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Over the years I have flip-flopped back and forth over the merits of an aftermarket soundcard for PCs, and for good reason. Over the years the merits have shifted. As onboard sound on motherboards became more robust and complex in its audio reproduction, the need for expensive audio processing units was diminished. Because the demand waned, so did the manufacturers creating said products.
But Creative is still around, arguably the best at this particular game. Without question the company is clearly one of the finest audio product manufacturers around. So it was with self-inspired interest that I seized the chance to review their new Sound Blaster Z 5.1 Dolby Digital soundcard.
The Sound Blaster Z is a robust audio product for a reasonable price. You get a ton of options to tweak your sound, several Creative tools and applications within the SBX Pro Studio utility suite bundled on an included CD. There is something there to play nicely with music, movies and games. The Z also connects to your on-system audio decoder or home theater by way of a single digital optical cable. Plus it includes an external Beamforming microphone.
One of the major improvements over the previous iterations of Creative soundcards (X-Fi flavor), is this audiophile can be connected to a PC motherboard via PCI or PCI-Express. My last Creative X-Fi soundcard was restricted to PCI-e only, which made for some creative system building at times.
To get it up and running is simple stuff. Power your rig down and pop the Sound Blaster Z in any available slot mentioned. Then connect your speakers and headphones (embedded 600 ohm headphone amp) via the 3.5mm jacks and/or the optical out. The Sound Blaster also supports optical in for mixing in music from an external source for editing and such. Moreover the Z soundcard supports 192 kHz direct pass through to analog out. Power on your system. It’s always good to enter your motherboard bios and disable onboard sound devices so there is no driver conflict between onboard sound and your new Sound Blaster Z. Save and exit. Once you’re back at the desktop, let your system detect new devices and then insert the included software CD to install drivers and SBX Pro Studio utilities.
The SBX Pro Studio is another feature standing stage-high looking down on the previous Sound Blaster soundcard offerings. Gone is the system crashing audio mode switching requirement. The old utility suite made use of 3-audio modes; one each for Music, Entertainment and Audio Editing. However, if any programs were running during the switch, you ran the risk of either locking up your system and/or killing your computer’s sound completely. Only a system restart would jar things back to sanity. None of that madness is present with the Z. Still the Z retains the versatility of previous products.
The Z sports a hefty 116 decibel signal-to-noise ratio. That’s something most motherboard audio would drool for. The SBX Pro Studio is replete with a host of tweaks and settings. The main Pro Studio section allows you tweak surround, crossover frequency, loundness (normal, loud and night) and movie dialog sounds. It even features a quick media sample video used to compare and evaluate your settings. Crystal Voice is all mic and voice chat stuff. You can navigate through echo cancellation and Crystal Voice FX, where you can make your voice sound like a muchkin, alien, robot, elf, male, female and so much more. Scout Mode is an interesting new feature. This is supposed to grant the user supersonic hearing in games. It works to the detriment of your other audio performance. But you can hear enemies and footsteps from a bit further away. Scout mode can be hotkeyed for turning off and on on the fly.
Then there are the usual suspects like an expanded equalizer, the ability to save profiles, Dolby Digital and DTS settings and a standard mixer for adjusting the various volume settings for mic, digital in and out, and speakers. The Pro Studio even eliminates the incessant hassle of switching between speakers and headphones with a 1-click switch right there in the quick-loading utilities.
I have to say, my time with the Sound Blaster Z has been beyond pleasurable. It utterly trounces the onboard Realtek audio chip on my X58 motherboard. Installation is a snap and the richness it adds to your audio is amazing. Games see the biggest benefit, but without question music and entertainment are given the “red carpet” treatment. Even the included Boomstream microphone, which admittedly I didn’t think much of, is a marvelous addition to your desktop setup. All listeners on the receiving end reported complete clarity with the sound environment similar to me being on stage with a microphone in a acoustically enhanced auditorium. I tested the mic over Steam, TeamSpeak, Skype and X-Fire voice chat applications, with zero complaints.
General audio performance may not be exceedingly better than previous iterations. Still this is a worthy successor to the accomplished X-Fi series of soundcards. Plus the refinements to the software suite and low end price tag, coupled with the continued richness in sound and audio clarity make this a no brainer. At approx $100 (some retailers), the Creative Sound Blaster Z soundcard is a formidable upgrade to virtually any onboard sound solution.
Bottom Line: I recommend the Creative Sound Blaster Z for anyone looking to enhance their systems audio in all forms, beyond the capabilities of their onboard sound.
The Creative Sound Blaster Z is available at Amazon for $104.99!