Over the past few months, tested a number of USB sound cards designed specifically for PC games. As well as adding additional ports and improving sound quality, these cards incorporate features that aim to maximize immersion or provide a competitive edge. While external audio cards are always priced equally, as playback headphones have evolved over time we have found that integrating them with a good USB sound card is becoming increasingly important. After all, if the sound of your computer on the board is low, you will not benefit much from your shiny new headset. In this article, we will break down the best USB sound cards that have tested so far.
Along with our top three recommendations for three prices – less than £ 100 / $100, less than £ 200 / $200 and less than £ 300 / $300 – we have included a brief glossary and FAQ at the end of the article, where ‘We explained more common names and we answered frequently asked questions by USB audio card buyers. You can use the table of contents below to quickly jump to the section you are interested in, or simply scroll down to read everything!
Best USB audio card for playback under $ 100 / $ 100: Epos Sennheiser GSX 300
Specified: 91x81x41mm, 160 grams, 2x 3.5mm
It’s beautiful: Great sound stage, integrated composition, simple controls.
And evil: Can’t drive high-impedance headphones, no speaker output, software can be cart.
Epos, a company known as the Sennheiser gaming segment, revealed something that happened in its first attempt. The GSX 300 sound card is compact and costs a little over £ 70, but it produces a large volume category and offers immersive immersive 7.1 surround sound emissions on stereo headsets. High resolution audio is supported, up to 24-bit 96kHz, while the GSX 300 can drive headphones up to 75 ohms. That meant my 50-ohm Sennheiser HD 598 SE worked well, but the 300-ohm HD 600 is not on the table.
The minimalist design means no extra port – you only have Micro USB and a 3.5mm dual installation for your headphones and microphones – but it does mean the GSX 300 is something you can easily pack in your pocket for a laptop on the go. One to two 3.5mm adapters are required if your headset uses a single TRRS jack instead of a separate TRS connection for headphones and microphones, but this is not a big problem as these adapters usually come with any headset they need (not that is expensive however).
There is a volume dial up front, which offers interactive steps, and a second button that can be set to switch between audio modes or different EQ profiles. The software works well, has simple EQ settings and complete mic controls, but sometimes it stops working and needs to be restarted. This should have been fixed in a recent software update, and it has not happened since my testing.
If you are looking for a low-cost USB card, the GSX 300 should be considered.
Best USB sound card for playing under $ 200 / $ 200: Class Sound Blaster X3
Specified: 129x129x41mm, 330 grams, 7x 3.5mm + optical
It’s beautiful: Good audio processing, both 7.1 speaker and headphone effects, great software.
And evil: The speaker / headphone switch is annoying, it takes up a lot of desk space.
The Sound Blaster X3 offers an advanced step in sound quality, with a high-quality audio processor that includes 32-bit 196kHz hi-res audio support. It can also drive more powerful headphones than the GSX 300 we previously watched, with limits of up to 600 ohms supported.
The large frame also allows for a significant increase in ports, making it much easier to use with a desktop PC than the compact GSX 300. The X3 includes a 3.5mm headphone and fiber ports on the front, and five 3.5mm ports on the back to connect the full system. 7.1 speaker and input device. Visual output of S / PDIF is also provided.
The larger size of the X3 means that the volume dialing can be set higher, making it easier to rotate with one finger, and there are three additional buttons to change the processing of sound, to change modes and to mute your microphone. Sadly, switching between the headset and the speaker outputs requires long-term careful pressing on one of these buttons, making the most widely used feature a task to be done.
The software side is well managed, with the Sound Blaster Command app which provides an easy way to adjust microphone settings, set custom EQs or try (many) installed methods, including some custom-made games and Super X-Fi, based on graphics of your ear. I tend to opt for a neutral set without competing game considerations, but these methods are worth checking out.
The latest discounts have made the Sound Blaster X3 a great option if you can use some of its features in addition to the GSX 300.
For more details, check out our full review of Sound Blaster X3.
Best USB sound card for playing under $ 300 / $ 300: Class Sound Blaster AE-9
Specified: 150x128x65mm, 480g, 2x optical + 4x 3.5mm + 4x RCA + 1x 6.35mm
It’s beautiful: Incomparable audio quality, works as audio interface, good controls.
