A great sound card can make all the difference for your gaming experience. You can spend thousands of dollars enhancing the visual aspect of gaming but if you neglect the audio component, you’re really only half way to the very best gaming has to offer. In this roundup the VG crew ranks the best sound cards you can find today. Be sure to also take a look at our article on the best capture cards.
- Best Value: Asus Xonar DSX
- Best Overall Asus Essence STX II 7.1
- Easiest to Use: Sound Blaster Z
- Loudest Sound Card: HT OMEGA Claro Halo PCI
- Best Sound Card on a Budget: Creative Sound Blaster Audigy Rx
Easiest to Use: Creative Sound Blaster Z
The fire red Sound Blaster Z is the most accessible sound card to gamers of all levels of savviness. Beside looking cool, we think the Sound Blaster Z is the easiest sound card to use. The main reason being the audio module that comes with the device. The detached, hexagonal module allows you to control the volume and microphones away from your computer. The software, Control Panel, also allows easy toggling between your headphones and stereo. In addition to accessibility, you are also getting a great sound card with 116db SNR. It is 5.1 audio vs 7.1 you get with the Asus sound cards, which is why we still think those are slightly better.
Best Sound Card for Value: Asus Xonar DSX
For the crispest sound, the Asus Xonar DSX is the sound card to turn to. The Asus Xonar provides true 7.1 hi-fi surround sound that can make any gaming experience truly immersive. With GX 2.5 tech, you are getting 3D sound meaning it is going to sound like you are in the gaming world. Furthermore, with 192k/24bits support, the Xonar DSX delivers a 116db signal to noise ratio, the 2nd best on our round-up, meaning it’s going to be loud as well. The Xonar has 4 output jacks, which is twice as many on the standard sound card. Put simply, if you want to best sound you can achieve (at a relatively affordable price) then the Xonar DSX is your best bet.
Best Sound Card If You Can Afford It: Asus Essence STX II 7.1
The Xonar’s big brother, the Asus Essence STX will also deliver immersive, hi-fi surround sound – but it’s going to cost a bit more. On a spec vs spec basis, the Essence is the better machine. With the Essence you are going to get everything you get with the Xonar, except the SNR for the Essence is 124db vs 116db on the Xonar. Is it worth shelling out the extra $150 or so? We say if you CAN afford it, then buy it. If a $200 sound card sounds like a tall order for you however, we say you should feel comfortable buying the Xonar and still getting a great gaming audio experience.
Loudest Sound Card: HT OMEGA Claro Halo PCI
With an SNR of 120db, the HT Omega Claro Halo sound card is the loudest on our list. There is no denying that this card will sound great with your gaming system. There is one major, major issue however that prevents this card from being the “best”. That issue being the card has a PCI connection and not a PCIe connection. The manufacturer themselves admit that using a PCI to PCIe adapter is suboptimal. Bottomline, if you do not have a PCL connection on your computer, then you should stay away from this card. If you do have that connection, the Halo is definitely a worthy consideration.
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Best Sound Card on a Budget: Creative Sound Blaster Audigy Rx
At the expense of the SNR, you can get a cheaper, but still high quality, sound card in the Audigy Rx. This card is the cheapest we feature on this list, usually only costing about $60. The downside of paying less in this case is a 106 SNR vs the 116 SNR you’re getting with most of the machines above. Since the difference between 116 and 106 is dramatic, we would recommend you shell out an extra $20 to $30 for the Asus Xonar. If you are on a hard budget however, the Audigy should also deliver an immersive audio gaming experience.
How to Buy a Sound Card
There are a handful of factors we recommend you evaluate when selecting a sound card. Holistically, you want a sound card that delivers crisp sound with little distortion. This comes down to the SNR or the signal to noise ratio of the card. Another important factor is the sound configuration of the card. To get the most immersive experience, you’ll want a card that delivers surround sound audio.
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What is Signal to Noise Ratio? (SNR)
The Signal to Noise Ratio is arguably the best metric to weigh a sound card. Put simply, the SNR is the metric which measures the sound quality of the sound card. The “signal” is the sound you want to hear – the audio from your game, the notes of an instrument. The “noise” is the sound of the background. Whenever you have an electrical current running through a medium, there is going to be noise generated. It’s the “hum” you hear when you plug in an amplifier. Imagine you were trying to record yourself, but someone else was talking in the background. If the background noise was 10 decibels, your speech would need to be greater than 10 decibels to be heard. The louder you speak, the clearer your recording would become relative to the background noise.
The higher the decibels of the signal is to the decibels of the noise, the higher quality the sound. When it comes to sound, every decibel counts. The way science works, 100db is roughly 3x louder than 90db. Choosing a 100db SNR to a 116db SNR is very significant, and thus should be the main factor in deciding a sound card.
What is the Sound Configuration?
Sound cards generally come in two configurations, 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound. The numbers refer to the number of channels, or places the sound comes from. 5.1 refers to two front speakers, two back speakers and a subwoofer. 7.1 has those channels plus two additional side speakers. If you have a sound set up that cannot utilize the full 7 channels, then buying a sound card with a 7.1 configuration isn’t really necessary. At the end of the day, the quality of the sound comes from the SNR and the quality of your speakers. Whether you have 5.1 or 7.1 really only effects how immersive and full the sound experience may be. With some older games the audio may not even be configured for 7 channels.
DAC vs Sound Card
A DAC and sound card are two names for the same thing. The devices differ in how they operate and who buys them. Sound cards have been for ‘gamers’ whereas DACs have been for audiophiles. This likely stems from how sound cards are built into a PC (on the motherboard through a PCLe connection) as opposed to DACs which are external. Essentially though, a sound card is a DAC.
External DACs often times better than sound cards because sound cards are built within your system which is prone to electronic signals and noise. That noise is what causes you to buy a sound card or DAC in the first place. The electricity interrupts the sound being converted within the DAC. That is why it’s crucial to buy a quality sound card which will work to mitigate the amount of errant sound distorting the audio.
How We Made Our Picks
ValueGamers does the research so you don’t have to. We scoured the web for the best capture cards and compiled this list based on the following criteria:
- If there were multiple reviews of the product online
- It was Amazon Prime eligible
- It had at least 50 reviews on Amazon
After meeting our criteria, we got to dissecting every aspect of our master list and bucketing each device into what each is best for. A sound card may be great in itself but it may not be great for your situation, and that is where we are trying to find the most value for you, our reader.