A sound card is a vital but commonly-overlooked computer component. Most people are perfectly happy with the stock sound card that comes along with their motherboard, while some are not even aware that it’s a separate component
However, you’d be surprised as to all the benefits that a high-quality dedicated sound card can offer.
In this guide, we will be looking at the most valued and the best sound cards in 2020, including both performance and budget solutions.
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Top 5 Sound Cards For 2020
|Sound Card||Sound Configuration||Type||Connectors|
|5.1||Internal (PCIe)||Output: 3x 3.5mm jack; 1x Optical|
Input: 1x Amplified 3.5mm jack, 1x 3.5mm jack; 1x Optical
|7.1||Internal (PCIe)||Output: 4x 3.5mm jack|
Input: 1x 3.5mm jack
|5.1||External (USB 2.0)||Output: 2x RCA jack; 2x 3.5mm jack; 1x Optical|
Input: 2x 3.5mm jack
|7.1||Internal (PCIe)||Output: 1x 6.3mm jack, 8x RCA, 1x S/PDIF|
Input: 1x 6.3mm jack
|7.1||Internal (PCIe)||Output: 4x 3.5mm jack; 1x Optical|
Input: 2x 3.5mm jack
Creative Sound Blaster Z
About the Sound Card
The Sound Blaster Z is one powerful and remarkably good-looking card. The vibrant red frame gives off the unmistakable aura of quality that we have come to expect from Creative.
It is a compact device, fitting perfectly into a single PCIe x1 slot on your motherboard without taking up too much space.
But most importantly, it is a reliable and efficient sound card, including many useful features that set it apart from the competition, and in a completely different league than your regular integrated Realtek sound card.
- 116dB Signal-to-Noise Ratio – A significant improvement over stock sound cards, this ratio is some of the best you could hope for. It allows for remarkable crystalline sound clarity, especially if you have quality speakers as well.
- SBX Pro Studio™ – SBX is here to ensure completely immersive surround sound on your speakers, headphones, and surround sound system alike. It is arguably superior to what Dolby and DTS have to offer in this department.
- CrystalVoice™ Focus – Similar to SBX, CrystalVoice is unique software designed to embellish your microphone’s performance. It scrubs background noise, removes echoes, and makes your voice crisp and clear. The Focus is the microphone that comes bundled with the sound card and is specifically designed to take full advantage of this technology.
- There are no big downsides to Sound Blaster Z, not in the hardware department at least. Rather, the only recurring issue is related to the drivers. While they are stable overall, compatibility and driver recognition issues can end up giving some users a real headache.
- Excellent sound quality
- Impeccable surround
- Unreliable drivers
Asus Xonar DS
About the Sound Card
At first glance, this sound card is not much to look at. It has the appearance of a regular semiconductor board, only with prominent Asus and DTS logos. Both have a long and successful track record behind them, so is there more than meets the eye to this bland-looking piece of tech?
Indeed, the modestly priced Asus Xonar DS has quite a few tricks up its sleeve. Not only does it support a 7.1 surround configuration, but it offers remarkable sound quality on top of that. It is not the best Hi-Fi sound card out there, but it is a Hi-Fi sound card nonetheless.
- Full Hi-Fi capability – With 192kHz/24bit sound reproduction, the Asus Xonar DS can deliver uncompressed, studio-quality audio.
- DTS 7.1 Surround – Using the latest DTS technology, this sound card can easily and effectively convert any stereo signal into a fully immersive 7.1 surround experience.
- Excellent value for money – The Xonar DS is not visually impressive, nor does it have a range of capabilities as wide as some pricier variants. However, when push comes to shove, the card delivers excellent sound both for gaming and for home theater setups.
- Driver issues – While the card works seamlessly with Linux, certain problems tend to arise with Windows operating systems. As such, be prepared to do some driver uninstalling and reinstalling if you are running any of the officially supported Windows versions.
- Confusing control panel – While the Xonar DS manages to deliver high-quality audio, it is far from a cutting-edge Hi-Fi sound card. Because of this, many of the options found in the Asus control are essentially redundant and only lead to needless clutter.
