Best Budget Soundcards 2020 : Buying Guide & Reviews

Expert Contributor

Jeff Day

When it comes to upgrading your desktop, one of the few things people tend to overlook is how your system sounds. RGB and Ray Tracing might be this seasons trend, but when it comes to a truly premium build, high quality sound is where it’s all at.

Whether you just want great surround sound for you late gaming nights, or 7.1 channel sound for all your sound editing needs. A new PC sound card could be just what you need.

It can be hard to sort through all the technical terms and industry jargon when you just want the best sound card to suit you, That’s why we have compiled a list of some of the best budget sound cards currently on the market, saving you both time and hassle.

Factors to Consider when Buying the Best Budget Sound Card

Before making any purchase it is always best to make sure you take your time to know exactly what it is you need and what choice suits you best. When it comes to sound cards, there are multiple factors to take into consideration. Such factors like, does your computer meet the requirements to effectively use the sound card? What sound system would work best for me? Which is why we have compiled this handy guide for you, helping you make the most informed decision that you can.

Your needs and Requirements

The first important factor to consider, is what do you personally need a sound card for? This can alter your purchase drastically, as some sound cards are built with specific functions in mind.

Many people choose to purchase a new sound card to enhance their gaming, thanks to the use of 3D audio effects, gaming has never been more immersive. However, one of the more popular reasons is that someones career might require it. Sound editing and music creation typically requires improved sound to help you perform the best you can.

Cards that are better suited for sound editing are typically much more expensive than your typical sound cards due to their inclusion of premium features. When it comes to listening to music and playing games, your best bet is to go for a cheaper, budget sound card. Carefully consider your need and requirements before making a purchase, so you can be sure that the sound card you have chosen is the best one for you!

Budget

When it comes to finding the best sound card to suit your purposes, staying within budget is perhaps the biggest consideration you will make. It wouldn’t be wrong of you to assume that the more features packed into a sound card, the higher the asking price. Weighing up what you require from a sound card will help ensure you stay within your set budget.

A cheap sound card for everyday use shouldn’t set you back much more than $20, but if you are wanting the best sound quality and 3D audio effects – expect to shell out a lot more than this. Which brings us back to your need and requirement. A gaming sound card is far cheaper than a heavy duty, top of the line sound chip, but your budget might allow for some wiggle room.

When it comes to sound cards, you get what you pay for. Check that the card you require is within your budget range and both your wallet and ears will thank you.

Surround Card

Surround sound is an extremely common term you will see when purchasing anything audio based. From wireless speakers to sound cards, this is one of the biggest reasons you may be considering purchasing any audio device. As complicated as it sounds, surround sound is simply a measurement of how many external speakers the device can connect to. This offers an incredible method of improving audio fidelity and depth. The most common value you will see, is 5.1 surround sound, which as you may have guessed means you can connect up to 6 external speakers. However, as technology has improved, many sound cards now offer 7.1 surround sound, giving you an unparalleled sound experience – Audio quality has never been better.

Environmental Audio Extensions, or EAX for short, is also another term to be aware of. However, over time this technology has become less popular due to the newer improved version, EFX. This feature is most commonly found in sound blaster cards and is usually used to enhance your gaming experience. Although it is not entirely linked to surround sound, EAX is a method used to accurately replicate how sound works in real-life.

Most budget cards feature 5.1 surround sound, but it’s still worth checking what the card you are interested in offers. Who knows, you might be lucky and find a cheap 7.1 surround sound card!

Unique Requirements

Each buyer is unique, and so are their requirements and needs. Ensuring that the card you choose has all the requirements you need is a very important step. From MIDI support to multi-channel sound there is a plethora of functionality available today. Most sound editors will appreciate the added depth that a multi-channel sound card offers but a typical user may not need this. Consider each and every option carefully, you could save yourself some money in the long run without sacrificing what your truly need from a sound card.

Does Your Computer Have the Updates

Whether or not you choose to purchase an internal or external sound card, you will need to ensure your computer is compatible. Many sound cards on the market today utilize your CPU to enhance sound quality, so there isn’t much point in splashing out on a high-end sound card when your CPU will struggle to keep up. It also probably isn’t a good idea to choose a 7.1 surround internal sound card if you plan on only using a 2 speaker system. Checking that your computer is up to the task before making a purchase can you save you from an incredible amount of hassle further down the line.

If you want to be doubly sure that your CPU’s going to keep up, you might want to invest in one of our best cheap CPU coolers.

