First thing to consider here is your intended usage of the sound card. If all you want is basic sound support and not spectacular 3D surround sound, I’d say go buy a cheap, simple card like the Sabrent 6-Channel or even rely on your motherboard’s on-board sound. If you want great surround sound and better speaker connectivity options, then you’ll want to consider a dedicated sound card like the TurtleBeach Montego or Sound Blaster Audigy 2.
As always, cost is an important issue to consider. A basic, no-frills sound card these days costs about $10, while the latest heavy-duty sound card with surround sound support can cost about $250. If you only need simple sound support, don’t waste money buying a high-end product with features you don’t need.
A critical factor to consider is to take a look at what sound standards your sound card supports. Most high-end sound cards in the market today have EAX and 5.1 surround sound support. You can connect up to five speakers to these cards to enjoy a surreal, 3D audio effects. Some cards even starting to provide 7.1 surround sound support.
Do you have any special needs that you need to cater for? For example, if you’re into professional, multi-track music recording, you’ll want to get a proper multi-channel sound card. If you’re into things like MIDI, you’ll want a card that supports provides good MIDI support.
If you want to take advantage of the latest features in the new sound cards out there, you’ll usually need to ensure you have a powerful CPU to go along with it. No point having the latest super-duper audio card if you’re installing it into an old Pentium 3 computer.
It’s also useful to look at what software comes with the sound card package. Cards like the Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS are wonderful because they throw in great music and audio software. This will save you money, especially if the software you’ve always wanted is found in the package.
Recommended Sound Cards
Now let’s take a look at some of the sound cards I’d recommend to prospective buyers.
- Sabrent 6-Channel. You’ve probably not heard of the brand Powmax – but the Sabrent 6-Channel 5.1 3D Surround Sound PCI Card is one solid, reliable sound card. It is sold for a very low price (about $10) but provides up to 6 channels of stereo sound to any computer. Great for basic multimedia usage like playing games or watching DVDs.
- TurtleBeach Montego. The TurtleBeach Montego provides 7.1 channel surround sound for a complete home theater experience. The 24-bit audio quality is excellent, whilst the wealth of connectivity options to external audio devices is a big plus for fans of high fidelity audio.
- Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS. If you have the cash, this is one of the best sound cards in the market today. It can do almost anything imaginable with your computer’s audio. Among others, it incorporates support for DVD-Audio, Dolby Digital EX, wavetable synthesis, EAX and hard-disk recording. The moment my current sound card breaks down, I’m rushing out to get one!