The Best Sound Cards in 2021

Back in the 90s standalone sound cards were a must in any PC. Motherboards of the time didn’t have integrated sound cards and you had to get one separately if you wanted to listen to music, watch movies, or play games with sound. As years passed motherboards have got much better in handling sound.

Nowadays, most quality motherboards, especially high-end gaming motherboards, come with excellent sound cards. For most users, these are more than enough. But if you want the best sound card available, you have to look for standalone models.

These come with control modules to adjust sound levels for each device you’re using, with additional ports to attach various audio devices, with a plethora of options for those who want to delve into sound recording, and with perfectly clear sound deserving of audiophile headphones and speaker systems.

We scoured the internet and found nine sound cards that should satisfy even the biggest audiophiles. We have high-end choices, excellent budget options, USB cards for those who seek for external options, and a couple of excellent DACs. Check them out below.

evga nu audio card
  • Interface: PCIe x1 Gen 2
  • Signal-To-Noise: 121 dB
  • Output Configuration: 2 Channel, 5.1 Channel
  • Playback Format/Recording Format: Up to 384kHz/32-bit/Up To 192kHz/24-bit

The EVGA Nu Audio Card is a sound card for high-end audio equipment. If you use a mainstream gaming headset or gaming speakers, you won’t need this one. This card is for those who want the ultimate aural experience and have audiophile-grade equipment to pair with the card. Just remember that this card works best with stereo hi-fi equipment.

If you have the big guns, this card delivers. Expect extremely wide soundstage and crystal-clear audio. Lively sound with superb dynamic range. For all of you RGB fans out there we have good news. The card comes with RGB support, yay!

  • Superb Sound Quality
  • Wide Sound Stage
  • Crystal Clear Sound Playback
  • RGB Support
  • Expensive

Creative Sound Blaster Z

The Best Gaming Sound Card For Those On A Budget

sound blaster z pcie gaming sound card
  • Interface: PCIe x1
  • Signal-To-Noise: 116 dB
  • Output Configuration: 2 Channel, 5.1 Channel
  • Playback Format/Recording Format: Up to 24bit 192kHz/ 24bit, 96kHz

The Creative Sound Blaster Z is a nice little sound card that won’t break the bank. It features solid audio output and should work great with quality gaming headsets. It includes nice features such as virtual surround delivery on stereo headphones, which offers solid results and should noticeably enhance your gaming or movie watching experience.

Volume mixer has a plethora of controls to set various volume levels just how you want. When it comes to sound clarity, it’s pretty good. Not comparable with high-end sound cards but great for mid-range speakers and headsets. If you rock high-end audiophile equipment, you should avoid this card.

  • Excellent Gaming Performance
  • Great Value
  • Quality Microphone Included In The Package
  • Solid Virtual Surround Effects
  • Not Suited For Audiophile Equipment

ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II

The Best Sound Card For Music And Best Internal Sound Card

asus sound card essence stx ii
  • Interface: PCIe x1
  • Signal-To-Noise: 124 dB
  • Output Configuration: 2 Channel, 5.1 Channel
  • Playback Format/Recording Format: Up To 192KHz @ 24bit/ Up To 192KHz @ 24bit

The Essence STX II from ASUS is an excellent high-end sound card. Paired with high-end headphones or Hi-Fi speakers the card shines in every regard. Wide soundstage, crystal, and well-balanced sound. It can compete with amps costing ten times as much, which is a sure recommendation for anyone rocking audiophile equipment who wants a quality sound card to pair their setup with.

ASUS offers swappable op-amps and provides two flavors alongside the card. The package includes LME49720 and MUSES8820 and they both sound great. You can install your favorite op-amp since the card comes with an op-amp swap kit.

The STX II works great with IEMs since its low-gain setting is great for even the super-efficient IEMs. Gaming-wise the card sounds great but you should know that this is an audiophile card for music lovers. Overall, this is an excellent card for those who want an outstanding sound card capable of providing terrific listening experience on high-end setups.

