An integrated, or on-board, sound card is sufficient for most people – they've improved the sound cards that come on your motherboard as technology moves forward. However, if you're a gamer, you're serious about sound. You probably own headphones that are meant to deliver superior audio as you play the latest game titles, so buying a dedicated sound card isn't unreasonable. We chose the top-tier series of sound cards that give you richer sound, output higher decibels than the standard and offer a higher range of frequency. We omitted those that don't support surround sound. You can learn more about sound cards and what to look for in our articles on sound cards.
Best Sound Card for Gamers
When you're a hardcore gamer, you don't want anything to ruin your immersion. A low-quality sound card might not filter noise or give you the surround sound you want so you can hear every arrow fly by or growl of an enemy. ASUS makes the STRIX sound card series that takes advantage of your high-quality headphones, so you get crystal-clear sound – whether it's background music or the sound of a player sneaking up behind you. This gaming sound card also reduces the processing stress on your computer because it handles the processing for sound on its own. This feature could up your framerate significantly, improving your visuals as well. If static has been distracting you while you play your favorite games on your PC, a STRIX sound card can eliminate that so you can focus on the sounds you're meant to hear.
Sound Cards for Your Computer Home Theater
You would be hard-pressed to find a better sound card series for an exceptional aural experience while watching the latest blockbuster than the ASUS Xonar series. Several versions exist of this sound card, so you can find one in your price range. The top-of-the-line card features high fidelity and surround sound support, so you can watch movies and be completely drenched in top-quality sound. These internal sound cards reduce environmental noise, so you won't have to suffer through a film with the irritating noise of static coming through your headphones. The ASUS Xonar sound cards let you adjust settings galore so you can get exactly the sound you want, whether that's extra bass or enhanced treble. These cards also support Dolby Home Theater, which enhances your surround sound.
ASUS is one of the biggest manufacturers of sound cards, and Xonar is one of its most popular lines. The series includes several versions, including the ASUS Xonar DX and DG, among others. Depending on your needs, one of these sound cards can deliver the clear sound you crave.
Best Hi-Fi Sound Card
If you're determined to buy a high-end sound card that delivers clear and strong audio, you'll find it in ASUS Essence sound cards. Expect to pay a hefty sum for this sound card, though. They include high signal-to-noise ratio, like 124 dB, which gives you impressive clarity in sound. On-board sound cards generally top out at 88 dB. This line of sound cards also includes features like built-in headphone amplifiers. While it's true most sound cards include this feature, on the ASUS Essence cards the amp supports up to 600-ohm impedance, which gets you closer to the original sound in both volume and clarity. Among the setting selections, you can choose the gains specific for your headphone, which helps reduce ambient sounds, again getting you closer to the original recording in clarity. ASUS also made sure to include Dolby support, which supplies the surround sound you're looking for, giving you ultra-realistic, 3D-like sound.
Best External Sound Card
If you decide that, as an audiophile, you need a sound card to make the best use of your other high-end audio equipment for your PC, then you should consider an external sound card. The benefits of buying an external card are the included software, excellent signal quality, high signal-to-noise ratio, external inputs and more. The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD series of external sound cards also lets you digitize your other media, such as your vinyl collection. The 114 dB signal-to-noise ratio ensures clear sound, free of static and distortion. The phono preamp is what allows you to plug in your turntable and create digital recordings of your favorite records. This line of sound cards also includes THX surround sound, so you get high-definition, high-quality sounds from whatever you're listening to: games, movies or music. Plus, there's no need for you to open up your PC to install this sound card, and no worrying about whether the card will fit in your PC's case.
The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi line is just one of the company's many high-end series of sound cards, and it is one of its best sellers. The unique design and full feature set give it an edge over most of the competition and make it ideal for audio enthusiasts.
Most Affordable Sound Card Upgrade
Among many audiophiles are those who want clear, high-quality sound but who aren't willing to spend hundreds of dollars on all of the equipment needed. Also, if you're just not that sensitive to sound, bumping up from an on-board card to a loftier sound card might not prove to be worth it if you can't hear the difference. A Creative Sound Blaster Audigy card is affordable enough to justify the upgrade. You can spend less than $50 to switch your sound up from 5.1 to 7.1 multi-channel audio; the 5.1 surround sound system typically uses six channels, while 7.1 uses eight. The better surround sound you have, the more likely you are to hear an opponent's footfalls in a video game – it can save your virtual life. If you upgrade to a sound card like the Audigy series, you're almost guaranteed a higher signal-to-noise ratio, which gives you clearer audio.
Creative makes several lines of sound cards, but the Sound Blaster Audigy series is one of the most affordable dedicated sound cards for improving your audio. These sound cards feature specifications that are big upgrades to your sound compared to an on-board sound card, without costing nearly as much as a high-end set of headphones.
A Sound Card for a Complete Audio System
As an audiophile, your ear is trained to hear the tiniest crackle through headphones and speakers. When audio is important to you – whether it's because of your job or hobby – you want a sound card that eliminates noise, leaving you with clear-as-a-bell sound. The HT Omega Claro Halo is one of the sound cards that caters to those looking for perfection in clarity and quality. It's a pricey sound card, but if you pair it with the right audio equipment, you'll get exactly what you're looking for: the best, most complete sound system for your computer. You can hear richer bass and higher peaks in tracks, which is especially important if you use your computer as a recording studio. In addition to the improved quality of audio, you aren't adding software bloat to your PC – the settings are simple and straightforward.
Next time you listen to music, play a video game or watch a movie from your PC, you are likely going to start listening for pops, crackles and hisses, and depending on your equipment and your aural sensitivity, you'll probably hear the noise. Then you'll be ready to buy a separate sound card. Regardless of which one you choose, you're likely to hear a noticeable difference in quality if you have the proper peripherals.
When you buy a good set of headphones or own a quality set of speakers, you want the best audio you can get from your PC, and an on-board sound card likely cannot reproduce the clean, crisp sound you can get from a sound card like one from HT Omega's Claro Halo series. This series of sound cards offers high impedance, high signal-to-noise ratio and a built-in amplifier for headphones, which means you get impressive audio that's closer to the original recording.