Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
Bottom Line
Pros
Cons
Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

20 Models Considered
7 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
385 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for best external sound cards for laptops

Last Updated September 2020

With its compact size and desktop-grade power, a laptop computer is a portable and versatile tool to have. One area in which a laptop can suffer, however, is audio quality. Laptops — and oftentimes desktop computers — generally don’t ship with top-quality sound cards installed. Trying to upgrade your laptop’s sound by installing your own internal sound card can be a difficult and time-consuming task, but there is an easy and inexpensive way to quickly give your laptop audio a boost: an external sound card.

External sound cards are a great way to either upgrade your laptop’s existing sound capabilities or replace a defective internal sound card without needing to open the case. These cards usually connect through a USB port (some use FireWire), and they can be used not only with laptops but also desktop computers and gaming consoles.

In this guide, we examine all the features and other factors that you need to consider when purchasing an external sound card, everything from installation and size to audio clarity and pricing. We also highlight a number of our favorites, both in terms of quality and affordability.

Because external sound cards are powered through the USB connection, you won’t need to worry about managing another power cord or replacing or recharging batteries.

Key considerations

Audio quality

When considering external sound cards, you should look for the one with the best audio quality you can afford. Does it offer superior bass, highs, and mid frequencies? Finding a quality card is especially important if you do much gaming or watch a lot of movies. Sound is usually a big component of both, so having a high-quality sound card is key. While rare, some external sound cards are also equipped with a Sony/Philips Digital Interface (SPDIF) output and offer support for surround sound.

Size

External sound cards can vary in size from compact plugs that sit almost flush with the laptop casing (which are more portable and better able to slip into a pocket or the corner of a laptop bag) to cards complete with longer cords for better access, controls, and other features that are easier to use.

Installation

The installation of an external sound card can vary considerably depending on the one you buy and the operating system you’re using. The standard is simple plug-and-play installation, but you might need a newer operating system to take advantage of it. Some operating systems, particularly those that are more than a few years old, may require you to download and install drivers before the card will work with your laptop. You might also need to select the card as an audio source on your computer. Consult the manual that shipped with your card for more information on installing it with your specific OS.

EXPERT TIP

Some sound cards include Dolby Digital Live (DDL) encoding, so you can connect a laptop to your home theater system for surround sound.


Staff  | BestReviews

Features

Ports

Ports are a necessary feature on an external sound card, because you’re going to need some way to plug in headphones or speakers and a microphone. The simplest external sound cards only have these two ports and are suitable for use by one person. The headphone/speaker port is stereo, while the microphone port varies from mono to TRS or TRRS. The card may also offer a number of other ports. Some popular ports include the following:

Second headphone jack: This is so two people can listen to the audio at the same time.

USB ports: Some external sound cards incorporate one or more USB ports, so the card can also function as a USB hub.

Dual recording inputs: These allow you to record in stereo. They are generally only found in audio interfaces that can be used to record musical instruments and more.

Other ports: While rarer, some external sound cards do have a variety of other types of ports, such as SPDIF digital outs, which can be used for a variety of purposes, such as hooking up your laptop to a home theater system.

Controls

Controls on external sound cards are typically pretty sparse. A volume control, usually in the form of a large knob, is common. Some also have a mute button for either the microphone or headphone ports, so you can easily mute the sound without unplugging any cables. While rare, some cards also include equalization (EQ) switches, so you can add more bass or treble to the audio stream.

Remote control

A remote control isn’t standard with most external sound cards, but you will find them included with some higher-priced cards. With a remote, you can easily control the volume and mute the sound from anywhere in the room.

Cord

As mentioned earlier, the cords on these cards can vary from nonexistent up to a yard or more long. A longer cord provides you with more versatility in how you can plug in your microphone or headphones, but it may be more of a pain to lug around. Consider how you plan to use the card before settling on a cord length.

LEDs

Lights are another nonstandard feature, but some external sound cards do incorporate them for both logos and control lights (such as volume marks). LEDs allow you to tell at a glance whether the card is currently in use (and they up the “cool” factor considerably).

