Whether you need exquisite audio for creative projects or to elevate your gaming experience, a sound card can dramatically improve your PC audio system’s sound. Yet, finding the right model can be challenging, considering the bountiful range of options on the market. If you don’t want to waste time comparing specs, check out our ranking of the best sound cards for PCs in 2024 that are worth your while.
- #1 Best Overall: Creative Sound Blaster Z SE Internal PCI-e Gaming Sound Cars and DAC
- Best External Sound Card: Sound BlasterX G6 external USB sound card
- Best PCI Sound Card with Headphone Amp: Creative Sound Blaster AE-9
- Best Sound Card with RGB Lights: Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus
- Best Budget-Friendly: ASUS XONAR SE 5.1 Channel PCIe sound card
#1 Best Overall: Creative Sound Blaster Z SE Internal PCIe Gaming Sound Cars and DAC
- Up to 24-bit/192 kHz rate
- Incredibly clear sound
- Microphone EQ presets ensure clear communication
- Comes with specific EQ profiles for popular games
This model is designed for pristine audio clarity, delivering up to 116dB SNR and up to 24-bit/192 kHz rate. With these specs, you can expect incredibly clear sound, which is further enhanced by the built-in speaker-optimization technology and digital encoding capability.
Like most modern sound cards, it supports audio stream input/output (ASIO), delivering low-latency and high-fidelity audio. We particularly like the 7.1 virtual channel setup that provides immersive surround sound when using speakers.
Other highlights include gaming EQ profiles that allow you to adjust the sound for many popular titles like Overwatch, Apex Legends, and Fortnite. Microphone EQ presets also allow for clear communication with your game buddies or friends. The only thing we don’t like is the software, which is unintuitive.
|Excellent audio clarity and immersive surround sound.
|The software could be improved.
|Microphone EQ presets ensure clear communication.
|The sound card comes with specific EQ profiles for popular games.
Check out the Creative Sound Blaster Z SE on Amazon.
Best External Sound Card: Sound BlasterX G6 External USB Sound Card
- 7.1 Virtual surround sound enhanced by Dolby Digital
- Sidetone volume control
- Compatible with all types of headphones
- Mic amp with various optimization modes
Installing a sound card can be challenging if you’re not a tech geek, but this is where the Sound BlasterX G6 external USB sound card steps in.
This plug-and-play device is compatible with PCs and gaming consoles alike. No matter what you pair it with, rest assured you’ll get increased enjoyment over your system’s built-in audio. Similar to other sound cards from the brand, this model boasts loads of game-centric features, including side tone volume control and easy-to-reach game profile buttons.
Audio-wise, you can expect 7.1 sound virtualization for an immersive, realistic sound. Various adjustments also enable you to achieve in-game voice enhancements or get better audio cues, such as hearing your enemies before they hear you.
More powerful than some internal sound cards, the Sound BlasterX G6 outputs 130dB DNR and 32-bit/384 kHz rate. Another highlight is the custom-designed Xamp bi-amp that allows you to hear each audio channel clearly when wearing headphones. The amp is compatible with most headphone types, from performance-grade 8 ohms in-ear monitors to studio-grade 600 ohms headphones.
This sound card’s only downside is the poorly written instructions booklet. If you’re not computer-savvy, the setup might be challenging.
|7.1 virtual channels deliver an immersive surround sound.
|Setting up this sound card could be challenging.
|The bi-amp is optimized for a wide variety of headphones.
|Works with desktop and laptop PCs, gaming consoles, and other devices.
Check out the Sound BlasterX G6 external USB sound card on Amazon.
Best PCIe Sound Card with Headphone Amp: Creative Sound Blaster AE-9
Ideal for multiplayer gamers, the Creative Sound Blaster AE-9 is one of the best sound cards with a headphone amp for PC.
This internal card is designed to deliver powerful audio. It features 129dB DNR and 32-bit/384 kHz range, thanks to its integrated hi-res DAC. It also includes Sound Blaster’s acclaimed Xamp, a discrete headphone bi-amplifier designed to support headphone outputs between one and 600 ohms.
These are not the only advantages this sound card has going on. Sound Blaster packed it with an array of processing technologies, from DTS Connect Encoding and Acoustic Engine to Dolby Digital Live. You can expect the 7.1 virtual channels seen in other sound cards from the brand, so the audio is crisp and clear both for playback and during conversation.
We also like the audio control module that allows you to customize the sound based on your needs — or switch off the technologies completely. This desktop unit is intuitive to operate and allows you to bypass the sound card’s software in most situations (which is great, considering that the software isn’t the most intuitive).
On the downside, switching between headphones and speakers requires both the software and pressing a button on the control module. This operation could have been simpler.
|This PCIe sound card comes with a useful headphones bi-amp.
|Switching between speakers and headphones is daunting.
|A variety of technologies allow you to adjust the sound performance to your needs.
|The audio control module is intuitive to operate.
Check out the Creative Sound Blaster AE-9 on Amazon.
Best Sound Card with RGB Lights: Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus
- Supports Dolby Digital and DTS
- Custom-designed discrete headphone amp
- Customizable RGB LEDs
- Enough power and customization options for most purposes
Featuring attractive RGB lights, the Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus is the best sound card for computers with clear cases.
