Your laptop already has a sound card inside — that's how you can hear anything at all — but the chances are it's not very good, at least compared to what it could be. Whether you're a music or movie lover, a keen gamer, or a combination of all, an external sound card will make a significant improvement to your experience.
Creative Sound BlasterX G6 (opens in new tab)
Sound Blaster has been synonymous with PC audio for decades and the G6 is the current cream of the crop.
It's technically aimed at gamers, but anyone looking for great audio will enjoy the virtual 7.1 surround sound, the dedicated headphone amplifier, and the absolutely superb 32-bit 384kHz DAC .which makes this more than a match for the best quality lossless audio files.
Fiio E10K (opens in new tab)
For music lovers
The E10K is perfect for music lovers and doesn't toss around endless, unnecessary features or exterior design points.
It's a simple-looking aluminum box with a headphone jack, a big old volume wheel, an on/off control for the bass boost, a coax and line out, and is powered by Micro-USB. It's compact, too, making it perfect for laptops. With a 24-bit/96 kHz DAC, it's capable of pushing out a great sound on high-resolution audio.
AudioQuest Dragonfly (opens in new tab)
A pocket powerhouse
Despite being the size of a USB thumb drive, this little red stick contains an astonishing amount of audio power.
At the heart of the Dragonfly is a 32-bit Sabre DAC that will make your high-quality, lossless music sound tremendous through your favorite headphones, which it's perfectly capable of pushing with a 2.1V output. It's expensive, but it's hard to find a more powerful sound card in a package this portable.
Astro MixAmp Pro TR (opens in new tab)
It's like a mixing deck
If you're gaming on your laptop then the Astro MixAmp is the external soundcard to pair with it.
It's not particularly expensive, has lots of connectivity and flexibility, and will allow you control over your game and party audio balance. The latest model has a much improved audio engine, you can get Dolby audio and with the companion app, you can customize your sound profiles to suit your own tastes.
If we had to choose...
When it comes to PC sound cards there is one brand that always comes to mind. Creative's Sound Blaster lineup has been delivering top class audio for decades, and the Sound BlasterX G6 (opens in new tab) is the current king of the hill. A top-quality DAC paired with 7.1 virtual surround sound all in a little box you can attach to your laptop is hard to ignore.
There are also choices out there for more specific requirements and budgets worth attention. One of Creative's other products, the Sound BlasterX G1 (opens in new tab) is still capable of delivering virtual surround sound, but in something that fits in a pocket and costs very little.
Keen gamers should look towards the Astro MixAmp Pro TR (opens in new tab) as well. Besides being a full external sound card with Dolby audio, the built-in controls allow you to adjust the balance and volume of game and chat audio, as well as having tons of connectivity potential and an easy-to-use companion app for customization.