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Best External Sound Cards for Music PCs - Published April 2009

written by: Tolga BALCI•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 2/28/2010

Often the sound cards that are installed on a standard PC produce inferior sound quality and have minimal connectivity options. Thus external sound cards provide a more worthwhile output quality and features. Here we review three of the best external sound cards for entertainment PC purposes.

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    Introduction

    There is not a wide variety of quality sound cards available on the market. Here we focus on the Creative sound card range, since in my opinion Creative manufactures the best music and entertainment PC sound cards. We will especially focus on external cards, but I would like to emphasize that the X-Fi Elite Pro card, which is actually an internal sound card still provides perfect sound quality that almost all audiophiles would want to have.

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    Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit External Sound Card

    Rating Average

    Creative Sound Blaster Live!24-bit External Card This is the basic upgrade option for your sound card. The card is connected to your USB port and requires only installation of drivers for it to be operational. This external Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit card supports 24-bit Advanced HD trademarked technology to enhance the sound, as Creative proudly put in the product name. It also has software based bass boost, smart volume management, a multi-band graphic equalizer and audio clean-up features. Furthermore, the card has Creative’s EAX technology, which is in fact a collection of audio technologies that produce surround sound.

    Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit External Sound Card has 5.1 surround sound output. The front-side of the card has optical audio, microphone, headphone and stereo to surround upmix connections. On the back are connections for 5.1 systems, SPDIF, cassette player/walkman connections, one optical connection and connections for Creative I-Trigue/Inspire speakers. Playback and recording supports 24-bit analog/digital connections with 96 KHz in stereo modes. The sampling rate is 48 KHz for 5.1 surround sound.

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    Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1

    Rating Average

    Creative X-Fi Sound Blaster Surround 5.1 Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 USB external sound card carries your sound experience one step beyond with the X-Fi (Extreme Fidelity) chipset, X-Fi CMSS-3D and EAX Advanced HD technologies. The card outputs a crystal clear sound even when output is directed to headphones. Moreover, the X-Fi CMSS-3D technology lets you optimize surround sound even through your headphones.

    Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 supports microphone in, stereo in, headphone out connections at mini jack size (1/8”), left and right speaker out RCA connections, rear left, rear right, center, subwoofer outputs at mini jack size (1/8”) and an optical TOSLINK connection. Surround playback quality is 24-Bit, 96 KHz for USB 2.0 connections.

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    Sound Blaster X-Fi Notebook Wireless Audio

    Rating Average

    Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Notebook Wireless Sound Blaster X-Fi Notebook Wireless Audio brings enhanced sound to your notebook with the X-Fi 24-bit crystallizer, X-Fi CMSS-3D and EAX Advanced HD technologies, all embedded in an Express Card/54 card. The wireless audio technology gives you the option to stream your music to any Creative wireless-receiver connected speakers.

    This card does not support 5.1 surround sound, but with the CMSS-3D technology you can enjoy surround sound through your headphones with the positioned audio technology. The output quality is stereo 24-bit, 48 KHz. With the package there is also a pair of stereo headphones with built in microphone.

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    Price & Warranty Terms

    All cards come with a 1 year limited warranty. The Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit retails at USD 130, the X-Fi Surround at USD 60 and X-Fi Notebook Wireless at USD 90.

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    Conclusion

    Depending on your needs, all of these products will deliver excellent sound quality for a top end music savvy PC. However Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit is out of stock at Creative and the price listed on Amazon.com is too high to justify its features. Therefore I rate this product as average in a price/performance evaluation.

    If wireless audio is not what you need and if you do not own Creative’s wireless sound system, then the X-Fi Surround 5.1 External sound card is the clear winner, despite the fact that X-Fi Notebook Wireless Audio is specifically designed for notebook Express Card slots. I have deducted one point from the X-Fi Notebook for not having any additional features such as true surround sound or any input/output connections other than standard microphone and headphone sockets.