May 31

The 5 Best Sound Card For Gaming

Sound cards are not something you often hear talked about, and I’m not exactly sure why. It’s possible that some might feel it’s overkill, especially with how good modern audio processing hardware has gotten in graphics cards and motherboards. That’s certainly a valid position to have, but the truth is that a sound card can offer something extra compared to not having one.

The importance of having a sound card for gaming is even higher if you have a high-quality gaming headset and mic which require pre-amps. Sound cards also allow you to get better sample rates and Signal to Noise Ratio. All in all, a sound card can add a lot of benefits to your day to day life, especially if you don’t only game, but also do some form of audio production or streaming/podcasts.

So, what is the best sound card for gaming in 2020? 🔊 🎶

Best Choice: Sound Blaster Z

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Pros & Cons

  • Easy installation
  • Perfect for gamers who need good audio/microphone quality
  • Have to manual set the output

Specifications:

  • Channels: 5.1
  • Sample Rate: 192KHz
  • SNR: 116dB

Sound Blaster Z Review

If you’re looking for something that balances really well between audio quality and price, the Sound Blaster Z is going to be your savior.

Featuring a whopping five 3.5mm jacks, you can be sure the 5.1 surround sound is going to be excellent. The best part of that is you don’t have to rely on a pre-built 5.1 surround system and you can pick speakers based on your own needs (to an extent). So at the very least, this is a great sound card for audiophiles.

Of those five jacks, one is dedicated to your headset, with a 600ohm amplifier, in case your headphones have high impedance.

Another one of those jacks is dedicated to the microphone, which you can hook up the included dual-microphone array, that comes loaded with Creative’s CrystalVoice tech. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Creative’s jargon, CrystalVoice is essentially their nose negation and regulation software and it’s actually pretty cool.

Speaking of manufacturer software, you also get Alchemy and Z-series control panel. The former allows you to get EAX on older games which might not have it, and the latter allows you to play around with an equalizer and create presets. There’s actually quite a bit of control you can have over your audio for such a small audio card.

Unfortunately, it does have one annoying flaw, which is that it doesn’t automatically switch to a headset or microphone when you plug it in, so you will have to do it manually.

Otherwise, this is an excellent little card that gives you a lot and asks for very little in return. This is a great choice if you don’t want to spend over $100 and still want to get excellent audio quality, as well as tons of control to boot. Combine it with a great 7.1 gaming headset and you’ll have some studio-level sound quality.

Premium Pick: ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II

Pros & Cons

  • Swappable Amps
  • 7.1 Surround Sound
  • Very Pricey

Specifications:

  • Channels: 7.1
  • Sample Rate: 192KHz
  • SNR: 124dB

ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II Review

If you consider yourself a hardcore audiophile and are more than happy to spend upwards of $200 on a sound card, then ASUS has the card for you.

While the STX II features a 600ohm amplifier like the Sound Blaster Z, it upgrades you from 5.1 surround to 7.1 surround. You also get gain control for sensitive IEM headphones, that way you don’t have to worry about blowing them up, or your own ears for that matter!

Signal to Noise ratio (SNR) is industry leading at a 124dB which means that sound clarity is quite possibly unparalleled for internal sound cards. It also has a snazzy and pretty shroud to protect the electronics from interference which can affect the audio quality.

This might not seem like a big deal, but a couple of the cards on this list don’t have them and it can certainly be a problem, especially if you mount your sound card next to a modern high-performance gaming GPU (which are usually large) or a Wifi card.

One big thing that the STX II offers which other sound cards do not, is the swappable op-amps. For those in the know, you’ll realize that this affords you the opportunity to get just the right timbre and tonal quality that suits your preferences. Granted, you’re going to have to pay extra for those, but at this price point, you might as well.

Finally, the STX II features Dolby Home Theatre, which is a hit and miss depending on where you stand on the issue of audio standards.

Either way, the STX II is a top-notch internal sound card that is industry leading and offers you a ton of customization and features. If you want the best for the internals of your PC, this is the card.

Best Value: Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX PCIe 5.1

Pros & Cons

  • Stereo Microphone option
  • 7.1 surround
  • Great price
  • Gets a bit finicky if your computer goes into sleep mode

Specifications:

  • Channels: 7.1
  • Sample Rate: 192KHz
  • SNR: 106dB

Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX PCIe 5.1 Review

Not everybody wants the best though, or they may just be entering the sound card market and want to dip their toes in.

