The 10 Best Sound Cards of 2018

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Best PC Sound Card
Best Gaming Sound Card
Best External Sound Card
Best USB Sound Card
Best Buy Sound Card
Best External Sound Card For Laptop
Best Budget Sound Card
Best Audiophile Sound Card
Best PCI Sound Card

For anyone who appreciates quality audio, getting a performant sound card is essential. Whether you’re building a computer or simply need an upgrade to your sound, a high-quality sound card is the way to go. Nowadays motherboards are advanced enough to offer a decent sound solution, but many people still prefer a dedicated audio component to obtain the best sound performance in games, movies, and music.

The main reason why you need to consider getting a capable sound card is that of the stress on the motherboard which causes RFI noise that affects the audio quality. When you leave the audio processing to the sound card you can benefit from a superior sound, but there are other advantages too. They allow for better connectivity and to power more demanding headphones. If you also take into account the fact that many sound cards come with their own special software, it becomes clear that sound cards are must-have components for anyone who wants a more clear and customized sound. You might also be interested in our articles about the best computer speakers and the best USB microphones.

There are both internal and external sound cards available on the market and they all come with their ups and downs. Making sense of them requires a guide that provides you with the most important features to analyze. To find your ideal sound card you need to be aware of:

1. Matching your speakers/headphones

There’s no point in getting a high-end sound card unless you have the gear to keep up. This is why most onboard sound cards have average audio performance. Most users don’t really have the right equipment to notice the difference anyway. If you own high-quality speakers or headphones then you should definitely look at a sound card that seems to match their level. You will be able to truly benefit from the superior audio quality of a premium sound card if your equipment is able to effectively reproduce the sound.

2. Internal vs External

Audiophiles who travel often with their laptops should obviously consider an external sound card over an internal model. For everyone else, internal sound cards should take priority because they’re more responsive and overall the sound performance is better thanks to the difference in connectivity speed between PCIe and USB.

3. Software/hardware compatibility

The final thing worth keeping in mind is if your desired sound card works well with your operating system and if there are any hardware compatibility issues. Some motherboards lack the needed PCIe slots and sometimes you might encounter difficulties fitting the new component in a computer case. This is the case for internal units. Those who decide to get an external sound card should only focus on having a free USB port.

With this out of the way, let’s check the individual reviews for the most cost-effective sound cards on the market. This is a selection that’s varied in terms of types of cards, features, and price. Anyone on the market for a high-quality sound card should find in here something worth the money to fit their particular needs.

Best PC Sound Card

1. Creative Sound Blaster Z PCIe Internal Sound Card

One of the best solutions for those looking to enhance their gaming and audio listening sessions is the Creative Sound Blaster Z sound card. This is an internal model that boasts a clean 116 dB signal-to-noise ratio which is vastly superior to any motherboard audio. There are other interesting abilities and technologies packed in this one so let’s take a more in-depth look.

To completely immerse yourself in your favorite media you need a capable soundstage. Thanks to the SBX Pro Studio, this sound card allows you to experience a superior sound with crystal clear details. If you’re often chatting online you will be pleased by the Crystal Voice technology that focuses on providing extra clarity for your voice.

The audio processing in this sound card is handled by the Sound Core3D processor which is designed to improve the audio quality without having your CPU to suffer from a decreased performance. The signal-to-noise ratio of 116 dB is an impressive result that should be more than enough even for certain audiophiles.

A bundled beamforming microphone makes it easy to be heard with extra clarity. When you combine it with CrystalVoice Focus, it’s able to produce an acoustic zone and keep the noise outside it to a minimum.

The 600 Ohm headphone amp could be a great addition to anyone who has a pair of power-hungry headphones. This sound card provides multiple connections and most of them are gold-plated for superior responsiveness. EMI shielding is also provided to face any interferences.

Having a dedicated sound card in this day and age is a must if you’re serious about audio quality. The Creative Sound Blaster Z represents an excellent choice, all things considered. Expect a clean and clear sound with a higher bass ceiling. Overall, this sound card is worth the money considering what it can do for your audio quality and how easy it is to adjust everything from the Sound Blaster Control panel.

