Some links on Wikicat may are paid links may earn us a commission. Read the Affiliate Policy disclosure for more info.
Whether for leisure or professional applications, if you want to enjoy the best sound quality, you need to install or connect a dedicated sound card to your computer.
Fortunately, whatever you use it for, you have a wide variety of options to choose from.
Today, there are three types of cards according to their function and connection mode: internal, external with USB connectivity and audio interfaces.
And within each one, you can find different ranges and prices. If you don’t need a very powerful one, don’t worry, there are very economic models and as they are connected they are ready to work.
- 1 The most important
- 2 The best sound cards on the market: our recommendations
- 2.1 The sound card with the best balance between cost and quality
- 2.2 The best sound card for beginner musicians
- 2.3 The best audio card for gamers
- 2.4 The best external sound card with USB
- 2.5 The best mid-range sound card
- 3 Shopping Guide: What you should know about sound cards
- 4 Purchase criteria
- 5 Summary
The most important
- Sound cards are the devices that play and process audio. They can be internal, which are connected to the motherboard, or external, which are connected through a USB port.
- Installing a sound card in your computer can allow you to enjoy more accurate and better quality sound, as well as have more inputs to connect external audio sources.
- When choosing a sound card, it’s important that you are clear about how you are going to use it, the number of audio channels you need, and its bit depth, among other purchase criteria.
The best sound cards on the market: our recommendations
Before we start with the shopping guide, we want to introduce you to our selection of five of the best sound cards available today.
Pay attention because in this list you could find the ideal one for you.
The sound card with the best balance between cost and quality
If you are looking for an internal sound card that is affordable and will not fail you, then you should choose the Xonar SE by ASUS.
It is a simple model that is more than sufficient for home computers or for use in non-audio related jobs in a professional manner.
This card has an SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) of 116 dB (decibels) and a frequency of 192 kHz (kilohertz). It also works with 24 bits, so it is above average in these devices.
These are features that give you high resolution audio.
Where to buy
The best sound card for beginner musicians
Focusrite’s Scarlett sound card offers a professional profile, but at a low cost compared to other equipment in the same range.
Therefore, it is the most recommended for musicians who want to record their own pieces or for audio professionals who are just starting out and want to make an initial investment.
This card reaches frequencies of 192 kHz and works in 24 bits. It has a smartphone application that allows you to configure it remotely.
Where to buy
The best audio card for gamers
The Sound Blaster Z card from Creative is the one you need if you want to have excellent sound in video games, but you have a modest budget.
It represents an improvement for any gamer computer that wants to enjoy the sound designs of video games.
This card produces a hyper-realistic sound with 360 degree coverage, thus achieving the effect of surround sound.
It has 116 dB, 24 bits of speed and a frequency of 192 kHz, a combination that results in sound fidelity.
Where to buy
The best external sound card with USB
In case you need a portable, rugged sound card, we recommend this TechRise device. It is an external card that connects through a USB port and works as a sound adapter.
Very useful to take with you wherever you need to go, but not ideal for constant and long term use.
This device is so portable that it is plug-and-play, that is to say, you only need to connect it to make it work and it does not require drivers.
It is compatible with Windows, Linux and iOs.
Where to buy
The best mid-range sound card
Behringer offers its U-Phoria sound interface, a model that stands out because it is the best sound performance option you can buy in the mid-range.
Thus, it has universal features that make this a functional device for both recording and audio editing work that is not high profile.
This equipment offers 24-bit resolution at a frequency that reaches 192 kHz. You can use it with various recording programs and has integrated preamplifiers.
Where to buy
Shopping Guide: What you should know about sound cards
When buying a sound card, it is essential that you understand how it works, what features are most important, and what advantages you get from installing one on your computer.
So that you can solve all the doubts you may have about it, we have prepared this section.
What are sound cards?
Sound cards are internal or external electronic devices responsible for processing audio in digital format.
They are often integrated into the same motherboard, although when this is the case their performance is usually quite limited.
Dedicated sound cards, on the other hand, are designed for more demanding applications and to provide superior sound quality.
What are the functions of the sound cards?
The main function of the sound cards is to manage the audio within the personal computer.
They are responsible for receiving the sound, digitizing it if necessary, processing it and sending it to the output device in the desired format.
Thus, their most important tasks are:
What are the components of a sound card?
Besides knowing the functions that a sound card performs, it is interesting to know its different components and the importance that each one has in the performance of the card.
In this way, you will be able to understand much better the specifications of the different models.
Let’s see the most important ones:
- Processor/DSP: it is the component responsible for generating the bit string that makes up the sound.
- DAC/Digital-to-Analog Converter: converts a digital signal into the analog signal you hear in your speakers or hearing instruments.
- ADC/Analog-to-Digital Converter: as its name indicates, it does the inverse function to that of the DAC and converts analog signals into digital signals.
- Amplifier: whose importance is fundamental in the performance of any card, especially if you are going to use hearing aids. It is the component in charge of amplifying the sound coming from the DAC before it reaches any of the card’s outputs.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of sound cards?
It’s always good to know what the pros and cons of a sound card are.
