The best USB sound cards can drastically improve the media playing capabilities of your device, no matter if it's a PC or Mac, a desktop or laptop, or even a tablet or games console.
Rather than having to put up with the basic onboard sounds included with your device (built-in soundcards are some of the first things manufacturers skimp on to save money), you can quickly add a USB sound card that can provide high fidelity music and audio, and even add surround sound, to your device.
Best of all, USB sound cards are extremely easy to install – all you have to do is plug one into a USB port of your device (or connect it wirelessly via Bluetooth), then connect your speakers or headphones to the sound card, and you'll get an instant audio upgrade.
While the cheapest USB sound card will give you a much-needed volume and quality boost, for multi-channel surround sound and higher resolution audio, you'll have to pay more; your ears will love you for it, though. There are plenty of USB sound cards out there to choose from; here's our pick of the best.
These USB sound cards are excellent choices for video editors and music producers, as they can offer audiophile levels of sound for your device. Even if you don't work in audio, but like to listen to music while you get creative, then the best USB sound cards can make a big difference.
The best USB sound cards available now
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The Creative Sound BlasterX G6 has a name that'll be familiar to anyone who owned a PC in the 1990s; Sound Blaster was the de facto standard for gamers who wanted decent audio rather than the terrible noise that came out of most PCs internal beepers. And while this latest piece of Sound Blaster kit is clearly aimed at gamers with its 7.1 surround virtualisation, bass boost and Scout Mode for enhancing in-game audio cues, it's also a great way for anyone to enjoy improved audio as long as you don't mind its gamer-focused looks.
This USB sound card features a discrete headphone amp that amplifies each audio channel individually and gives you more detailed audio across the range, and it'll drive everything from in-ear headphones to studio-grade cans. Best of all, its 130dB DNR, 32-bit 384kHz DAC means that you can enjoy high-resolution lossless audio without sacrificing quality.
If the price and gaming-specific features of the Sound BlasterX G6 are a bit too rich for your tastes, the compact ASUS Xonar X5 USB sound card could be the alternative you're looking for. It not only gives your desktop or laptop a solid sound boost with its 104dB signal-to-noise ratio, it'll also give you 5.1 surround sound, either in virtual form through your headphones or by driving a set of front, rear and centre speakers.
It has three preset gain modes for different usage scenarios, but if you'd rather have full control over what you hear then it also comes with ASUS' Sonic Studio software. This provides you with all the audio settings you'll need, from a 10-band graphic equaliser through to fully adjustable bass boost and compressor, and even custom reverb settings.
You'd easily mistake AudioQuest's DragonFly Red for a USB memory stick, but don't let its minuscule size put you off; this tiny USB sound card packs a hell of a sonic punch. Inside its shiny red casing there's a 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC that enables it to play everything from MP3s through to 24-bit lossless audio with all the detail, richness and tone you could ask for, and its 2.1-volt headphone output means it's capable of driving the sort of heavyweight headphones that you might normally use with a full-on hi-fi system.
It might not look like much for its price, but the DragonFly Red really performs where it matters, and its suitable for boosting everything from desktops to phones (you might need a USB adapter if you want to use it with your iPhone, though).
It comes with game-centric features such as Game/Voice balance that helps you ensure you can hear your teammates over the din of the game, and you can daisy chain several of them up for lag-free communication. You're also able to tweak what your audience can hear while you stream.
It's great for gamers, but it does mean some of those features are redundant for people who aren't interested in gaming. It's also often bundled in with the Astro Gaming A40 headset, which is good for people who are looking for a new pair of cans as well.
Sennheiser's one of those instantly-recognisable names that you can rely on to deliver decent audio at a not-too-expensive price, and while the Sennheiser GSX 1000 is the most expensive of the USB sound cards on show here, if you value quality and want plenty of features to play with, it's definitely an attractive option. Like many external sound cards, this one's aimed at gamers, delivering virtual 7.1 surround sound that might be overkill for your needs, but its frequency response of 0-48KHz on headphones means that you can expect incredible sound for your money.
And if you crave fancy features then this one's hard to beat. Its touch-sensitive control panel (simply hover your hand over it to activate the amplifier) enables you to set reverb levels and switch between headphones and speakers with a single touch. Be aware, though, that it only gives you four audio presets; if you want fine controls over EQ levels then look elsewhere.