Often, manufacturers of laptops and ultrabooks, for the sake of compactness of their equipment and saving space under the device case, install far from the most powerful sound cards, which makes it problematic to work with sound, play, and even just watch movies. For this reason, so-called external sound cards have been developed that connect to a computer using a USB connector. They greatly improve the sound quality.
Recently, more and more similar models have begun to appear on sale. It may not be too easy to choose from them the most suitable and optimal in terms of cost and workmanship, especially if a person does not have special knowledge in this area. Therefore, we decided today to dedicate our review of the best external sound cards of 2020. However, let’s first look at what you should pay attention to when buying such devices.
What qualities are important for an external sound card?
First of all, you should decide whether this equipment is really necessary and whether it is worth buying. So, an external sound card will be useful for users if they need good and high-quality sound on a portable personal computer. Users may say that you can connect speakers or headphones, but this approach is fundamentally wrong. Additional speakers will increase the sound volume, but the quality will remain the same. An external sound card will also come in handy for laptop owners whose integrated part is out of order.
In most cases, such a device has small overall dimensions — with an ordinary flash drive or card reader. More expensive designs have a larger size — with an external hard drive. The most productive models have even larger dimensions, which are quite comparable with the portable computer itself. The capabilities of such equipment make it possible to make the sound clearer and stronger than that of an integrated element. Using such a card, you can connect several microphones, speakers, headphones and so on at once.
The most expensive models are equipped with various indicators, buttons and volume control knobs, they have various kinds of interfaces available — analog and coaxial outputs. An external sound card allows almost professional audio recording. Often, this design is attached not only to a personal computer, but also to a tablet or phone. The setup is very simple, carried out using the buttons and controls directly on the case.
When choosing such a product, certain product qualities should be taken into account. For home amateur use, a card equipped with one input and an audio output is quite enough. For a small compact cinema, devices with two similar pairs are suitable. If the product is intended for professional use, then there must be at least 4 of these outputs. The bit depth of the external sound card must be at least 24 bits. If you plan to connect musical instruments, then appropriate sockets should be provided for them.
It will be very good if the card has support for the Digital Theater System or Dolby Digital sound standards, which allow you to work with multi-channel audio and video. This is important not only when watching movies or playing games, but also when editing music. An external sound card should not support the ASIO transfer protocol, but if such a function is present, it will be very good.
It doesn’t hurt the EAX technology that adds ambient sound effects, which is a nice bonus for the gamer who prefers applications that support multi-channel audio. When compiling our ranking of the best external sound cards of the year, we took all these points into account, as well as turned to feedback from users and sound professionals. We tried to take into account the ratio of price and quality of models so that the most expensive products are not included in our review. It’s time to analyze the performance of these products.
Best external sound cards of the year
By and large, this model is an external analogue of the widely used ESI MAYA 44ex sound card. There are only two independent physical channels here, but there are also two additional virtual ones — they are used for Internet broadcasting. The interface of this equipment is quite interesting, especially since it is one of the most budgetary. The case is made of metal, has a lacquered finish that looks like copper — quite an original design solution. One of the main achievements of this device is the presence of various knobs for the line output and headphone output. According to users, this is a very convenient and correct approach.
Another important point that the developers have added here is the presence of a hardware FRONT-BACK switch, which allows you to calculate whether you should use the front guitar plus microphone inputs or digitize the RCA stereo signal from the input on the rear panel, and it does this automatically . For such a budget product, the presence of balanced TRS outputs. A separate AC adapter is not required when connecting this product, just like it does not need AC power. You just need to connect it to a personal computer, besides, it can work with tablets and phones thanks to the UAC1 mode support.
- Acceptable cost;
- Convenient location of both inputs and all controls;
- Very attractive appearance;
- Easy to connect and use.
- The volume knobs are smooth and not very comfortable to use;
- The quality of the recorded sound could be better.