EXPERT TIP

In addition to upgrading the sound quality of your laptop, an external sound card can also provide an easy way to replace a faulty internal sound card.


Staff  | BestReviews

External sound card prices

Prices for external sound cards range from under $10 to over $100. Most of them are in the $10 to $30 range.

At lower price points, you’ll find simple cards that have two ports (one for a microphone and one for headphones/speakers). These are for casual audio fans who are simply trying to improve the audio output over the stock sound card (or replace a defective card).

As the price increases, you start to find cards with more ports, in addition to advanced features like LED lighting and remote controls. Warranties of 18 to 24 months are often standard here. These external sound cards offer improved audio quality for audiophiles, gamers, and movie fans.

EXPERT TIP

Gamers will receive a boost in play from an external sound card due to the fact that the card won’t draw off the CPU. This will improve the frame rate of games played on the computer.


Staff  | BestReviews

Tips

  • Get high-quality gear. To realize the best sound from these cards, you are also going to need a high-quality set of headphones or speakers.
  • Go for looks. If appearance is a big buying consideration of yours, search for a manufacturer or seller who provides external sound cards in a choice of colors.
  • Go for USB if you’re on a budget. While both USB and FireWire external sound cards provide portable options for creating and listening to audio, USB tends to be much less expensive and much more common.
  • Buy a sound card with USB ports. If you don’t have a free USB port to connect one of these sound cards into, consider going with a card that incorporates one or more USB ports. This allows the external sound card to also double as a USB hub.
  • Upgrade your laptop’s sound. Even mid-range external sound cards can provide you with better sound quality than the standard internal cards that are installed in the majority of desktop and laptop computers.
  • Use it for DJing. For those using DJ programs, the addition of an external sound card can provide you with two sound outputs, so you can queue up the next song using headphones while the current song plays through your speakers.

Other products we considered

If you don’t see what you need in our matrix, we have a few other external sound cards to highlight here. The first is the PHOINIKAS External Stereo Sound Card, which includes six ports in all, including three USB 2.0 ports. This card supports surround sound and includes LED lights.

The Sabrent USB External Sound Adapter has easy plug-and-play setup and offers a low-profile design that takes up little room.

Finally, the StarTech USB Sound Card features a nice design and advanced features, such as SPDIF digital audio out and simple EQ controls that let you dial in more bass or treble.

The sound put out by internal sound cards can be affected by components inside the computer, such as a graphics card and hard drive. An external sound card doesn’t have these potential interference problems.

FAQ

Q. What operating systems do these sound cards work with?
A.
While this varies some from card to card, most external sound cards work with a range of popular operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and Chrome OS. Be sure to check OS compatibility carefully before buying, and pay particular attention to the OS versions that are supported if you’re running an older version.
 

Q. Do I need to have an internal sound card already installed on my laptop to use one of these?
A.
No. External sound cards work independently of any internal sound card, so it doesn’t matter whether you have an internal card, functioning or not.
 

Q. With these work with a headset?
A.
Some headsets (or microphone/headphone combos like those used for gaming) can easily work with external sound cards. These headsets feature separate cables for the microphone and headphones, so you just plug them into the right ports on the card. Even headsets that only have one cable that combines the microphone and headphones can still be used with some external sound cards that have a dedicated port for them. If you own a headset like this, check the listing carefully to verify that it has the proper port.
 

Q. Can I use an external sound card to record an instrument, such as a guitar?
A.
In order to record, you should really invest in a specialized external sound card called an audio interface. These cards feature both stereo inputs and outputs for connecting and recording instruments, mixers, and other musical devices. They often also have additional features, such as monitor controls, that can help with recording.

The team that worked on this review
  • Bronwyn
    Bronwyn
    Editor
  • Ciera
    Ciera
    Digital Content Producer
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer
  • Rich
    Rich
    Writer

BestReviews wants to be better. Please take our 3-minute survey,
and give us feedback about your visit today.

Take Survey