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A great sound card will ensure that you get the best sound sensory experience. The cleanest sounds, the sharpest notes, and rich textured highs and lows.
A sound card is a special type of circuit board that is designed to handle the flow of audio waves (sound) both into and out of your computer or another electronic device. The soundcard can be internal or external. An internal soundcard can be an integral part of the motherboard or a sound card that you have installed to improve the audio. An external sound card is a device that you plug in when you want to have better sound quality.
The sound card takes the audio signal from the computer and converts it into a sound that will come through either the speakers or the headphones.
Why Would You Want The Best Sound Card?
The benefits of a sound card are:
- You get great quality surround sound for that truly immersive experience.
- Extra I/O ports for more peripherals.
- The audio system is processed on the sound card rather than on the CPU, freeing up more processing power for other tasks.
- Better sound – clarity and less distortion. Many games now have music that wins awards for the quality of the soundtrack. A good soundtrack helps you hear them as they were intended to be played.
- They are very affordable. You can pay over $100 for a top-notch sound card that will turn your set up into a mini sound lab, but you also have lots of great options from around the $20 mark.
- The best sound cards have ClearVoice technology to keep your communications crystal sharp.
- The sound card technology will often include Scout Mode which adds a directional element to the game sound. Letting you as a player pinpoint where the potential threat is coming from.
How Do You Pick the Best Sound Cards?
There are three areas to concentrate on before you consider individual features:
- Internal vs External
You can install your sound card inside your CPU. A neat solution and the card may come with easy to follow instructions but if not, there are plenty of online videos that will walk you through the process.
An external option is a simple plug and play. With some models, there may be some calibration or set up tweaks to perform.
- Specifications and Features
It will narrow down your options if you have a list of your absolute must-haves with regard to audio quality and connectivity. Along with software features such as Scout Mode.
- Time and Money
How much time do you have to spend on searching for and installing your sound card? If you are time-poor you probably don’t want to have a sound card sitting around waiting for you to find the time to install it.
The budget you allocate to your sound card will depend on exactly how much you value the listening experience. If you have a great ear then you will derive maximum enjoyment from the very best sound card. If it is simply to provide an acceptable background soundtrack then a basic model may more that suit your needs. But perhaps you want to get into recording but have a limited budget? Then you can pick out a midrange model with the necessary microphone processing capability.
What Do You Need to Think About When Buying a Sound Card?
The whole reason you are investing in a sound card is to improve the quality of the sounds produced. Either when you are listening to music, enjoying a film or game playing. The sound enhances or spoils the experience.
The good sound quality produced by high fidelity equipment will have very little noise and distortion. The frequency response will be within the human hearing range.
Signal to Noise Ratio
Have you ever tried to sit in silence? Got really quiet and heard your own breathing or your heart beating? The human body produces a surprisingly large amount of noise just through normal operating. And electronic equipment does as well.
A sound card will have a high signal to noise ration. More signal, less noise. Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) is measured in decibels. If it is rated 120 dB then that means the signal (the noise you want to hear) is 120 times louder than the noise you don’t want to hear.
Bear in mind that it doesn’t matter how great your sound card is, if it is sending the signal to low-quality speakers or headphones then you will not get great audio.
When you are shopping for a sound card you should aim for an SNR greater than 100 dB. Preferable 124 dB.
Harmonics and harmonic distortion is a very technical subject. It arises from the input signal generating additional output signals in multiples of the frequency of the input. A kind of echo effect that is known as harmonics. The harmonic distortion is measured as Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) which is the ratio of all the output harmonics produced to the original tone. This measurement can be combined with Noise and will be described as THD+N.
The human ear is very sensitive to certain harmonics and oblivious to others. The problem of harmonic distortion affecting reproduced sound quality has been around since early valve technology and is very well understood by sound engineers.
For the purpose of buying an excellent sound card, you want to pick one with the lowest THD+N available. The lower this number (and we are talking well below 1) the better the sound reproduction. By good sound reproduction, we mean that you are hearing just the original notes and not those higher echoes of that note.
This covers the lowest (bass notes) and the highest (treble notes) sounds. The frequency response will be expressed as a range from low to high. It is measured in Hertz (Hz) or kilohertz (kHz).
The average human can hear in the range of 20Hz – 20kHz.
Here’s what you need to know about frequency response:
- Wide range = better sound reproduction.
- The low range should be below 50Hz so you can hear the bass notes.
The range of bass notes falls in the 20-250Hz range. But below 30Hz you are not really hearing the bass notes so much as feeling them.
Number of Channels
The number of channels relates to the number of sound outputs that can be handled by the sound card. Stereo only requires two channels but these days for a truly immersive experience we like surround sound. You can get adequate sound surround with 5.1 channels but the best is with 7.1 channels.
It is important for your sound card channels should match those of your speakers and/or your headphones. Otherwise, you are not getting optimum performance.
Everyone knows that more connections are better. Even if you don’t need all the connections you might one day. The connectivity you need from your sound card will depend on what you need to connect it to.