ESI U22 XT sound card
9. TASCAM US-2×2
This is a fairly convenient model in terms of operation, which has two inputs and outputs. The product was released to the general public in 2014, but the performance was so good that the product is still very popular, and it also has an excellent value for money. The design is equipped with two Mic/Line inputs that work with XLR/TRS connectors — this allows you to use even condenser microphones. Moreover, each of them can be used to connect instruments — the switch is located on the front panel, so you can safely connect an electric or bass guitar to this external sound card.
The headphone output is a classic 6.3 mm, there are two balanced line outputs of the same type. The device supports sound recording and playback in 1624-bit mode, the frequency range is in the range from 44.1 to 96 kHz. According to users, this sound card provides excellent sound, distortion and noise are minimal. Such indicators were largely achieved thanks to the installation of two Ultra-HDDA preamplifiers at once. On the front panel you can find the main controls of this product, the signal levels for the headphone output and line outputs are adjusted separately. The device is connected to a USB 2.0 connector, it is very easy to set it up. This equipment also has a MIDI input/output, which allows you to connect a wide variety of devices and musical equipment, such as a synthesizer or drum kit. The sound card is perfectly compatible not only with laptops, but also with personal computers, including MacOs, it works well with other Apple products — iPad. The case is made of high-quality aluminum, made in a stylish industrial design. Overall dimensions are compact, weight is small — just a little more than 1 kg. The side panels can be removed.
- Installed high-quality preamplifiers for microphones;
- Musical instruments sound at a professional level;
- Compact product;
- The assembly is of high quality, not a single part of the body does not play;
- Attractive appearance.
- On a computer, sometimes you have to suffer with drivers.
8. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 2nd Gen
This is a new generation of external sound cards, the quality of which reaches a fundamentally new level. Under the metal case, you can find new developments in microphone preamps and converters. The device supports sampling rates up to 192 kHz, the audio signal delay has been minimized, the set of software that comes with this sound card has also been increased. The case is made of metal, it looks quite elegant, the regulators are metal, corrugated, which helps the operator to fine-tune the product and get the sound of the highest quality and clarity.
Mic preamps are equipped with linear gain control. The transducers have a dynamic range of up to 109 dB. The audio transmission delay is only 2.74 ms, so that all effects can be detected literally in real time, the same is done during recording or monitoring. Analog circuits are equipped with special protection that does not allow devices to fail in the event of voltage surges. Here is the Focusrite Creative Pack software package, which additionally contains 12 plugins.
- Small overall dimensions;
- Slight delay in sound transmission;
- High-quality sound when recording voices and instruments;
- Almost complete absence of noise and other recording defects.
- It happens that the sound card starts to freeze, but this happens quite rarely.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 2nd Gen
These are products of a British company that develops audio equipment, in particular, microphone preamps. This equipment is compact in size, so you can work with it even on the road. It is placed in a metal case of increased strength, it has rubberized feet that do not allow slipping even on perfectly smooth surfaces. This sound card is ideal for use in a home recording studio. There is an instrumental input, as well as two line and microphone inputs. In total, this design has ten inputs and four outputs, supporting sampling rates up to 96 kHz. The set of functions, according to the manufacturer, is universal, which ensures excellent sound quality, which is almost indistinguishable from full-size devices.
The mic preamps are Class A for a truly world-class sound. You can directly connect an electric guitar, bass guitar and other similar instruments, even the most elementary ones equipped with a simple pickup. The card has a DSP mixer with minimal latency. Manufacturers have set the iD ScrollControl mode here, thanks to which you can work with iTunes libraries, change various plug-in parameters. The device is powered from the USB connector or from an external adapter supplied with the equipment. Adjustment knobs are made of serrated aluminium.
- For the price, the sound is just great;
- The functionality is varied, but there are no special features;
- The software works stably;
- Very comfortable adjustment knobs.
- The headphone output is not very loud.
