Last updated: August 19, 2021

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Welcome to our big sound card test 2021. Here we present all the sound cards we have tested in detail. We have compiled detailed background information and added a summary of customer reviews on the internet.

We would like to make your purchase decision easier and help you find the best sound card for you.

You will also find answers to frequently asked questions in our guide. If available, we also offer interesting test videos. Furthermore, you will also find some important information on this page that you should definitely pay attention to if you want to buy a sound card.




Summary

  • Sound cards make it possible to process sound so that it arrives at the PC as faithfully as possible or is output via the output devices. This is how you get the best out of your headset and music system.
  • Basically, a distinction can be made between consumer cards for everyday users and professional sound cards. A further differentiation is made between internal and external sound cards.
  • The choice of the right sound card is significantly influenced by the area of application. If the sound card is to be used for gaming, it should have certain specifications that are not needed for listening to music, for example.

The Best Sound card: Our Picks

Guide: Questions you should ask yourself before buying a sound card

Do I need a sound card at all? For whom is it worth buying a sound card?

You've probably already asked yourself what your personal advantage is when you use a dedicated sound card instead of the integrated onboard sound.

So let's start with the question: For whom is it worth buying a sound card in the first place?

Gaming

Do you regularly play games on your computer? Then you have probably already noticed that the sound can greatly diminish the gaming experience.

The reasons for this are, on the one hand, the poor sound quality, which makes the game seem less than realistic, and, on the other hand, the unilateral sound, which, for example, makes it impossible to locate the opponent in a first-person shooter.

Did you know that the focus of audio applications shifted to gaming?

In the past, the cards were used for quite normal applications. Now, however, the focus is mainly on gaming. Sound quality is very important, especially in multiplayer games. Accurate sound recognition can make or break a game.

You can remedy this with a sound card. The more realistic sound makes you feel like you're in the game, and the surround sound keeps you one step ahead of your opponents.

Home cinema

Do you like to watch a film in your living room and want surround sound like in the cinema? Then, in addition to a suitable music system, the sound card is also responsible for this.

Look for the S/PDIF interface. This is responsible for the best possible transmission of a surround sound signal to the music system.

Music

Do you want to mix music or edit videos professionally with your computer? If you want to achieve excellent sound quality, you will need a professional sound card.

DSP chips and ASIO drivers take the strain off your PC even when using work-intensive music programmes. Professional cards can also record several channels simultaneously. High-quality A/D and D/A converters ensure flawless quality.

For whom is it not worth buying a sound card?

Do you use your laptop more for work and only want to listen to a bit of music, watch a video or pop in a CD in between?

In that case, the built-in onboard sound chip should be completely sufficient for you. You also have the option of connecting a headset or external speakers. So you don't have to do without anything.

soundkarte

It's worth buying a sound card, especially for a cosy evening at the cinema with surround sound. If you like to listen to music often and loudly on your computer or stereo system, it's also a good idea to use a sound card. (Photo: andremergulhaum / pixabay.com)

What is the function of a sound card?

The audio card is a peripheral device between the computer and a playback device (for example, sound systems) with the task of processing analogue and digital signals.

During recording, editing and mixing, an A/D converter is responsible for converting analogue signals into digital ones. Conversely, during playback, the D/A converter is responsible for converting digital signals into analogue ones.

The sound card ensures that sound content can be played back on loudspeakers and that acoustic signals from outside can be detected on the computer. It is therefore largely responsible for the playback quality.

How is a sound card constructed?

Audio cards can differ greatly in design, but the basic structure is always the same.

An interface connects the sound card to the computer. The connection can be either internal via PCIor PCIe plug-in card or external via USB outboard, PCMCIA interface or Firewire outboard.

Different connections are available for the audio inputs and outputs. The basic equipment includes: a microphone input (mic-in) for microphones, a line-in as input for recordings, and a line-out as headphone or loudspeaker output.

A speaker output makes it possible to connect a headset, and instruments can be connected and sounds transmitted via a Musical Instrument Digital Interface(MIDI).

What are the differences between sound cards?

There are various features in which sound cards can differ. On the one hand, these are related to the connection options, but on the other hand, they are also related to the built-in hardware that ensures the corresponding quality.

Certain differences have already been addressed in the individual texts. To give you an overview, however, we would like to list the possible differences again here:

Connection options

  • PCI / PCIe plug-in card
  • USB outboard
  • Firewire outboard
  • chipset integrated on the motherboard (already present when buying the computer)

Basic characteristics

Sampling Rate / Sampling Rate

Specifies the interval at which the audio signal is sampled during conversion. You can also compare the sampling rate with the frame rate per second in a film camera.

