The sound card is pretty much dead, but the high-end PC audio market is thriving. Most of the action is in USB DACs coupled with headphone amps, and Creative's new Sound Blaster X7 can fill that role. But this device can do much more, and its application isn't limited to personal computers. This Sound Blaster can also be used with gaming consoles, smartphones, tablets, DVD players... just about anything with an audio input or output.
The Sound Blaster X7 an affordable audio powerhouse with just two intertwined shortcomings: There's no HDMI in or out, so there's no support for high-resolution movie soundtracks on Blu-ray discs.
The SB X7 has an integrated Texas Instruments TPA3116D2 Class D digital amplifier that can drive a pair of either 4- or 8-ohm speakers. Flip a switch on the back panel to correspond to the speakers you're connecting to it. Gold-plated binding posts support bare-wire, spade, or banana-plug connections.
Creative rates the amp to deliver 38 watts per channel to 4-ohm speakers with the included 24-volt, 2.91-amp power supply. Upgrade to Creative's optional 24-volt, 6-amp power supply and you can drive 4-ohm speakers at up to 50 watts per channel. Using 8-ohm speakers? Creative rates the amp at 27 watts per channel with the stock amp, but it doesn't provide numbers for the optional PSU.
If you'd prefer to use self-powered speakers, you can bypass the internal amp and connect up to six powered speakers (front stereo, rear surrounds, a center channel, and a subwoofer) using its line-level outputs. You can also deploy passive stereo speakers and a powered subwoofer, because all of its inputs and outputs can be used simultaneously.
The box also has a microphone array built into its front panel for gaming, VoIP calls, video conferencing, and speaker calibration. If you have your own favorite mic, a front-panel 1/8-inch connector can accommodate it.
If you'd like to customize the SB X7's sound, opening a trap door on the bottom of the box exposes socketed operational amps that you can replace. A Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 headphone amp can drive two sets of headphones that present up to 600 ohms of impedance (there's one 1/8-inch and one 1/4-inch headphone jack on its front panel).
Connect almost anything
You can connect both analog and digital audio sources using stereo RCA jacks and TOSLink optical inputs. There's a TOSLink output, too. The SB X7 has a micro USB connector (with asynchronous mode and ASIO support to reduce jitter and latency respectively) for streaming digital audio from a Mac or PC, and a USB Type A receptacle that can host a tablet or smartphone if you want to stream audio from those devices.
If you prefer wireless streaming via Bluetooth, the SB X7 supports that, too, using your choice of the aptX or AAC codecs. The box can support two Bluetooth devices at once, and it supports NFC (near-field communication) Bluetooth pairing. Just tap your device against the side of the cabinet.
Creative's SB-Axx1 audio processor forms the heart of the Sound Blaster X7, which renders it suitable for PC gaming as well as critical-listening sessions. The SB-Axx1 is a DSP (digital signal processor) that's capable of voice processing, audio enhancement, audio effects, and decoding Dolby Digital soundtracks. The chip can decode audio bit streams with up to 24-bit resolution and at sampling rates up to 192kHz.
As I mentioned in my intro, the SB X7 can't decode Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, in part because it's not outfitted with an HDMI input and output (TOSLink doesn't provide sufficient bandwidth for those codecs). That's not enough to prevent me from connecting an SB X7 to my home-theater PC, because Creative's box has higher-end DACs and a much better headphone amp than my A/V receiver does (and my A/V receiver can't perform as a USB audio device).
The SB X7's DAC is a high-end Burr-Brown PCM1794 that delivers an extremely high signal-to-noise ratio of 127dB. A Burr-Brown PCM4220 handles conversions from analog to digital for recording to a PC's hard drive from the onboard mic, mic input, or line-level inputs. Like Creative's own audio processor, both of these parts support up to 24-bit resolution and sampling rates up to 192kHz.
Creative has developed an entire suite of signal-processing software--SBX Pro Studio Technology--that runs on the SB-Axx1 chip. Some of these apps are designed with gaming in mind, while others are useful for just about any audio application. You can manage these effects using Windows software on your PC or an app for your Android or iOS device. Using a mobile device also gives you the ability to control the volume from across the room.
The music I care most about I either buy on CD and rip to FLAC, or I buy in high-definition form and download (from services such as Bowers & Wilkins' Society of Sound). As such, I generally prefer that my audio playback gear processes that audio as little as possible. But I am also occasionally tempted by bargains and freebies from places such as Amazon and Google Play, which sometimes arrive in the form of MP3 files. I also listen to audio-streaming services (I'm a Google Play Music All Access subscriber, and I also like what Slacker has to offer).
Those tracks don't offer the highest fidelity, but Creative's Crystalizer software can very effectively restore life to them. Other SBX Pro Studio effects let you add a pseudo-surround-sound effect and boost bass response (as well as adjust the crossover frequency), using sliders in the apps or Windows software to control the impact of each effect.
Gamers, meanwhile, will appreciate some of the other SBX Pro Studio effects. If you like to play stealth games and first-person shooters, enabling Scout Mode will give you an edge by amplifying certain audio events to help you detect an approaching enemy. And if you play multiplayer games that support voice chat, Creative's CrystalVoice FX enables you to modulate your voice in all sorts of ways. You could sound like a 12-foot giant or a web-footed alien.
The apps also provide mixers, equalizers, speaker calibrators, and other tools. A button on the front panel enables or disables all the SBX effects you've activated using the control software.
Worthy of your attention
I evaluated the Sound Blaster X7 with both headphones (Bowers & Wilkins' P5 and Ultrasone's HFI-2400) and a pair of Chane A1rx-c loudspeakers that Creative product manager Ryan Schlieper introduced me to. Both experiences were exceptional. None of the headphones I own are particularly difficult to drive, so I couldn't evaluate Creative's claim to be able drive up to 600-ohm headphones. But my experience with the phones I do have was exceptionally good.
When connected to the 8-ohm loudspeakers, the SB X7's amplifier had no problem filling my small home theater (12 feet wide, 16 feet deep, with a 9-foot ceiling) with sound. And unlike the $1300 Eclipse TD-M1 speaker system I reviewed last week, the combination of the SB X7 and the Chane speakers had no problem delivering the quieter passages in recordings of classical music.
I'm not a big fan of the Sound Blaster X7's form factor. The trapezoidal shape is fine if you're using it on top of your desk, on a table next to your easy chair, or even if you want to set it on top of your tower PC, but it just doesn't look at home in a rack filled with other audio components.
I'll also lament once more that it doesn't support HDMI, but including that would have driven up its cost. Apart from that, Creative selected exactly the right components to stuff inside this little box, and they didn't waste a dime on fancy materials or anything else that doesn't contribute to its sterling price/performance ratio. Highly recommended.