Whatever kind of computer you use for work, whether it's a Mac or PC, a desktop or laptop or even something like an iPad Pro, it's likely that you've never even thought about adding a USB sound card to your setup. It's virtually impossible today to buy a computer that doesn't have a socket for you to plug speakers or headphones into, so why complicate the situation with extra hardware?
The simple answer is that the default onboard audio you get from your computer isn't the best quality. It's generated by a low-cost chipset on the motherboard, and while that's fine for everyday use such as listening to podcasts or supplying background music for your studio, if you're editing video or working on projects that feature an audio element then you might need something more.
For high-quality audio or surround sound that doesn’t pick up microphone interference or stutter when your machine's running at full capacity, a USB sound card will do the trick, and the added bonus is that all your music will sound much better if you're listening while you work.
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.
And if you can't get enough of accessories, you can also check out our post on the best power banks available.
01. Creative Sound BlasterX G6
Great sound from a venerable name
Size: 14.8 x 15.7 x 4.4 cm | Weight: 408g | Surround?: Virtual, 7.1
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.
It 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.
02. ASUS Xonar U5
Compact and powerful
Size: 13.7 x 8 x 2.5 cm | Weight: 617g | Surround?: Yes, 5.1
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 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.
03. AudioQuest DragonFly Red
An absolute mini-marvel
Size: 6 x 2 x 3 cm | Weight: 99.8g | Surround?: No
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).
04. FiiO E10K
Size: 7.9 x 2.1 x 4.9 cm | Weight: 77.1g | Surround?: No
The pocket-sized FiiO E10K USB sound card might not look like much, but beyond its basic looks this is a serious little piece of kit for anyone who wants great audio without a hefty price tag. Built with performance rather than appearance in mind, its aluminium shell prevents interference and its fat volume dial makes it easy to turn everything up loud – and when you do you'll appreciate its power. Suitable for headphones between 16 - 150Ω impedance, it supports high-resolution audio with a frequency response that goes from 20Hz all the way up to 20KHz, with a low-pass filter and bass boost for extra low-frequency fun.
You might need to check the settings when you first install it, to ensure it's outputting at its full 24-bit 96KHz capacity; once you've done that you'll be good to go. And if you find you need a little more power there's a handy gain button on the back that'll give you an instant slab of extra volume across the range.
05. Sennheiser GSX 1000
One for gadget-lovers
Size: 14.3 x 13.9 x 7 cm | Weight: 299g | Surround?: Virtual, 7.1
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.