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I’ve been in the market for a USB sound card for my laptop that hooks up to a home theater surround system, however there is a stark difference in price between the cheap ones on Amazon and say Sound Blaster. A side from a feature difference in these sound cards, is there actual sound quality difference (even though I’m using a premium surround speaker system)?

  • Usually, yes, they are made with higher quality parts. There are military grade and above capacitors and many other components. Many of the higher grade parts resist EMI or EFI or etc to higher level than cheap parts. – cybernard Aug 5 '16 at 0:43
  • “There are military grade and above capacitors and many other components.” Really? On a sound card? I think the case is more likely that the lower cost sound card uses cheaper components and the the brand name card might use normal quality components. – Giacomo1968 Aug 5 '16 at 0:53
  • "Quality" dosen't mean insanely pricy. Unless you're going for wierd boutique parts 'military' grade and 'better quality' components are only a small part of overall costs. Double the cost on a 5 cent component wouldn't result in a few hundred dollar difference, even if you had a hundred of em. With resistors, the difference is carbon vs metal oxide and brands. With electrolytic caps , its japanese vs chinese ones and so on. Its still only a small part of overall price. – Journeyman Geek Aug 5 '16 at 1:41
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I'd say, personally to a large extent that might be somewhat opinion based, and/or depend on the specific sound card. Worse, while 'ideal' gear would sound the same on anything, some gear sounds the same.

The worst ones could sound terrible - even with a 'premium' codec chip - but that depends on implementation. That said, 'all' you're looking for is a simple line level output for each channel, and you should have the amplifier bit that does the heavy lifiting.

To most people the feature difference is the big thing - premium sound cards may have things like headphone outs that handle higher impedence headphones (The creative ones certainly do! - and I seem to remember they are designed around that.).

That said, even as someone slightly snobby about audio, I'd say 'get the cheap one first'. They're essentially disposably priced. Try it with your gear, listen to it, and decide if you like it.

I've actually used the onboard sound card and compared it to a 'better' sound card designed for music editing - the differences even with really good kit on the other end are slight and you really need to listen for it to tell.

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  • Regarding quality, it’s all about the AD converter. My iPhone 5 sounded worse than an old iPod Video (5G) model and my iPhone 6S sounds better than all of them. The difference is the chip used as the AD converter . – Giacomo1968 Aug 5 '16 at 0:56
  • I've had devices that had what's supposed to be the best AD converter there is (a sabre) and sounded terrible. I don't seem to think creative uses anything fancy and most of the shinier features arn't really fundamental to a good experience. I personally don't consider the 'standard' realtek stuff terrible, so YMMV – Journeyman Geek Aug 5 '16 at 1:17

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