A rate of 44.1 kHZ corresponds to CD quality. For professional use, sampling rates of 96 kHZ and more should be used.

Resolution / Sampling Depth

Indicates how finely graduated an originally analogue quantity can be represented digitally. The sampling depth could be compared to the number of pixels for a picture.

The higher the resolution, the more clearly even small differences in volume are output. CDs run at 16 bits, and the human ear no longer recognises any differences from this point on. For professional editing, however, a 24-bit resolution makes sense.

Channel count

Specifies the number of different audio channels that the sound card can output. If you want stereo sound, you can get by with two channels, but for surround sound you need at least six channels.

Connections

Depending on the model, a sound card has different connections. Depending on what you want to do with the sound card, you should pay attention to which other connections are available.

Sound cards differ essentially in the main connection to the computer and in the basic properties of sampling rate, resolution, number of channels and connections.

Decision: What types of sound cards are there and which is the right one for you?

Basically, you can distinguish between 2 different types of sound cards:

  • Consumer cards
  • professional cards

These two types essentially differ in quality and application possibilities.

Which sound card is the right one for you depends on what you want to use it for and what kind of hardware you are working with.

Tim ZiemerPC-Experte
It always depends on what the sound card is used for. They offer different functions depending on the use. There are those that are used specifically for audio production. Then there are those that are produced for gaming and focus on headset audio. Finally, there is home cinema use. This sound card is then particularly well suited for films, but also for music.

(Source: praxistipps.chip.de)

In the following section, we would like to help you find out which sound card best meets your needs and what the advantages and disadvantages are.

For whom is a consumer sound card suitable and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

Consumer sound cards are designed primarily for the home user who is looking for good sound to listen to music, play videos and watch movies. The main functions of these sound cards are recording and playing back sound.

Most computers today already have a sound chip built into the motherboard. However, if you have higher demands on the sound, you can get much more out of your computer with a dedicated consumer sound card.

At the latest when you play an action game with your new card or turn up the music, you will notice the difference in the sound.

You should have no problems with the installation, which runs automatically as soon as you have connected the card.

Since products can be purchased for as little as 5 euros, you can buy an audio card relatively inexpensively. However, you should think carefully about what you want to use it for and whether it meets your requirements, so that you don't have to worry about making a mistake afterwards.

Advantages
  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to install
  • Better quality than onboard sound chip
Disadvantages
  • Not for professional use

Before buying a sound card, you should be aware that although it will give you a better sound, it is not suitable for professional use, such as mixing music.

When is a professional sound card suitable and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

If you want to use your computer to make and edit music or to add sound to videos, then you should go for a professional sound card. Professional sound cards are designed to meet high demands through better equipment.

With better A/D converters, the cards can even work with 24-bit resolution instead of 16-bit, which results in better audio quality for subsequent editing and improved noise reduction. Professional audio cards are also capable of a higher sampling rate.

Often the cards are housed in an external box (also called a "break-out box"). This has the advantage that there are several connections to which you can easily connect other devices.

With a higher number of channels, you can play back and record several channels at the same time. For the musicians among us, it is important that professional cards use the ASIO standard, which is particularly important when using professional music programmes.

Advantages
  • Better A/D converters
  • Can play and record several channels simultaneously
  • Integrated DSP chip relieves processor
  • Several connection options
  • Higher number of channels
Disadvantages
  • Very price-intensive

Professional audio cards are in the higher price segment because of their features and high-end quality. For this reason, it is only worth buying one if you actually intend to process sound professionally.

Purchase criteria: You can compare and evaluate sound cards based on these factors

As you've probably already noticed, there are a lot of criteria that can be used to differentiate between different sound cards. To help you find the right card, we have listed the most important criteria:

  • Type
  • Interface
  • Sampling rate
  • Signal-to-noise ratio
  • Connectors
  • Manufacturer

In the following section, we will explain the individual criteria and show what is actually desirable in terms of these criteria.

Type: internal vs. external sound cards

A basic, and probably the most striking, distinguishing feature between sound cards is the type of construction.

Internal cards must be built into the computer. They are the original type and the actual term "sound card" comes from them, as they actually have a card shape.

External audio cards, on the other hand, are not built into the computer but are located outside in the visible area.

From the type of construction you can already deduce some specifications, such as the connection. PCI/PCIe connections are located inside the computer and internal sound cards can be connected to them via this interface.

USB or Firewire, however, are external interfaces, so they are used with external cards.

