If you like to listen to music on your computer or laptop, or if you’re out and about in the gaming world, you’ll quickly get annoyed by the inferior onboard sound of some computers. Even expensive playback devices like good headphones, headphone amplifiers or Dolby Surround systems don’t help, the sound remains flat and one-dimensional. This is where an external sound card comes in. Thanks to high-quality components, it brings the desired rich and unadulterated sound. In addition, many sound cards offer various connection options for external devices, such as a microphone for noise-free sound recordings.
The following comparison presents 5 external sound cards with their respective features. The following guide provides a lot of interesting information about external sound cards, lists important purchase criteria for a good sound experience, describes advantages and disadvantages and answers frequently asked questions. Finally, there is information on whether Stiftung Warentest or Öko-Test have subjected external sound cards to a test with a test winner.
4 compact external sound cards in a big comparison
Other comparisons that might be of interest in connection with external sound cards
1. 4 compact external sound cards in a big comparison
1.1 What is a sound card?
1.2 The history of the sound card
1.3 The advantages of an external sound card compared to an onboard solution
1.4 How does a sound card work?
1.5 Inputs and outputs of a sound card
1.6 Different types of external sound cards
1.7 What to look for when buying an external sound card?
1.8 The technical specifications
1.9 What does an external sound card cost?
1.10. Where to buy external sound cards?
1.11. Known manufacturers of sound cards
1.12. Is there a test of external sound cards with test winner of the Stiftung Warentest?
1.13. Is there a test with comparison winner of external sound cards from Öko-Test?
1.15. We also had the following product in comparison
2. external sound card list 2021: find your best external sound card
1. CSL USB sound card with integrated volume control
CSL’s external USB sound card combines multiple devices into one for great sound. It is especially interesting for gamers, because the model has a rotatable volume control. This saves computer gamers the cumbersome regulation of the volume via software or menus.
A USB hub is integrated into the sound card, which allows up to three USB devices to be connected directly to the sound card. In addition, there are the following further connection options:
- Headset port
- Headphone jack
- Microphone port
All ports are clearly marked on the top of the unit with corresponding icons. A built-in equalizer produces different sound profiles that are selected at the touch of a button: Standard Sound Effect, Music Sound Effect, Movie Sound Effect, or Gaming Sound Effect. The profiles change the sound to suit different applications, according to the manufacturer.
The built-in USB hub provides USB 2.0 ports. A blue LED bar around the sound card’s central button indicates how high or low the volume is set. According to the manufacturer, the sound card installs itself after being plugged into a free USB slot on the computer. No additional software is necessary. The sound card is compatible with the operating systems Windows XP/7/8/8.1/10 and MacOS 10.9 and newer.
2. Sabrent external sound card with USB port for easy installation
Slightly larger than a thumbnail, Sabrent’s dedicated sound card presents itself. It plugs into a free USB port on your computer or laptop for sound. On the back of the card are the two connection options: A 3.5-millimeter jack output for headphones or speakers and a 3.5-millimeter jack input for a microphone.
More equipment is not available. This is sufficient for the application area as a sound card. The drivers install themselves automatically after plugging in, external software is not required according to the manufacturer. The model is compatible with Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP/Server 2003/Vista/7/8/10 and MacOS X operating systems. This makes the sound card just as suitable for older computers as it is for modern computers.
3. UGREEN external USB sound card – compatible with PS4
Ugreen’s external USB sound card has two ports: One for headphones or speakers and one for a microphone. The sound card can be installed on a free USB port of the computer or laptop with the permanently attached USB cable. The flexible cable allows free positioning of the device.
The manufacturer states that the external USB sound card is suitable for connection to a Sony Playstation 4. The device is compatible with the operating systems Windows XP/Vista/7/8/8.1/10 as well as MacOS X and Linux. A separate driver installation is not necessary.
4. Behringer U-Control UCA222 USB audio interface for professional applications
The Behringer U-Control UCA222 external sound card is more than a simple sound card for good sound, because the device is designed as an audio interface. It can therefore also be used as a recording device, for example for recording instruments. Behringer brings its experience in studio technology to this model.
