The best sound cards available in 2021 can either be discrete internal cards in a PC, or external USB devices more suitable for closed architecture computers/laptops and gaming consoles.
But the most important question on everyone’s mind is:
Are sound cards worth it?
If your device is fairly new, whether it’s a PC, Mac or a laptop, or even a smartphone, chances are it’s already carrying an advanced sound chip on the motherboard.
Which means if you lean more towards the casual side of things, the onboard audio that comes with your motherboard will most likely suffice for your gaming or music needs.
Having said that, if you’re an audiophile, a musician, a podcaster, a gamer, a transcriber or a quality analyst, the right sound card can definitely improve the overall audio quality, especially if your PC/device and it’s motherboard is older generation.
So, oftentimes instead of buying a whole new device, adding a sound card can make a world of difference.
What are sound cards used for?
Sound cards provide the audio component for uses in:
Video or Audio Editing
Education and Entertainment
Voice-over IP and Teleconferencing
They may improve the sound output of a bad recording
Oftentimes whether you’ve recorded the audio/video yourself, or you’re working on someone else’s recording, external factors can affect audio quality.
It’s not always smooth sailing with crystal clear sound recordings, whether you’re researching or transcribing.
Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, angry screaming kids, angry motorcycles, or angry barking dogs can make an appearance in the background.
The best sound cards listed in this article may help if you’ve been struggling to understand an audio or video file, whether it’s your own recording or someone else’s.
Furthermore, if you’re doing any transcription or quality analysis work on an audio or video file with bad sound quality, in my experience, a sound card definitely makes a difference.
They can help with enhancing a phone interview
Almost 95% of all interviews recorded today (at the time of writing) are phone interviews due to COVID precautions.
Since most phone calls are still recorded in the analog format, a sound card can convert the sound output to digital.
Despite strong competition from ASUS in recent years, Creative have stood their ground.
Utilizing their SBX Pro Studio technology, this sound card provides 5.1 surround sound at an affordable price.
You also get a much improved control panel and more granular control over settings.
If your PC is already rocking the latest gen motherboard, then adding this won’t make much of a difference.
However, if your PC is more than 10-12 years old, even a budget sound card such as this can not only improve audio quality, but may also improve overall system performance by taking over sound processing.
I had great success using the ASUS Xonar DX (now discontinued) in my old computer about 10 years ago. It was an entry level sound card which sounded distinctly different from the onboard sound right after installation. The difference was night and day.
The Xonar AE featured above is not an entry level card, but a mid range sound card, which will make a difference in sound even if your PC is new.
ASUS achieves this with its exclusive Hyper Grounding PCB fabrication, which ensures strong signal insulation to reduce distortion and interference.
Below are some of its key features:
192kHz/24-bit Hi-Res audio and 7.1-channel, 150ohm headphone amp
High-quality ESS DAC with 110dB signal-to-noise ratio (SNR)
Exclusive EMI back plate provides noise shielding for exceptionally clear audio
Sonic Studio enables full audio control via an intuitive, one-page interface
Perfect Voice technology eliminates background noise for clear in-game communication
WORKS WITH: Windows PC & Laptop | macOS | PS4 | PS5 | Nintendo Switch
If you don’t have a PC where you can swap and upgrade parts at will, don’t worry.
The X3 external sound card or DAC from Creative Labs connects to your device via USB and improves the sound quality whether you’re on a PC, a Mac, a Windows laptop or a Macbook, or even a gaming console, regardless of the speakers or headphones you choose to use.
It is the world’s first external multi-channel USB DAC and Amp to feature Creative’s award-winning Super X-Fi technology, as well as 7.1 discrete surround on speakers, 7.1 virtual surround on headphones, and Dolby Digital Live.
High-quality audio components make sure that audio is delivered with studio-level precision and clarity.
As an external sound card or DAC, it has to offer tons of connectivity options, which it does with a USB-C port, Optical-out, and Line-in making it compatible with most audio devices.
If you’re a casual music enthusiast, the onboard sound on your device with a decent pair of headphones will just do fine.
If you’re an audiophile, a podcaster, a gamer, a transcriber or a quality analyst, you will notice the difference in sound with a mid to high range audio card featured in this article.
If you have an older generation PC, even an entry level/budget sound card will make a difference in audio quality.
For laptops and consoles your options are limited with an external sound card/DAC, but there are tons of great options available.
If you’ve struggled with transcribing audio or video with bad sound quality, maybe we can help.