The internal sound card also has the problem that the surface area for connections is relatively small, which means that not as many as desired can be used. External sound cards often have more connection options because the larger surface offers more space.

You should also think about whether an external or internal audio card is more suitable.

Are you working with a laptop and may not have room for an internal sound card? Or do you want to use the card on different devices? Then you should consider using an external sound card.

Interface

The interface is the medium through which the sound card is connected to the computer.

The different connection options depend, among other things, on the type of sound card. For example, internal sound cards offer fundamentally different interfaces than external ones. Internal cards are often equipped with a PCIe interface (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express).

Older sound cards are usually still connected via PCI, which was largely replaced by PCIe at the beginning of 2000. The reason for this is the significantly higher transfer rates.

With external sound cards you will often find a USB interface, as you know it from normal USB sticks. You simply need a free USB port on your laptop or computer and you're ready to go.

Alternatively, there are also a few sound cards with ExpressCard or, in the professional sector, Firewire interfaces.

Now you are probably wondering which interface is the best. Here's the answer in advance: basically it doesn't matter, because the speed differences are no longer noticeable in these areas.

Especially if you are in the consumer sector, the difference hardly matters. Nevertheless, there are inter- and intra-individual differences in terms of transmission rates.

The transfer rate of a PCIe depends on the version (1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0) and on the lanes/width (x1, x2, x4, x8, x16, x32). The higher the version and the more lanes, the higher the bandwidth and transmission speed.

This results in the following table:

Version Lanes PCIe 1.0 PCIe 2.0 PCIe 3.0 PCIE 4.0
x1 250 MB/s 500 MB/s 985 MB/s 1969 MB/s
x2 500 MB/s 1000 MB/s 1969 MB/s 3938 MB/s
x4 1000 MB/s 2000 MB/s 3938 MB/s 7877 MB/s
x8 2000 MB/s 4000 MB/s 7877 MB/s 15754 MB/s
x16 4000 MB/s 8000 MB/s 15754 MB/s 31508 MB/s
x32 8000 MB/s 16000 MB/s 31508 MB/s 63015 MB/s

The maximum data transfer rate with USB is influenced by the USB generation of the sound card used, but also by the generation of the USB hub on the computer. For example, a sound card with a high-speed USB port cannot use its full potential if it is connected via a generation 1.0 port.

Basically, the following data transfer rates result:

Name Low Speed Full Speed Hi-Speed SuperSpeed SuperSpeed+
possible from UBS 1.0 USB 1.0 USB 2.0 USB 3.0 USB 3.1
max. useful data rate 1 MB/s 40 MB/s 30 MB/s 900 Mb/s

The Firewire interface has spawned two different standards, each producing different transfer rates:

  • IEEE 1394a: 100, 200 and 400 MBit/s.
  • IEEE 1394b: 800, 1600 and 3200 MBit/s

Caution: all values are theoretical maximum transfer rates, which are of course influenced by other factors.

Sampling rate

The sampling rate indicates the interval at which the audio signal is sampled during conversion.

To make it easier to understand, you can think of the sampling rate as being similar to the frame rate per second on a film camera. A rate of 44.1 kHz corresponds to CD quality. For professional use, however, sampling rates of 96 kHz and higher should be used.

Signal-to-noise ratio

The (signal) to noise ratio refers to the ratio of the quality of a useful signal and the noise signal of a device.

The value is used to assess the quality of a communication path. Only if the useful signal is clearly distinguishable from the background noise can the information be reliably extracted from the signal. This means that the signal-to-noise ratio should be as high as possible.

The unit of measurement is decibels. When looking for a sound card, you should orient yourself to values at least above 90 dB. Good devices also achieve values of up to over 105 dB.

Connections: Audio inputs & audio outputs

Every sound card has different inputs and outputs. Which ones you need depends on what you want to use the sound card for and what you want to connect to it.

The audio inputs have the function of transferring recordings or sound from external sources to the device. The audio outputs can be used to play sounds from the computer on output devices.

Among the inputs, a mic-in for connecting microphones and a line-in for external playback devices are widely used. Somewhat outdated, but still attractive for musicians, is a MIDI port that makes it possible to connect external musical instruments.

Every sound card should also have (at least) one line-out, which makes playback via loudspeakers possible. Depending on the application, there should be more line-out connections. This is the case, for example, when using a surround system.

A speaker connection makes it possible to connect a headset. In most cases, a headphone amplifier is already integrated. This has the function of amplifying the outgoing signal so that one or more headphones can be operated with it.

