The laptop you're using right now has a soundcard built in by default, allowing you to pump audio out of the speakers or through the 3.5mm audio jack (if it still has one). Upgrading the audio experience doesn't mean you need to shop around for an entirely new laptop thanks to external sound cards that connect with USB. You'll get better overall sound quality, plus you'll be able to use more or different sound devices than you would with the built-it laptop hardware. Here's a look at the best external sound cards for laptops available now.
Sound Blaster has been synonymous with PC audio for decades and the G6 is still an outstanding option. It's technically aimed at gamers, but anyone looking for great audio will enjoy the virtual 7.1 surround sound, the dedicated headphone amplifier, and the absolutely superb 32-bit 384kHz DAC makes this more than a match for the best quality lossless audio files.
For music lovers
The FiiO E10K-TC is perfect for music lovers and doesn't toss around endless, unnecessary features or exterior design points. It's a simple-looking aluminum box with a headphone jack, a big old volume wheel, an on/off control for the bass boost, a coax and line out, and Micro-USB power. It's also quite compact, making it perfect for laptops. With a 24-bit/96 kHz DAC, it's capable of pushing out a great sound on high-resolution audio.
Best for streamers
The major selling point of the GoXLR mini is how users can have total control over various audio devices while streaming PC or console games online, but underneath all that awesome it's also a superb sound card. This little box, along with the intuitive companion application, is capable of funneling all your various PC audio channels as well as an external microphone, which gives you total control over levels and much more.
If all you want is something cheap and small enough to stash in your bag when you hit the road, this is the answer. The G1 is Creative's smallest Sound Blaster external sound card, but still has 7.1 virtual surround sound, a built-in headphone amplifier, and a powerful engine pushing it all. It's as great for gaming as it is immersing yourself in your favorite music or movie.
Despite being the size of a USB thumb drive, this little red stick contains an astonishing amount of audio power. At the heart of the Dragonfly is a 32-bit Sabre DAC that will make your high-quality, lossless music sound tremendous through your favorite headphones, which it's perfectly capable of pushing with a 2.1V output. It's expensive, but it's hard to find a more powerful sound card in a package this portable.
Gaming on your laptop? The Astro MixAmp is the external sound card to pair with it. It's not particularly expensive, it has lots of connectivity and flexibility, and it will allow you control over your game and party audio balance. The latest model has a much improved audio engine, you can get Dolby audio, and with the companion app you can customize your sound profiles to suit your own tastes.
If we had to choose...
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When it comes to PC sound cards for the best laptops available today, there is one brand that always comes to mind. Creative's Sound Blaster lineup has been delivering top class audio for decades, and the Sound BlasterX G6 is the current king of the hill. A top-quality DAC paired with 7.1 virtual surround sound all in a little box you can attach to your laptop is hard to ignore.
There are also choices out there for more specific requirements and budgets worth attention. One of Creative's other products, the Sound BlasterX G1 is still capable of delivering virtual surround sound, but in something that fits in a pocket and costs very little.
Keen gamers should look towards the Astro MixAmp Pro TR as well. Besides being a full external sound card with Dolby audio, the built-in controls allow you to adjust the balance and volume of game and chat audio, as well as having tons of connectivity potential and an easy-to-use companion app for customization.
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Cale Hunt is formerly a Senior Editor at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on laptop reviews, news, and accessory coverage. He's been reviewing laptops and accessories full-time since 2016, with hundreds of reviews published for Windows Central. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user, and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.
- Richard DevineManaging Editor - Tech, Reviews