Last Updated: January 11, 2023
If you're on the hunt for the best sound card for gaming, whether for a new PC build or to upgrade your existing desktop, in this buyer's guide we'll break down what to know in as concise a way as possible. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, installing a sound card in your PC was the common thing to do.
Then, over time, the built-in audio solutions on consumer motherboards slowly but surely improved in quality, to the point where you'd be given a strange look if caught including a dedicated sound card in a new gaming PC build. Seriously though, these days, the audio provided by almost all modern motherboards is more than enough in terms of quality (and volume) to please the far, far majority of gamers.
But there are always exceptions to any rule, and sound cards aren't entirely dead. Just like optical drives such as DVD-RW or Blu-ray drives and burners - also rare inclusions in a new modern PC build -there is still a time and place where buying a dedicated sound card makes sense for certain users and situations (whether internal or external; we'll focus on the former in this guide). Let's talk about it, including my top picks of the current best sound cards for gaming at different price points if you do decide you're one of the few who could benefit from such a purchase.
See Also: The Best PC Speakers for Gaming
Let's not beat around the bush as I want to make this very clear. The short answer is an easy no - these days, literally 98% of gamers do not need to buy a sound card (and shouldn't). Long answer? The quality of audio that comes with any half-decent modern motherboard - even on more budget gaming motherboards - is good enough these days that there's simply no need, nor real benefit, to getting a sound card.
But if you're using professional-grade high-end headphones or speakers that you want to take full advantage of, and/or if you're doing some sort of audio production or editing where every little miniscule detail and quality matters, then buying a sound card may be something to consider. A sound card may also make sense if you're perhaps using an older motherboard that has slightly lower-quality audio, or if the sound on your motherboard has simply died (rare but it can happen) and you need a cheap replacement.
So, if you're in that small percentage of gamers who are investing heavily into high-end audio equipment (something on the level of the beyerdynamic DT 1990 or even the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x), let's get into our picks of the best gaming sound cards to power such great headphones. Starting with the best budget sound cards suitable for more entry-level professional audio gear, and then onto the best high-end sound cards for the ultimate gaming and music playback experience, these are the cards we can comfortably recommend at different price points after having researched various professional reviews.
If you're after the best cheap sound card for gaming that will give a slight boost in quality over most motherboards, the Sound Blaster Audigy FX will get that job done and is very affordable. However, keep in mind that many people are going to have a hard time noticing the difference between an entry-level sound card of this nature and the audio provided by a good modern motherboard.
If you have high-quality headphones for gaming (or speakers), but not super-premium audiophile-level gear, this sound card may do, otherwise you will perhaps need something even better. It comes with software from Creative, allowing you tweak plenty of settings, and it does support 5.1 surround sound too (though not 7.1 surround sound).
For a guaranteed step-up in quality from what a modern motherboard can offer, if you're rocking supreme quality gear and want to take full advantage the Creative Sound Blaster Z delivers - and at a good price. It's not recommended for audiophiles or editing/engineering, but it's all that a gamer could really ever want in a sound card for the ultimate audio experience. Again, at risk of sounding like a broken record, if you're using mainstream gaming headsets or speakers, there's no need to get a card like this as modern motherboard audio is more than enough to take full advantage of that sort of equipment. Dedicated sound cards like this are only going to make a difference if you have high-end headphones or speakers.
The standard "Z" model comes with a beam-forming dual microphone which is of decent quality, and there's also a "Zx" model that comes with an audio control module that has a mic array, mic and headphone I/O, and headphone control. No 7.1 support thought - the Z and Zx only support up to 5.1. For 7.1 speakers, look elsewhere such as Creative's Sound Blaster Audiy RX. Also keep in mind the standout red design of the card, which may clash with your PC's color scheme if you're one to care about aesthetics - it's also got red LED lighting that you can't disable, so keep that in mind too.
See Also: The Best Studio Headphones for Gaming
EVGA are mostly known for their graphics cards and power supplies, but they recently got involved in the sound business with their "Nu" internal sound card, which various professional reviews have confirmed to be strong competition to the tried and true gaming sound cards from ASUS and Creative.
If you're after the absolute highest quality audio for gaming and other usage, and have the high-end audiophile-level equipment to be actually able to notice the difference, the Nu is well worth considering. EVGA also recently released the Nu Audio Pro, a new and improved version of the base model that comes with 7.1 instead of 5.1.
