I hope I'm not falling into any newbie traps by making a post to ask a question too early, but I've been lurking through these forums for a little while following the death of my gaming headset. I couldn't find any threads that satisfied me on this particular issue, however. I was hoping I could get some pointers on getting a USB sound card of some decent quality - preferably one under $50.
A bit of background - I'm not an audiophile, but like most consumers of media, I do like good sound. I'm a gamer first and foremost: Music is great, but it comes second in most areas of my life. As such, I'm a bit of a basshead, particularly as I'm sort of a simulator buff - the whole experience loses something if the roar of a Merlin engine sounds tinny and flat instead of throaty and powerful, and the usual cacophony of explosions and gunfire is likewise far more impressive with some depth to it. (I'll say nothing of music; the advantages there are obvious.)
Going by the advice I saw on this forum, I went with the M-Audio Q40s for my headphones, and a Zalman ZM Mic1 for all my Skyping and voice chatting needs. I was told the Q40s didn't really require amplification, and as someone who works a minimum wage job I'm on a tight budget, so I elected to just see if my onboard audio would perform adequately. The headphones arrived first, and to my satisfaction, save for an almost-inaudible buzz in headphones that I can't really hear even when the room is quiet, they do indeed sound fantastic.
The mic is another story. Now, I've seen tests on Youtube of people wearing this thing a full twelve inches from their faces, attaching it to collars or headphone cables, and speaking clearly without a massive amount of static behind them, but I can't get it to do anything like. It's nearly inaudible even if I boost the volume as high as it will go, and while adding a +30db boost to it makes my voice almost loud enough to listen to comfortably, it makes an awful static background unacceptably loud. It's not actual background noise; I can cover the mic and it makes no difference at all in pitch or volume. The noise cancelling feature sort-of worked, but distorted my voice and made me sound like a robot.
On a hunch, I tried plugging it into my laptop, and it sounded much better in spite of that little thing being horribly grounded and having awful static in the headphones. My voice was clear and while the static was present, it was much, much quieter. So, it's without question an issue related to the onboard sound on my computer. I think I can reasonably rule out a software issue, as it sounded just fine on my laptop with the boost off and levels turned down to around 25. I've done some research on grounding, but I doubt that's the issue in my case.
I'd like to stay away from an internal sound card, as from what I understand the sort of electrical interference that causes the static in recording and headphones is a greater factor with them than it is with the more isolated USB interface. As I game and value surround sound, I need something capable of that, as well. Essentially, I just need something without static and capable of producing decent sound. I've heard good things about the ASUS Xonar U3, but most of them were music-related and none mentioned how it played with analog microphones.
A little guidance, perhaps?