With its 48-kilohertz (kHz) converters, the sound card also meets the requirements of recording studios, according to the manufacturer. The device has one input and one output with RCA jacks. This ensures that both directions work in stereo format. In addition, the sound card has a 3.5-millimeter jack, to which, for example, headphones can be connected. The volume can be adjusted with a rotary switch. An optical S/PDIF output forwards the output signal digitally to designated output devices.
The sound card has a permanently installed USB cable for connection to the computer or laptop. The cable is long enough to position the device on a desk. This works even if the computer is on the floor and the USB ports are near the floor. There is no need for an external power supply, as the device supplies itself with the necessary energy via the USB interface.
Behringer provides a variety of virtual instruments and effects via the company website that can be used in conjunction with the sound card. With the free audio editor Audacity, music enthusiasts, musicians and DJs can realize their own audio projects. The Behringer U-Control UCA222 is compatible with the latest Microsoft and Apple operating systems.
5. Creative Sound BlasterX G6 external sound card with Xamp headphone amplifier for gamers
The Creative Sound BlasterX G6 external sound card has gaming-related features such as sidetone volume control and easy-to-reach profile buttons, according to the manufacturer. It is compatible with a wide range of gaming consoles including the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch, in addition to PCs. It delivers a virtual 7.1 Dolby Digital surround sound with a new immersion technology. The sound card has a signal-to-noise ratio of 130 decibels and a sampling rate of 384 hertz. According to the manufacturer, it is a modern 32-bit multi-bit modulator with oversampling and mismatch shaping technology.
The very low output impedance of one ohm is said to drive power-sensitive in-ear headphones with 16 ohms up to studio headphones with an impedance of 6,000 ohms. The external sound card also offers enhanced in-game voice communication, bass boost, and can be used as a USB Digital Audio Converter, or DAC, according to the manufacturer. Even high-resolution audio formats such as PCM and DoP are supported by the sound card, according to Creative. A special scout mode can amplify important audio signals in games and thus provide a tactical advantage.
What is a sound card?
Computers and laptops are made up of several components. Each component has a specific task. Some of these components work in the background and do not deliver any visible or audible results.
- Graphics card: Brings the user interface, images and videos to the screen.
- Sound card: Provides sound, music and voice output
Monitor, display: Provides for visible results
- Speakers, headphones: Play music from the sound card
Keyboard, mouse: Bring the input of the operating person into the computer
All the components listed here are usually replaceable, at least on a desktop PC. This statement is only partially true for laptops, because the components are usually permanently installed and cannot be replaced.
Since external sound cards are connected via USB, it is also possible to bypass the internal, often unsatisfactory sound card in a notebook and spice up the sound quality.
Some music lovers or gamers ask themselves at this point: My computer produces sounds and music even without an external sound card, why should I buy such a device? This is a legitimate question, which will be discussed in detail later in this guide. For a better understanding of the matter, a look into the past of sound cards will help first.
The history of the sound card
The home computers of the 1980s like the Commodore C-64 or the Amstrad CPC series already had a built-in sound chip. This manifested their reputation as pure gaming computers during this time.
The lack of multimedia features of an IBM computer made it virtually unusable for home gaming applications. In addition, the high purchase price made a PC a true luxury item in the 1980s and 1990s. It wasn’t until audio output on a personal computer slowly became standardized that the PC pushed the old home computers out of the gaming computer market.
The development of the first expansion cards for the audio output of a PC heralded the collapse of the market for the 8- and 16-bit computers, because suddenly the larger computers were also suitable for gaming and multimedia applications. Until the year 2000, the manufacturers of sound cards still provided their devices with a so-called game port, which allowed the connection of a joystick. From 1990 onwards, the plug-in cards had an interface to connect the CD-ROM drives that were coming into fashion. In this way, music lovers could use the PC as a CD player.
The year 2000 is considered to be the year when manufacturers started integrating sound chips directly on the motherboard instead of expansion cards. This eliminated the need to upgrade with a card. Sound cards as such gradually disappeared from the market.
The advantages of an external sound card compared to an onboard solution
Onboard sound cards have a reputation of not providing very good audio quality, especially among gamers and music lovers for listening to music. Therefore, such groups of customers are always on the lookout for a better solution. There are external sound cards, as described in this comparison here, or expansion cards. Advantages and disadvantages of external sound cards:
- Better sound quality
- Connectors can be positioned better
- Often volume control/knob integrated
- Extended connection possibilities
- Sound card does not put additional load on computer
- Causes additional costs
- More cables to stow away
How does a sound card work?
