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What is a USB sound card and why do you need one?

This article will try to explain what USB stands for, what a USB sound card is, and why you might want to invest in one. It depends on what you already have and use, but the article will dig into that. Personally I do have one, though not the latest and hottest, but I’ll explain why I added it to my gaming rig.

Technically – what is USB?

First, let me explain the abbreviation USB, which stands for Universal Serial Bus. It is a serial data bus for connecting units/gadgets/gizmos to a computer. Like your mouse, keyboard, printer, external harddrive and more. This industry standard was launched in January 1996, and defines cabling, outlets, communication protocols and power supply between computers and electronic equipment. It is also widely used for charging devices as well.detective

Universal Serial Bus was created to standardize the connection between computers and other gadgets, and has replaced many earlier interface types and proprietary connections. Video game consoles also use USB ports. The standard has evolved over the years, enabling better transfer speeds.

  • 1996: USB 1.0 : Transfer rate of 1.5 Mbit/s.
  • 1998: USB 1.1 : Transfer rate of 12 Mbit/s.
  • 2000: USB 2.0 : Transfer rate (in theory) of 480 Mbit/s, but due to technical limitations, the achieved transfer rate has been up to 280 Mbit/s.
  • 2008: USB 3.0 : Transfer rate for 4 Gbit/s.
  • 2013: USB 3.1 : Transfer rate (in theory) of 10 Gbit/s, and a realistic transfer rate of over 7.2 Gbit/s between two computers.

USB-C is now the new standard for USB cabling/connections. This cable is symmetrical in its plug, making it impossible to insert the wrong way, as opposed to the older ones.

Fun facts : 3G (mobile phone) : Transfer rate 3.6 – 7.2 Mbit/s. (HSDPA). 3G is now being phased out, at least i Norway, to free up frequencies for 4G and 5G. 4G+ (LTE) : Transfer rates (peak) download : 100 Mbit/s. – upload 50 Mbit/s.

A USB system has an asymmetric design consisting of a single host and a number of ports and peripheral units that can be connected in a hierarchical structure by using hub units. Up to 127 gadgets can be connected to a single host including these hubs, thus reducing the total number of gadgets available to connect. But I have yet to see someone actually using this capacity. Imagine 100+ memory sticks into your computer. Who uses that many?

usb-sticks

USB sound card

Now that we have been through was USB is, a USB sound card is one of these gadgets you can connect to your computer via USB cable. This device processes audio for your computer, to provide your ears with (usually) better audio quality than your motherboard provides, unless you have a really high-end motherboard with a top-level audio chip on it. Digital Audio Converter (DAC), Dolby Digital decoding, virtual surround sound, balancing of voice and game audio volume, headphone amplifier and more are properties the sound card can help you and your computer with.

Laptops (low to mid-end) tend to lack proper audio processors, so these will perhaps benefit even more from external usb sound cards.

Better sound for gaming

There are many external cards available, varying from very cheap to take all my money. If you, like me, love to order electronics, gadgets and gizmos from China, on AliExpress for example, you’ll find sound cards there. These are low-end cards, mostly just enabling audio on your computer if you have no sound card at all, neither in the motherboard or by expansion cards. Of course, audio versus no audio is a great improvement in itself, but you should aim higher than that. What gamer has no audio anyway? Music lovers and gamers will get a very much better experience with good equipment, like other things in this world.

headphone-girl

The sound card will process the audio to make it as good as it possibly can for your hearing pleasure, but it will not help if you don’t match your gaming rig with appropriate devices to play your audio with, like a good gaming headset or a set of great speakers. It would just be a waste. Pairing a great usb sound card with a great headset will let you hear audio details before hidden in your games. Hear enemies footsteps better, determine where they are, and perhaps aid you in your quest for winning. Get that little extra edge over the others not having audiophile equipment on their end.

Sound BlasterX G6

Creative is one of the market leaders when it comes to designing and producing sound cards. This card in particular, the successor to G5, is a no-brainer, it provides a huge audio improvement for relatively little money. These can be found for around 150 us dollars.

It works with everything, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PC. It has optical, USB and even line in, which makes it work with whatever you have.

nintendo-switch

Other features:

  • Virtual 7.1 32-bit / 384 kHz, 130dB USB Digital Audio Converter (DAC)
  • Xamp discrete headphone amplifier – amplifies both audio channels separately.
  • Dolby Digital decoding
  • Virtual 7.1 surround
  • Balancing game and voice volume
  • Scout Mode (Improves important sound signals in the game, for example footsteps and weapon changes, so you quickly can determine where the enemy is positioned – before they find you!)
  • 30 years of audio improvement technology
  • Designed for the most picky gamers and built to impress even audio enthusiasts
  • Works with all headsets with its very low output impedance of 1 Ω, running loud and sensitive16 Ω in-ear-monitors all the way up to 600 Ω studio quality headphones (Xamp)

The Sound Blaster usb sound card uses a standard USB 2.0 connection, so it should work with almost everything, like mentioned above.

Visit Creatives official site for it here.

Is it for you?

If you already own a high-end gaming rig with top-notch audio on it, it might not be a major upgrade, but an external sound card can, depending on which one you choose, improve on some areas. The built-in cards mostly don’t have features like Scout Mode, separate audio channel amplifier and in-game volume balancing.

Purchasing an usb sound card for laptop usage is one thing I do recommend, since laptops tend to suffer when it comes to audio.

Remember to pair your sound card, whether it’s built-in or external, with a good pair of speakers or a sweet gaming headset. It doesn’t help much with extreme audio processing, if the output unit is rubbish.

gaming-headset

I did search online for an usb c sound card, but didn’t find any. External cards do not require the latest speeds of the USB-C standard for audio, I guess. And it would also narrow down the market to sell these to, so that might be why I didn’t find any of those at the moment. Write a line if you know of some USB-C sound cards.

Do you have any experience with external sound cards? Leave a comment below.

Tom-Inge Nilsen

2 Comments

  1. Hi Tom! I’ve never used a USB sound card before, but it’s good to know about them since I have two laptops I use daily for business and gaming. The Sound BlasterX G6 you mentioned sounds very nice and it really seems like a good value.

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