Key Features:

  • Sound Core3D Audio Processor
  • SBX Pro Studio Technology
  • 116dB SNR
  • 24-bit 192 kHz unprocessed audio quality
  • Sound Blaster Control Panel
  • Gold-plated I/O connectivity

Best Gaming Sound Card

2. ASUS Xonar DGX PCI-E Internal Sound Card

The Asus Xonar DGX is a competitively priced internal sound card which promises a superb gaming experience in an affordable package. If you plan on building a new PC and wish to get the most out of your modest sound card budget, this seems like a very solid choice. It’s a nice combination of Dolby 5.1 surround technology with a powerful gaming audio engine.

One solid technology incorporated into this sound card is Dolby Headphone. This levels up your stereo headphones bringing them to a better surround sound. To create a realistic audio environment, Asus makes use of its GX 2.5 audio engine that’s designed with gaming in mind.

There are a total of 128 sound effects which you can use to adjust your audio experience. They can be used at the same time and another good thing to know about this engine is that it provides complete support with the latest EAX version. The audio processor used with this sound card provides a sample rate of 96KHz/24bit maximum which is much better than onboard variants.

With the help of its front panel header that’s compatible with Intel HAD, you can switch the output automatically from the front to the back of the case when speakers or headphones are connected. It’s well known that having to change connection settings by hand can be quite bothersome for many so this is a neat feature.

Another capable feature of this sound card is the built-in amplifier for your headphones. It’s especially useful for gamers for hearing even the tiniest details which can make a difference in many types of atmospheric games. There are 3 gain modes in total to fit various scenarios.

Considering the overall value, you are going to have a tough time finding a better option than the Asus DGX. The Xonar DGX Audio Center software is a pleasure to use and the sound card is not very difficult to install. All in all, it boosts the sound quality without making a large dent in your budget so it’s highly recommended.

Key Features:

  • Built-In Headphone AMP
  • Three gain modes
  • Dolby Headphone Technology
  • GX 2.5 gaming audio engine
  • 5.1 sound card
  • Automatic jack-sensing front-panel output

Best External Sound Card

3. Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround External Sound Card

For those who prefer going with an external sound card, once again Creative has something great in store. This is their Sound Blaster Omni Surround, a powerful unit which can easily turn any computer into an authentic cinematic entertainment system. Some of the standout technologies are the SBX Pro Studio and the Crystal Voice feature.

Installing this unit is a breeze. As this is an external sound card, you will only need a single USB connection to upgrade your sound. There are gold-plated RCA outputs to guarantee the best responsiveness for your audio entertainment, but there are also optical digital outputs as well as the usual headphone and microphone jacks.

This unit offers support for both Mac and PC operating systems so that more people can enjoy the superb surround experience offered by the sound card. Windows users have some extra benefits as they can take advantage of the Dolby Digital Live audio technology which offers 5.1 channels with a vibrant sound.

Thanks to its 600-ohm amplifier, this sound card allows you to use high-end headphones and you can see their true potential. Gamers will be pleased by the Scout mode which enables the users to hear enemies from further away so it’s perfectly suited for games that rely on tactical combat.

The included Sound Blaster software gives multiple options for customizing the sound to your liking. Leveling up your audio is possible with the help of an intuitive control panel where you can also control the features of the SBX Pro Studio and the CrystalVoice integrated technologies.

Great for gaming or any Hi-Fi music listening session, the Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround is a very solid all-around external sound card. The built-in beamforming mic is actually very performant even though it may not seem so compared to a normal microphone. Overall, the sound card represents a vast improvement and an excellent audio fix for any system.

Key Features:

  • SBX Pro Studio
  • 5.1 Surround sound
  • Built-in dual microphones
  • 600-ohm headphone amplifier
  • Scout Mode
  • Comprehensive Connectivity

Best USB Sound Card

4. Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi 5.1 Pro External Sound Card

A very balanced option for an external sound card is the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi 5.1 Pro, which comes in a sleek and portable design. It’s ready to enhance the audio quality everywhere you go thanks to its compelling surround sound and is also very easy to control with the help of its compact IR remote.

