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Creative Sound Blaster X7 Review

So, what do you want it to be today?

by Phil Hinton
Gaming Review

5

Creative Sound Blaster X7 Review
SRP: £329.00

What is the Sound Blaster X7?

Good question because we're not really sure the X7 knows exactly what it is or what it's primary role should be. It is trying to cover plenty of subject areas and tasks. Is it a gaming device to help get games sounding better and to aid with in-game communication with its Beam Forming Mics? Is it an external soundcard for your PC or MAC with a Burr-Brown PCM1794 127dB digital-to-analog converter? Is it a HiFi system capable of audiophile levels of presentation with 2-channel sources? Is it a home cinema system? Is it a headphone pre-amp and DAC?

The Creative Sound Blaster X7 is a product with so many fingers in so many different pies that we have had trouble categorising where it should be in our product database. We have also struggled to see what it's main purpose is and thus why most people would buy one. This is not a cheap product, it is available online for approx £300 if you shop around (April 2015) so that will also narrow the prospective end users for this do-it-all device. If you want the version we have to test here, with the uprated power supply to help with 4ohm loads, add another £100 to the price. So exactly where do you start with such a product? Well, let's start with the design and connections and take it from there, as we look to find some answers to all these questions and more.

Design and Connections

Creative Sound Blaster X7
It’s a compact trapezoidal prism according to Creative in their PR materials and we have to say it does look good. Although the mostly plastic body feels a little light to handle, which did cause some initial concerns about the claimed 100w power amplifier on board, even if it is Class-D. The front panel has a nicely designed minimalist feel with 3 inputs to the bottom of the triangle, a power and Bluetooth button to the left and the SBX button to the right. In the middle is a Dolby Digital indicator light which is white in colour when decoding a DD 5.1 signal. Above these and central is the microphone (with Creative logo above) and to the top of the front face is the volume knob.

The actual unit is around 6-inches deep with an NFC touch point to the right hand side and a USB host port on the left side. We then have the rear panel with the various connections. The finish to the body of the X7 does feel a little plastic but the design makes up for the materials being used. Buttons also have a nice soft touch to them and the volume knob has good resistance, so you are not suddenly going to deafen yourself or blow your speakers with too strong a twist of the knob.

It’s a compact trapezoidal prism.

Creative Sound Blaster X7
The connections on the front panel of the X7 are a 3.5mm mic input, a 1/4inch headphone out and 3.5mm headphone out. The headphone outputs can be used at the same time. To connect using Bluetooth via the front panel you hold the power button in for approximately 3 seconds to start the pairing routine. The host USB on the left side of the unit is for use with tablets and smart phones to stream music to the X7 in the highest possible quality, according to Creative. Your device will also be charged when using this input.

Creative Sound Blaster X7
Around the back we have a selection of inputs and outputs which gives the X7 a number of different solutions for the various roles it claims it can do. The most obvious connections to stand out are the stereo speaker terminals for use with passive speakers. The X7 boasts 100w of Class-D amplification on-board as well as audiophile grade components, so it seems obvious that there would be terminals accepting bare wire and banana plug connection (beware of the banana plug slots as they are not tight and on two occasions we had the plugs falling out). To the left side of the speaker terminals is a switch for speaker impedance choices of 4ohm or 8ohm. To the right is the power input slot. Below the terminals are more inputs and outputs.

To the left on the bottom row are RCA outputs for the left and right channels for active speaker use (or connecting to a separate power amp or receiver). Next we have 3.5mm outputs for surrounds and centre/subwoofer as part of a Creative surround speaker package or using active speakers. Next are RCA line-in connectors and optical in and out slots. Finally we have a micro-USB connector for use with PC or MACs.

Overall there appears to be plenty of connection possibilities for various uses, so at least the X7 is equipped to try and provide every option it claims in the PR documents.

Sound Blaster X7 Specs & Features

Creative Sound Blaster X7
At the heart of the X7 is the SB-Axx1 multi-core Digital Signal Processor (DSP) with a patented EMU32 bus and a proprietary audio chip helping the Sound Blaster X7 achieve audiophile-grade audio playback. It also features a Burr-Brown PCM1794 127dB digital-to-analog converter (DAC) which supports high-resolution audio playback of up to 24-bit 192kHz when connected to PC/Mac, including 24-bit 88.2kHz and 24-bit 176.4kHz. Creative are keen to stress the fact that uncompressed audio playback is high on the X7 agenda with even the high-speed USB input capable of sending audio directly via the DAC.

