The best sound card for gaming in 2021
There was a time when every PC owner — and in particular, every PC gamer — made choosing a sound card an essential part of buying a new computer. It was right up there with picking a video card, hard drive, and how much RAM to get. A lot has changed since those early days of computing and many PC buyers today may have never experienced that at all. After all, the integrated audio that’s built into computer motherboards is perfectly adequate for most tasks these days, and has been for years.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s good enough for people who really care about their audio experience. Dedicated gamers aren’t satisfied with the kit mouse that came with their PC — they choose a specialized gaming mouse designed to work with their favorite games. In the same way, gamers, audiophiles, and creatives who produce audio on their PCs are just some users who may need more sound quality and features than what you can get from the audio that’s built into a typical desktop PC.
If that sounds like you, fear not: There are still a lot of sound cards out there you can use to upgrade your PC. If you want your PC to send the best sound quality possible to your speakers or headphone — while possibly pumping our multi-channel surround sound and having the ability to process audio for sound production, read on. I’ve rounded up the best sound cards for gaming you can buy today, and this article will help you choose the one that’s right for you.
Top 10 best sound card for gaming in 2021
1. Audioengine D1
You can think of the Audioengine D1 as a sort of external sound card. More accurately, it’s an external DAC — a digital-to-analog converter that lets you bypass the low-quality sound chip or sound card in your PC or Mac to listen to high fidelity music in high fidelity. Powered by the well-respected AK4396 DAC, it’s a great way to amp up the sound in your PC without opening the case and installing an expansion card. In fact, setup is a snap; there is no power supply and nothing to plug into the wall. Nor is there any software to install. You simply connect the D1 to your PC via USB and set it on your desktop. Then plug your headphones into the front panel and you’re in business. There’s even an optical input to connect a second source, like a Blu-ray player or game console.
The D1 includes a premium 24-bit DAC and amp that can stream bit-perfect 24/96 HD audio up to 192 kHz. And if you want to, you can connect the DAC to external powered speakers via RCA outputs in back. It doesn’t have any sort of surround sound capabilities — virtual or otherwise — but the steep output is formidable.
2. EVGA Nu Audio Card
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!
3. Creative Sound Blaster Z
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.
4. Creative Sound Blaster Omni
Of the external sound cards out there, I found the Creative Sound Blaster Omni to be the most impressive of them.
This is mainly due to its multitude of features. By bundling a headphone amp, Dolby Digital Support, a software suite for controlling your audio, and a gaming-optimized Scout Mode, the Omni far surpasses your garden variety external sound card thanks to all of the features it has on offer.
In addition to those features, it offers a pretty respectable SNR and sample rate…for an external solution. Compared to internal solutions, however, it unfortunately falls short.
Additionally, the price of $80 for an external sound card probably raises more than a few eyebrows for our audience. It’s important to be very sure about a purchase like this, so be sure to finish our article before making your selection!
5. ASUS Xonar DSX
The ASUS Xonar DX is a midrange internal soundcard, and provides a generally great audio experience.
First and foremost, it supports 7.1 surround sound, which is perfect for high-end headphones and home theater audio setups.
Secondly, it significantly boosts Sample Rate and SNR over cheaper sound cards. This means a clearer, higher-quality listening experience overall.
However, where it suffers is in a lack of portability and extra features. It’s strange to move up in price and lose some features, but that’s what the Xonar DSX seems to do. In exchange for the bumps in SNR and 7.1 surround sound, the Xonar DSX sacrifices Dolby Headphone support and a Headphone Amp. This is a pretty big downer for headphone users, making this more suitable for home theater setups than gamers.
For gamers, it still does offer GX 2.5, but the loss in headphone features will hurt gamers used to using headphones in their games.
6. Sound BlasterX G6
The Sound BlasterX G6 is an external soundcard that’s a lot more like what the SoundBlasterX G1 wants to be when it grows up. This G6, like all external soundcards, is essentially a DAC that you plug into your PC’s USB port (though it also has optical inputs for gaming consoles as well). But unlike models like the G1, the G6 has an elegant, upscale look, including a gorgeous knurled dial that’s reminiscent of the kind of control you’ll find on high-end audio gear, surrounded by a softly glowing RGB light. The dial lets you switch between and control both the master audio volume and microphone input.
Appearance aside, though, the G6 is a formidable audio product. It has an impressive 130dB SNR with 32-bit/384kHz sound reproduction. It also features a full 7.1 channels of virtual surround sound and includes two independent amplifiers. This lets the G6 drive sound levels in each ear completely differently — great for music, but even better in games, where the left and right channels might have very different soundscapes to render at any given moment.
The Sound Blaster Connect desktop software has unique profiles for common games and includes Creative’s excellent Scout mode, which emphasizes dialog, environmental sounds, and directional cues to help you zero in on enemies and stay on top of the action. It costs several times as much as SoundBlasterX’s G1, but it’s well worth the money.
7. Creative Sound Blaster AE-7
What do you get when you take the Sound Blaster AR5, upgrade it with slightly better internals, and remove the RGB lighting? You get the slightly more mature-looking Creative Sound Blaster AE-7. In fact, the AE-7 looks a lot like the AE-5, but has the ESS SABRE-class 9018 DAC, which inches up the SNR to 127dB. Other specs remain the same; it can play audio at up to 32-bit/384 kHz, and it has independent amplifiers for the left and right channels. You can connect studio-grade headphones up to 600 ohms to this sound card.