  • Brilliant Sound Quality
  • Solid Price Regrading Stellar Sound Quality
  • Swappable Op-Amps
  • You Have To Get The 7.1 Version Of The Card For 7.1 Surround Support

Creative Sound Blaster AE-7

The Best Sound Card For Gaming

creative sound blaster ae-7
  • Interface: PCIe x1
  • Signal-To-Noise: 127 dB
  • Output Configuration: 2 Channel, 5.1 Channel, 7.1 Channel (Virtual Surround)
  • Playback Format/Recording Format: Up To 384 kHz@32bit / Up To 96.0 kHz@32bit

If you want the best sound for your games, get the Creative Sound Blaster AE-7. This is a card made for the top of the line gaming experience. It features extensive support for a variety of headphones, supporting 7.1 virtual surround that can sound pretty good. The software suite is pretty good. Modern looking, filled with features, and easier to use than most suites offered by other manufacturers.

Next, the card comes with an audio control unit allowing gamers and streamers to control their audio devices without any hassle and to quickly swap connected devices. The card can heighten your experience of listening to music in case you have a quality speaker setup or solid headphones but the quality isn’t as high as with ASUS Essence STX II or NZXT Nu Audio.

  • Great Gaming Performance
  • Solid Music Performance
  • Audio Control Module Included With The Card
  • Pricey
  • Not Suitable For Audiophile Equipment

Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX PCIe 5.1 Sound Card

The Best Budget Sound Card

creative sound blaster audigy fx pcie 5 1 sound card
  • Interface: PCIe x1
  • Signal-To-Noise: 106 dB
  • Output Configuration: 2 Channel, 5.1 Channel
  • Playback Format/Recording Format: Up To 24-bit, 96 kHz

If the integrated sound card on your motherboard died or if you need a solid budget standalone sound card because the one on your motherboard is awful, check out this one. It offers great audio quality for the price, just don’t expect miracles.

It will work great with mid-range speakers and headphones, but don’t bother to pair it with high-end audiophile equipment. Also, it’s great for surround experience since it natively supports 5.1 speaker systems. Finally, Creative offers great software that comes with this card, offering plenty of features allowing you to tweak your audio settings in detail.

  • Solid Performance For The Price
  • Affordable
  • Not For Audiophiles
  • Made As A Basic Replacement For Integrated Sound Cards

AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt

Premium USB DAC With Impressive Performance

audioquest dragonfly cobalt
  • Output voltage: 2.1V
  • Headphone Amp: ESS Sabre 9601
  • DAC Chip: ESS ES9038Q2M
  • Dimensions: 12mm H x 19mm W by 57mm L

Dragonfly Cobalt from AudioQuest is a premium digital-to-analog converter and headphone amplifier that’s perfect for those who want the best audio quality on the go. It can be paired with smartphones and laptops in just a few seconds and once attached, it will turn your phone or laptop in a top audiophile device. If you need only a quality DAC for your laptop without additional features, this one can replace even the best external sound cards for laptop out there.

This DAC has superb performance. Wide soundstage, crisp sound with almost zero noise, incredible dynamic range, and near-perfect timing. This DAC works perfectly with any pair of audiophile headphones and it comes with a nice USB A to USB C adaptor to use it with Android phones featuring USB C ports. If you own an iPhone or an older Android phone, you’ll need a separate adaptor.

  • Superb Audio Quality
  • Crystal Clear Sound
  • Wide Soundstage
  • Excellent Dynamic Range
  • Ultra Portable
  • Pricey

Creative Sound BlasterX G6

The Best External Sound Card

sound blasterx g6
  • Signal To Noise: 130 dB
  • Output Configuration: 2 Channel, 5.1 and 7.1 Channel (Virtual)
  • Playback Format/Recording Format: Up To 384 kHz and 32bit
  • I/O: Optical In, Optical Out, Micro USB, Headphone Jack, Microphone Jack

The Sound BlasterX G6 is the best external sound card for gamers, period. It can work with PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch. It will probably also be compatible with the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 when these two next-gen consoles come out. The card itself is on the chunky side but that’s cool because it comes with a variety of features.

The card’s setup process is extremely straightforward. There’s no calibration required, just connect the card with an audio port and a USB port and you’re set. Once you start gaming, you’ll notice a perfect sound quality.

Clear sound with excellent channel separation, boosted ambient noises that improve the overall experience in any game, expansive dynamic range, and SBX mode that provides excellent virtual surround along with widening the soundstage. Overall, this is an excellent gaming sound card with the price and limited input selection being its only major drawbacks.

