Do you feel your audio lacks that sparkle in acoustics that brings recorded music to life? What gives?
Well, it means your audio equipment lacks “synergy,” as true audiophiles like to call it, and the culprit here is your mediocre built-in sound card.
While you should undoubtedly look at investing in a new dedicated PC sound card, the question is, which one to get? With so many options, finding the best sound card for audiophiles can be challenging.
That’s why we’ve compiled this ultimate sound card buyer’s guide, backed by extensive research and 56 test points, to help you find the right audiophile sound card.
Top Sound Cards for Audiophiles in 2023 – At a Glance!
- Creative Sound Blaster AE-9: The best sound card for music listening and recording with a high-quality DAC, gold-plated components, extensive I/O ports, and an Audio Control Module (ACM).
- Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX: A budget-friendly sound card for audiophiles, offering decent audio quality, up to 600 Ohms impedance, and good I/O expandability with a very accessible price tag.
- Creative Sound BlasterX G6: A premium external audiophile sound card offering impressive specs, including a high SNR ratio, low distortion, and compatibility with a wide range of headphones.
- Asus Strix Raid DLX: The best audiophile sound card for PC gaming. Offers impressive audio quality, 7.1 surround sound support, and a convenient control box for quick in-game equalizer adjustments.
- Creative Sound Blaster X4: An external sound card ideal for audiophiles with home theater setups. It offers great audio quality, easy connectivity, and up to 8 channels for true 7.1 surround sound with Dolby Digital Live encoding.
- Top Sound Cards for Audiophiles in 2023 – At a Glance!
- Best Audiophile Sound Cards: Research and Testing Methodology
- 1. Creative Sound Blaster AE-9 – Best Audiophile Sound Card Overall
- 2. Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX – Budget Audiophile Sound Card
- 3. Creative Sound BlasterX G6 – Premium External Sound Card for Audiophiles with Deep Pockets
- 4. Asus Strix Raid DLX – High-Fidelity Sound Card for Audiophile Gamers
- 5. Creative Sound Blaster X4 – Best Sound Card for Audiophiles with Home Theater Setups
- Comparing Top Audio Cards for Sound Reproduction 2023
- Internal vs. External Sound Cards – Which Are Better?
- How to Choose a Sound Card for Audiophiles
- The Last Chord: Wrapping Up the Audiophile Sound Card Discussion
Best Audiophile Sound Cards: Research and Testing Methodology
For this review, we scoured several online resources, including popular sound card Reddit threads such as r/buildapc and r/SoundBlasterOfficial, to understand which sound cards are popular among audiophiles.
After hours of sifting, we selected the 14 most recommended sound cards in both internal and external configurations.
Next, we took the sound cards to test and used a high-quality lossless audio file with known parameters to analyze their bit depth, sampling rate, latency, and SNR (Signal-to-Noise Ratio). We compared the output signal’s wave and amplitude with the lossless audio file and noted any differences. Simple yet effective.
To ensure thoroughness, we also sought the assistance of seasoned audiophiles on our team and considered their professional opinions to maintain objectivity. After carefully testing and evaluating 56 test points, we handpicked the five best sound cards.
So, what is the best sound card for audiophiles?
1. Creative Sound Blaster AE-9 – Best Audiophile Sound Card Overall
The Creative Sound Blaster AE-9 is the ultimate audiophile PC sound card for music listening. It features a quality DAC, top-notch gold-plated components, great specs, lots of I/O ports, and a dedicated Audio Control Module (ACM), turning it into a hybrid sound card/audio interface.
At the heart of the Creative Sound Blaster AE-9 is the ESS Sabre-class 9038 DAC and audio processor. It features an audio depth of 32-bit (alongside 16-bit, 20-bit, and 24-bit options) with a peak sampling rate of 384 kHz. The SNR ratio is also quite high at 129 dB, easily making it one of the ‘cleanest’ sounding sound cards on the market.
Equally impressive is AE-9’s THD+N, with a distortion level of just 0.0001% and an impedance of 600 Ohms. The card relies on the zippy PCIe 3.0 x1 interface for connectivity, with direct access to the CPU core for low sub 1ms latencies.
Inside the Creative Sound Blaster AE-9 packaging, you’ll find the sound card, the external ACM module, a quick start leaflet, a warranty leaflet, 2 x stereo to RCA adapter cables, and a TOSLINK cable for the optical I/O at the back of the card.