The main component of a sound card is the chipset. This takes the data and control signals from the computer, processes them into a format that the digital-to-analog converters can understand, and passes them on to the sound card’s output jacks. With onboard sound cards, often only one component performs all the tasks.
Inputs and outputs of a sound card
The inputs and outputs come in the form of jack or RCA sockets. These are color-coded according to an international standard, and often there are stamped symbols next to these jacks. The colour coding has the following meaning:
- Pink: Input for microphone
- Green: Output for headphones or front speakers
- Blue: Input for external sources
- Grey/White: Output for side speakers
- Orange: Output for center speaker and subwoofer
- Black: Output for rear speakers
Some sound cards also have digital inputs or outputs. These come in the form of either optical or coaxial interfaces and allow you to connect digital devices such as certain music systems.
Different types of external sound cards
- Simple USB devices with one input and one output each
- Devices with advanced features, connectors and volume function
- Audio interface devices for professional use in recording studios
Which card is suitable for which user depends on the intended use.
We talk about a simple external sound card when it supports only the basic functions. These cards are often no larger than a standard USB stick and have exactly one input, for example for a microphone, and one output for headphones or external speakers. Such sound cards are useful in the following situations:
- The user is not satisfied with the sound quality of his onboard solution.
- The onboard sound card no longer works
- There is no sound card available at all
While the first two points are self-explanatory, the last point requires a more detailed explanation. There are so-called mini-PCs that computer enthusiasts can assemble themselves. They are used, for example, as a streaming box or for controlling smart home devices. For some applications, the presence of a sound card is enormously important, but mini PCs usually do not have sound chips. A small, external sound card in the form of a USB stick can help here.
Users can connect this type of sound card to the computer or laptop with a USB cable. At the other end of the cable is the heart of the sound card. This can be placed on the desk. Gamers in particular like to use this option to adjust volume levels or select sound profiles. Normally, gamers have to select the volume of a game awkwardly via menus, which can massively disrupt the gameplay. But with an external sound card that has a mechanical volume control, this circumstance is eliminated.
In addition, there are the many connection options that external sound cards of this size offer. Special features like an integrated USB hub or the ability to bring Dolby 5.1 or 7.1 into the home theater make these devices even more interesting.
External sound cards, as they are used in recording studios, are called audio interfaces. The difference to a normal sound card lies mainly in the higher quality components that meet the requirements in music production.
There are big differences between audio interfaces. Smaller devices have only one input, larger devices have much more. The highlight: With one interface the musician can record several instruments at the same time. Important here are values such as latencies: There should be no delay between recording and playback.
In a recording studio, it is common for musicians to play or record different instruments or parts of the song one after the other. While recording, they listen to the previously recorded material from the same sound card that is used for recording. If there are delays, called latencies, the recordings become inaccurate and therefore unusable.
What should I pay attention to when buying an external sound card?
When buying an external sound card, the prospective buyer should keep several factors in mind:
- Sufficient connections
- Length of cables
- Remote control included
- Price-performance ratio
Compatibility determines whether or not the device being used will support the new external sound card. So, the user must know exactly for which device he needs the new sound card. There are sound cards that work with a Sony Playstation 4, for example, but not with its predecessor or with an Xbox from Microsoft. The operating system used on the PC or laptop also plays a role.
The article descriptions of the sound card manufacturers state for which operating systems and devices the respective sound card is suitable. If the system used does not appear, the buyer should refrain from purchasing the sound card.
It is no use if the user buys a sound card with only one output, but wants to operate a Dolby Digital sound system with it. Before buying, it should be clear how many and which connections the new sound card has to support.
This refers to the length of the connection cable. For a simple external sound card that connects directly to the USB port, it doesn’t matter. For a card with advanced features and a control panel, it does. Because this should be able to stand near the user on the desk.
Those who watch movies or series on a computer or laptop can look forward to a more comfortable movie night with a remote control for the external sound card. On the other hand, those who only want to adjust the volume while sitting directly at the computer – for example, to play games – can do without a remote control for settings.