The main driving force behind this sound card’s audio performance is the SBX Pro Studio which promises a truly immersive experience for movies, games, and music. Using only a single digital cable you can benefit from a beautiful 5.1 surround sound due to the fact that Dolby Digital Live allows for more convenient connectivity with a home theater system or a decoder.

Speaking of connectivity, this sound card offers a very high-quality set of optical outputs and RCA connectors which are gold-plated to ensure the best performance. Internet chatting is also simplified thanks to the presence of microphone and headphone jacks.

The design of this sound card is more old-fashioned, but it looks stylish enough to sit on a computer desk and the low-profile makes it a portable solution for connecting it to a laptop on-the-go. The only connection needed to make this work is with a free USB 2.0 port.

A free download of the PowerDVD 10 software has been included and this could be useful for creating a cinematic DVD experience. Another nice extra is the compact infrared remote which gives you the most important controls right at your fingertips. You can, for example, instantly mute the volume from across the room.

Taking everything about the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi 5.1 Pro into account, it’s safe to say that this is a worthy candidate on the market for external sound cards. It sounds quite impressive, has a stylish look, and the included remote is very handy. Even if your speakers are cheap you can still benefit from their full potential with a dedicated sound card like this one.

Key Features:

  • SBX Pro Studio
  • Dolby Digital Live
  • Easy to install
  • Gold-plated RCA and optical outputs
  • Compact IR Remote
  • PowerDVD free download

Best Buy Sound Card

5. Asus Xonar DX PCI-Express x1 7.1 Internal Sound Card

If you’re looking for a 7.1 internal sound card that seems to get everything right check out the Asus Xonar DX. This model ensures an amazing sound quality that’s simply in another league altogether compared to onboard audio. It comes with a powerful software to customize its abilities and many other interesting goodies.

As the noise on this sound card is only around 2.8% of the one found on your average motherboard audio, you can expect quite the drastic change when you’re listening through it for the first time. While the harmonics distortion of motherboard audio reaches approximately -75dB, this sound card manages to produce only 1/32 of that which is an impressive result.

With the help of the innovative VocalFX technology, your voice can be heard with a superior level of realism. The voice processing is capable of simulating the scenes in the background in online chat and it also gives you the ability to disguise your voice using the Magic Voice feature that changes the voice pitch.

This sound card comes with comprehensive Dolby support so you can enjoy the audio performance offered by Dolby Digital Live, Virtual Speaker, and Logic II. This is particularly helpful for ensuring a superior gaming experience but it contributes a lot to the enjoyment of movies too. Other great effects that you can find in this model are FlexBass and the Smart Volume Normalizer together with 27 environment effects.

When it comes to connectivity, there are plenty of available digital and analog outputs. Besides the front-panel header, Aux in, and the optical out, there are also five 3.5mm jacks, of which one of them is the analog input – line-in/mic-in combo.

A reasonably priced sound card with a surprisingly good sound, the Asus Xonar DX deserves a spot on this list considering what it can do for your system’s audio performance. It’s also a fairly low profile sound card and despite the software being a little confusing, this unit is highly recommended for anyone seeking an improvement over onboard audio.

Key Features:

  • GX 2.5 Game Audio Engine
  • Dolby Pro-Logic II
  • Dolby Digital Live
  • FlexBass
  • 116dB SNR
  • VocalFX voice processing

Best External Sound Card For Laptop

6. ASUS Xonar U3 External Sound Card

Laptop owners who need an inexpensive way to considerably boost the quality of their sound should look no further than the Asus Xonar U3. This compact sound card stick makes use of reliable features to allow you to better differentiate fine audio details. It comes with support for Dolby technologies and a solid headphone amplifier.

Despite the fact that it’s pocket-sized, this device packs a lot of punch in terms of audio performance. It offers support for many Dolby technologies including Dolby Digital Live, Pro Logic II, and Virtual Speaker. These will take your Hi-Fi enjoyment to a new level.