It goes without saying that the greatest highlight is the customizable RGB LED light. The LEDs are placed on the body and also include a strip that lights up the sound card’s model on the side. In a clear case, the unit pairs well with other RGB components.
As far as the audio performance goes, you won’t be disappointed. This model supports DTS encoding and Dolby Digital Live. Its 5.1 discrete and 7.1 virtual surround sound also offer plenty of options for acoustic customization.
The sound card includes a versatile headphone amp capable of powering each individual ear cup through bi-amplification. Its output impedance also allows you to use the card with most kinds of headphones, from earpieces to studio-grade.
The playback power is similar to other sound cards from the brand, and you can customize the sound for chatting, gaming, music, or movies. This sound card’s only downside is its poor compatibility with Ryzen gaming systems.
|Customizable RGB LED lights make this sound car perfect for clear computer cases.
|It is not compatible with all Ryzen systems.
|The headphone bi-amp offers clear audio when wearing headphones.
|Enough power and customization options for most purposes.
Check out the Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus on Amazon.
Best Budget-Friendly: ASUS XONAR SE 5.1 Channel PCIe Gaming Sound Card
- Low-profile bracket makes this sound card easy to fit in most PCs
- One of the most affordable gaming sound cards
- Minimal audio distortion and interference
- Realtek ALC1220X codec
The ASUS XONAR SE 5.1 Channel PCIe sound card might not be the highest-end out there, but it’s a good option for gamers on a budget.
As its name suggests, this card only has 5.1 channels. It won’t deliver the most immersive surround sound, but it will surely make your computer’s audio a lot better than the default speakers. The audio is punchy, the bass is defined, and the 24-bit/192 kHz, 116dB SNR is enough for most purposes.
This sound card won’t make studio-grade headphones sound better, but it works wonderfully with models up to 300 ohms. The software also provides a user-friendly experience, which is a great improvement over Creative Sound.
Despite its low cost, the card includes advanced noise-canceling technologies and does a good job of reducing audio distortion and cross-over interference. We also like the low-profile bracket that makes the XONAR easy to fit in most systems.
|A low-profile bracket makes this sound card easy to fit in most PCs.
|The sound is less impressive compared to other options.
|It works with high-end gaming headphones up to 300 ohms.
|This is one of the most affordable gaming sound cards.
Check out the ASUS XONAR SE 5.1 Channel PCIe sound card on Amazon.
How to Pick the Best Sound Cards for PC: Step-by-Step
When shopping for the best sound cards for PCs, there are five main considerations for most users.
- Sound card type
- Audio quality
Let’s see how each of these factors can affect your decision-making.
Sound Card Type
There are two main types of sound cards for PCs: internal and external. Both options can reduce your integrated soundcard’s sound-to-noise ratio (SNR), improving the audio quality of your computer. Choosing often comes down to your needs. In systems with smaller cases or mini PCs, an external sound card makes more sense. An internal sound card usually suits tower computers. You should also decide whether you want a standard or RGB sound card. The latter is usually ideal for computers with clear cases.
When assessing a sound card’s audio quality, you must consider its sound-to-noise ratio and dynamic range. The sound card’s ratings should be higher than those of your computer’s integrated sound card. Otherwise, you won’t notice an improvement. Most built-in PC sound cards don’t have dynamic range, but most dedicated or external sound cards do. In addition to the playback audio quality, you should also assess the live audio quality, especially if you like to chat with your gaming buddies.
Most sound cards today have 5.1 or 7.1 channels. The former option is ideal for headphones; 7.1 channels provide an immersive surround sound, especially when using speakers. Some of the best sound cards for PCs, including most Sound Blaster models, can switch from 5.1 to 7.1 channels, allowing you to optimize audio for various listening modes.
Another important thing to check before buying is the type of jacks and ports the sound card comes with. Almost all models have a 3.5mm audio out jack that works with gaming headphones and a variety of PC speakers. However, you might also want a USB port or a 6.5mm jack for studio-grade headphones, gaming consoles, and high-end stereo systems.
There are a variety of sound cards out there, varying in price from around $20 to over $200. Most low-end options offer 5.1 channels and fewer audio settings compared to the mid-range and high-end sound cards. More expensive options typically have 7.1 channels and include advanced technologies for a clear and immersive audio experience.
What to Know Before Buying a Sound Card for PC
Today, most computers come with decent built-in audio (around 116dB SNR and up to 24-bit/192 kHz rate). For this reason, you should aim to buy a sound card with at least these specs. While you won’t notice much of a difference for audio playback, an internal or external sound card that matches your computer’s ratings can reduce live audio distortion and interferences, dramatically improving the audio quality during chats.
If you want to improve playback audio, too, you should check your system’s specs and buy a sound card with higher ratings (generally, at least a 32-bit/384 kHz range). In case you’re not sure what your system’s specs are, it could make sense to opt for an external sound card that you can test in advance just to assess its performance.
Using a Sound Card for PC: What It’s Like
Even when the sound card’s specs match the specs of your system’s built-in audio, using it can elevate your audio experience. Both internal and external sound cards can improve your system’s audio quality by reducing distortions and background noises. They can also turn standard audio speakers into a surround system with the help of virtual surround channels, and they can improve the audio experience while wearing headphones. No matter what type of sound card you prefer, getting one is undoubtedly worth it.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©WESTOCK PRODUCTIONS/Shutterstock.com.