Software

As great as it is to have the best hardware available, software can be an underappreciated and much overlooked upgrade to any PC. Checking what software your sound card comes with is an excellent way to save yourself a little bit of money in the long run. A $30 card that comes with free access to $100 software can be better than a $100 card that offers no software. Sound Blaster cards tend to come with excellent software, and offer a free control panel for your system, making these one of the best budget sound cards to look out for. It is also worth checking out what operating systems the audio card is compatible with. Typically, as long as you are using Windows 7 on wards and iOS 10+ you should be fine.

Interface

Always check that the computer system you wish to install your sound card in has the correct interface that you require. If it doesn’t you will have to either get a new motherboard or choose a different sound card, making this something to be extremely cautious of. Thankfully most sound cards use the same interface, PCI and ISA, making this a fairly straightforward decision. Refer to this quick guide, to see the differences and a brief breakdown of these 2 connection types:

  • PCI Interface: Currently most sound cards will use a PCI connection interface, which most modern motherboards are compatible with. If you are looking to use your card regularly and are fine with using a PCI slot up, then this is perhaps the best interface to choose. Something else to be aware of is that some sound cards use a PCIe connection. This is just an advancement on PCI and is backwards compatible!
  • ISA Interface: Budget cards tend to use ISA over PCI due to their relatively lower rates and as such are fairly common in the sound card market. Although, cards that use ISA connections tend to be cheaper, they sadly lack the high quality of a PCI connection. They do however have the advantage of not using up a PCI slot on the motherboard. If you are wanting to save some money and don’t wish to use up one of the PCI slots on your computer then ISA could be the choice for you.

Another thing people tend to overlook is whether or not your computer already uses a built-in internal sound card. A lot of modern motherboards now come with an onboard sound card system, so always check whether or not you can disable this before purchasing a separate one. This will either be automatically disabled when attaching a new card or you will need to disable it manually before installation.

Connections Offered

External connections are something that should be planned for ahead of purchasing your new sound card. Checking that your sound card offers the connection capabilities that you need is incredibly important. You don’t want to unbox your brand new 5.1 channel surround sound card, only to find out that you can only connect 2 audio output speakers to it. Here are a few typically available:

  • Speaker Connections: The more speaker connections, the better the surround sound support the audio card will provide. If a card claims to feature 5.1 channel audio always check how many speaker connections there are available. Most users will want at least two connections, for front and rear speaker systems. However, some may comfortable with just the once as dual speaker setups tend to only require a single connection. To prevent any future hiccups always consider whether or not its worth investing in a budget sound card that offers multiple connectivity options. Even if you may not require it now, it’s always a good idea to leave potential room for upgrades.
  • Microphone Connections: If you plan on using a microphone, it is always best to make sure that your chosen audio card supports a microphone input. This is especially important for recording and music editing. High-end sound cards will almost always include this. If you want a sound card for PC gaming it is also worth finding one that includes a mic jack suited for voice chat.
  • MIDI Port: When it comes to sound editing, a MIDI port is usually reserved for a MIDI keyboard. A gamer however, may use this for joysticks and racing peddles, so figure out whether it’s really necessary. Unless you are a sound editor or love to use unique gaming controls, this isn’t an essential component to look out for.

3-D Acceleration

3-D acceleration is one of the top audio features developers will use to enhance gaming audio. Adding an immersive sound output can benefit any type of game and can be a really useful thing when competitive gaming is involved. Here are just a few common tech terms you may find:

  • EAX Creative Labs Environmental Audio Extensions: As mentioned in the surround sound section, EAX is an extremely popular method of introducing 3D sound to a game. It offers incredible depth and realistic sound effects that can enhance your gaming experience. However do be aware that EAX is consider deprecated in favour of the newer EFX audio software.
  • Microsoft’s DirectSound3D: Included with most API softaware that features Direct X, Microsoft’s DirectSound3D is one of the industry standards ways of improving ambient noise in gaming sound design.
  • A3D (Aureal 3-Dimensional) by Aureal: An excellent piece of API software designed specifically for 3D sound.

Warranty and Support

Ensuring that the electrical product you are a purchasing features some form of warranty or tech support is an important step when it comes to purchasing computer hardware. Due to how unique some designs can be, it is extremely difficult to repair a sound card yourself if something goes wrong. Therefore, if you purchase a sound card that includes fault protection, you are saving yourself hefty repair costs down the line. It’s best to ask yourself things such as “What is covered by the provided warranty?”, “Can i receive tech advice seven days a week if needed?” before buying a new card. Overlooking tech warranty and support can come back to bite you further down the line.