Coming in at a budget price, you certainly get a ton of features that you wouldn’t expect. For starters, you get yourself 7.1 surround sound, with a similar setup to the Sound Blaster Z. You also get hardware acceleration for EAX to provide you with clearer sound quality than you would get with an onboard chip or through the graphics card.

Of course, you do give up some things, namely in the lower SNR of 106dB, which does somewhat work against other sound quality enhancements.

Thankfully, the sample rate is still high, so even though the audio quality might not be comparable to more expensive cards the reproduction should be near perfect. You also still maintain a ton of audio representation through the accompanying utility software, so you can definitely maintain a good quality of audio.

Interestingly, the Audigy FX has support for dual mics, so if you’re a streamer or commentator, you can do that with a friend. Similarly, if you have a podcast with guests, this is a cheap and easy way to capture both audios without a mixer or other solution. As a final option, you could always record an instrument and a microphone if you’re into audio production and want to get started.

As you can see, the Audigy offers a ton of variety and chose for a really cheap price compared to the other sound cards. Sure the SnR isn’t the best, but you can’t have everything! Coupled with a great budget gaming headset, you’ll be able to enjoy the sound quality that would please just about any audiophile.

Best With Built-in Microphone: Creative Sound Blaster ZxR

Pros & Cons

  • Built-in Microphone
  • Comparable features and quality to more expensive sound cards
  • 5.1 surround only
  • Daughter board is unusual and might not be used

Specifications:

  • Channels: 5.1
  • Sample Rate: 192KHz
  • SNR: 124dB

Creative Sound Blaster ZxR Review

If you like the ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II but it’s a bit on the expensive side, the ZxR offers some really awesome and interesting features for a little less. The first thing you’ll notice is that you’re actually buying two boards; the main board that fits into the PCIe slots, and daughter board that doesn’t connect into anything except the main board.

The idea here is that it offers you a little bit of extra hardware processing without having a major impact on the motherboard or the main sound card. As such, you get that industry-leading SNR of 124dB as well as a sample rate of 192Khz, which is impressive for a card just shy of $200.

Similarly interesting is the external device that allows you to control the volume, has several audio/mic jacks and has an onboard mic as well, so you don’t actually have to faff around with getting your own mic setup.

As we’re covering connectivity, you get quite a few, with the main sound card having individual mic/audio jacks, two 3.5mm jacks for speakers and dual RCA for front and left speakers. Moving on to the daughter board it has dual RCA for back left and right speakers as well as one optical in and one optical.

What that all boils down to is that you can have your headset, mice and speaker system all hooked in at the same time. Creative did this with purpose and have also created a utility app that allows you to switch between everything with a click of a button.

Similarly, the app has a ton of features, from cinematic surround sound in the form of Dolby Digital to a mixer and equalizer that allow you to get your settings just right.

Of course, all of this is great, but unfortunately, you will have to go down from 7.1 on the STX II to 5.1 on the ZxR. Otherwise, pretty much everything is the same in terms of features and connectivity, except for a cheaper price tag. This is the premium option that doesn’t have a premium price tag.

Best External: Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround

Pros & Cons

  • Built-in microphone
  • Relatively high sample rate for the device
  • 5.1 surround sound only

Specifications:

  • Channels: 5.1
  • Sample Rate: 96KHz
  • SNR: 100dB

Creative Sound Blaster Omni Surround Review

Ok, so what if you don’t want to spend a bunch of time and effort installing a sound card and just want a hassle-free solution? Well, external sound cards are probably what you’re looking for, and more specifically, the Sound Blaster Omni, which offers a ton of features in a surprisingly small package.

The first thing I’ll mention is that this is 5.1 surround, rather than 7.1 like a lot of the other cards, but that’s alright considering the price and package. On the back, you’ll find two RCA and 2 quarter inch ports for all the speakers, as well as an optical out and the micro-USB which acts as both as a power port and a communication port with your PC.

In the front you’ll find three 3.5mm jacks; one to complete the surround sound and a jack each for a headset and a microphone.

Of course, you could always use the onboard microphone, which much like the other sound cards on the list, is a dual array microphone that beam forms, allowing it to focus on your voice on. Along with it comes the CrystalClear tech that creative has made to enhance the clarity of your voice and act as a noise cancellation software.