The best way to find out how good the price-performance ratio of an external sound card is is to check the customer reviews in the online shops that offer the respective product.
The technical specifications
There are some technical specifications for sound cards that indicate the sound quality of the device. These include the signal-to-noise ratio and the sampling rates. With these specs, prospective buyers can compare sound cards with each other.
Every audio device comes with a certain amount of noise floor. Sound chips in computers have a high noise floor due to their location within the computer, and electronic noise can also be present.
Signal to noise ratio describes the relationship between the signal level, what the sound card is supposed to deliver, and the noise floor. The signal-to-noise ratio is expressed in decibels. The higher it is, the less noise there is and the better the sound quality of the sound card.
The sampling rate indicates the quality with which sound files are digitized. It can be compared to the frame rate of a video: The higher this frequency, the better the result. The sampling rate of audio files is specified in kilohertz (kHz).
A CD, for example, supports a sampling rate of 44.1 kilohertz (kHz). But this is by no means the end of the line. Today’s modern formats can reproduce 96 kilohertz (kHz) and more. A high sampling rate of existing music is of no use to the user if the sound card is not capable of reproducing it. The sampling rate in kilohertz (kHz) is just as important a quality feature as the signal-to-noise ratio.
What does an external sound card cost?
There are external sound cards that can be had for as little as a single-digit amount. The buyer can expect nothing more from these devices than a small stick with one input and output each. Sound cards with a wider range of functions and multiple connections are a bit more expensive and go into the mid two-digit range in terms of price. Professional audio interfaces have a much wider price range. There are devices here that can cost several thousand dollars.
Where can I buy external sound cards?
The market for external sound cards is getting bigger and bigger. There are the devices in many specialty stores and online shops to buy, such as at:
- Media Markt
- Electronics Partner
- As special offers at discounters like Lidl or Aldi
Well-known manufacturers of sound cards
In the history of sound cards, there are some companies that have achieved cult status from today’s perspective. Not all of them have survived, some of them have other priorities in the meantime, some of them are still around today. Following known manufacturers of sound cards:
Creative Technology: founded in 1981, this Singapore-based company is still considered a leader in consumer sound card development. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Creative won the battle for supremacy against AdLib and Gravis with the Sound Blaster. Years later, other sound card manufacturers were still depending on them to make them compatible with the Sound Blaster.
- AdLib: The Canadian company AdLib developed sound cards as well as other computer hardware, but there is only room in history for the small expansion cards, which set the first serious standard with Yamaha’s YM3812 sound chip. Only with the development of the Sound Blaster by Creative AdLib had to strike the sails and finally filed for bankruptcy in 1992.
- Advanced Gravis Computer Technology: Just like its competitor AdLib, Gravis was a Canadian company. Among its most famous products were the joysticks and gamepads, which still enjoy cult status today. The sound card Gravis Ultrasound was a small masterpiece, it was the first of its kind, which allowed hardware sampling with up to 32 channels. Since Sound Blaster was already too widespread at that time and it later became easier to execute the capabilities of the expansion card called GUS with cheaper hardware and software, Gravis’ card only caught on in the PC demo scene. In 1997 Gravis was taken over by the Kensington Technology Group.
- Via Technologies: A Taiwanese manufacturer, which became known mainly for its chipsets. For the sound sector these are the chips of the Envy24 series and the Tremor. In connection with the AC97 codec, the former was the standard chip on mainboards with integrated sound cards for many years.
- Realtek: Realtek, also from Taiwan, is known for network technology and multimedia products. In the field of sound cards, the best-known and currently current product is the High Definition Audio Codec, which is still used today in the onboard solutions of mainboard manufacturers.
In addition, there are other well-known manufacturers and brands of audio cards such as LogiLink and Terratec.
Is there a test of external sound cards with test winner of the Stiftung Warentest?
The last time Stiftung Warentest tested external sound cards was in 2004, in connection with the digitalisation of cassettes or long-playing records. Here you can get the corresponding article for a small fee, but it is objectively outdated.
Is there a test with comparison winner of external sound cards from Öko-Test?
Öko-Test has not yet dealt with this topic in a test with test winner. Should the institute test external sound cards, this guide will be updated here accordingly with the results from the test and the test winner.