  • Superb Gaming Performance
  • Works With Any Console And PC
  • Simple To Use
  • Pricey
  • Limited Input Selection

FiiO E10K

Excellent USB DAC For Those On A Budget

fiio e10k
  • Gain Switch
  • Bass Boost
  • Power Input: DC5V 500mA
  • Signal-To-Noise: 105 dB

The E10K From FiiO is an excellent portable DAC that can be used with any device featuring a USB port. It’s not as portable as the Dragonfly Cobalt. You should use this one with your PC or laptop. When it comes to the sound quality this DAC is pretty solid. Clear sound with a bit more bass, pretty good dynamics, and extended highs.

The gain switch allows using powerful headphones at high sound levels and the bass boost is a nice thing to have if you like your music with an extra thump. The main advantage of this DAC is its price. Relatively low price allows it to compete with DACs costing two or three times more. The sound quality is that good.

  • Great Sound Quality For The Price
  • Gain Switch Works Great With Power Hungry Headphones
  • Simple To Use
  • Limited Dynamic Range
  • Soundstage Could’ve Been Wider

Creative Sound Blaster X3

Solid Mid-Range External Sound Card and DAC

creative sound blaster x3
  • Interface: USB
  • Signal-To-Noise: 115 dB
  • Output Configuration: 2 Channel, 5.1 Channel, 7.1 Channel
  • Playback Format/Recording Format: Up to 32bit and 192 kHz/24bit 192 kHz

The Sound Blaster X3 is another versatile external sound card that works with the majority of consoles. Sadly, Xbox One isn’t supported. It’s great for gamers but also, it’s great for those who want to improve their surround experience because the Sound Blaster X3 comes with native 7.1 surround support.

Games and movies sound great and support for Hi-Fi headphones allows for an excellent listening experience. You won’t get the quality of high-end DACs here but the sound quality is good enough to recommend this product to gamers who also like to occasionally listen to some quality tunes.

Gaming performance is the main strength of this sound card. It features lots of presets for popular games, it works with consoles, it provides excellent dynamics in games and brilliant sound quality. Just remember to turn off the Super X-Fi (SXFI button on the device) because it can downgrade experience in most games.

  • Great For Games And Movies
  • Respectable Music Quality
  • Easy To Set Up
  • Works With Most Consoles, PC, and Mac
  • Doesn’t Work With Xbox One
  • Super X-Fi Tech Can Ruin Gaming Experience

How To Choose A Sound Card

Picking the right sound card doesn’t have to be a hassle. While there are plenty of models out there, there are a few features you should focus on. Stuff like the signal to noise ratio, sampling rate, how many sound channels different sound cards support, connection type, whether a card is internal or external. Let’s talk about these points, one by one.

What Is Signal To Noise Ratio And Why It Is Important

Signal to noise ratio (SNR) tells about the clarity of the sound coming from the sound card. It’s basically the difference between the signal power and noise power and the higher it is the clearer the sound.

This ratio is expressed in decibels. For instance, is a signal to noise ratio is 50 dB that means that the audio signal coming from the card is fifty decibels higher than the noise signal. That’s pretty bad SNR value. With SNR being 50 dB, you will clearly hear the noise at higher volume levels. In other words, the sound won’t be clear.

You should look for sound cards with at least 100 dB SNR. That’s the lower limit you should agree to when picking a sound card. And don’t forget that signal to noise ratio isn’t the only important feature to consider.

What Are Sampling Rate and Bit Rate

The sampling rate reflects how accurately a sound card can reproduce higher frequencies. You can calculate the upper limit of the accurate reproduction of a sound card by dividing its sampling rate by two.

For instance, a 96 kHz sound card can accurately reproduce frequencies up to 48 kHz. And that’s more than enough because the upper limit of human hearing is 20 kHz. So, when looking for a sound card, a sampling rate of 96 kHz (the usual rate of mid-range cards) is more than enough.

Bit rate plays a role in the quality of recorded sound. Professional recordings usually use a 24bit rate, which is more than enough when it comes to sound quality. Look for sound cards with 24bit rate or higher.