3.5mm jacks are the basic connection point. Adequate for basic headphones and headphone sets. Each mini jack can only carry the signal for two channels. So a 7.1 channel sound card will need at least four minijacks.
RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America and is a nod to its earlier history in 1940, as a connecting cable in radio-phonograph consoles. Although an old design they are still used because they are familiar, low cost and easy to use. They tend to be used for stereo connections and only on the more expensive sound cards. They are bulkier than mini jacks.
Digital coax looks like an RCA connector but it is very efficient in that it can back multiple channels into a single cable. However, this is only useful if the speakers and other peripherals can accept and decode this digital stream.
There are inherent problems. The signal is transmitted through a cable and can be altered slightly both by the material they travel through and by electric and magnetic fields given off by other equipment in the vicinity.
These transmit the signal over a fiber optic cable. This retains the best signal integrity. These were developed by Sony/Phillips (SPDIF – Sony Phillips Digital Interface) and are now standardized into what is called a TOSLINK connection.
This is the connection for the cleanest and most pure signal transmission. But it is expensive. It requires the use of fiber optic cables. Most importantly the receiving equipment must be of the quality required to receive the signal – a home theatre set up but not usually standard computer speakers.
This is now a standard connection for most digital equipment. But here is the thing, that USB acts as a sound card. The digital signal is decoded in the USB connection, completely bypassing all other soundcards. The problem is that the speaker may not support the decoding levels necessary for high-quality audio reproduction. You need to check that the peripherals have the same high standards as the sound card.
Internal vs External Sound Cards
An internal card tends to have a higher noise floor than an external card. Noise is all the other unintended sounds that are around that may interfere with the desired sound. A low noise floor means you have to turn the volume up to hear the music. A high noise floor is therefore desirable.
The other problem with an internal sound card is that it can pick up electromagnetic interference (EMI) from the other components inside the computer. The best sound cards have EMI shielding to prevent this from interfering with the sound quality.
Connectivity is important. An internal card is tucked away inside your computer and therefore is going to automatically have less connectivity than an external card that features additional ports.
An internal card can be enhanced with software to perform some extra functions – like removing the vocals from a track. Or, more usefully, cleaning up a noisy signal.
An external card has a higher latency than an internal card. Latency is a short delay (milliseconds) from an audio signal entering the system and then leaving it. For normal usage, this is unlikely to be a problem. At really high latency levels then you can have a weird alignment of vocal and instrumental tracks. Latency is really only an issue if you are recording music rather than when listening to a game soundtrack. If this is an issue for you, then seek out a sound card with a FireWire interface.
External sound cards tend to produce better sound quality for both accuracy and clarity. The DAC does not pick up external noise and transmits only the desired sound to the speaker or headset.
An external sound card is portable and can be used with multiple devices as you can plug it into all your computers, TV and phone when needed.
How Does a Sound Card Work?
DAC – Digital to Analog Converter
Audio files are stored on a computer as code. The code is always digital. The human ear cannot hear the digital code and so this has to be converted into sound waves – an analog signal that our ears process and transmit to our brains.
The sound card contains a digital to analog converter (DAC) that takes the code and turns it into electronic pulses. These electronic pulses tell the speaker drivers how to vibrate. The vibrations produce sound waves that travel through the air to impact on an eardrum.
ADC – Analog to Digital Converter
A sound card can also take audio input from a microphone and will convert that analog signal into a digital code that can be stored and replayed.
The ‘voice’ refers to how many sounds from different sources the sound card can manage at the same time. Think about being on your phone listening to music and “ting”, you have an email coming in. This represents two voices – the music track (voice 1) and the email notification (voice 2). The number of voices your sound card has represents the number of inputs it can handle. Voices used to be really important and potentially limited. Modern sound cards use software to produce as many voices as are needed and so generally the number of voices is no longer an issue.
Some times channels and voices are used interchangeably. The technical definition of a channel is how many audio outputs can the sound card handle. Voices are for inputs and channels are for outputs. Stereo sound requires two channels and surround sound requires more.
Peripheral Component Interconnect – PCI
The PCI connects the soundcard to the motherboard of your computer so the two can communicate with each other.
Digital Signal Processor – DSP
Some but not all modern cards have a DSP. This is a built-in processing unit that takes some of the load of your CPU. This means more of the computer processing capability can be devoted to other activities such as running a game.
We’ve pulled together a list of some of the most popular soundcards on the market and summarized their features to help you choose if any of these are what you are looking for.
Best Five Internal Sound Cards
ASUS Xonar Essence
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 88KHz
Connections: Built-in Hi-Fi Headphone amp (600 ohms of impedance), Eight RCA ports, 6.3 mm jack, two optical ports.
This sound card has been optimized for those who like their music and it has been optimized for headphone use. It works well with Dolby technologies so it will also produce excellent surround sound through a speaker system.
It is reasonably expensive for an internal sound card and many of its better qualities could be obtained in an external sound card for less money.
Those who have invested in this absolutely rave about the superior audio sound. It can be tricky to install but not impossible and it will transform your appreciation of your music because of the accuracy of sound reproduction.