That said, it has a few welcome improvements: the aforementioned DAC, for example, along with support for Dolby DTS and Dolby Digital Live using the discrete 5.1 channel outputs. The AE-7 also adds 384 kHz PCM and DSD64 playback. There’s also support for 7.1-channel virtual surround sound. The system works with the usual Sound Blaster Command software, which comes with audio profiles for music, movies, and games. There are specific profiles for many popular games, along with Scout mode, which, ifn you use it, emphasizes environmental audio cues like footsteps and dialog in-game.
The AE-7 also comes with a desktop breakout box. This audio command center has inputs and outputs for your mic and headphones so you don’t need to reach around the back the PC, and an enormous volume dial.
8. Creative Sound Blaster Audigy Rx – 7.1
Need an internal sound card for a reasonable price? This PCI sound card can be the one you are looking for. This sound card comes with hardware-accelerated EAX effects that will make audio sound more vivid and lifelike.
Audigy PCIe RX 7.1 is designed with 106db SNR. Sure, it’s not something super powerful but it’s more than just good for such price. Note that this sound card allows full audio customization. The card has enhanced chipset with EAX reverb engine well-known for its high quality. Note that it won’t affect CPU work or impede PC performance on the whole.
This example of internal sound cards supports such operating systems as Windows XP SP2 (and higher), Windows Vista SP1 (and higher), Windows 7 and Windows 10.
9. Creative Sound BlasterX G1 7.1
If you are looking for the best sound card for gaming then Creative Sound BlasterX G1 7.1 is the one you need. It is provided with 7.1 channel audio input signals that guarantee vivid and realistic sound gaming effects. Besides, it makes the sound clear and accurate.
Due to its BlasterX Acoustic Engine its performance is improved and optimized for gaming.
What is more, BlasterX G1 7.1 includes X-Plus mode which lets you hear footsteps and gunshots of your enemies. Combine it with a high-grade gaming motherboard and you will take your gaming up to a new level.
10. Asus Sound Card Essence STX II
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.
How to Choose a Gaming Sound Card
Internal vs External Sound Cards for Gaming
If you ask some serious audiophiles about configuring the ultimate audio setup, many will scoff at the thought of cramming an internal PCIe sound card inside your computer case squeezed between your graphics card and power supply, as this can cause electronic interference that may get in the way. While this may be true, it’s not always the case, and most people using an internal sound card probably won’t encounter this problem (just be aware of it, and if you’re worried, do your own research into how to avoid it, or how to fix it if you encounter it).
Most audio professionals will recommend an external sound card setup, which could mean getting a DAC, AMP, ADC for a mic, and VSS/software. However, this isn’t necessary if you’re just a gamer or music lover wanting to take full advantage of your high-end gear, a good internal sound card may be all you need and also keeps things simple. A high-quality internal sound card can allow for some seriously high-quality audio. But for music production/editing/etc, do look into an external setup.
Sound Card Compatibility With Your PC Build
As for picking a sound card that’s compatible with your computer, there’s not much to it, but still a couple things to consider.
- Modern internal sound cards will be PCIe (PCI-Express) cards that plug into a spare PCIe slot (usually x1 size – the short PCIe slots) on your motherboard. So all you need to ensure compatibility is to check if you have a spare PCIe slot underneath your graphics card that will fit your sound card. Just be aware in some PCs, if your graphics card is wide it might block other PCIe slots.
- Some internal sound cards are powered directly by the motherboard (via the PCIe slot), but some cards (like the EVGA Nu) will also need direct power from the power supply using either a SATA power cable (like the EVGA Nu) or a Molex power cable (most PSUs have these connectors, but not all). Any modern power supply will come with plenty of these SATA cables, so it’s not something to worry about (they’re the same connection type used to power HDDs and other devices like optical drives).
5.1 vs 7.1 Sound Cards for Gaming
5.1 sound cards and speakers support 6 channels, and 7.1 supports 8 channels. Both provide a great surround sound experience, with 7.1 being just that little bit better (though at a typically higher cost). Either is going to be just fine for gaming. Just make sure if you’re getting a 7.1 speaker system that you also get a 7.1 compatible sound card to take full advantage of those extra channels.
What is the SNR of a Sound Card?
The SNR (Signal to Noise Ratio) is just one of a few different specs that hint at the overall quality of audio. Technically it’s a measurement of the usable signal that your sound card can produce above the volume of background static that electrical hardware produces. Most sound cards fall into the range of around 80 – 130 dB, and the higher the better. There’s no set minimum to shoot for though, so just use it as one way to compare different sound cards and their quality.
What is the Sample Rate of a Sound Card?
The sample rate of a sound card is a measurement in kHz that gives an idea of how accurate that card can reproduce higher frequencies, with the higher the kHz the better the overall quality. Most good modern sound cards will be 96 kHz, which is more than enough for most people, so there’s no point getting a card with les kHz than this. When choosing a sound card you may also see its “bit rate” mentioned, which is related to the quality of recorded audio. Any sound card worth buying will have a bit rate of 24 or higher, which is the modern standard in a sound card.
What is the THD of a Sound Card?
The THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) measures sound distortion and the closer to 0 the better. Premium sound cards will have a THD as low as 0.001%. There’s no set number to shoot for when picking a sound card, and it’s just one other way to compare different sound cards for their quality.