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The Best Sound Cards to Buy in 2019 For a Great PC Audio Experience

By Vaidyanathan Subramaniam / July 1, 2019

Sound cards were once popular among PC buyers as they were the only means of getting proper audio output. Slowly, motherboard OEMs started integrating capable sound solutions onboard and the best motherboards today offer a great built-in audio experience that should suffice for a majority of PC users. However, onboard audio suffers from electrostatic interference from other PC components and are not really built for recording hi-fi audio. So if you are an audiophile who can make out small differences in sound signatures or need to hook up professional recording equipment to your PC, then investing in a good sound card is essential.

Creative is a household name when it comes to sound cards and as such, most of the models in this list are from Creative. You can get both internal and external sound cards depending on the need. Asus also has capable sound solutions that can rival Creative's offerings on some parameters. Most of these sound cards also offer the ability to swap out op-amps so that pro users can fine-tune the audio exactly according to their listening preferences.

With that information, we list the 9 best sound cards of 2019 for a vastly improved audio experience.

1. Creative Sound Blaster Z

The Creative Sound Blaster Z is primarily intended for gamers, but music enthusiasts will also stand to gain a lot from it. The Sound Blaster Z uses the Sound Core3D audio processor, which works great for mid-range use. There are no daughter cards bundled with the Sound Blaster Z unlike some of the more expensive Creative offerings. The Sound Blaster Z offers dedicated op-amps and a 24-bit/192 kHz Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC. The onboard headphone-amp can drive impedance as high as 600 ohms, which is what most studio-grade monitors are rated at. The Sound Core3D chip does the ADC work as well so your CPU is relatively freed up of all the additional sound processing. The front panel output of the card can support a signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) up to 116 dB and a sample rate up to 192 kHz. Creative offers the SBX Pro Studio software that helps control and tweak various aspects of the output. Whether that works for you or not is entirely subjective and based on individual audio preferences. A neat feature of the software is the Scout Mode that gives you indications of where your enemies are located on the map in a gaming session. This could amount to cheating in games but the location itself isn't really that accurate.

The Creative Sound Blaster Z offers great audio output for movies and games. It is not really an audiophile grade card but is definitely better than the standard built-in offerings on most motherboards. Bass effects are good with clear mids and highs. Creative's software support is not really the best in the business so the included SBX Pro Studio might not be up to everyone's taste. That being said, the Creative Sound Blaster Z is one the best sound cards for gaming you can get under $100.

2. Creative Sound Blaster Audigy RX 7.1

The Creative Sound Blaster Audigy RX 7.1 is one of the few capable true 7.1-channel sound cards in the market. It is still priced comparatively higher than competing cards such as the Asus Xonar DGX but offers newer and better performing hardware. The Audigy RX 7.1 is cheaper than the Creative Z series but offers most features of the latter. Creative also bundles a lot of features in the software, most of which might not be really preferred by audio enthusiasts. However, the driver features are above what most of the competition provides. The Audigy 7.1 offers excellent performance music and movies with deep bass and a capable headphone amp that should offer no problems in driving a 600-ohm impedance headphone. However, the overall volume can be still lesser than a dedicated amp.

There aren't too many 7.1-channel PCIe sound cards available so if building a good home theatre is your prerogative, the Audigy RX 7.1 is an easy recommend. The card also works great with gaming headsets. While the price might seem to be a bit on the higher side, the sheer number of software features and the fact that you are practically getting the same performance found in more expensive Sound Blaster cards means that you will be getting a very good aural experience if paired with proper speakers. But if you need more flexibility, you might need to look at some of the external sound cards in this list.

3. Asus Essence STX II

The Asus Essence STX II is a true audiophile-grade card and as such commands a steep price. It offers a cool 124 dB SNR, an ultra-low jitter clock, and uses MUSES op-amps. The op-amps can be swapped-out for third-party ones and Asus provides an op-amp kit that includes a tool to remove the op-amps along with three op-amp ICs as well. The card can drive 600-ohm headphones and offers additional gain for in-ear monitors. Asus offers Dolby sound processing for playback and encoding any type of content from stereo to 7.1 audio. The card comes with a daughter board that offers even more expandability for audio outputs. Asus has used Nichicon Gold capacitors for the highest quality audio possible and given all that powerful hardware, you need to supply external power via a Molex connector. The card features full sized 6.3 mm connectors so you need not use 3.5 mm to 6.3 mm converters while plugging in high-end headphones.