Creative SoundBlasterX ZxR
Affordability: Expect to pay around $200
SNR 124 dB
Connections: The daughter card has two SPDIF ports for in and out and two RCA ports. The main card has two RCA ports, two 3.5mm ports and a third 3.5mm port for a microphone. Can support headphones up to impedance 600 ohms.
Desktop audio control.
This sound card is furnished with CrystalVoice that removes echoes and ambient noise. When you speak into the microphone your voice will be clear. This will also maintain your voice level regardless of how near or far from the microphone you are.
It produces superb 3D surround sound for game playing or a home theatre. An ideal sound card for either gaming, watching a film or listening to music.
Creative SoundBlaster AE-5
Affordability: Expect to pay around $150
Connectivity: Three 3.5mm jacks, two minijacks for headphone and microphone, optical output
Channels: 5.1 analog and 7.1 virtual (headphones)
Supports headphones with impedance 16-600 ohms.
This excellent sound card has CrystalVoice and Scout Radar technologies to assist in game playing. The crystal voice keeps your voice clear and audible with no noise or distortion. The Scout Radar gives direction to the sounds you hear so you can more accurately pinpoint where other players are lurking.
As well as the gameplaying features it produces great sound quality through both headphones and speakers.
ASUS STRIX SOAR
Affordability: Expect to pay between $50 and $100
SNR: 116 dB
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 48kHz
Connections: Three 3.5mm jacks, One S/PDIF output
Supports headphones with impedance to 600ohms
Sonic Studio Software allows you to customize every aspect of the audio quality with a point and click interface. This sound card includes Sonic Radar Pro which enhances the audio elements of the game’s sounds and gives you a visual reference on a heads up display. You can even get it to focus on specific sounds such as footsteps.
You will need an external 6-pin connector to provide power to the sound card and some users report difficulties in getting it to work with their system.
The additional software makes this a gaming sound card that is excellent value for money.
SoundBlaster Z PCLe
Affordability: Expect to pay between $50 and $100.
SNR: 116 dB
Frequency Response: 100Hz to 20kHz.
Connectivity: Three 3.5mm jacks, 2 TOSLINKS, Microphone, and headphone jack.
Good clear voice communication by Sound Blaster Beamforming microphone combined with CrystalVoice technologies. You don’t have to mess about unplugging your headphones to use your speakers. You can effortlessly move from one to the other with a simple switch.
This has been designed with gaming in mind. Unfortunately, the software is not compatible with Linux.
Best Five External Sound Cards
Creative Sound Blaster X G5
Affordability: $100 to $150
Channels 7.1 virtual delivered through headphones.
Headphones up to 600 ohms impedance.
SNR 120 dB
Connections: Dedicated mic jack, 4 pole headphone connector, optical connections, and an additional USB port.
This is a pocket-sized portable sound card that can be plugged into your PC or your console (PS4 and Xbox) for a better audio experience. You can store up to three preset audio profiles to match your sound experience to your game type. It comes with Scout Mode which you can activate to improve the pick up of auditory clues in your gameplay.
Creative Sound Blaster Omni
Affordability: $50 to $100
Connections: Two RCA ports, two 3.5mm jacks, optical out port, Headphone, and Microphone.
Will support headphones up to 600 ohms of impedance.
It has excellent sound technologies including CrystalVoice and Scout Mode. It has a built-in microphone but you can also plug in an external microphone. It can be used with both the PC and console game setups. It has excellent sound reproduction at a bargain price.
ASUS Xonar U5
Affordability: $50 to $100
SNR 104 dB
Connections: five 3.5mm port, headphone, and mike, 5.1 channel out SPDIF port
This sound card has been designed for gamers using laptops. It has Sonic Studio for you to tweak your sound until it is just the way you like it. It has Perfect Voice so your voice will be transmitted clearly regardless of the level of ambient noise in your room.
It is easy to plug in via a USB port and then you are up and running.
Creative Sound Blaster X G1
Affordability: $50 to $100
SNR 93 dB
7.1 channel audio
Supports headphones up to 300 ohms
Connections: 4 pole jack for headsets.
It is portable and compact as it is the same size as a standard USB flash drive. There are no external volume controls nor an external microphone. It does come with Scout Mode for that gameplay advantage of hearing someone creeping up on you. It works with PC, Mac, and PS4.
For the price, it is a perfectly decent easy to use sound card.
Startech External Soundcard
Affordability: Expect to pay under $20
Connectivity: Ten ports: ten 3.5mm, optical in and out, USB port to connect to the computer.
This is a really low-priced sound card that is very easy to install. Ideal as a quick replacement for a broken sound card or just to upgrade your equipment for little cost. A nice feature is that you can easily switch between headphones and speakers. The microphone wouldn’t be up to recording in excellent audio but it is perfectly adequate for in-game chat.
It only has SPDIF pass-through connections but for a basic sound card with lots of connectivity at a more than reasonable price it’s great. It doesn’t have the superb qualities of ClearVoice or Scout Mode but then at this price that’s not surprising.