- Great price-quality ratio
- Driver issues
- Confusing control panel
Creative Sound Blaster Omni
About the Sound Card
Here we have another sound card from Creative, albeit a tad different than the previous one. Namely, the Sound Blaster Omni is an external sound card. Rather than connecting to the motherboard via a PCIe port, it is connected simply via a USB port.
With its black exterior and gentle red accents, the Omni will seamlessly blend with most computer desks without being intrusive and will provide a dash of elegance to boot.
More importantly, it does not skimp on the functionality either, as it comes with a plethora of features that any user would find useful, and is overall one of the best external sound cards for gaming.
- Dolby 5.1 Surround – As always, Dolby technology is there to enable highly precise and immersive surround speaker configurations, as well as virtual surround capability for stereo setups and headphones.
- Microphone – A highly distinguishing and unusual feature of this sound card is its built-in dual microphones. They utilize CrystalVoice technology in order to present the user’s voice with utmost clarity and minimal background noise.
- Volume control knob – An indispensable part of an external sound card, the knob allows for easy volume adjustments without the hassle of having to do so via the computer’s controls.
- SBX Control Panel – In terms of software, Creative gives us access to a unique control panel tuned specifically for this sound card. It allows plenty of customization options for the sound and microphones alike.
- Lack of echo cancellation – A somewhat counter-intuitive move on Creative’s part was not including an echo cancellation feature with this sound card. If you intend on using the speakers and the onboard microphones at once, then it is glaringly obvious as to why this would be an issue.
- Convenient desktop solution
- Built-in microphone
- Good value for money
- No echo cancellation
Asus Essence STX II 7.1
About the Sound Card
The Essence series is a product line created by Asus with the sole purpose of catering to the most demanding audiophiles out there.
The latest sound card in this line is the STX II, and it is an impressive looking piece of hardware, to say the least. It is an internal sound card that comes with its own heatsink and is, without a doubt, the most powerful sound card on this list.
While the STX II and the STX II 7.1 are essentially the same card, what sets the latter apart is the inclusion of a daughterboard with additional connectors that enable a 7.1 configuration.
- Cutting-edge Hi-Fi audio – The STX II is the epitome of a high fidelity sound card. With 124db SNR, this sound card offers some of the best sound clarity to date, even though the headphone and daughterboard jacks are limited to a maximum of 120db.
- Daughterboard – Sporting six additional 3.5mm connectors, the STX II daughterboard makes true 7.1 surround possible. It is compact and easily installed in any PCIe slot adjacent to the sound card itself.
- Swappable op-amp sockets – Another unique feature that hardcore audiophiles are sure to appreciate are the three swappable op-amp sockets. Clamps designed specifically for swapping these come bundled with the sound card, allowing you to easily take your sound customization beyond a mere software control panel.
- Dolby Surround – The STX II utilizes several Dolby technologies to create a perfect surround experience, physical and virtual alike.
The only definite downside to this sound card is the price. You probably saw that one coming from a mile away. After all, high quality comes at a high price – literally.
If you are an audiophile with a quality speaker setup and are ready to spend over $200 on a sound card that can help you get the most out of them, then you are unlikely to find any other downside to the STX II.
- Unprecedented audio quality
- True 7.1 Surround capability
- Extremely expensive
Creative Sound Blaster Audigy Rx
About the Sound Card
Audigy Rx is one of Creative’s more popular sound cards. It may not look like much, but it brings an impressive arsenal of features to the table.
In between the sheer sound quality, surround capability and detailed control panel, the Audigy Rx will definitely be appealing to gamers and audiophiles alike.
- Full 7.1 Surround Capability – The Audigy Rx has a total of 7 connectors: an optical output and 6 3.5mm jacks, two of which can function as mic ins. As such, it fully supports either a 5.1 or 7.1 surround configuration for maximum immersion.