The software is easy to set up and use but the UI feels slightly dated. That said, the functionality is top notch and you can customize it to get the maximum out of the card. Audiophiles will be happy that the Essence STX II uses the Burr Brown DAC and can easily drive high-impedance headphones with clear bass even at high gain. The high dynamic range means you can easily playback 24-bit audio files with full fidelity. The Asus Essence STX II 7.1 is easily one of the best sound cards for music production and it will take a really high-end speaker system to expose its weaknesses if any.

4. Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5

So far, sound cards were spared from all the RGB madness but the Creative Sound BlasterX AE-5 breaks the ice by featuring RGB accents. The AE-5 is not cheap but features class-leading features that make it stand apart from the other sound cards in this list. The AE-5 features the Xamp headphone amplifier that amplifies individual headphone channels for even more fidelity. While the AE-5 uses the same Sound Core3D processor found in Recon3D and the Z-series cards, the one here is programmed differently to include virtual 7.1-channel support and up to 88.2 kHz playback in Direct Mode. Another feature of the BlasterX AE-5 is that it features the ESS Sabre ES9016K2M DAC that offers sampling rates up to 384 kHz bypassing the Sound Core3D DSP and is generally found in high-end audio equipment. You also get a high SNR of 122 dB. The Sound BlasterX AE-5 supports 5.1-channel out and also offers a header to connect your computer case's front audio.

Creative equips the AE-5 with an Aurora Reactive Lighting System that includes RGB lights on the card as well as can drive an RGB light strip. All of the sound card's functions can be controlled via the bundled Sound Blaster Connect software that offers a lot of presets and adjustments. The software is not that well optimized, though and Creative needs to do a lot of bug fixing. For those looking at an excellent sound card for powering high-amp headphones, the AE-5 is a very good choice. It is also one of the best sound cards for audio production as long as you can pair with quality speakers or headphones.

5. Asus Xonar DSX 7.1

If you are on the lookout for a cheap sound card that offers excellent audio for home theatre setups and headphones, the Asus Xonar DSX 7.1 should be high on your list. The card is a bit old now but that it still offers a lot of performance compared to many cheap audio solutions. The Xonar DSX is a half-height card so it will fit in easily in compact cases and is perfect for home theatre PCs. There is no dedicated headphone amp but the onboard amp does a fairly good job. You also get a swappable op-amp but that applies only to the front channel. By default, the Xonar uses a neutral op-amp but users can swap it out to suit their sound profile. There's no TOSLINK onboard but Asus supplies an S/PDIF to TOSLINK adapter. The Xonar DSX audio center offers DTS encoding support that features Neo: PC to upmix stereo to 5.1 channel sound. You can also map the orientation of the speakers in the room in the software to get more realistic output.

The output of the DSX offers punchy bass and is geared towards movie buffs using a dedicated home theatre setup. The soundstage is neutral so you can program the sound as you like. The ability to swap-out the op-amp will be welcomed by stereo aficionados. While you can still get more capable sound cards and a lot of motherboard audio chips almost match the Xonar DSX, this card still offers a lot of bang for the buck for those looking at a decent dedicated audio solution.

6. Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX

If you are looking for a basic sound card on a budget, the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX can merit consideration. The Audigy FX won't be turning heads with its features. It is a half-height PCIe card that sports connectors for the front, rear, and subwoofer channels along with dedicated inputs for mic and line-in. Those looking at a basic 5.1 setup will find that the Audigy FX can suit their needs well. The best part is that it comes with a dedicated headphone amp that can easily power high-impedance headphones. The card also offers a high SNR of 106 dB and support for 24-bit 192 kHz decoding. However, there is no EMI shielding on this card so some amount of static interference is to be expected. Creative bundles the SBX Pro Studio audio enhancement software to fine tune the output. Overall, if you are looking for a cheap sound card, the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX should fit the bill.