It can also help to check customer reviews for the product and do some research regarding the manufacturer to see if they can be trusted. What may look like an incredible deal now, can become a nightmare when it becomes the reason your entire computer system shuts down. Reading seller reviews is also an essential step when it comes to purchasing electronic goods, nobody wants to receive a knock off product. Whether this is online or in the store – always check that the seller can be trusted and that you are fully aware what you will receive. Never be afraid to contact sellers or hardware experts to make sure that your chosen PC sound card is a sturdy piece of hardware.

Thankfully, we have done some of this research for you and compiled a list of the top 10 best budget sound cards of 2020. Read on to discover exactly what makes these cards some of the best on the marker, and who knows, you might just find the one for you!


Top 10 Best Budget Sound Cards 2020

Overall Best Sound Card: Creative Sound Blaster ZxR

Best Inexpensive Sound Card: Creative Sound Blaster Audigy RX

Best Audiophile Premium Sound Card: ASUS Essence STX II

Best External Sound Card: EPOS Sennheiser GSX 1000 Pro


1. Creative Labs Sound Blaster

Creative Labs Sound Blaster Z PCIe

Best Features: Audiophile grade headphone amp. Offers a high quality 24-bit audio experience. Easy driver installation.


First on our list is the incredible Creative Labs Sound Blaster, an exceptionally high quality audio card offering some of the best value for money on this list. It utilizes a PCIe connection, meaning you can be sure that this will enhance any audio experience. This internal sound card comes with 5.1 channel surround sound offering stable connectivity with up to 6 speakers.

A sleek red design, featuring 2 red LED lights not only provide added aesthetics, but also gives you a way of checking that the card is functioning as it should be. Installation is also a treat! Simply slot this Creative Sound Blaster into any spare PCI slot on your motherboard, install the necessary drivers and get ready for a fantastic user experience. The supplied SBX Pro Studio software suite is also neat, due to a modern control panel giving you all the tools you need to get the most out of this internal sound card.

We haven’t even discussed the exceptional high audio quality yet. Thanks to an incredible bit rate of 24-bit 192 kHz audio performance is crisp and clear. The Creative Sound Blaster Z also comes with a built in 600-ohm headphone amplifier that even audiophiles will be impressed by. Compatibility is also not an issue as this sound card can be used on any system that uses Windows 7 on wards.

Why we like it:

The supplied SBX Pro Studio software suite and immense audio quality means that the Creative Sound Blaster is an incredible sound card for gaming.

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: Sound Blaster Z Pcie | Connectivity: Nein | 3D Acceleration: Sound Core 3D-processor

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2. ASUS XONAR SE

Windows 10 Compatibility

Best Features: Exclusive hyper grounding technology. Incredible sound clarity and depth fit for listening to your music. Supplied Xonar Audio Center is a robust ensemble of software.


Asus are one of the biggest names in the computing business and the ASUS XONAR SE is just one of the reasons why. The inbuilt Realtex codec delivers an impressive crystal clear 116 db signal to noise ratio offering unsurpassed audio quality. 24-bit 5.1 channel audio means you can connect some of the best industry standard speakers without needing to compromise your sound experience.

ASUS also provides their exclusive hyper grounding technology preventing noise blocking totally as well as reducing audio distortion and interference. Gaming headphone users can also relax as this sound card supplies 300 ohm headphone amplification tech providing deep bass and rich audio performance.

Manual installation of the sound card itself is also smooth as this sound card should fit onto any motherboard due this sound cards low profile bracket. PCIe lovers should also be aware that this sound card features a PCIe interface. To complete this already incredible package, ASUS also supply their renowned Xonar Audio Center, giving you the tools you need to get the most out of this top rate sound card. The ASUS Xonar SE offers an incredible array of features, especially for such a low price.

Why we like it:

Low profile bracket and minimalist design, coupled with audiophile worthy 5.1 surround audio make this one of the best cheap sound cards you can get on today’s market.

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: 5.1 Channel

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3. Creative Sound Blaster Audigy RX

with High Performance Headphone Amp

Best Features: 7.1 surround system enhances movies and games, perfect for a home theater setup. Audio processor built specifically for incredible EAX reverb engine. Supplied software makes this, perhaps, the best budget sound card for music production on this list.


Featuring an advanced chipset built specifically for EAX support, the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy RX is an incredible competitor for the best cheap sound card. Dual microphone inputs allows you to record 2 microphones at once, making this in an incredible addition to any music production rig. 7.1 surround sound channels gives you uncompromising audio quality providing a multitude of options for an speaker setup. Movies and games have never sound as good. enhancing your at home entertainment system.

The Sound Blaster Audigy provides software solutions any editor needs thanks to the incredibly functional EAX Studio supplied with this cheap sound card. Sound editors need not wait as this sound card also comes with a whole host of free software perfectly suited for music production. To top it all of, this soundcard is compatible with Windows 7 through Windows 10!

