What do gamers and audiophiles have in common? They both enjoy high-quality audio for an immersive experience. Unfortunately, a stock sound card may not deliver that experience. A stock or integrated sound card is sufficient for the average user. It works great when you’re listening to music, watching movies on your PC, and doing other light stuff with background music on.
However, if you’re a hardcore gamer or an audiophile, you’re serious about sound. You want something that will deliver a punch – something that will make you feel every bit and heighten your immersion level. Fortunately, achieving that rich sound is easy with the best sound cards. To make it easier for you when shopping, we’ve prepared this list of the best sound cards to buy in 2021. We even have a guide on what to look for in PC sound cards.
1. Creative Sound Blaster Z ($92.99)
The Sound Blaster Z is one powerful and remarkably good-looking sound card. On the outside, the Sound Blaster Z sports a red frame that radiates a distinctive aura of quality you’d expect from a top brand. But the story lies in what’s under the hood.
The Sound Blaster Z packs a swathe of exciting audio features that make it outshine the competition. One distinct feature that makes this card steal the limelight is its external Sound Blaster Beamforming Microphone that renders crystal clear voice communication. Keep in mind that other brands only offer mic support as a port for jack-connected third-party microphones or computers.
As far as audio performance is concerned, the Creative Blaster Z offers a signal-to-noise ratio of 116 decibels coupled with a 600-ohm headphone amplifier for high impedance. It also comes equipped with different types of software, such as the Alchemy and Z-series panel specifically engineered to enhance audio quality.
The Z-series panel offers EAX support for smooth gaming, while the Z-series control panel allows you to customize the audio to your liking. Best of all, the Blaster Z features what Creative calls SBX Pro Studio for immersive surround sound on your speakers. This tech is arguably superior to what DTS and Dolby offer in this department. On the downside, some users have reported driver compatibility issues with the Sound Blaster Z.
2. Asus Xonar SE ($39.99)
Coming from a company that has built an incontestable name in the gaming hardware industry, the Asus Xonar SE is a powerful card perfect for both games and movies. It’s also a budget-friendly option that proves you don’t have to spend a fortune to get great PC sound cards.
This low-profile bracket makes it easy to plug this card directly into the PCIe x1 slot and works on any new motherboard. By using hyper grounding technology, you get better sound without all the interference and distortion. It also features a 5.1 channel high-res audio at up to 192kHz/24bit.
Experience more immersive sound and better bass with the built-in 300ohm headphone amplifier. All of this is powered by the Cmedia 6620A processor.
3. Asus Sound Card Essence STX II ($452)
The Asus Essence STX II is an expensive sound card, but you get what you pay for. When it comes to audio quality, the Essence STX II is unrivaled. This card provides a signal-to-noise ratio of over 124dB, which makes it the most powerful card on our list.
Coupled with a 7.1ch surround sound and a built-in amplifier that supports up to 600 Ohms, the Essence STX 11 is a dream come true for audiophiles. This card comes with six 3.5mm connectors to make a complete 7.1 Dolby surround possible.
Another unique feature that makes the Essence STX 11 stand out is the swappable op-amps sockets that allow you to customize your audio beyond a mere software control panel. However, at a price of $452, the Essence STX 11 is highly priced. It is worth shopping around, as you can find this card at different prices from varies tech retailers, such as at NewEgg for $379.
4. Creative Sound Blaster X7 ($289.99)
The Sound Blaster X7 is another powerful sound card from Creative. However, this is one of the more unique PC sound cards. For instance, instead of connecting to the motherboard through a PCIe port, the Sound Blaster X7 connects via a USB port.
The Sound Blaster X7 sports a black finish that will seamlessly blend with your desktop and other hardware such as the keyboard. Features-wise, the X7 doesn’t disappoint either. The higher price is well worth it for the 100-watt amplifier, making your desktop speakers the envy of every audiophile around.
It easily handles 600-ohm headphones with high-quality audio of up to 24-bits at 192 kHz. It’s also capable of an impressive SNR of 127 decibels.
While the entire thing seems too lightweight, it’s a great addition if the thought of opening up your PC makes you cringe.
5. Creative Sound Blaster Audigy PCIe RX ($59.99)
The Creative Sound Blaster Audigy is a great choice, especially if you’re looking for an affordable sound card. This sound card comes with seven connectors (one optical and six 3.5mm jacks), and you can choose either a 5.1ch or 7.1ch surround depending on your preferences.
Besides this, you also get the E-MU chipset that provides support for EAX and the Audigy RX control panel that allows you to fine-tune the audio to your taste. The Audigy PCIe RX 7.1 provides a sound-to-noise ratio of up to 106 decibels. Sure, it’s not that powerful, but it’s good for the price. On the downside, consumers have found unpredictable microphone behaviors with the Sound Blaster Audigy PCIe RX 7.1.
If you’re looking for ways to enhance your PC audio experience, a new sound card can save the day. These small devices will provide you with sheer pleasure when playing games or listening to music. And the best part is you can get a quality sound card that will heighten your immersion levels for as low as $40. If you just want to boost your headphone audio quality, you may also want to consider USB audio adapters.
So what are you waiting for? Give these sound cards a try, and share your experiences in the comments section below.