Creative Sound Blaster Z Review
The latest and greatest discreet sound card from Creative laid bare
IntroductionIn the world of on-board audio processing for motherboards, graphics cards and even headsets, it’s no small wonder that companies like Creative are still attempting to cater to a consumer-grade market. Whilst most of us older-generation PC users used to look forward to the new bells and whistles that came along with a sound card refresh every year or so, I’d be hard pushed to identify anybody else that’s given a discreet audio card a second thought for the best part of a decade. They’re still here and they still hold value for even a modest desk-based PC setup however, and Creative are flying their pro audio flag with as much gusto as they can manage.
Their new range - the Sound Blaster Z series - are cards that promise “the very best listening experience for movies, games and music” according to the promotional blurb. To do so they utilise high-end processing and hardware, including external DACs delivering 127dB signal-to-noise ratio, sockets for swappable Op-Amps, a high-end 80mW into 600 ohm headphone amplifier and 192kHz pass-through. If that means little to you (or you own a set of headphones or speakers that might not fit the bill), then it's probably also worth noting that Creative's updated studio software produces a whole load of digital magic that promises to make your audio sparkly no matter what source you throw at it (or device you connect to it).
The Z series comes in three increasingly expensive flavours, of which the basic entry model is in our test machine today. The Soundblaster Z comes boxed with a tiny, high quality "beamforming" microphone array that sits atop your monitor looking inconspicuous, and besides the manual and warranty information, that's your lot. The usual PCI Express format is utilised exclusively in this new range, and it'll sit happily in any PC with a 2.2GHz Core2 chip or above. Both Windows 7 and Windows 8 were tested during our session with the Z, and despite a re-install being necessary on Microsoft's newest OS, the Soundblaster software and drivers coped just fine in both.
Packaging and ImpressionsThe Sound Blaster Z is packaged in a striking brown box with red trim, with a viewing window affording a little sneak peak of the card itself. It is, however, very much in line with the rest of Creative's output, and you'll instantly recognise the style even at a cursory glance. The headline features of the Z are emblazoned proudly on both sides, marking out its territory as a "pro-sumer" device.
Whip out the velvet-red tray inside and you're treated to a minimal amount of content, which is in line with pretty much every hardware release these days. Creative include the card itself, the "beamforming" microphone, a driver/software/manual CD, and that's your lot.
Looking at the core components a little closer, it's hard not to be won over by both bits of hardware. The microphone is a tiny unit that sports a plastic fin allowing it to sit happily on top of pretty much any monitor, and the Sound Blaster Z is covered in a metallic red dust shield, with two red LEDs lighting up its transparent viewing window on the side. If you have a rig that'll show off the design then it's a hugely attractive bit of kit, and a far cry from the olden days of the AWE32 and such.
Creative haven't always had a reputation for quality product design, so it's been nice to see them picking up the standard on their various lines over the past couple of years. Opening up the box and configuring the Sound Blaster Z is a minimalist and functional experience, which - even in the enthusiast PC space - is a boon. Plug it in, insert the microphone, install the drivers and you're away. Both Windows 7 and 8 will happily play along without protest.
SoftwareIt's impossible to jump into an assessment of audio quality for any discreet sound card without looking at the software that powers it all, and in that respect Creative's Pro Studio control panel will be familiar to many of you. The version included on the Sound Blaster Z driver disc includes most of the functionality you may recognise from previous generations of hardware, along with a few additional bells and whistles to make the jump seem worthwhile for those coming up from an older card.
Given that most folk will be connecting up a pair of headphones or speakers and playing low bitrate MP3 files, compressed video soundtracks and/or games, Creative's suite of audio enhancements make a whole lot of sense. Although purists can still hook up their own high-end equipment and disable audio processing, I suspect that the majority of gamers will come to depend on features like the Crystalizer, Surround expansion, bass enhancement and dialogue plus; so it's somewhat of a welcome relief to find that the majority of the audio tinkering works pretty darned well.
In comparison to early generations of audio software, once you hit a sweet spot within Creative's suite of enhancements, there's a genuine improvement in audio quality. Firing up a bunch of 64 and 128kbps MP3 files from the depths of my ill-advised CD ripping session back in 2001, the effect of the Crystalizer in particular is impressive. The clarity of both music and vocals are massively improved when engaging its trickery, at the expense of virtually no discernible additional noise or artifacting. It might be the audio equivalent of upscaling a DVD rather than popping in the Blu-Ray, but if you're listening through a normal pair of headphones or a less than mid-range set of speakers, it works wonders for the experience.
The other, possibly more niche technologies are also well implemented, although your mileage may vary as to whether you'll find much use for them. Crystal Voice works to filter unwanted noise and echo out of whatever microphone feed you pump through it, and worked pretty much as advertised when feeding it an input from my crappy old desk mic or the new Beamforming unit that ships with the Z (the angle adjustments were particularly useful here). For the most part audio came through as clear and crisp, with echo all-but eliminated. There was, however, a tendency to over-process in those modes initially, which can lead to a slightly robotic tone to your speach. Again, once you hit the right balance with the checks and sliders, the technology suddenly makes sense.
