Nov 8 2013 - The PC audio card market is much different than it was several years ago. Changes in the way the Windows operating system handles audio and the improvement in built-in audio has shifted the focus of many audio card designs. Now they are much more specialized for certain audio tasks than they were before. After all, a gamer might want different features from someone using their PC with a home theater setup. With this in mind, here are my selections for the best audio cards for different computer audio uses and types of interfaces.
One of the big features that gamers look for is support for the EAX audio extensions. Creative was the developer of these audio extension to provide effects to simulate a variety of different environments to provide a more realistic audio experience for games. The most advance version of this is EAX HD that is only supported on Creative's audio cards. Other companies can only support up to EAX 3.0. Creative released their Core3D audio processor last year which was fairly well received but there were a few minor audio issues. Essentially, the Z series takes that same audio processor and makes a number of hardware and software changes to address some of the static it produced. It also received a bright red card cover as well. Pricing is around $105.
Audiophiles are interested in getting the best audio quality they can out of their components. The ASUS Xonar Essence STX is probably one of the best consumer level audio cards on the market thanks to its high signal-to-noise ratio, 192KHz/24bit support, superb digital to audio converters and even a built-in headphone amplifier. The audio components also have shielding to ensure that it doesn't receive any interference from other computer components. This provides it with some of the best playback and recording capabilities in a desktop audio card. The card does require an additional 4-pin power connector to provide it with sufficient power. Priced around $170.
Many people might want to use their computer for more than just one aspect. Some cards may be better for PC gaming, stereo audio or HTPC setups. What if you want to use your computer for each of these? Or what if you just want to have some better audio than the built-in solution that came with your desktop computer? If this is the case, then the ASUS Xonar DX is an excellent choice. It provides high quality audio along with features such as EAX 3.0 support, Dolby Digital Live output and has high signal-to-noise ratios. It also features DS3D GX 2.0 that lets it emulate higher levels of the EAX extensions. The card does require a 4-pin floppy power connector to properly function. Priced around $80.
As mentioned before, many games are designed with EAX audio extensions to provide high quality, immersive audio for the player. Only Creative audio cards can support the highest level of these extensions, EAX HD. If you happen to have an older system with PCI expansion slots that you are playing PC games on, then the Sound Blaster Audigy SE 7.1 is about the only option left. This is a much older audio engine from Creative but is still quite well liked by many gamers. The cost is incredibly low at just $30 but it has a limited set of outputs on this relatively small PCI board
The HT Omega Claro XT is a bit different from some other audio cards because it is really a primary audio card with a secondary audio output board. The audio card itself offers some impressive performance with its CMI8788 audio chipset that supports Dolby Digital Live, full dual 24-bit/192KHz DACs and impressive electronics. The board even features a built-in audio headphone amplifier for those looking at some very high quality personal audio experiences. The XT board provides it with a full set of analog RCA output connectors for use with high end audio equipment. Pricing on the board is around $230.
The ASUS Xonar DS 7.1 is essentially the PCI version of the Xonar DX. It uses the same AV200 audio processor that gives it a solid level of audio performance including 24-bit 192KHz support but with slightly less audio quality. It fully supports EAX 3.0 and can emulate the more advanced versions with the DS3D GX 2.5. One big difference between this version and the PCI-Express DX version is that it does not require an additional power connector. Finally, it has a very reasonable price of just $55 making it quite affordable for a nice audio upgrade.