6. Creative Sound BlasterX G5
One of the smallest models in our entire review, however, the purpose of this device is quite wide, no adapter or any other additional elements are required for direct use. The equipment can work with USB 2.0 and 3.0 connectors, it provides high quality sound from a personal computer, laptop, various consoles such as Xbox or Sony Play Station. Built-in microphones and other similar additional functions are not provided here, which could not but affect the cost, of course, to a lesser extent. Dimensions and weight are small.
The product has the shape of a prism, the body is plastic — smooth matte on top with small inclusions, stylized as polished metal. The front side is made of glossy plastic, which leaves a lot of fingerprints. It has only two outputs — one for connecting a microphone, the second for headphones. In the central part there is a volume control, which is also stylized as metal. On the underside, there is a pad of velvety polyurethane, which allows the device not to slide on the surface. Both connectors can be used for both headphones and microphones — if desired, two pairs of headphones can be connected to the card at once. All the features of the device can only be used if it is connected to any device.
- Very compact overall dimensions;
- High performance;
- Has everything you need for comfortable use;
- Good build quality;
- Long service life.
- The background may start when two pairs of powerful speakers are connected.
Creative Sound BlasterX G5
5. BEHRINGER UMC22
The functionality is not too wide — it is limited to only two inputs in order to be able to connect two external sound sources. They are the same — for XLR / jack 6.3 mm. However, they have different purposes of application: the first one can be used both for connecting instruments and microphones, including condenser ones, which provide high sound quality, especially vocals. With their help, extraneous noise is well suppressed. This connector is equipped with a Midas brand preamp, although many users report very mediocre sound quality in their reviews. In addition, it is allowed to send a 48 V phantom load to the first channel. This can be done using a special switch located on the rear panel of the device.
Headphones can recognize two types of signals — processed, coming directly from a personal computer, and the original, which comes from a musical instrument. The latter function is provided by Direct Monitor technology. In order to adjust the volume of both channels, only one knob is provided — this point is considered by many users as a drawback. The translation of an audio signal from analog to digital and vice versa is carried out as 24 bits, its frequency is 48 kHz. This allows you to use a sound card for professional sound recording. Small dimensions make it easy to use the design in a small studio and even when traveling. The case is made of metal with additional stiffening ribs — this allows you to well protect the filling of the device from various kinds of mechanical damage.
- Fairly good price;
- Simplicity and ease of use;
- There is a button for direct monitoring;
- It is possible to support ASIO drivers.
- During audio recording, clicks may occur due to a weak processor and overload.
4. M-Audio M-Track 2×2
The device is equipped with an aluminum case, characterized by a very reliable and solid assembly. All elements are tightly fitted to each other, extraneous sounds do not appear even with strong pressure. The sound card is pretty stable. The interface of the model is well thought out — all the controls are located in such a way that they are always at hand, but do not interfere with each other. The handles have a smooth stroke, which allows for fairly fine tuning. Outputs for headphones and monitors are separate, there is hardware monitoring of inputs. In particular, with the help of this sound card, you can listen to the dry sound of the guitar and combine it with the sound that has already been processed. In the design, you can also find four-segment peak meters.
The back side is quite simple. It has a combo output, as well as outputs used to connect monitors and a USB-C power socket. The minimum audio transmission delay is 64 samples, which means that the audio is transmitted almost in real time. The card allows you to provide +48V power for microphones, which is an undoubted advantage. The sound interface is at a decent level, even heavy and powerful headphones transmit sound well, have a decent volume margin. The timbres are transmitted evenly, the bass lines are not overwhelmed and do not tend to stand out. The inputs do not make noise, do not embellish or discolor the sound, creating the highest fidelity.
- Good sound quality;
- Acceptable cost;
- Beautiful appearance;
- Excellent ergonomics.
- The USB-C connector is weak, it may begin to lose contacts over time.
