Sound quality is rarely on the forefront of the average PC user's mind when looking for the perfect setup. As long as sound comes out, everything's fine. Why make it more complicated than it is?
Well, the big revelation is that there is more to sound beyond just “fine”. You read that right, sound can go above the bare minimum. It can be defined and pronounced; it can sound clearer, more realistic to our ears. All this is possible with the help of PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) sound cards.
These PCIe sound cards have a surprisingly competitive market, with lots of options to choose from. Like most products, not all sound cards are created as equals. Sometimes, the wrong sound card can even produce worse results than your existing on-board one.
This article is to help you understand why sound cards are a thing, and find out which PCIe sound card is the best sound card for gaming.
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What is a sound card?
Sound cards used to be more necessary back when PCs functioned with only a basic internal beeper. Users who desired more complex sounds would need to buy a separate sound card to fulfill this task. Over time, manufacturers were able to create smaller sound cards, which then eventually made its way into becoming an integral part of a CPU.
A separate sound card has since become unnecessary due to the existence of the built-in one. It's now more of an accessory. Most times, the on-board audio is enough to fulfill an average user's needs, and is usually enough even for hardcore gamers. Still, there are some benefits to having a dedicated sound card that can help users upgrade their PC experience.
“I think I'm good with on-board audio”
Being satisfied with your system's on-board audio is a perfectly valid stance to take. In fact, a lot of users agree that the built-in sound is more than enough to tide you through many different games. But sound cards are a debatably hot topic in gaming or PC communities for a reason.
While newer rigs have adequate built-in audio for almost everything, PCIe sound cards can serve a higher purpose than just creating nice sounds. You see, your CPU's on-board audio takes up vital CPU resources. This diverts the power that could instead be directed towards a smoother experience, better graphics, and shorter loading time for your games and other programs. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if you have one of those heavy-duty, high-spec CPUs, but realistically, not everyone can afford those. People have compared this situation to a car: it's easier and cheaper to buy one spare tire, than it is to buy a whole new car.
With a separate sound card, your system's CPU can redirect the audio juice towards more vital processes. You might notice an overall enhancement in your computer's performance when you try a sound card out, and in turn, your gaming experience will improve.
Apart from the lightened load on the CPU, sound cards will predictably result in better audio for you. This would depend on the type of sound card used, so choose one that has features which serve your needs best. A bonus sound card perk is the ability to more seamlessly incorporate your PC system into your household stereo system. Having a sound card gives you some leeway for neatness and efficiency; it will enable you to use an optical connection or a line out, versus multiple lengths of wires running through your home.
Best PCIe Sound Card for Gaming
Sound Blaster Z SE
Anyone who knows about the existence and function of sound cards are familiar with the Sound Blaster name. It has practically become a household name among gamers. Although there are lots of great sound cards on the market, it comes as no surprise that the best sound card is a Sound Blaster.
The Sound Blaster Z SE* is a special edition release of the original Sound Blaster Z. Its predecessor was already considered as the best on the market; this special edition takes it up a notch. One significant shortcoming of the OG Sound Blaster Z model was its less than stellar headphone output. The Special Edition model has rectified that con, leaving us with a whole lot of pros.
Specs, Details, and Features
This Sound Blaster Z SE sound card is specifically designed to optimize your gaming experience, making it the best sound card for gaming (and video conferencing, if need be). To highlight its gaming prowess, they added a gaming profile feature to help you set things up quickly. The Sound Blaster Z SE features gaming profiles of various games including Fortnite, PUBG, DOTA 2, and Overwatch, among many more. There is no more need for you to start from the bottom. Simply select your chosen game and get ready to play.
Crystal Clear Audio
Much like the Sound Blaster Z, this new version boasts 116 dB SNR at a bit rate of 24-bit / 192 kHz. Along with its gold-plated connectors and Audio Stream Input / Output (ASIO) support, Sound Blaster Z SE gives you the best audio results all around. In contrast with other sound card brands, that's a pretty good turnout for a fairly affordable price.
As mentioned above, there have been some negative feedbacks regarding the old Sound Blaster Z's headphone output. It was one of the few flaws that users pointed out. The manufacturers tried to fix the issue with added features, including expanding their headphones profile to add more recent models.
What player doesn't like being immersed in a game's world? Most gamers would grab the chance to have the most immersive experience possible, and that can be done with this sound card. The Sound Blaster Z SE now supports 7.1 virtual on headphones and speakers, and 5.1 for speakers. Users have the option to easily swap between the two, depending on how deep into the game you want to go.
Everyone knows that communication is key in any setting. Especially for group games, the line of communication is important. A patchy command from your leader, or an unheard plea for rescue from your crew can lead to a huge loss for your team.
The Z SE allows users to use Microphone EQ Presets that'll help make up for your mic's shortcomings. You can adjust the levels according to your preferences, with the aim of hopefully getting heard clearly. The Sound Blaster Command Software's CrystalVoice tech can get rid of echoes and other stray noises, obviously great for all your talking needs.
This sound card is widely available online. The package includes a Sound Blaster Z SE sound card, a quick start leaflet, and a warranty leaflet.
The Z SE has different warranties applying to EU and non-EU countries. They offer a 2-year limited hardware warranty for EU countries, and a 1-year limited hardware warranty for non-EU.
The software needed to run this is easily accessible and downloadable on the manufacturer's website.
Before moving forward, first, remove your CPU's existing sound card and insert the Sound Blaster Z SE sound card in its place. Your computer will recognize it as “High Definition Audio Device”. Then, download all the necessary software needed from the manufacturer's website. After the setup is finished, the sound card will register as the right name.
Sound Blaster Z SE FAQs
Is it worth it? For gamers, yes. It creates an experience that can envelop players as if they are in the real game field. It also allows players to communicate with their teams better and clearer. For audiophiles or professional musicians though, the Z SE might fall short on some aspects. However, it still delivers great sounds so only those bothered by minutiae will be put off.
Is the Z SE better than the Z model? Yes, mainly because of additional features to the product. Specifically for efficient gaming, the Z SE version is the one to go for if you're willing to spend a little bit more.
Does it support Dolby Digital Live and DTS Encoding? Yes, it has Dolby Digital Live input and output. It is all included in the software, found under Cinematic Settings.
Can I turn off the red LED light? Unfortunately, no. Users have taken to removing the shield and putting electrical tape over the light to block it out.
Does this work on Windows 10? Yes, it appears to have no problem working on Windows 10, though the installers do look old-fashioned.
Are the effects of the sound card reliant on the quality of speakers? No, you will definitely hear improvements using a sound card, although a good-quality speaker will also enhance the audio.
Much like all purchases, there are pros and cons to the Sound Blaster Z SE. In this case however, the pros far outweigh the cons, particularly for gaming. As a whole, the Sound Blaster Z SE can still be considered as the best sound card for games.