5.1 Vs. 7.1 Sound Cards

The numbers tell the whole picture. 5.1 cards support six audio channels while 7.1 cards support eight audio channels in total. 7.1 surround sound is a bit better if you have the right speaker system, but that shouldn’t guide you when looking for a sound card.

You should just look for a card that supports your speaker configuration. If you are using 5.1 surround speakers, 2.1 system, or headphones, you shouldn’t worry about getting a 7.1 sound card.

When it comes to 7.1 headsets, they will work with any sound card if they are USB-based. USB headsets have their own sound card inside them and will have eight channels no matter which sound card you’re using.

And yes, you can use 7.1 headsets with 5.1 sound cards. They will just play six channels instead of eight. Just remember that most 5.1 and 7.1 headsets offer virtual surround. They use two drivers but create virtual surround sound via software. Real 7.1 headphones often come with their own sound cards that support the true 7.1 setup.

USB Vs. PCIe Sound Cards

USB sound cards are external cards that hook to your PC via USB port. They can be placed anywhere within the limit of the cable and some have microphones allowing users to record audio directly with the sound card.

PCI and PCIe sound cards are internal cards that have to be mounted inside your PC case. They use PCI or PCIe ports on the motherboard with most modern sound cards opting for PCIe interface because PCI ports are all but dead on modern motherboards. They offer lower latency than USB cards, at least on paper, and offer better sound quality since they can use more power from the PCIe port.

Gaming Vs. Audiophile Sound Cards

Another major difference between sound cards is their main purpose. You have models designed to offer the best gaming experience and then you have audiophile sound cards. If you want the best gaming experience but still want an excellent (but not stellar) listening experience, get a high-end gaming sound card. These often have excellent music performance.

If you have serious audio equipment and want the best listening experience go with an audiophile sound card. Those are designed to offer the best possible listening performance and to work with headphones and speakers that cost thousands of dollars.

Do note that some external sound cards made for gaming support consoles as well as PC. If you’re a versatile gamer who likes consoles and PC check whether the external sound card you’re after offers console support.

Maybe It’s Better To Invest In A Pair Of Quality Headphones Than Getting A Standalone Soundcard

Finally, if you have a quality motherboard there are good chances it comes with more than a decent integrated sound card. Instead of investing money in a standalone sound card, you should get a pair of quality headphones or a nice speaker system since your integrated sound card should be more than enough for the majority of headphones and speakers available on the market.

Budget headset would work fine with almost any sound card, but if you want a high-end headset, it’s better to get a nice headphone amp and DACadset for those headphones than to invest in a sound card. A standalone sound card should only be considered if you want the ultimate experience with Hi-Fi speakers, if you need an external sound card for gaming, or if you’re into recording.

About The Author

Goran Damnjanovic

Goran studied psychology but video games and PC hardware were much more interesting. On top of that he likes writing so he decided to become a writer. And it was the right choice. Other than games and hardware, Goran is interested in basketball, Sci-Fi literature, and music.

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9 months ago

STX II i have owned, twice. Excellent sound quality, good components, official drivers are decent, unofficial unixonar even better. Now something that is not great is the mic, its actually very bad, i would rate it worse than the cheapest onboard mic input’s i tried. The volume is to low, no way around it other than to boost the hell out of it, the result is decent volume, but horrible quality, no way around it. The EVGA Nu series i wouldnt order before taking a real good look at the number of issues with this thing. Just take one look… Read more »

5 months ago
Reply to  john

Kkkkkkkkkkkk Sond Blaster AE-5 Plus, AE-7 and AE-9. Hater is awesome! I have an AE-7 and I listen to music with very high audiophile quality. In addition to games and movies with impressive audio quality. Creative has always been the leader in the segment. I feel inside the show, the movie and the games. With precise and crystal clear audio quality. In addition to being very immersive.

22 days ago

It’s very sad to me that manufacturers have opted to make sound cards for gaming and let audiophile-oriented cards slip down the priority list. Guess gaming is where the money is, but I hope manufacturers read threads like this and (re)develop top-shelf cards for audiophiles alongside gaming cards. ASUS no longer makes the Essence STX II. They only offer the Xonar AE and Xonar SE now, and neither has super-impressive spec’s on paper, although the AE looks to be better overall even though it’s marketed as their “gaming” card. Their tech people couldn’t answer anything beyond reading from their own… Read more »