7. Creative Sound Blaster Omni

Not everyone will need or prefer a PCIe sound card. Laptop and Mac owners cannot use PCIe expansion slots so they have to rely on USB-based sound cards for getting better audio output. The Creative Sound Blaster Omni is an external USB-powered sound card that greatly enhances the sound capabilities of your PC or Mac. The Sound Blaster Omni offers a lot of features found in the regular PCIe offerings including features such as Dolby Digital decoding and Scout Mode for gaming even though it does not feature the same DSP as the Z series. However, you still get 5.1 channel out, mic-input, and dedicated volume control in addition to built-in dual microphones. Installation of the Omni is pretty straightforward — just plug-in to the USB port and install the drivers. Driving 600-ohm headphones should not be a problem with the Omni but you'll do best with 300-ohm ones. While the Omni does not support CrystalVoice echo cancellation, the built-in dual mics help focus more on the user's voice and minimize other background noise.

Driving very high-powered headphones might be a bit problematic with the Omni as you might not be able to listen at high volume. It offers deep bass and clear treble so both movies and music should sound great. While the performance is comparable to the more expensive Z series offerings, the target customer for the Omni would be one who wants the flexibility to use both the laptop's DAC as well as the Omni as needed. Also, PCs, where there is no free PCIe slot, will also benefit from the Sound Blaster Omni.

8. Creative Sound BlasterX G6

Generally, sound cards and dedicated DACs have been the realm of PC users with console gamers having to rely on whatever hardware the console offers. With the Creative Sound BlasterX G6, even console gamers can now experience high-fidelity audio. The G6 supports almost all consoles including the Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch along with regular PCs and Macs. The G6 offers a 130 dB SNR and 32-bit 384 kHz audio output along with support for Dolby Digital 5.1 decoding and virtual 7.1 surrounds. The G6 is very compact and draws power from the microUSB port. The Sound BlasterX G6 is great if you are looking at a good headphone amp for gaming. It can amplify both the left and right channels discretely, which helps in separating the signals going to each ear. Setting up the G6 on a console is very straightforward — you just need to connect the optical and USB cables to the console and connect your headphones or speakers to the G6. If you use a PC, you get to install the Sound Blaster Connect app that offers even more control and fine-tuning.

Performance in games is generally good. You can use the Scout mode to have a heightened sense of awareness about enemy movements within the game. The virtual 7.1 mode is effective as well. It does not substitute for a physical home theatre system but it works well for gaming. While the Sound BlasterX is one of the best sound cards for consoles, connecting it other peripherals such as a television will require providing for USB power from the wall. The price could seem a bit higher for budget gamers, though.

9. Creative Sound Blaster ZxR

If you are looking for the absolute best in sound card technology, then look no further than the Creative Sound Blaster ZxR. The ZxR is tailored for professionals who desire studio-quality recording and playback, and as such is priced accordingly. The ZxR bundle is comprised of the ZxR base card that is based on the Sound Core3D audio processor, various I/O headers, and an EMI shield. Additionally, you also get the DBPro daughter card and an Audio Control Module. The DBPro daughter card is designed exclusively for recording and monitoring. It connects to the ZxR base card via a ribbon cable and does not really need a PCIe slot. The Audio Control Module comes with its own dedicated inputs and outputs along with built-in microphones and volume control. The ZxR uses premium components for the ICs that are usually the staple of professional recording gear. You also get removable op-amps and dedicated headphone amplifier for pushing those 600-ohm Beyerdynamic studio headphones.

One of the advantages of the ZxR is that it uses pro components for all channels instead of just the front ones. The software offers a lot of customization and presets but can use some fine-tuning. This card is great for music lovers but those looking for excellent surround sound will also get their money's worth.

We hope that this article has addressed your needs for buying the best sound card for your audio needs. Remember that a sound card is only as good as the speakers or headphones it drives so might also want to invest in a good pair of cans for the ultimate audio experience. Let us know if you have any questions and we’ll get back to you at the earliest.

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