- EAX Support – In addition to merely supporting surround audio in terms of hardware, Audigy Rx also boasts the E-MU chipset, designed specifically for optimal performance with EAX technologies. This way, you can be assured of the quality of the sound that will be coming out of your speakers.
- Audigy Rx Control Panel – Using the control panel tailored by Creative specifically for this sound card, you can customize its performance to the greatest possible extent. This includes both audio output and input.
- Unreliable Windows Drivers – As seems to be a tradition with Creative’s sound cards, driver and OS compatibility issues are running rampant in Audigy Rx’s case. While the card officially supports every version of Windows from Windows 7 onward, there is a range of issues that anyone might randomly run into.
- Limited Linux Support – Unlike with Windows, the Audigy Rx seems to be consistently incompatible with newer versions of Linux. As such, if this is your operating system of choice, it might be a good idea to go with another sound card.
- 7.1 Surround Support
- Quality surround sound thanks to EAX
- Unpredictable driver behavior
Which Sound Card to Buy?
Before concluding on your pick, there are several key factors to consider before deciding which of these sound cards is the best sound card for you.
Will your speakers/headphones be able to handle it?
While the on-board sound cards that come integrated with motherboards do leave a lot to be desired for audiophiles and in terms of high fidelity audio, they are often more than sufficient for the average user.
Simply because the average user seldom has the equipment that truly requires a more powerful sound card.
If you are not overly familiar with the technicalities of audio equipment, do thorough research and see if the speakers and/or headphones you currently own can effectively reproduce the sound that the new sound card would put out. After all, there’s no point in spending 50 dollars on a sound card if the speakers you currently own cost half as much!
Will your computer support it?
We are talking about both software and hardware here. As you have seen in this article, driver issues occur very commonly with sound cards. So, before buying one, make sure that your system can run it – especially if you’re using a less popular one such as Linux.
As for the hardware, you should make sure that your motherboard has the required PCIe slots (for internal cards) or the required USB ports (for external cards). While a regular ATX motherboard might have all the PCIe slots you could ever need, the same could not be said for microATX and miniATX ones. Furthermore, be sure to check if your graphics card is blocking the PCIe slot and/or if there is sufficient space to fit the sound card comfortably next to it.
As for the USB ports, that should not be a problem. Every modern motherboard has enough USB 2.0 ports to go around, and USB 3.0+ is backward compatible. Unless you’re still using dated hardware, a lack of USB ports shouldn’t be a problem. Moreover, keep in mind that plugging your external sound card into the back panel is preferable since a front-panel connection could lead to lower-quality audio.
Should I get an internal or external sound card?
The main and obvious difference in this regard is portability. As such, if you need a quality sound card for multiple devices, an external one would be best.
On the other hand, an internal sound card would be able to provide better responsiveness and higher overall sound quality, primarily due to the PCIe connection being much faster and more reliable than that of USB 2.0.
Sound Card Troubleshooting Guide
In this section, we will briefly address some common sound card problems, their causes and how you can fix them.
- The sound card is installed properly, but is not producing sound
This could be either a hardware or a driver issue. To test it, do the following:
- Make sure everything is properly connected. This includes the power connectors, the sound card in its PCIe slot/USB port and the speakers themselves.
- See if the speakers are the cause of the problem by plugging them either into another device or your motherboard’s integrated sound card. If there is still no sound coming from the speakers when connected to another device, then it is obviously a problem with the speakers themselves.
- If neither of the above help, follow the step-by-step software troubleshooting guide below.
- The sound is filled with static, distortion and/or electronic crackling/popping noise
Again, this could be either a hardware or software issue, but most likely the latter. To test the issue, take the following steps:
- Make sure that everything is connected properly, as above.
- Check for outside interference. With some speakers, signals coming from your phone, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, etc. could be causing the static you hear on the speakers. Try turning off any such signals and see if the problem persists. If this turns out to be the cause of the distortion, simply rearrange your setup so as to avoid the speakers being directly in the signal’s path.
- If neither of the above work, refer to our software troubleshooting guide below.