That’s why we tell you the many advantages and disadvantages offered by dedicated sound cards in the following chart:
For whom is it advisable to buy a sound card?
Not every user needs a computer with a dedicated sound card.
If you use the computer mainly for office tasks and to watch some series or movies occasionally, you have more than enough with the one integrated in the motherboard.
However, if you want to set up a powerful PC gamer or a PC for audio editing, you need a dedicated card.
The same is true if you need more audio channels.
A dedicated card is essential if you have professional speakers or headphones and want to enjoy the best sound quality.
You may also want a dedicated card if your computer’s motherboard is more than five years old, as in that case it probably does not have good protection against interference.
What types of sound cards are there?
There are usually three different types of sound cards: internal sound cards, audio interfaces and USB sound cards. Let’s see what the main features of each are.
- Internal sound cards: usually connected to the motherboard via PCI or PCIe connections. They require their own drivers.
- Audio interfaces: these are more focused on professional applications and production, so they often offer superior performance to internal or external sound cards for home use. They are usually connected via USB connections.
- USB sound cards: they usually offer the same features as internal sound cards, but connect through a USB port. Therefore, they also require their own drivers.
The best way to get the right sound card is to have the right purchase criteria. We have used the following to develop our selection of recommendations.
Use you will make of the card
You don’t need the same type of sound card to replace your simple computer’s sound card as you need for professional applications.
That’s why this should be your first filter. In the following table, you can see some recommendations about it.
The number of channels on the sound card determines the number of speakers that can be connected to the sound card.
In addition, if you use hearing aids, a larger number of channels will also allow you to emulate or position more directions. In this way, you will be able to enjoy a much more precise sound.
Two audio channels are the minimum value required for stereo sound. However, you will most likely want to enjoy 5.1 or even 7.1 surround sound.
These six or eight-channel audio systems use five or seven full-band channels and one narrow-band low-frequency channel, which is occupied by the subwoofer.
Bit depth or sound resolution
The number of bits reflects the quality of sound the card can sample or the spectrum of sounds the system is capable of emitting.
Most commonly it is between 8 bits and 24 bits.
A 16-bit card, which is the minimum value considered nowadays, is able to distinguish 32,000 different sound intervals or shades.
The value considered ideal is 24 bits. Anyway, we have to take into account that the bits are going to be limited by the capacity of the human ear.
From a certain value, it does not make any sense to expand them because, unfortunately, we could not appreciate that increase in sound resolution.
Sample rate and SNR
Sample rate is the process used to record sound, or in other words, to convert analog information into digital information (in binary language).
Its frequency is measured in kilohertz (kHz). The most common values range from 44.1 kHz, which gives a sound quality equivalent to that of CDs, to 192 kHz.
The SNR (Signal to noise ratio) is related to the buzz or background noise heard when a speaker or headphones are connected.
Thus, the higher the SNR value (measured in decibels), the less hum is heard when no sound is being played and therefore the sound quality is better.
Input and output connections
Depending on the use you are going to make of the equipment, you will need the card to integrate some input and output connections or others.
These are some of the outputs you may want to include in your sound card.
- Line Outputs: to connect active speakers or amplifiers, as it is usually an output that comes with a minimum amplification. It is usually of three types: 3.5 mm mini-jack, through RCA connectors or 3-pin XLR balanced connectors.
- Headphone output: allows connection of headphones via a jack cable. This is an output with an amplified signal.
- Speaker Outputs: These are audio outputs specifically for speakers. They can be color-coded to indicate which speaker they are for.
- Optical connection output: this is a high quality digital connection to which a fibre optic cable must be connected. The main advantage they offer is that they have a high resistance to signal loss along the cable.
- S/PDIF output (Sony-Philips Digital Interface) – This is a digital audio connection that, among other things, allows connection to an amplifier via an RCA cable.
- MIDI Output: This is used to connect digital instruments that use a MIDI language. In this way, it is possible to play a melody on the instrument.
On the other hand, some entries you may need to include in the sound card are,
- Line input: usually a 3.5 mm mini-jack, which is a standard that offers average sound quality. In mini-jack connections the two stereo channels go together. It allows to connect any device with line output.
- MIDI Input: Used to connect digital instruments that use a MIDI language. Specifically, to pass the sound from the instrument to the computer.
- Microphone Input – This is an analog audio connection for connecting a microphone. It is usually a 3.5 mm or 6.3 mm (XLR) jack input. However, if you plan to connect a condenser microphone you have to make sure that it is compatible, as they require a potential of 48 V (volts).
Many users do not need a dedicated sound card in their computers.
They have enough with the basic features that come integrated into the motherboard.
However, if you want to enjoy better sound quality for home theater, gaming or if you want to use your equipment for professional applications, you must have one.
In order to choose which one you need, you have to think about the use you are going to make of the equipment.
If you need one that allows you to hold video conferences with good quality sound, an external low-end USB card is enough.
To set up a home studio at home, you should opt for an input or mid-range audio interface.
Finally, if you think this guide has helped you in your choice, you can write us a comment or share it through the different social networks.
Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.