Last updated: March 11th, 2023
With all the components and pieces of kit that go into making a sim racing rig, like a direct drive steering wheel, load cell brake pedals, or a professional racing seat, sound quality is an aspect of gameplay that often goes overlooked. It’s pretty understandable since most sim racers want to spend money on hardware that will make a tangible difference to their racing experience. However, just like any other constituent that adds to the realism factor of sim racing, upgrading your soundcard may offer more benefits than you first realise.
What are the best USB soundcards / amps for sim racing and gaming?
- Sound Blaster PLAY! 4
- Sound Blaster G3
- Sound BlasterX G6
- Sound Blaster X4
- Sound Blaster GC7
- EPOS GSX 1000 2nd Edition Dac Amp
- Astro Gaming A40 TR
- Creative Sound Blaster X5
A new soundcard can increase your immersion levels in simulation games by amplifying audio characteristics with features such as bass boosts, midrange equalisation, and background noise cancellation, allowing you to unlock the full potential of your gaming headset, microphone, or speakers.
In addition, improved audio will enhance your driving performance since you will have a clearer understanding of your surroundings as well as what’s going on within your own car, letting you make those all-important split-second decisions that can mean the difference between winning a race or coming in as a runner up. Hearing anything from engine revs to a rattle from damage to the chassis can help you to make more informed choices when driving and, in the end, will help you improve your rating. Critically, an emphasis on tyre noise to forewarn you that you’re at the limit of your available grip can make all the difference in the world.
While it’s true that some desktop PCs offer reasonable audio through their integrated soundcards, most of them fall short when it comes to gaming. Since opening up a computer tower and tinkering with the motherboard is not everyone’s cup of tea, this post will focus on USB audio solutions that are all about convenience and provide a plug-and-play solution. All of these USB soundcards bypass the standard card built into your PC and will enhance your gaming audio.
One last thing: our favourite feature in a separate gaming / USB sound card is the ability to have a game and voice audio channel. If you already own a set of headphones I strongly recommend you take a look at the EPOS GSX 1000 2nd Edition DAC Amp.
If you don’t own the headphones and you’re looking for a complete combo of USB soundcards and good headphones, then it has to be the Astro Gaming A40 TR.
Here are our recommendations for external USB sound cards for sim racing and gaming:
Sound Blaster PLAY! 4
The first USB soundcard we are going to look at is the Sound Blaster PLAY! 4, which is very affordable, portable, and delivers high-res audio support. Despite its tiny size, it packs quite the punch and features a powerful amplifier that uses Creative’s Bass Boost and Dynamic EQ technology and has some handy functions, including a microphone mute button and the option to cycle between equalisation modes. It also has colour-coded LEDs, so you can assign a particular mode to whatever colour you like in Creative’s user-friendly software package, and that way, you can make quick adjustments to your sound on-the-fly.
In fact, this kind of usability makes all of the USB soundcards we will talk about today great, as they allow you to make changes to your gameplay sound without having to open up new windows or programs on your computer, meaning you can focus more on driving.
The PLAY! 4 also lets you convert the buttons to volume control if you find that more convenient, and it debuts Creative’s latest SmartComms Kit, which is packed with plenty of communication software features like two-way noise cancellation, so if you’re playing online, you can guarantee crystal clear transmissions.
Another thing to note is that the PLAY! 4 (along with all the following USB soundcards we will cover) is also compatible with gaming consoles, smartphones, and tablets, so you are not limited to using the device strictly with PCs or laptops.
Sound Blaster G3
Turning things up to the next level, we have the Sound Blaster G3. The G3 is a very similar product to the PLAY! 4 but offers more features and compatibility in a slightly larger package.
It provides clean audio, removes any undesired background distortions and hisses, and has dedicated volume and microphone controls, as well as a feature that allows you to control the volume of your comms or gameplay individually. Furthermore, it has three ports, including individual headset and microphone ports, and an optical line in port for console users.
Sound BlasterX G6
Moving on to the next USB soundcard and we have the G6, which is somewhat of a hybrid device that focuses on being portable but also highly functional. On first inspecting the G6, you’ll notice a considerable upgrade in terms of materials over our first two soundcards listed above, as it is housed in a sleek and smooth yet highly durable outer casing.
It has a large, easy-to-use volume dial which has built-in mic mute capabilities, and on the side, it has two buttons which allow you to enable treble boost, SBX mode, which is essentially Creative’s version of surround sound, and finally, there’s a low-high gain switch letting you toggle between the two settings.
A nice feature of the G6 is that whatever settings you configure on the software package will not only be saved on your PC but will also automatically be saved onto the actual unit. This means if you want to switch from using the G6 with your PC to your iPad or Nintendo Switch, all your audio settings will be saved on the G6 device, and you’ll get the same quality and standard across multiple platforms. Dolby audio decoding is also built into the device, which will kick in as soon as you have compatible sources playing.