And evil: requires PCIe installation and 6-pin power, no DTS: X or DolbyAtmos support.
The most expensive external sound card we currently recommend is Sound Blaster AE-9. This model actually plays internal and external objects, but it still works very much the same – it replaces your computer’s integrated audio with one of the additional games, electrically separated ports, better sound processing and more features.
This hybrid method means that you will need a free PCIe slot and a 6-pin power insert to install the AE-9, which can take a small PC to build on performance. This also means that the AE-9 does not fully implement the use of the laptop, and moving it from desktop to desktop is something to do.
What you lose at management though, is regression. That includes the flagship-grade DAC, the ESS Saber 9038, capable of playing 32-bit 384-kHz hi-res audio play and sports both fine gold capacitors and flexible op-amps allow you to change your audio signature to hardware there is software. The sound quality that comes out of this item is incomparable in PC space, bright and detailed, and I am a big fan … or the right audiophiles can undoubtedly point to cheap amps that do much better.
Another advantage of hybrid design is that it has two inserts in it, so you have a crazy amount of inputs and outputs. As well as fakwa inch and ⅛ inch headphones and mic ports, you also get XLR input with 48V phantom power. That means you don’t need a separate audio interface; ideal if you use one of our XLR streaming recommendations. There are also four outlet line and optical in / out. For processing, with the built-in Acoustic Engine, you can choose Dolby Digital Live and DTS Connect Encoding – unfortunately, there is no Dolby Atmos or DTS: X support. The Sound Blaster Command app is available, as in the X3, which provides easy tuning and tweaking.
The AE-9 is an audio card that has made me believe in sound cards and at the level of the mind, and if that’s not enough of the recommendation I don’t know what.
For more details, check out our full review of Sound Blaster AE-9.
Sample frequency: also known as sample rate, this is the number of samples taken per second. The higher the sample rate, the more details are stored from the original recording.
Slight depth: number of bits of information used to record each sample in a non-lost recording. The CD audio is 16-bit, and the highest audio is 24-bit. High bitrates allow for signal-to-audio enhancement and dynamic range.
Impedance: a number, usually between 8 and 600 ohms, which effectively measures how much power is needed to bring a comfortable listening volume. Low impedance headphones (50 ohms or less) are usually designed for mobile and portable use, while high impedance headphones are designed for home / studio use.
DAC: a device that translates digital audio (eg from your computer) into an analogue signal (eg your headphone can be reproduced); literally Digital to Analogue Converter.
Headphones amp: a device that raises the signal at low volume (eg from a device such as a computer or phone) to be strong enough to drive headphones.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a USB audio card?
USB audio card adds audio plug-ins and ports to your computer via USB, while taking audio processing functions to your computer’s integrated audio card.
Do I need a USB audio card?
No, you do not need USB audio card – but they can offer improved audio quality, add new features and be better separated from electrical interference than built-in sound cards for desktop PCs or motherboards for desktop PCs. If you have a good headset and you care about these things, then it is a worthwhile improvement.
When does a USB card make sense?
USB sound cards make sense when your integrated audio is free of snuff, whether that’s its hole choice, its features or the overall sound quality. Cheap laptops and desktop motherboards often deal with negative noise, so USB sound cards can provide significant improvements. Of course, you’ll need a good headset to take full advantage of the great sound card!
What specs should I care about?
There are a few numbers on the spec sheet that you may need to pay attention to: low supported depth and sample volume (important for high-res audio) and recommended impedance (important for high volume headphones).
If you always listen to hi-res audio, make sure your preferred sound card supports the highest frequency you can use – so 16-bit CDs are 44.1kHz, but Tidal’s hi-res audio streaming is available at 24 -bit 96kHz. That means you will need a USB audio card and capable of 24-bit 96kHz audio if you are a Tidal subscriber.
If you have a high impedance set of headphones, which are usually very expensive and designed for studio use, you will need a USB sound card that can actually drive itself. For example, the Sennheiser HD 598 at the consumer range has a nominal impedance of 50 ohms, while the high-end Sennheiser HD 600 has a design impedance of 300 ohms, requiring a very powerful amplifier to drive at the appropriate doses.