Practically any laptop or desktop computer you buy will come pre-loaded with a soundcard that delivers sufficient audio performance, and perhaps some satisfactory recording capabilities as well. But just as most consumer cars and trucks come with stock speakers and stereo systems that leave something to be desired, so too do stock computer soundcards leave audiophiles and multimedia aficionados somewhat underwhelmed. If you’re looking to edge into the realm of premium sound quality for movies, video games and music, then you might want to consider making a modest investment towards one of these high quality, yet affordable soundcards priced under $200.
Creative Labs Sb0880 PCI Express Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium Sound Card - $77.00
Creative Labs is the Cadillac of computer sound equipment, and the Sound Blaster is their signature line. This PCI internal soundcard is easy to install and even easier to afford, at a meager $77. This sound card will get you up and running with 5.1 surround sound, optical TOSLink connections and other great features. The Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium also comes with the unique Crystalizer function, which improves the clarity and response of music beyond what any run of the mill EQ can. This is a great all around soundcard for gaming, music or watching movies.
Asus Xonar Essence STX Sound Card - $177.89
The Asus Xonar’s supremacy over the Sound Blaster card is debated, but it’s status as an excellent soundcard for gaming, music and movies goes unchallenged among those who have tried it. Featuring a hi-fi headphone amplifier along with a main stereo RCA out, SPDIF out, the Xonar has a unique static shield built-in that reduces the signal to noise ratio to a low 124. Crisp recordings and deep, responsive dynamic sound makes this a favorite among gamers and music lovers. Also works well for those interested in 2-channel recording (though you’ll need lots of processing power to back it up).
Turtle Beach Riviera 5.1 Channel PCI Sound Card - $29.42
At less than $30, the Turtle Beach Riviera often gets passed up for its low price tag. But don’t let that fool you—this is a serious 5.1 channel surround sound card that delivers on audio performance with excellent sound quality, easy installation and adjustable environment controls. Some users have compared this favorably to pricier models, such as the Audigy 2 ZS.
Asus Xonar D1 7.1 Channels 24-bit PCI Sound Card - $70
If the Xonar Essence is out of your price range, you can get a comparable soundcard from the same manufacturer: the Asus Xonar D1. This 7.1 channel internal soundcard includes an optical out connection as well as other essential audio connections. Users report that the Xonar is incredibly quiet when no sound is playing, thanks to its impressive static reduction features. And at just $70, you’ll be hard pressed to find a soundcard that matches the Xonar D1’s performance in the same price range.
Before investing in a new soundcard, make sure that each one is compatible with your system and supports your operating system. While the untrained ear may not notice the improvements in sound quality, for those who appreciate the highest fidelity audio playback will be well-rewarded by upgrading their soundcard.