As for input and output, the Creative Sound Blaster AE-9 features a rear TOSLINK optical I/O, 3.5mm rear-out, 3.5mm center/sub-out, dual RCA stereo connectors, and a mini-HDMI port to connect the ACM (Audio Control Module).
The ACM module is no bigger than a compact audio interface, such as the Scarlett Solo, so finding space for it on your desk should be easy. It features some additional I/O, including a hybrid Neutrik XLR/¼” input connector, 48V phantom power for condenser mics, dual 3.5mm TRS audio I/O sockets, and a ¼” stereo-out for zero-latency monitoring.
In testing, the Sound Blaster AE-9 quickly became our favorite audiophile internal sound card, thanks to its remarkable acoustics, excellent soundproofing with gold-plated capacitors, and anti-static circuitry. While it may seem a bit pricey at first, you must remember you’re also getting an audio interface. Worth every penny, we say!
- The Sound Blaster AE-9 is equipped with a high-resolution ESS SABRE-class 9038 reference DAC, ensuring an exceptionally high quality, pristine audio playback at a whopping 32-bit 384kH
- Designed with the most discerning audiophiles in mind, it features fully customize software enhancements like Surround, Crystallizer, and Bass to tailor your audio experience, from improving the dynamic range of audio to amplifying the low-end punch.
- This top-tier sound card also houses Creative's proprietary Xamp - a fully discrete headphone bi-amplifier that supports headphones up to 600Ω, offering an ultra-low 1Ω headphone output impedance perfect for sensitive in-ear monitors.
2. Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX – Budget Audiophile Sound Card
The Sound Blaster Audigy FX is a budget-friendly computer sound card for audiophiles who don’t have much to spend but still want most of the bells and whistles.
The Sound Blaster Audigy FX is powered by Cirrus Logic’s CS4382A-KQZ DAC, considered one of the better audio amplifiers. Being a budget-oriented card, it only features a depth of 24-bit with a sampling rate of 192 kHz. However, the SNR is kept pretty high at 106 dB, which is great news if you want to power a pair of expensive headphones, as they are the most likely to pick up noise/hiss.
The Audigy FX can have up to 600 Ohms impedance to drive even the largest, heaviest headphones out there. The THD+N of the card is also fairly low at just 0.0025%, though other cards in this test do offer even lower distortion levels. For connectivity, the card relies on a PCIe 2.0 x1 interconnect.
The packaging includes the Sound Blaster Audigy FX sound card, a full-height 120mm I/O bracket for tower PCs, and a half-height 80mm I/O bracket for HTPC and SFF PCs. You’ll also find a quick start leaflet and an installation CD containing Creative Software Suite, necessary Windows drivers, and a digital user guide in PDF format.
In terms of I/O, the card features 3.5mm stereo line-in, TRS mic-in, stereo front out, stereo rear out, and lastly, a stereo C/SUB for the center 5.1 speakers and subwoofer, for a total of 6 audio channels.
Overall, the Sound Blaster Audigy FX offers good I/O expandability. However, you won’t find an optical I/O or a duo of mono RCA connectors here, which is to be expected from a low-priced product. After all, its main function is to drive a 5.1 surround sound system or a pair of heavy-duty headsets with an impedance as high as 600 Ohms.
In testing, the Sound Blaster Audigy FX performed brilliantly for a product in this price range. Our testers found the audio quality satisfactory, with good high-fidelity sound reproduction, especially while using external surround sound systems.
However, a few of them did note a very slight, almost inaudible, high-frequency noise while using headphones with high gain. All in all, the Sound Blaster Audigy FX is a highly compelling product for the price.
- Easily converts the PC into a cinematic entertainment system by providing a compelling 5.1 surround sound
- Advanced Audio Processing with SBX Pro Studio, a suite of Sound Blaster audio processing technologies that let you bring out the best in your audio
- Includes the Sound Blaster Audigy Fx Control Panel, PC software that puts you in full control of the SBX Pro Studio suite of technologies
- 600 ohm headphone amp for high performance, studio grade monitoring
- 106 SNR and 24-bit 192kHz DAC (Playback) and 96kHz ADC (Recording)
3. Creative Sound BlasterX G6 – Premium External Sound Card for Audiophiles with Deep Pockets
The Sound BlasterX G6 is a premium audiophile external sound card, ideal for audiophiles looking for a no-holds-barred, compact, and portable option.
On the specs front, the Sound BlasterX G6 is powered by Cirrus Logic CS43131 DAC. It’s capable of 32-bit depth, a peak sampling rate of 384 kHz, and a Signal-to-Noise (SNR) ratio of 130 dB–the highest in class. In short, the sound card packs a hell of a punch.