As an alternative to line-in and line-out, cinch sockets are often used as analogue audio inputs and outputs. One or the other should be available on the sound card in any case.

HDMI and SPDIF connections can transmit signals in digital form. They are mainly used to transmit stereo and multi-channel audio signals between different devices, for example for the home cinema system.

As you can see, there are a lot of different connections that you can find on a sound card. It is therefore best to know in advance what you want to connect the sound card to so that the required connections are available.

Manufacturer

There are various manufacturers on the market for sound cards, and you can often find their products. Increasingly, however, low-priced sound cards from other manufacturers that do not have big names are appearing on the market.

Which names can you rely on for quality, and when should you take a closer look?

Sound card manufacturers that keep their promises in terms of sound quality and performance and currently offer the top models in the consumer sector are mainly Asus and Creative in both the gaming and music sectors.

The Behringer brand offers very good audio interfaces, and Logilink can hold its own with some products (such as the 7.1 Dolby USB Sound Box), especially in the price-performance ratio.

But what about sound cards whose manufacturer cannot be relied on for quality solely on the basis of the name?

Well, there is probably no universal answer to this question. It is true that there are some inexpensive sound cards from unknown manufacturers on the internet that perform relatively well. One example is the "CSL - External USB 7.1 Sound Card", which offers surround sound and many connection options for little money.

However, you should always be careful when choosing and inform yourself thoroughly. It is important to pay attention to the specifications and, if necessary, compare them with other sound cards or the purchase criteria on this page.

Facts worth knowing about sound cards

What are the different inputs/outputs for?

Even though sound cards offer different connection options, the functions are always marked by the same colours. The following table provides an overview:

colour function
pink input for microphone (mono)
green line-out / output for headphone or (front) speakers (stereo)
blue line-in / input for AUX/external sources (stereo).
grey output for side speakers [engl. side speakers] (stereo)
orange output for centre and low bass speakers [engl. center speaker, subwoofer]
black output for rear speakers [engl. rear speakers] (stereo)

While consumer sound cards use jack sockets for transmitting stereo sound, you will often find cinch sockets on professional sound cards that only transmit a mono signal.

The following colour distribution applies here:

colour function
black analogue output (mono)
red analogue input (mono)

How to connect a sound card

How to connect a sound card depends on the type of connector used to connect it to the computer.

External sound cards are the easiest to connect. They have their own housing and are located outside the computer. They are simply connected to the device via USB or Firewire and the drivers install themselves.

Do I have a sound card?

How do you even know if you already have a sound card? It's quite simple: If you can output music via internal or external speakers, then you also have a sound card.

Alternatively, you can also look for the port into which you plug headphones or a microphone. These are the audio outputs of the sound card.

What kind of sound card do I have?

Want to find out more about your sound card? It's easy!

Simply press the Windows key at the same time as R and enter "devmgmt.msc" in the window that opens. You are now in the device manager.

Here you can find the installed sound card under the tab "Audio, video and game controllers". In the tab "Audio inputs and outputs" you can even see exactly which connections are installed on your computer.

In the properties, which you can access by right-clicking, you can find more information under the Details tab, such as the brand or the current drivers.

Where can I find drivers for my sound card?

Device drivers have the function of controlling the interaction with connected, built-in or virtual devices.

Usually, the drivers for a connected sound card are installed at the same time. However, there can be problems with the drivers, either during installation or later. Don't worry! We will now show you how to proceed in this case.

You can find information about the drivers in the device manager in the properties of your sound card (see above). Here you will find information about the current driver in the second tab "Driver". Here you can first check which drivers are currently installed.

At this point you can make it easy for yourself. If you click on the button "Update driver", Windows will search for the latest drivers for you and install them on your device. Congratulations, you now have the latest drivers!

How long have sound cards been around?

The first sound cards were developed in 1983, at that time for the Apple II.

However, as they were only supported by a few games, they were not able to establish themselves at first. It was not until AdLib and Soundblaster began producing sound cards in 1989 that a standard beyond the system loudspeaker developed.

Did you know that sound cards were only really used from 1988 onwards?

In the past, only the built-in PC speaker was used. The audio quality was not very good and the sounds were called "beeps and boops". The first sound cards were then produced for audio applications. Sierra On-Line developed the first sound cards for this purpose.

Since then, audio cards have been constantly developed further and alternative possibilities have been developed, such as external audio interfaces or the microchips that have been used since around 2000, which are installed on the motherboard and take over the task of a conventional sound card.

Image source: pixabay.com / maxmann

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