Sound cards can be a great purchase for sound enthusiasts and hardcore gamers. They help eliminate interference and similar problems that degrade sound quality. They can also help create a more realistic 3D audio environment. The potential sound output is also much greater, with a wider and richer frequency range. Sound cards such as the ASUS Xonar Essence STX, ASUS Xonar Essence ST and Creative Sound Baslter X-Fi will truly deliver when it comes to overall sound quality. If you are wondering how to get the best possible sound out of your computer, or if you want to know what the advantages of sound cards over onboard sound are, check out our learning center articles on sound cards. In this review site, you'll find side-by-side comparisons and detailed reviews of the best PCI and PCIe audio cards.
There isn't a whole lot to sound cards as far as key aspects. There are a few things in the mix, though, that do make a difference. For the sake of comparison, so that you can find the sound card that works for you and fits your budget, we've broken down our analysis into the following five categories.
One of the most important things to look for is the overall performance of the card. The most common measurements of performance are typically SNR (signal-to-noise ratio), frequency response and THD (total harmonic distortion). These three things are used to measure the quality of audio. Although they are not perfectly accurate, they do give you an idea of the potential performance of any audio device.
Sample Rate and Resolution
Sample rates refer to the speed at which the card can reduce a continuous signal to a discrete signal. The latest trend is 192 kHz, which some people might think is overkill. The reason for that is because the human ear can only hear a range from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. However, the higher sampling rates do help with ADCs (analog-to-digital conversions) and DACs (digital-to-analog conversions). Resolution is important because the larger bit depths decrease total harmonic distortion (background noise) and increase dynamic range, which gives you a better signal-to-noise ratio.
Some input and output ports aren't as capable as others. The ports with the highest quality sound will typically be S/PDIF. Both coaxial and optical can produce some of the highest signal-to-noise ratios and resolutions while keeping distortion low. They also allow you to hook your computer to your home theater system. The 3.5mm audio port is what most non-audiophiles use on their computers.
This section looks at whether the card connects through PCI or PCIe and also considers the processor used to power the sound card. The rest is more software attributes that are included to enhance and simplify your audio adjusting. These additions help you achieve the best performance from your sound card and make it possible to connect your sound card to A/V receivers and audio player software on your computer.
API Compliant Standards
APIs, or application programming interfaces, allow the card to interact with other software, working alongside the intermediary programs under the Features category. Some, including EAX and OpenAL, unlock greater 3D sound for gaming, giving you an edge over your opponents. The more API support, the more compatible the card is with various programs, software and hardware.
All of these things together make up the most vital aspects of sound cards. No one card has everything, but the differences make it possible for you to find the card that works best for your needs. If you're a sound enthusiast and want to enhance your computer's sound capabilities, then you're on the right track.
TopTenREVIEWS no longer updates this category and keeps it here for archiving purposes only. It was last updated in August 2014.
|ASUS Xonar Essence STX||ASUS Xonar Essence ST||Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi||Auzentech Auzen X-Fi Forte||Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD||Auzen X-Fi Home Theater HD||HT Omega Striker 7.1||M-Audio Delta Audiophile 192|
|Output SNR||124 dB||124 dB||109 dB||112 dB||117 dB||109 dB||100 dB||113 dB|
|Input SNR||118 dB||118 dB||98 dB||115 dB||100 dB||113 dB|
|Output THD (%)||0.0003||0.0003||0.0004||0.0006||0.001||0.001||0.002||0.002|
|Input THD (%)||0.0002||0.0002||0.006||0.003||0.002||0.0006|
|Frequency Response||10Hz to 90kHz @ 192kHz||10Hz to 90kHz @ 192KHz||10Hz to 46kHz @ 96kHz||10Hz to 42kHz @ 96kHz||10Hz to 46kHz @ 96kHz||40Hz to 15kHz||40Hz to 15kHz||20Hz to 20kHz @ 48kHz|
|Output Full-Scale Voltage||2 Vrms||2 Vrms||3 Vrms||2 Vrms||3 Vrms||2 Vrms||4 Vrms|
|Sample Rate and Resolution|
|ASIO 2.0 Driver Support:||24-bit/192kHz||24-bit/192KHz||24-bit/96kHz||24-bit/96kHz||N/A||24-bit/192kHz|
|Multi Channel Playback||24-bit/96kHz||24-bit/96kHz||24-bit/96kHz||24-bit/96kHz||24-bit/96kHz|
|6.3 mm Input||1||1||2|
|Front Audio||1||1||2x 5-pin||10-pin||10-pin||10-pin|
|S/PDIF Output Optical||Adaptor||Adaptor||1||1||1|
|S/PDIF Combo Output||1||1||1||1||1||1|
|RCA Output||1 L/R||1 L/R||1 L/R|
|S/PDIF Input Optical||1||1||1||1|
|S/PDIF Combo Input||1||1|
|3.5mm Input (MIC)||1||2||1||1||2|
|Interface Type||PCI Express||PCI||PCI Express||PCI Express||PCI Express||PCI Express||PCI||PCI|
|Processor||ASUS AV100||ASUS AV100||Creative X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity||Creative X-Fi CA20K||Creative X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity||Creative 20k2||C-Media CMI8788|
|7.1 Channel Sound Output|
|Stereo to Surround Sound||Dolby, Xear 3D||Dolby, Xear 3D||CMSS - 3D||CMSS - 3D||CMSS - 3D||Xear 3D, DTS|
|Digital Audio Intermediary between PC and Home Theater||Dolby Digital Live||Dolby Digital Live||Dolby Digital Live||Dolby Digital Live||Dolby Digital Live||Dolby Digital Live|
|Digital Audio Intermediary between soundcard and software.||ASIO||ASIO||ASIO||ASIO||ASIO, GSIF|
|API Compliant Standards|
|Dolby Digital Live|
|DTS (Digital Theater Systems)|
|EAX||v5.0 HD||v5.0 HD||v5.0 HD||v5.0 HD||v1.0, 2.0|