The peak impedance of 700 Ohms is equally impressive, making it compatible with practically all headphones available today. The THD+N distortion level is also quite low at just 0.0006%. The card can be connected via the USB 3.0 port at the rear, which doubles as its 5V power source, as the card lacks an internal battery.
When unboxed, you’ll find the Sound BlasterX G6 card, a TOSLINK optical cable, a USB-A to Micro-USB cable for easy connectivity, a quick start leaflet, and the usual warranty leaflets, as Creative offers a 1-year limited hardware warranty.
The Sound BlasterX G6 features dual Line/Optical I/O at the rear and a Micro-USB for connectivity. The Micro-USB can be used as a line-in for audio, a 5V power source, or both. At the front, there’s a large center volume level dial, dual 3.5mm TRS jacks for headphones, and a microphone.
In testing, the Sound BlasterX G6 was just as capable as internal sound cards. Despite USB ports traditionally providing lower bandwidth and higher latencies than PCIe, the G6’s audio quality was remarkably consistent with good dynamic range, bassy lows, and well-pronounced highs.
The only downside of the Sound BlasterX G6 is its plastic shell. While it looks good in pictures, it feels a little bit plasticky and lightweight, though by no means fragile. We can’t help but wish Creative had made the shell out of metal, as plastic is quite prone to scratches.
In short, the Creative Sound BlasterX G6 is an excellent general-purpose sound card. While Creative advertises it as a gaming-centric sound card, it’s definitely not something we’d recommend as audiophile gamers.
What would be our pick, you ask?
The Asus Strix Raid DLX!
- UPGRADE YOUR GAMES ON PS4, XBOX ONE, NINTENDO SWITCH, AND PC | Get immediate increased enjoyment over basic motherboard and controller audio! Apart from incredible audio quality, the Sound BlasterX G6 boasts gaming-centric features such as Sidetone volume control and easy-to-reach profile buttons
- INDUSTRY-LEADING AUDIO PROCESSING TECHNOLOGY Enjoy full audio customization and enhanced audio realism with immersive 7.1 surround virtualization, accurate cues, bass boost and in-game voice communication enhancements. It also has Scout Mode than enhances in-game audio cues, letting you hear your enemies before they hear you
- 7.1 VIRTUAL SURROUND SOUND AND DOLBY DIGITAL Enjoy the latest in immersion technology with Dolby Digital decoding or Sound Blaster’s proprietary surround sound perfect for games and movies
4. Asus Strix Raid DLX – High-Fidelity Sound Card for Audiophile Gamers
You might be familiar with “Asus Strix” if you’re a gaming enthusiast. It’s common to see that branding on high-end motherboards, graphics cards, and monitors. So, it’s no surprise that Asus also has a Strix-branded sound card for PC gaming in the guise of Asus Strix Raid DLX.
Cirrus Logic’s CS5381 DAC sits at the heart of the Asus Strix Raid. It is capable of 24-bit depth with a sampling rate of 192 kHz. The Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) is also remarkable at 124 dB. To top it all off, it natively supports 7.1-channel surround sound with eight independent channels.
The Asus Strix Raid DLX has got an impressive THD+N performance, with a distortion of just 0.0009%. It supports an impedance of up to 600 Ohms, enough to power most heavy-duty headsets. For connectivity, the sound card requires a PCIe 3.0 x1 slot, along with a 6-pin PCI-e connector for 12V power.
The packaging includes a quick start guide, a CD containing Strix Soniq Studio software, warranty information, an HDMI to RCA cable, and an external control box. The control box offers a large dial to control headphone and speaker volumes separately, and there’s also a RAID button to activate Asus RAID mode.
Speaking of the RAID mode, the latter allows you to switch between various in-game audio equalizer presets. With a press of a button, you can boost your game audio while in-game without opening Strix Sonic Studio. RAID mode also supports spatially aware surround sound, so you can enjoy 7.1 virtual surround sound in practically all games.
For connectivity, the rear of the sound card bracket includes a 3.5mm Mic/Line-in jack, a 3.5mm TRS stereo jack for headphones, and a ‘Box Link’ TRRS stereo jack reserved for the control box. Additionally, it features 4 x 3.5mm stereo jacks for front + subwoofer and rear, center, and side speakers for a total of 8 audio channels.