- The sound card works fine for a while, but then suddenly stops producing sound
This is definitely a software issue. If the sound is there following a system reboot, but goes away or gets distorted after a period of time, then it cannot be a problem with the hardware. If you’re experiencing this, refer to the software troubleshooting guide below.
- Reinstall the drivers. The most common culprit of malfunctioning sound cards is likely the cause of this particular problem, too. As before, try reinstalling your current drivers or downloading an older/newer version that is compatible with your OS.
- Remove any old drivers or drivers of other sound cards, including those of your motherboard’s integrated sound card.
- Reinstall your OS. This might seem like an excessive move, but a clean system reinstall allows you to get rid of all the digital garbage that inevitably accumulates in every operating system over time. However, before resorting to this, be sure to check the software troubleshooting guide first!
The following steps are sure to identify and solve any software-related sound card problems you may be having. To start off:
- Check your sound card’s control panel
Sometimes, settings such as certain equalizer preset, virtualization, or other features could be causing sound issues. To make sure this is not the case, simply turn down all the settings to the basic levels and turn off all extra features.
If that solves the problem, start turning things up again and see what exact setting was the root cause of the problem.
- Reinstall the drivers
The most common culprit in the world of malfunctioning sound cards is drivers. In order to reinstall drivers properly, adhere to the following steps:
- Uninstall the old drivers, as well as your integrated sound card drivers. Often, it is driver conflict that leads to driver-related problems, and by wiping out all traces of old drivers from your computer, you ensure a conflict-free clean installation of the new ones. Using a program such as CCleaner to clean the registry is also highly recommended.
- If the drivers you got with the sound card do not work, download a different version from the manufacturer’s site. If the latest drivers don’t seem to work, try some of the older versions that might work best with your current operating system.
- Reinstall your OS
As mentioned above, while this might seem like an excessive measure, it may be necessary. During the months (and in some cases, years) of use can lead to all sorts of junk software finding its way into your operating system and hinder its functioning in a variety of ways.
True, backing up and then rearranging everything on the fresh new OS installation can be a hassle, but in the end, it is a relatively fast and surefire way to make your computer run as smoothly as possible.
Replacing the sound card
If you did not succeed in solving the issue yourself by following the above instructions, there’s a good chance that the sound card is defective or not compatible with your hardware/software. If this is the case, you should take it back to the store immediately and let the warranty do the rest.
In the case that the card is actually working properly but compatibility is the problem, your hardware supplier will most likely be willing to let you switch it for another sound card that will work properly with your system.
If you bought a second-hand sound card or one that is not covered by any sort of warranty for whatever reason, it would be a good idea to have it looked at by a professional. Usually, IT services don’t charge much for diagnostics, but actual repairs are another story.
If it comes to that your sound card needs to be repaired, the bill will likely be close to the price of a brand new one. In that case, it is advisable to simply do just that – buy a new sound card, as repairing an old one will hardly be worth it.
The Best Sound Card
While it is definitely expensive, the Asus STX II earns the title of the best sound card on this list. It will not leave anyone wanting, as it is well suited for gamers and audiophiles alike.
It utilizes cutting-edge technology to provide the best possible audio experience, and with extra customization options on top of that. It fully supports 7.1 surround configurations, and the driver issues aren’t as prevalent as with some other sound cards on this list.
Ultimately, if you have a set of high-end speakers that you want to pull the most out of, then the STX II is perfectly suited for the job. All in all, in terms of performance, it is the best sound card on this list.
The Best Budget Sound Card
As for those who have to make do with a limited budget, you’ll want to spend your hard-earned cash on something that’s worth it – and the Asus Xonar DS is the perfect card for the job.
It offers high-quality sound and fully supports 7.1 surround. If you do not intend on using real 7.1 surround, and would go with a 5.1 or stereo configuration instead, there are even cheaper variants of this sound card to suit your needs.
Again, this is not a first-class Hi-Fi sound card and it is known to have compatibility issues, but when it comes to the price-quality ratio, it simply can’t be beaten.