
Still, delivering your voice isn’t the only advantage of this card. It’s also good at sounding (it’s prior function, actually) due to Dolby Digital Live technology. Having a 600-ohm headphone amplifier, it can easily provide you with the cinematic lifelike sound at home. Good news for gamers as well – Omni Surround 5.1 includes Scout Mode.
- reasonable price
- Crystal Voice Technology
- Dolby Digital technology
- Scout Mode
- great sound
- high compatibility
- can’t operate without a computer
- a bit bulky
Creative Sound BlasterX G1 7.1
Great Choice for Gamers
If you are looking for the best sound card for gaming then Creative Sound BlasterX G1 7.1 is the one you need. It is provided with 7.1 channel audio input signals that guarantee vivid and realistic sound gaming effects. Besides, it makes the sound clear and accurate.
Due to its BlasterX Acoustic Engine its performance is improved and optimized for gaming.
What is more, BlasterX G1 7.1 includes X-Plus mode which lets you hear footsteps and gunshots of your enemies. Combine it with a high-grade gaming motherboard and you will take your gaming up to a new level.
- low price
- compact size
- great sound
- no separate mic/line input
Sound BlasterX G6
A Great Multipurpose Device for Any Gamer Craving Quality Sound
If you are in a pursuit of a device that is a sound card, amplifier and DAC in one, Sound BlasterX G6 comes as an ultimate option. Compatible with Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and many other platforms, this device offers the widest possible field of use and altogether presents a great solution for sound amplifying of both PCs and consoles and therefore, it is the ideal option for every gaming fan.
The device itself is very small and practical and doesn’t require any calibration whatsoever. You can connect any type of headsets to it and get a huge sound quality boost, using both the cheap and the premium model headphones.
Sound BlasterX G6 supports both 5.1 and 7.1 virtual surround sound, along with Dolby Digital. Also, it offers 130dB DNR, SBX mode, comes with the custom Xamp headphone amplifier that amplifies each channel individually, 32-bit/384kHz DAC, Scout Mode that intensifies the ambient noise and a lot more.
It is powered through a micro-USB port and overall presents an exceptional, but a bit costly multipurpose device. Altogether, if you want to enhance your game sound, Sound BlasterX G6 is a great choice, but if you are trying to improve your TV or similar-type device, there are much better solutions out there.
- Exceptional sound quality
- Great compatibility
- Easy to use
- A bit pricey
- Short cables
Of course, external cards are much easier to install and they are portable, but if you need higher audio quality then an internal sound card will be a better option. Still, it’s always up to you to choose the best item which will suit your requirements and needs.