Overall, the Asus Strix Raid DLX is a powerful audiophile PCIe sound card, perfectly suited for gamers thanks to its virtual, spatially aware, 7.1 surround sound capabilities via Strix Sonic Studio. The only downside is its 6-pin, 12V power requirements.
If you have a big, beefy GPU, your PSU might lack a spare 6-pin connector for the sound card. In that case, you’d have to use a Molex or SATA to 6-pin adapter cable as a fix, a less-than-ideal situation that clutters the interior of your PC.
Into home theater setups? We’ve got you covered on that front too!
- Experience Surround Sound – The ASUS Strix RAID DLX 7.1 PCIE Gaming Sound Card offers standout audio output with its 7.1 surround sound, providing an immersive experience for gamers and music enthusiasts alike
- Unleash Superior Sound Quality – Crafted by renowned brand ASUS, this hardware ensures unparalleled sound fidelity and clarity, transforming your PC into a high-end sound system.
- Advanced Hardware Interface – With a PCI Express x4 hardware interface and compatibility with Windows 8 platform, this gaming sound card provides ultimate sound customization and enhanced audio performance for all your gaming and music needs.
5. Creative Sound Blaster X4 – Best Sound Card for Audiophiles with Home Theater Setups
The Creative Sound Blaster X4 is an external sound card PC, ideal for HTPC users looking for a capable external sound card for their home theater system. It’s feature-packed, offers great audio quality, can be easily connected to a PC, and supports up to 8 channels for ‘true’ 7.1 surround sound.
The Sound Blaster X4 is powered by the Cirrus Logic CS43131 DAC, which supports a 24-bit depth with a sampling rate of 192 kHz and an SNR of 114 dB. If it sounds familiar, that’s because the same DAC powers the Sound BlasterX G6 we covered earlier.
The Sound Blaster X4 provides a THD+N distortion of just 0.0017% with a peak impedance of 600 Ohms. Being an external sound card, it uses USB-C, and Creative includes a USB-A to USB-C cable in the packaging for easy connectivity. You also get an optical cable, a quick start guide, and a warranty card with the packaging.
To connect the sound card to your home theater system, there’s a trio of 3.5mm stereo jacks for the front, side, and rear speakers, alongside a C/SUB for the center speaker and subwoofer, for a total of 8 mono audio channels. There’s also a line/optical in and optical out, in case you want to connect the sound card to an external audio interface.
For volume control, there’s a large center dial for adjusting volume levels and mic gain control, a mic mute button, and a mode button for switching between different profiles and equalizer presets.
The Sound Blaster X4 performed remarkably well in testing, with good frequency response, wide dynamic range, and excellent surround sound. It also supports Dolby Digital Live encoding, making it an ideal sound card for all HTPC use cases.
You can easily control the volume or switch between different equalizer presets without using your PC. Similarly, the optical I/O makes it a breeze to connect the sound card to other external audio mixers, power conditioners, equalization devices, etc., should you choose to do so.
To summarize, if you’re looking for a sound card for your home theater that can work pretty much 100% independently, the Creative Sound Blaster X4 is easily the best choice.
- 7.1 DISCRETE SURROUND WITH SUPER X-FI AND DOLBY DIGITAL LIVE - Supports up to 7.1 discrete and virtual surround with three types of surround sound delivery: 1. Super X-Fi technology that recreates the listening experience of a multi-speaker system in headphone, 2. Sound Blaster Surround Virtualization’s famed surround processing that is driven by algorithms that are capable of optimizing spatial information of incoming audio for a complete and immersive auditory experience, 3. Dolby Digital Live
- IMPROVED COMMUNICATION WITH SMARTCOMMS KIT AND CRYSTALVOICE - Features our SmartComms Kit, a suite of smart communication features that simplify the way you take work calls on Windows 10 platform. Turn on VoiceDetect to auto mute and unmute your mic, or get rid of static background noise in your own environment as well as the other parties' via our two-way noise cancellation feature NoiseClean. In tandem, CrystalVoice technology enhances voice for clear recordings and in-game communications
- CONNECT WITH EVERYTHING - With a newly added optical-in port, it is now much easier to connect multiple audio devices, from external microphones and headsets, to platforms like your PC, Mac, gaming consoles, and even your multi-channel speaker systems. Just power up the Sound Blaster X4 via the USB-C port, and enjoy high-quality audio with everything. The Sound Blaster X4 is also a headphone amplifier that is capable of driving studio-grade headphones of up to 600Ω
Comparing Top Audio Cards for Sound Reproduction 2023
|Sound Card||DAC||Bit Depth||SNR||Sampling Rate||Action|
|Creative Sound Blaster AE 9|
|ESS Sabre-class 9038||32-bit||129 dB||384 kHz||Check Price|
|Creative Sound Blaster Audigy FX||Cirrus Logic CS4382A-KQZ||24-bit||106 dB||192 kHz||Check Price|
|Creative Sound BlasterX G6||Cirrus Logic CS43131||32-bit||130 dB||384 kHz||Check Price|
|Asus Strix Raid DLX-Sound||Cirrus Logic CS5381||24-bit||124 dB||192 kHz||Check Price|
|Creative Sound Blaster X4||Cirrus Logic CS43131||24-bit||114 dB||192 kHz||Check Price|
Internal vs. External Sound Cards – Which Are Better?