Why we like it:

Free software and 7.1 channel audio output make this an cheap sound card if you are a musician.

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: Multi-Channel | Connectivity: Optical, Microphone, Headphone

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4. StarTech 7.1 Channel Sound Card

ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1

Best Features: Excellent sound quality and 7.1 channel support at a very low price. Extreme compatibility, works on Windows Vista Sp1 systems onwards.


7.1 channel audio at such a low price is what makes this StarTech sound card one of the best cheap sound cards on this list. Utilizing the industry standard PCIe, installation is simple, designed to fit most low profile computers. This sound card also hosts a variety of audio devices offering superb versatile performance. Connect up your speakers using the 3.5mm analog output or output digital audio using supplied DAC or optical receiver. Microphone and recording devices have also been though about, as this sound card consists of two 3.5mm stereo and two SPDIF digital audio input jacks.

The front outputs offer a decent 92dB signal to noise ratio which is great for everyday use. Hi-fi audio is also supported as this sound card supports up to 24-bit 192KHz playback and recording. You can also rest easy as this sound card comes with 2 year warranty and lifetime support meaning you will never be left to fend for yourself. This is and incredible budget option.

Why we like it:

Low price and versatile performance make this cheap sound card suitable for every type of customer.

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: 7.1 Channel

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5. Creative Sound Blaster Z xR

High Performance Headphone Amp and Desktop Audio Control Module

Best Features: Crisp Dolby surround audio system. Enhance your gaming experience with innovative sound card gamer technology. High quality audio and microphone control module is included in this package.


Are you looking for one of the best sound cards built to enhance your home theater system? Then the Creative Sound Blaster ZxR could be just what you are looking for. One of the few sound cards on this best of list to feature Dolby Digital Live and DTS connect. Hook this up to your audio equipment using the single digital cable and witness extreme quality with the 5.1 channel surround sound.

This incredible Blaster Z xR sound card boasts an unbeatable 124dB signal to noise ratio, which is over 80 times typical onboard motherboard audio systems. Audiophile’s will be happy to see that included in this package is a unique audio hardware control module, meaning you can flip between your headphones and speakers with simple flick of a switch.

The Creative Sound Blaster Z xR comes packaged with the innovative CrystalVoice FX software giving you the best quality input quality on this list. Due to such high quality, this sound card is great for video conferencing and gaming headsets. But that’s not all, this sound card comes with a unique scout mode so gamers can hear their enemies from further away. Could this be the best sound card for gaming?

Why we like it:

CrystalVoice FX and scout mode function enhance this sound cards gaming experience making this the best sound card for gaming at this price.

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: 5.1 Channel | Connectivity: microphone array and mic/headphone I/O connections | 3D Acceleration: Sound Core3D

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6. ASUS Essence STX II

ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1

Best Features: Extremely powerful headphone amp. Utilizes both a 5.1 channel and 7.1 surround sound.


Perhaps the most premium option on this list, the ASUS Essence STX II can take your audio experience to the next level. Ideal for a majority of speaker setups, this sound cards offers both 5.1 channel and 7.1 channel surround sound support. The ASUS essence STX II provides an unsurpassed sound experience which is in part due to the incredible headphone amplification provided by this sound card.

The high end DAC supplies quality sound thanks to a high signal to noise ratio. Gaming sound and sound effects sound crisp and clear when using this sound card. The simply designed software is extremely powerful allowing users to fine-tune their sound card in any way that they want. ASUS have gone far and beyond in creating and incredible internal sound card. Slot this into any spare PCIe slot on your machine, and prepare to be welcomed by a plethora of audio features enhancing your overall user experience. The ASUS Essence STX II is the best high end sound card on this list!

Why we like it:

Incredible audio sound quality and a powerful headphone amplifier system make sure you get the best sound card quality you can get.

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: 7.1 Channel

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7. Sound BlasterX AE-5

Up to 122dB SNR, Xamp Discrete

Best Features: Reactive RGB lighting system give this sound card a futuristic look. 32-bit 384kHz frequency response. Scout 2.0 technology which is great for your gaming setup.


The Sound BlasterX AE-5 could be the best looking sound card on this list! Featuring an Aurora reactive lighting system supporting up to 16.8 million colors, this sound card reacts to your computer audio. The Sound BlasterX is the first sound card to feature the powerful Xamp headphone amplifier technology. Plug your headphones straight into the headphone jack and prepare to hear new levels of bit-depth when listening to your music.