In terms of ports, you get the same three mentioned on the G3, but you also get one more optical line out, but the crowning jewel of the G6 is its amplifier, capable of driving very high-end headphones without any noise distortion. So whether you use the G6 in the direct mode, which relays raw audio, or the SBX mode, which utilises processed audio signals, you can guarantee a clean sound and highly immersive gameplay.
Sound Blaster X4
Next, we have Creative’s Sound Blaster X4, and given its larger footprint, it’s aimed more at the stationary desktop market. The X4 has a beautiful modern design, a gunmetal outer body, and a prominent volume dial front and centre encircled by LED illumination. Additionally, the unit boasts excellent connectivity, with ports to support a 5.1 speaker system on the back and separate headphone and mic ports on the front.
Even though the three buttons under the volume dial may lead you to believe this device is fairly simplistic, don’t be fooled, as each one can be used to control a ton of different EQ and balance settings, and you’ll definitely want to reference the user manual to unlock the full potential of the X4. True audiophiles will notice a difference in the sound delivery between the X4 and the previously mentioned G6, where the X4 focuses more on mid-to-high-range sounds while the G6 really pushes more bass.
Sound Blaster GC7
Our last recommendation for this post is a very professional, highly functional, ultra-intuitive USB soundcard called the Sound Blaster GC7. This powerful device can deliver sound quality way beyond what your standard motherboard card is capable of and encompasses all the premium features we’ve covered so far in the other Creative soundcards, plus a plethora of additional functions and controls.
Looking more like a piece of kit you might see a DJ using, the GC7 has two large dials that feel very tactical that let you adjust your volume level and balance. In the centre of the unit, you’ll find a rotary encoder, much like you might find on a sim racing button box, letting you control bass, treble, and gain settings with incredible accuracy. Continuing the button box theme, there are four totally customizable LED-backlit push buttons which can be assigned to whatever function you require using Creative’s software suite.
Without getting too technical, the GC7 audio processing expertise is aided by Creative’s award-winning Super X-Fi Headphone Holography, which, according to the company, ‘captures the listening experience of a high-end multi-speaker system in a professional studio and recreates the same expansive experience in headphones’. As you can imagine, this feature delivers fantastic audio quality and makes a genuine difference in your gameplay experience.
EPOS GSX 1000 2nd Edition DAC Amp
This neat little package from EPOS is the GSX 1000 (2nd Edition DAC Amp Audio Amplifier and external USB Sound Card. It featured 7.1 Surround Sound, sidetone, configurable gaming DAC and EQ. Naturally, it’s Headphone amp compatible too:
Something I think is significant with these USB cards for gaming purposes is to have a separate game audio and chat stream mix control. With the GSX 1000 you can switch instantly between 4 custom profiles, speaker or headset modes with fingertip touch control. For $200 this one’s definitely a favourite.
Astro Gaming A40 TR
This dedicated soundcard for gamers is absolutely ideal for sim racing; control the volume levels for chat in Discord and separately, the simulator.
The device appears as separate soundcards in Windows: “Astro Gaming” and “Astro Voice”. Installation is very simple, and there’s a bit of software to install called the Astro Gaming Center, which can be downloaded here. It’s a really nice bit of kit and very much at the top of our recommendations.
Creative Sound Blaster X5
This USB soundcard is designed to be a high-quality external audio interface with aspirations to deliver audiophile-grade performance as a DAC and headphone amplifier. Although some reviews mention the case should be aluminium, not plastic, I don’t think that point should make too much of a difference.
With its size measuring 216 x 170 x 72 mm (8.5 x 6.69 x 2.83 in), the Sound Blaster X5 stands out as the largest external sound card among Creative’s offerings. Its dimensions are ideal for those who want to stack it with other audio equipment, like dedicated headphone amplifiers.
The soundcard under review boasts an impressive set of technical specifications that make it stand out from its predecessors. The sound quality is exceptional, and it is the best-sounding Creative sound card tested to date. The fully balanced design, with two DACs and two custom Xamp headphone amplifiers, ensures an immersive audio experience. The sound card supports a wide range of audio formats, including 32-bit/384 kHz PCM and DoP 128/DSD 256. This makes it ideal for audiophiles who demand the highest quality audio.
Another notable feature of this sound card is the ample headphone driving power it provides. This enables it to drive even the most demanding headphones with ease. The microphone input is also excellent, ensuring that your voice comes through loud and clear during voice chats or recording sessions.
The sound card comes with rich onboard controls, allowing you to fine-tune the audio output to your liking. It also includes a useful system-wide 10-band equalizer, which provides even greater control over the sound output. The versatility of the sound card is enhanced by its connectivity options, including a USB Type-A host port for USB headsets and wireless dongles. Bluetooth connectivity is also available, which is especially useful for console gamers.
The sound card can be controlled through a mobile app, making it easy to adjust settings on the go. Most features of the sound card are usable on consoles, which makes it a great choice for console sim racers too. Overall, this sound card is a great choice for anyone looking for a high-quality audio experience with plenty of customization options.