The EQ and Scout modes will be pretty self-explanatory to most readers, and there were no problems to report in their use. Scout remains of limited appeal for pro gamers and those that absolutely have to convince themselves that hearing gunfire and footsteps above other audio will give them the competitive edge they crave, and it's a fun novelty to tinker with for the rest of us. The control panel also allows you to swap dynamically between a pair of headphones and a pair of speakers if you have both hooked up (which is a nice touch), or alternatively to activate Dolby Digital and DTS encoding if you want to pump out optical audio to an amp or similar device.
Audio Quality:As nebulus as the term "audio quality" can be in relation to a device that depends on what you plug into it and how it's configured, the overall impression of the Sound Blaster Z is that it's a solution that'll benefit most gamers and enthusiasts to differing degrees.
In terms of music, hooking up the Soundblaster Z to my Onkyo amp and B&W speakers produced a deep and clear soundstage that was definitely step up on the audio that I usually pump through an Nvidia HDMI connection to the same device. Although the onboard DACs of the Sound Blaster Z undoubtedly account for a portion of that clarity, a small dose of Creative's Crystalizer and Surround settings worked wonders for the presence and tone of the audio. Headsets and low bitrate audio files benefit hugely from the Z's headphone amplifier and software processing, and the improvements really begin to leap out in comparison to the built-on audio from a motherboard or graphics card.
In terms of games and movies, the improvements are a little more muted but still wholly positive, although again it largely depends on what you're plugging into it. If you're utilising a moderate pair of headphones or speakers then the Z's suite of audio processing effects will likely leave you extremely happy, with improved clarity and a much wider soundstage than other devices. Firing up Borderlands 2 on an old pair of JVC headphones showed an immediate improvement over on-board audio, whilst a lengthy session on Far Cry 3 (encoded to Dolby Digital and pumped out to an amp) sounded clear, deep and precise. Movies faired similarly through the same devices, although again it depends if you're used to the wonders of the lossless audio formats that Blu-Ray champions effectively - going back to optical almost feels antiquated at this point. Regardless, a touch of Crystalizer again proved a welcome addition to most movie soundtracks.
The bundled "beamforming" microphone also proved an impressive accessory, and when combined with the Crystal Voice feature it was as effective a solution for desktop audio as any other that I've tried. Background noise is filtered effectively and voices are honed in on, with the angle controls removing any further unwanted audio from the stream. All of that makes it an ideal choice for longer playing sessions, and you can quite easily forget that it's even there - which could be embarassing given the right circumstances.
It has to be said that the audio improvements the Sound Blaster Z brings to the table aren't quite as marked within gaming or movies and they are with music however, so it's probably best to adjust expectations accordingly. Nevertheless, at £74.99 for the basic unit on test today, the Sound Blaster Z represents a sizeable step forward on the quality of most motherboard-based audio processing, and if you've got a spare PCI-E slot kicking around and you don't depend on a HDMI-based output for your sound, then it'll make a nice addition to any setup.
- Excellent audio quality
- Good step up on most on-board audio
- SBX Pro Studio processing
- Superb microphone
- Crystal Voice occasionally digitises voices
- SBX Pro Studio (very occasionally) crashes
Creative Sound Blaster Z Review
Although a dedicated sound card could easily be regarded as an inessential purchase for most PC users these days, Creative are still showcasing some excellent work to make us think otherwise, and the pinnacle of that technology and functionality is embedded into the Sound Blaster Z range of cards. The hardware is well-designed and attractive, and the SBX Pro Studio software is finally at a point where it's a genuinely useful suite of tools with which to benefit your listening experience, rather than acting as a novelty (although that value is still to be found in the upper reaches of the sliders, if that's what you're looking for).
There are, of course, caveats as to just how useful you'll find the Sound Blaster Z to be, and they largely depend on what you're plugging into it and the quality of audio that you're used to hearing. For anybody with a regular set of headphones, powered computer speakers, or even those of us with relatively low-end amplifiers, the results are tangible to a degree that makes a discreet audio card a tempting proposition. The Sound Blaster Z's array of decent quality DACs work in conjunction with the SBX filtering crystalising options to clean up your audio to a noticeable degree, and although the results are slightly muted when switching to games or movies, music benefits massively from the combination of those two technologies.
If you're a casual user and you just dabble with your PC for an occasional game of peggle or watching the odd Youtube clip, then it might be worth a listen before you jump onboard the Creative train. For everybody else however, the Sound Blaster Z represents an affordable step up on the majority of motherboard audio solutions, and it's priced at a decent level to tempt out impulse purchasers. If you've left the fold of discreet audio cards, now might be the time to jump back in.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £80.00
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.