Internal sound cards have a clear edge over external sound cards. The biggest advantage is the PCIe interconnect that offers the sound card direct, low-latency, high bandwidth (up to 256 Gbps) access to the CPU.
On the other hand, external sound cards utilize either USB or Thunderbolt ports. Both interfaces can’t match the performance of an internal PCI-e slot and can only provide a bandwidth of up to 40 Gbps.
A common misconception among audiophiles is that internal sound cards exhibit higher noise levels than external sound cards. While this notion seems reasonable in theory, it couldn’t be further from reality in practice. For instance, we have reviewed three internal sound cards in this post, and all of them provide an SNR of well over 100 dB.
Also, the Creative Sound Blaster AE9, an internal sound card, nearly matches the Creative Sound BlasterX G6, an external sound card, in terms of SNR. The reason behind this is the simple fact that high-end internal sound cards utilize copper or aluminum EMI shielding to minimize the noise floor.
How to Choose a Sound Card for Audiophiles
Here are some of the most important factors you must consider before buying a sound card.
DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter)
DACs convert digital audio into analog signals, such as MP3s, WAV, FLAC, DSD, ALAC, WMA Lossless, etc. A DAC processes every sound you hear from your computer. Hence, it’s one of the most crucial parts of a sound card.
While picking a sound card, choosing a good quality DAC is very important as it can make or break your audio experience. Companies such as ESS, Cirrus Logic, and Burr Brown make some of the highest-quality DACs available and are our top recommendations.
SNR (Signal-to-Noise Ratio)
SNR or Signal-to-Noise ratio refers to the unwanted audible frequency produced by a DAC while it converts digital audio into analog. SNR is measured in decibels (dB), and it’s recommended to look for a sound card that offers an SNR of at least 100 dB or more to minimize any unwanted background ‘hiss.’
Bit depth represents the audio signal’s amplitude, and it can be either 16, 24, or 32-bit wide. Higher bit depths offer a wider audible dynamic range with more pronounced highs and lows.
The sampling rate refers to the frequency (kHz) at which the audio is recorded or played. The higher the frequency, the more detailed the audio. 44.1-48 kHz (“CD Quality”) and 96 kHz (Lossless) are the most commonly used sample rates.
For recording, the film industry sometimes uses a sampling rate of 196 kHz (or higher) to record loud noises and explosions without audio clipping. Similarly, some high-end sound cards, like the Creative Sound Blaster AE-9, can have up to 384 kHz sampling rates.
The number of audio streams a sound card can transmit simultaneously is called ‘audio channels.’ Almost all sound cards support at least two audio channels for a ‘stereo’ sound.
However, a 5.1 surround sound system requires a sound card with six audio channels, while 7.1 surround sound requires eight channels, seven for the speakers and one for the subwoofer.
The Last Chord: Wrapping Up the Audiophile Sound Card Discussion
To conclude everything we’ve just covered, a dedicated sound card is a must-have piece of equipment to drive professional or enthusiast-level audio equipment. After all, who would want to install a four-cylinder engine in a sports car chassis? Without a powerful engine, the chassis would simply cease to be worthwhile.
So, think of sound cards as the engine that drives your premium surround sound system with multiple subwoofers or a pair of expensive headphones. Without a proper sound card, you won’t be able to experience high-quality sound quality reproduction while listening to music, gaming, or using an online movie streaming service.
Our top pick is, without a doubt, the Creative Sound Blaster AE-9. It’s got a powerful DAC, great acoustics, and enough impedance to drive even the most heavy-duty, professional-grade headsets out there. If you want something more gaming or home theater-focused, Asus Strix Raid DLX and Creative Sound Blaster X4 are excellent options.
Until next time from the realm of pristine sound and unrivaled clarity, keep the thump alive!