Audiophiles can relax easy, as this SABRE32 Ultra Class PCIe DAC is built with powerful audio processing in mind! The Sound BlasterX AE-5 delivers up to a whopping 32-bit 384kHz frequency response and a 112dB headphone amplifier. Powerful audio processing also means that you can hook this up with your home theater system, enhancing a multitude of audio sources.

Supplied BlasterX Acoustic Engine provide virtual surround sound, this sound card improves your gaming 3D ambient noise offering a whole new level to your gaming experience. Which is only reinforced as this sound card also comes with the Scout 2.0 gaming technology. Hear your enemies before they hear you!

Why we like it:

RBG lighting and virtual surround sound enhancements mean this is an incredible gaming sound card and a perfect compliment to a powerful graphics card.

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: 3D | Connectivity: Headphone, Mic, Line Out| 3D Acceleration: Yes

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8. Diamond Multimedia XS51

Diamond XS51 XtremeSound 5.1 PCI 16 bit Sound Card for windows 7, 8.1

Best Features: Highly compatible negating most compatibility issues. Cheap replacement for stock sound cards.


Ease of use without compromising functionality is what this Diamond Multimedia XS51 sound card aims for. This internal sound card offers 5.1 surround sound at a decent 48,000 16-bit rate. Support for EAX 2.0 and A3D improves your pc sound, and make this sound card comparable to some of the best. Compatibility is also not an issue as this sound card is compatible with most Windows Operating Systems all the way back to Windows 2000.

Most systems will have room for this card to easily slot into thanks to it’s use of the industry standard PCI 2.2 connection. Looks-wise it will also fit in with a variety of PC designs thanks to a sleek classic look complimenting most motherboards. Diamon Multimedia have also got you covered, as this sound card also comes with a 1 year warranty, protecting the user from all sorts of hardware faults and damage. If you are looking for a cheap simple sound card that doesn’t compromise on sound quality, this could be the card for you!

Why we like it:

Simple no frills design and decent sound quality a great budget option.

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: 5.1 Channel | Interface: PCI 2.2  | Connectivity: | 3D Acceleration: A3D

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9. Creative Sound Blaster Recon3D THX

THX PCIE Sound Card SB1350

Best Features: Impressive quad-core audio processor. THX TruStudio Pro Sound Technology provides stunning 3D Sound effects.


You may have noticed that a lot of this list consists of Creative Sound Blaster cards as they are some of the best sound cards on the market, and the Recon3D THX is no different. A quad-core sound Core3D audio processor provides incredible PC performance at such a low cost. Built in Dolby Digital tech promises an incredible sound experience whether this is just for listening to music or watching movies. Add this card to your home theater and get ready to hear the difference instantly!

The dedicated headphone amp supports up to 600 ohms covering a range of headphones, from budget choices all the way up to high end models. 5.1 channel surround sound adapts to a whole range of setups, meaning you user experience will never be compromised. The PCIe interface means this card is compatible with most motherboards, it’s as simple as Plug-&-Play!

Why we like it:

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: 5.1 channel | Interface: PCI 2.2 | 3D Acceleration: EAX 2.0 and A3D

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10. EPOS Sennheiser GSX 1000 PRO Gaming External Sound Card

with 7.1 Surround Sound, Side Tone, Gaming DAC and EQ

Best Features: 5.1 and 7.1 Channel surround sound, which is rare for an external sound card. Provides a variety of volume control options. Only requires a single USB input to work.


A decent external sound card is quite tricky to find, but thankfully the EPOS Sennheiser GSX 1000 Pro offers everything you could ever need. This card features a high-tech audio engine, offering 7.1 audio channels of sound, delivering you incredible spatial and positional sensitive sound. A dedicated DAC chip gives you precise contrl over your PC sound settings and volume control, giving you, the user, complete freedom. Best of all, setup is easy as you simply plug the device into any spare USB port.

The touch sensitive LED panel not only offers a sleek sci-fi look but also lets you make quick adjustments on the fly, giving you more time to stay in the game! Users can opt to lock the screen when it’s not in use, helping to make sure no unnecessary adjustments are accidentally made. The EPOS Sennheisers also includes Sidetone control allowing you to control how loud your own voice sounds through your headphones. Could this be the best external sound card on Amazon?

Why we like it:

This external audio card offers as much functionality as it’s internal brothers, offering incredible control options and a slick design that would look great on any computer desk.

SPECIFICATIONS

Surround Sound: 7.1 Channel | Connectivity: 3.5 mm headset socket, 3.5 mm microphone socket, 3.5 mm loudspeaker socket, mini-USB socket Description:

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About This Expert

Jeff Day