As with other units from the Xonar lineup, this one comes with the exclusive hyper-grounding technology. It helps to produce a cleaner sound as it’s able to separate audio signals from noise more efficiently. Gamers will also not be disappointed because this sound card comes with the GX 2.5 audio engine focused on making games sound more immersive.

To take care of your demanding headphones, Asus offers quality amplification with adjustable gain levels allowing you to benefit from the full potential of your equipment. You can finally say goodbye to those frustrating moments when your headphones just can’t get any louder.

Hardware-wise, this sound card comes with a removable cover that’s attached to the main unit. A handy split ring is also included to help with the overall portability. The device lights up when it’s working thanks to its blue LED.

The Xonar line from Asus once again doesn’t disappoint as evidenced by the U3 model which is an exceptionally good sound card for its cost. This neat little device fits with ease in a USB port and its control panel makes adjusting the sound a straightforward process. Recommended for anyone who wishes to get their hands on a high-quality portable sound card.

Key Features:

  • Powerful amplifier for headphones
  • Dolby technologies support
  • GX 2.5 Game Audio Engine
  • Xonar hyper-grounding technologies
  • Portable

Best Budget Sound Card

7. Creative Sound Blaster Audigy PCIe RX Internal Sound Card

Creative has many internal sound cards to choose from but the Sound Blaster Audigy Rx is one of the most cost-effective options in their lineup. It manages a decent sound for its low cost with a respectable 106 dB signal-to-noise ratio and its 600-ohm headphone amplifier offers reliable monitoring.

Thanks to the E-MU chipset used for this sound card which has been created to process the powerful EAX reverb engine, you will be able to enjoy a set of brilliant cinematic effects. The best part about this is that it won’t affect your system’s performance which is excellent news for anyone who wants to conserve resources as much as possible.

Controlling and adjusting the sound is done through a convenient control panel where you can customize various aspects of the sound card. You can, for example, modify the settings of the Creative Multi Speaker Surround or use Stereo Mixing and Mic Monitoring to get immediate feedback as you’re able to hear yourself during recording.

With the help of the reliable EAX Studio software, you will be able to make detailed modifications to certain settings for adding effects to your music and games. It also allows for other changes such as the key of the music for matching your voice. Other nice bundled software is the Creative WaveStudio which together with the Creative Smart Recorder allows you to unleash your creativity and create your own audio content.

A dedicated headphone amplifier that reaches 600 Ohms is another powerful addition to this sound card. Even the most power-hungry headphones should work like a charm now.

Factoring in all of its abilities, it can be said that the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy RX is worth a shot if your budget is more limited. While the sound is not that great compared to more premium sound cards, it manages some decent results at this cost. It takes a bit of work to install it on Windows 10 but all in all, this is a solid pick for a sound card.

Key Features:

  • EAX reverb engine
  • 7.1 multi-channel audio
  • 106dB SNR
  • 600-ohm headphone
  • 24-bit 192 kHz stereo playback

8. Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD External Sound Card

With audiophile-grade components, a very comprehensive software, and a smooth 114 signal-to-noise ratio, the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD looks like an excellent choice for a sound card. This is an external model which offers convenient controls on its front panels and an integrated phono preamp.

To ensure such a good signal-to-noise ration there has been some great dedication to audio engineering. The components have been tweaked for a balanced audio performance. You should be able to hear all those important details in high and mid tones and the lows feel tight and defined, overall a massive improvement over onboard audio.

This sound card makes use of a THX technology called TruStudio Pro which expands your computer’s audio channels making a better reproduction of surround sound content to guarantee a high-fidelity and realistic sound. As an extra, this technology also helps to make music sound more natural by bringing back to life its frequency range.

As proof that this sound card was built with versatility in mind, we have quite a wide range of connectivity options available. It can accommodate microphones, AV receivers, headphones, speakers, and many more. Headphones will also benefit greatly from the included amplifier which makes them sound loud and clear.

A particularly interesting feature found in this sound card is the ability to record directly from a turntable. This could be especially useful for DJs and vinyl collectors. Thanks to the integrated phono preamp, this model gives you the option to make recordings from a turntable without too much hassle. As with all analog-to-digital conversions, there will be some quality loss but you can rely on the RIAA equalization to deal with it.