The more well-known AE-5 from Creative is also well worth considering in this price range, and delivers similar quality and features for around the same cost as the EVGA Nu - the latter takes our top recommendation simply due to current pricing (and the Nu also has the easier software to work with).
Honorable Mention: Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 Plus
If you're willing to invest in the single best internal PCIe sound card on the market, look no further than the Essence STX II which is well-known as the premiere internal solution. It doesn't come cheap, and isn't recommended for just gaming as there's little reason to invest so heavily in sound as a gamer, but if you're not just gaming but also doing some form of professional audio playback where every little minute detail matters, this is the best you're gonna get from a PCIe card.
Just keep in mind the card requires direct power from your power supply using a 4pin Molex cable - most power supplies have Molex cables, but not every single one of them (as Molex is an older connection type that is slowly but surely being replaced by SATA these days).
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.
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.
See Also: How to Install a PCIe Sound Card
5.1 and 7.1 refer to the number of audio channels that a sound card card can support. A 5.1 sound card can support 5 audio channels (front left, front right, center, rear left, and rear right) and a subwoofer channel. A 7.1 sound card can support 7 audio channels (front left, front right, center, rear left, rear right, and two additional side channels) and a subwoofer channel. For gaming purposes, a 7.1 sound card can provide a more immersive experience by allowing for more precise localization of sounds in the game, such as enemy footsteps and gunfire.
However, many modern games support surround sound through software, and a good pair of headphones can produce the same result as a 7.1 sound card. If you're looking for the most immersive gaming experience possible and you have a suitable speaker setup, a 7.1 sound card could be a good idea. But 7.1 sound cards are not necessary if you have good quality headphones, and a 5.1 sound card is more than enough for most gamers.
See Also: The Best Gaming Speakers for the Money
The SNR (Signal to Noise Ratio) is one of the notable specs of a sound card that indicates its overall quality. The SNR is a measurement of the usable signal that your sound card can produce above the volume of background static that electrical hardware produces. In other words, the SNR is a measure of the quality of the analog-to-digital (A/D) and digital-to-analog (D/A) conversion processes, with higher SNR values indicating that the sound card is able to accurately reproduce audio signals with less background noise.
For example, an SNR of 100 dB means that the level of the desired audio signal is 100 dB higher than the level of background noise. The higher the SNR the better the sound quality will be, but keep in mind that sound cards with high SNR ratings can also be sensitive to the type and quality of the cables and speakers used in the audio setup. A poor quality cable or speaker can negatively impact the overall SNR of the system.
The SNR of most sound cards fall into the range of around 80 - 130 dB (higher is better remember), but there's no set minimum SNR to shoot for when choosing a sound card. Overall, I would simply use this spec as one way to compare different sound cards and their quality.
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.
The THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) of a sound card is a measure of how much the output signal of the card deviates from the original input signal. Typically expressed as a percentage or ratio (eg 0.01% or 1:10,000), a high THD means that there is a lot of distortion in the audio signal, while a low THD means that the output signal is very close to the original signal. The closer the THD is to 0 the better, and the best sound cards on the market will have a low THD such as 0.001%. That said, there is no exact number to shoot for when buying a sound card, and it's just one other way to compare different cards for their quality when shopping for the best sound card for gaming.
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VPNs are fast becoming must-have software these days to improve the security and privacy of a PC when online. There's lots of VPNs but NordVPN is objectively one of the best and the one I've use the most overall. VPNs can also help for online gaming as explained here.
Indie game dev currently working on my first public release after years of hobby projects, a story-driven VR FPS adventure built using Unreal Engine (to be announced once I'm ready here and here for anyone into VR FPS's). Also likes writing about tech on this site, which helps fund development of the game.
My favs of all time are OOT, Perfect Dark, MGS1, MGS2, GE007, DKC2, THPS3, HL1, and HL2, with the most recent addition to my list of immortals being the VR masterpiece Alyx. If you want help with a new build or upgrade feel free to ask on the main PC builds guide. If you found the site helpful and want to support the work I do here, you can buy me a coffee (ads on the site don't pay that much) or simply share an article with anyone you think might also benefit - much appreciated. - Julien