Learn how to choose the best sound card for gaming, and whether or not you actually need to get a sound card in the first place. When building a PC, a sound card is a totally optional component as most modern motherboards come with what's known as on-board sound.
As well as covering how to choose the best sound card, at the end of this article we'll share our current highest recommendations in terms of the best sound cards for your money this year.
As mentioned, the vast majority of gaming motherboards on the market already have fairly decent audio capabilities and so a sound card is more a luxury add-on.
To be frank most PC gamers building a system don't need one, as on-board sound will please the majority of people. However, getting a dedicated sound card can be a good idea if you're planning on using a high quality headset or set of speakers that you want to take full advantage of in terms of loudness and audio quality.
Also, if you're going to be using your PC for any sort of professional (or even amateur to be fair) music production then a sound card may be a good idea (or even necessary).
Check out our more detailed answer to this eternal question:
When thinking about how to choose the best sound card for your needs, you may want to consider the following specs/features. Just keep in mind that it's not crucial to know about or even care much about these specs; but they do come in handy when getting into the nitty gritty of comparing specific models.
Your choices are 5.1 or 7.1 channels, and either will do just fine for gaming. Just makes sure if you're getting a 7.1 speaker system to get a 7.1 compatible sound card to take full advantage of the extra channels.
The 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.
Sound cards generally have an SNR 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.
A measurement in kHz on how many times a sound stream sends data over a period of time, and the higher the better the overall audio quality will be in general. Most good modern sound cards will be over 96 kHz.
The 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%. Again, there's no set number to shoot for but it's another way to compare models.
The following are our current top picks in terms of bang for your buck for different price ranges:
Note that we can only recommend the two high-end picks (the Creative ZxR and Asus STX II) if you know what you're doing and have good reasons to invest in a top-tier sound card.
Otherwise, if you just want a sound card for gaming purposes to use with mid to high quality output equipment then the Asus DGX or Creative Sound Blaster Z would likely be all the power and quality that you need.
That's really all you need to know on how to choose the best sound card. To sum it up, if you'll just be gaming then chances are you should just skip the sound card - especially if you're on a tighter budget. But if you value having the absolute best quality audio possible and are pairing things up with top of the range speakers/headset then a dedicated sound card may be an investment that'll satisfy your discerning ears.