M-Audio M-Track 2×2
3. Zoom UAC-2
In third place in our ranking of the best external sound cards is a universal high-speed model with two channels and designed for use both on a computer with Microsoft Windows and MacOs operating systems. Due to this device, you can bring the quality of the received sound to a fundamentally new high level. The model is connected via a USB 2.0 or 3.0 port, it can work not only with stationary computers or laptops, but also with tablets, including Apple brands. When developing the device, USB 3.0 SuperSpeed technology was used, which ensures the transmission of an audio signal with minimal delay.
You can connect any source of external sound to this product — a musical instrument (including a percussion type), a microphone, and so on. The UAC-2 interface located here allows for media presentations, podcasts, game broadcasts in real time. The data flow is stable, there will be no signal phase jitter, so there is no need to additionally connect external sources that would act as the main clock generator. On the front panel, you can see dual inputs of the combined XLR / TRS type, to which various signal sources are connected. It is permissible to connect various kinds of amplifiers or speakers equipped with their own power source to the outputs. There’s also a quarter-inch stereo jack equipped with a dedicated volume control. There are liquid crystal indicators that make the setting of this equipment more accurate and faster.
- Compact dimensions;
- Good build;
- Connects without problems;
- Functioning normally;
- Contacts with all sources of sound extraction;
- There is built-in signal processing and the ability to record via Loopback.
- It does not turn off with the computer — for this you will have to configure the BIOS.
2. STEINBERG UR22 MKII
This model is located in the middle price category and has a good value for money. First of all, users note the compact overall dimensions of this product — it will not take up too much space. There are no problems with connecting this model to a personal computer and other devices necessary for work. The equipment is perfect for both beginner sound engineers and more advanced ones. All elements necessary for the normal use of the equipment are located on the front panel of the structure. Here you can find two XLR combo inputs, which are equipped with volume controls, above them are LEDs. Each of these channels is equipped with a preamplifier. There is only one headphone jack.
On the back side there are Jack connectors, MIDI input and output, as well as a socket for connecting a USB power cable. The device can be connected to a tablet, and the sound quality will be no worse than when working with a personal computer. Material recorded using a tablet can be transferred via Cubasis LE to a computer or laptop, and then continue to work with it. The design is versatile, therefore, it can be used not only for sound recording, but also for live operation, for example, at concerts. This sound card is equipped with two channels, allowing you to record instruments with 24-bit/192 kHz audio quality. According to users, the model has surpassed all, even the most daring, expectations.
- Good functionality;
- Ready to work immediately after being taken out of the package;
- Provides excellent sound quality;
- Minimum time delay.
- Small adjustment knobs, not very convenient to use.
STEINBERG UR22 MKII
1. ROLAND RUBIX24
Our review of the best sound cards this year was dominated by a model from two years ago, but the developers have not yet been able to release any design that would surpass this device in terms of performance, durability and build quality. According to the manufacturers, this sound card is designed for fast and comfortable sound processing for today’s professional producers, sound engineers and musicians. The main advantages of this equipment are compactness, good sound — even at home, you can provide almost studio sound. The transmission delay here is minimal, all played melodies are transmitted almost in real time. The product interface is equipped with two quarter-inch combo XLR inputs, there are also two balanced TRS line outputs, and there are also two additional outputs.
The sound is clear and transparent, there is practically no noise. The drivers are very well designed, there is a built-in compressor and limiter. Loopback makes it very convenient to manipulate the routing of the signal leaving the personal computer, which will be quite useful for streamers. The delay is only 3 ms for both input and output. Can be connected to the iPad, but you will first need to purchase a special adapter. The control panel is not provided, and all the main controls are located on the case, which is also quite convenient.
- Drivers are installed instantly on any operating system, from Windows 7 and above;
- A huge number of possibilities;
- Slight time delay;
- Four output channels at once;
- Two microphone inputs.
- High price.
In conclusion, a useful video
Our review of the best external sound cards of 2020 has come to an end. There is a lot of information for each model, if you still have any incomprehensible points or if you want clarification on other issues, then welcome to the comments on our article. We will try to respond to your message as quickly as possible and provide additional information in the most accessible form.