Considering that this makes audio playback in everything from music to games and movies much better sounding, it’s safe to say that the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD is a solid competitor on the market of sound cards. The setup requires a bit of work, but that’s pretty much the only downside of this unit. Strongly recommended.

Key Features:

  • 114 dB signal-to-noise ratio
  • THX technology
  • Integrated phono preamp
  • Great connectivity options
  • Media Toolbox software
  • TruStudio Pro

Best Audiophile Sound Card

9. ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II Internal Sound Card

If budget is not a problem and you really want to get the ultimate sound to please your audiophile ears, there’s hardly a better option out there than the Asus Sound Card Essence STX II. With its amazing 124 dB signal-to-noise ratio, premium components, and the reliable headphone amplifier, you’re sure to take your audio entertainment to the next level.

One aspect that’s essential for any audiophile is a high-precision clock. This sound card comes with a premium crystal oscillator clock source. While integrated circuits are usually very sensitive to changes in temperature and are prone to overheating, this unit’s clock has the ability to compensate for this issue. It ensures a very accurate timing technology with particularly low jitter.

Compared to other cards that take their energy from the expansion slot, this sound card makes use of a dedicated four-pin Molex connection for its power needs. This is the reason why it can obtain a cleaner supply of electricity. To optimize it further, Asus installed low-dropout regulators with high-fidelity. The sound is also balanced by the reliable WIMA capacitors.

Something that sets this sound card apart from others is the addition of a multichannel daughterboard which offers high-fidelity 7.1-channel surround with 120 dB signal-to-noise ratio outputs. There’s a special slot reserved to simplify the install process of the daughterboard on the main sound card.

When it comes to headphone amplifying, this unit doesn’t disappoint. The included amplifier supports a maximum of 600 Ohm impedance, enough to handle the needs of premium headphones to take the advantage of the incredible sound created by this sound card. Reliable gain control has also been included to deal with those sensitive IEM headphones.

The only downside of this sound card is the price, but if you have the funds, the Asus Sound Card Essence STX II could be a tremendous investment. It will make a massive difference in your sound, but it’s obviously not intended for everyone. Unless you’re a die-hard audiophile, you’ll probably not have much use for this.

Key Features:

  • 124dB SNR
  • High-fidelity low-dropout regulators
  • Premium TCXO clock source
  • 7.1-channel output
  • MUSES op-amps
  • Reliable headphone amplifier

Best PCI Sound Card

10. HT OMEGA Claro Halo Internal Sound Card

Another competitively priced audiophile-grade solution is the HT Omega Claro Halo sound card. It produces an outstanding sound, perfect for those who wish to create a high fidelity setup. This model is capable of enabling you to hear even the tiniest of details and is geared towards those looking for a high-end PCI sound card.

If you have a set of power-hungry high-end headphones you need a sound card that’s able to meet such demanding needs. Compared to the low-impedance output of your average motherboard onboard audio, this sound card lets you set the output impedance up to 600 ohms which is really impressive.

The integrated headphone amplifier on this sound card is rated at 120 dB and can manage a superb listening quality with any pair of decent headphones. As this model offers a 192 kHz sample rate you will be able to experience the ultimate sound quality.

Another great ability of this model is the Dolby Digital Live Encoder. This generates a high-quality bit stream using any computer sound source which allows you to take advantage of the full surround sound potential of a home theater system.

Connectivity-wise, this sound card provides its user with anything they could possibly need. Besides the standard RCA connectors, you’ve got optical SPDIF output and input as well as the usual line in, aux in, and microphone in.

Taking into account its capabilities, the HT OMEGA Claro Halo is a severely underrated sound card which makes no compromises on audio performance and ease-of-use. It requires a free PCI slot so keep this in mind if it looks like a tempting option. Overall, this is strongly recommended when you also consider the complexity of the adjustable options in its included software.

Key Features:

  • 24-bit/192kHz 120dB DAC
  • TI 128dB Headphone Amplifier
  • Anti-pop Protection Circuitry
  • Professional Grade RCA Connectors
  • Dolby Digital Live