Finally, on the top, you’ll see a volume knob and on the side, there’s a clear-looking panel that looks like an IR receiver, although I can’t find any information which would suggest that functionality, plus it doesn’t come with a remote anyway.

As you’d expect, you also get Creative’s Omni utility software that allows you to control your audio to minute amounts. That’s great because the Omni has a 600ohm amp which should help overcome headsets with high impedance.

While it’s true that the Omni isn’t the best audio solution, it’s certainly an interesting concept, especially if you’d like an external solution. It doesn’t have as much connectivity as a few of the other options on the list, but it’s certainly hassle-free and perfect for small or minimal setups.

 

Best Sound Cards For Gaming: Buying Guide

Channels

In the most basic sense, a channel is essentially one ‘pathway’ for sound to go. When music producers and sound engineers create the sounds and music that go into your games, films, and music, they can use anywhere from 10 channels to several dozen. Thankfully though, when they export that project, the audio production software converts all that to a smaller number, usually either 2.1, 5.1, or 7.1.

If you’re familiar with that terminology, you’ll see that it describes different standards of audio formats. 2.1 is two speakers and a subwoofer, 5.1 is five speakers and a subwoofer, and 7.1 is seven speakers and a subwoofer. The first number before the dot is the number of speakers, and the one after is the number of subwoofers.

asus sound card

All of that is just a complicated way of saying that surround sound is achieved by sending specific sounds to different speakers, depending on whether they are in front of you or behind you. 7.1 offers the best surround sound, while 2.1 doesn’t offer any surround sound at all.

Sample Rate

The sample rate is the number of times an analog signal is sampled or ‘captured’ to be converted into a digital signal. This metric is usually described in samples per second or Hz.

Think of it like frames per second or refresh rate for a monitor. The more ‘samples’ that are outputted to the monitor, the higher the frame rate. Similarly, the more often an audio device samples an audio source, the higher the audio reproduction is going to be. There’s a lot that goes in a second when it comes to sound, and the more you can capture that, the more of it you’re going to hear.

C-MEDIA FT8738-4.08E CMI8738 PCI SOUND CARD

Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR)

This one is a little bit complicated, but mainly, it describes the clarity of a signal compared to the electrical noise in the cable.

To put it to you in a more precise way, think of a river. If it’s full of big rocks and shallow bits, a boat can bump upon them and generally have a terrible time. On the other hand, if the river is clear and deep, a boat sailing on it will have an incredibly smooth journey.

In the first example, the rocky river would be a high noise in the cable with the boat being the signal, and so you get a lot of weird sound artifacts and issues. In the second example, it’s the same thing, but the clear and calm river (low noise) allows the boat (the signal) to pass through easily.

Behringer UM2


Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need a sound card for gaming?

No, absolutely not. Most graphics cards already have some form of audio acceleration and processing, so that you get excellent sound quality.

Do sound cards make a difference?

Yes, they can although it depends a lot on your setup and the specific sound card you chose. By having particular hardware for processing audio, you are putting more resources into it, and therefore getting a better quality sound.

Not only that, but a lot of cards have an amp or pre-amp that is sometimes required for high-impedance headsets. That means you can get a much clearer sound because there’s more power behind it, and the resistance in your electronics can be overcome.

Oxygen HD sound card

Do USB sound cards work?

They do indeed, and some would argue that an external sound card might even be better than an internal one. You see, the issue is that audio signals can be easily interfered with and putting them inside a computer that has a bunch of electronics interfering with it can cause problems. This is why a lot of good quality sound cards have some form of shroud or sound card; to avoid interference.

Of course, the issue with external sound cards is that they take up a lot of space, and can make cable management a nightmare.


Conclusion

So, to sum it all up, sound cards can add a lot of value if you’re looking to upgrade the sound quality. Granted, they might not be as good as more complex audio gear, but there’s no need to pay an arm and a leg to get that when all you need is to amp up your gaming experience.


Sources

  1. Is a dedicated sound card significant for gaming, Quora

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About the author

Albert Bassili

Albert’s been a gamer for about as long as he can remember. Ever since then, Albert has been hooked on games, even going as far as doing his bloody best to work on the game industry, whether it’s writing articles, or writing game stories. In between gaming, he also really loves to check up on the latest tech news and see what awesome stuff humanity has come up with.
Favorite Games: Dune II, MGS 1, FF X, Mass Effect 2