You also have freedom of choice when it comes to how you listen to all this promised audio goodness. There is the 100W Class-D amplifier for using with some outboard passive speakers, the top-of-the-range Texas Instruments TPA6120A2 headphone amplifier chip connected through the DAC for headphone listening and if that’s not enough, you could connect a 5.1 Creative speaker system (or further outboard active speakers or amps) for a cinematic playback system - you could, but with only Dolby Digital decoding and the added expense of adding more amplification or active speakers, you won't as this is not a home cinema product.

The Sound Blaster X7 also offers Bluetooth 4.1 with aptX Low Latency and AAC codec support and you can also connect using NFC by tapping your compatible smart phone on the right hand logo on the body of the X7. We would suggest that the SBX button on the front of the unit is left switched off as it appears to be a loudness control that over inflates the bass and treble performance.

Creative Sound Blaster X7
If you are a gamer then the X7 adds to the audio features with built-in dual mics at the front of the Sound Blaster which use Crystal Voice and Beam Forming technology to make sure you are heard in multiplayer online gaming situations. They can also be used for skype calls with Beam Form tech making sure you remain intelligible even with a lot of background noise. Another gaming feature is scout mode which claims that by using this and the clean audio output of the X7 you can hear enemies coming before you see them in the game.

There is no remote control with the X7 but it can be set up and controlled with the iOS and Android apps. This allows you to access the control panel to set up the speakers being used, EQ levels and more while connected via the Host USB or via Bluetooth. If you have a PC/MAC connected this is all achieved with the X7 Control Panel Software. Everything about connecting devices and setting up the finer points of the Sound Blaster is straightforward and intuitive.

X7 Video Demo Review

Sound Quality and Performance

We tested the Sound Blaster X7 in a number of ways. First we tried it with an optical output from our TV and two small bookshelf speakers in stereo. Then we tested with Tidal via a Macbook Pro and via the host USB from an iPhone 6 connected to a pair of M&K S150mkII speakers and two V12 subwoofers (connected via the 3.5mm rear jack). Finally we tested all of that with the Headphone jacks through a pair of Sennheiser HD215 and JVC esnsy Headphones.

Starting with the headphones and Tidal playback was very good on the X7. We really didn’t expect the performance we were presented with, even though we already use two Sound Blaster THX cards in our video and podcast production computers and know how good they can sound.

The first problem was where to put the external body of the X7 on an already busy desk. You really need to make some room for it, especially if you want to make full use of the built-in mics while gaming or for Skype calls. Once you are set up it is easy enough to use and set up via the control app. So, headphone sound quality was very good with music sounding fully detailed without getting sibilant and with a nicely rich midrange to voices. Bass is also well controlled and musical. There was no hiss or other nastiness when playing at higher volumes. What I was more aware of was the probable need to have tried to get hold of some higher end cans to fully stress test the X7’s audio performance via the headphone jacks. Overall, I was very impressed with this aspect of the X7 when fed good quality sources.

Next up was a stress test for the Class-D 100w amplifier with two 4ohm nominal load M&K S150MkII speakers attached. As the M&K are satellite speakers and roll off at around 70Hz, we added in two V12 subwoofers via the 3.5mm jack sub output (split) on the X7. Some may argue that the M&K S150’s are more suited to Home Cinema and some claim they are rough in the higher frequencies with music and struggle to create a decent stereo soundstage. Of course that’s not true in all the testing we have performed with them, but they were a test for the X7’s amplification.

Yet again the Sound Blaster really did impress with playback of some classic high resolution 80’s tracks along with some blips and bleeps from the playlists on Tidal. Only when really pushed hard, at an arguably higher volume than is comfortable, did the X7 finally start to struggle with the dynamics and sounded hard and brittle. Otherwise it performed very well creating a wide enough stereo soundstage with good dynamics and nice warmth to the sound. The M&K’s are what I would describe as a clinical speaker, they are studio monitors after all, and as such they are perfect for bullets and explosions. They also bring out details within music tracks you don’t normally hear in consumer speakers which add their own voicing. That type of sound - put crap in get crap out – is arguably what we should be looking for, but with music can prove to be quite tiring over longer listening sessions. The fact that the X7 adds some warmth to take the slight edge off is very welcome and works just as well with easier to drive bookshelf speakers, like a set of old KEF's we had to hand for testing. The X7 is an excellent sounding eternal sound card, headphone pre-amp and stereo amplifier, but there are caveats.

This is not a home cinema product with only Dolby Digital decoding on-board and the need to add yet more amplification for the centre and surround channels, or active speakers. At the price point and with all the fuss made about using high grade components and so on, not to feature the latest multi-channel lossless audio decoding is confusing. But then this whole device seems confused as to what it actually is.

Verdict

Pros

  • Very good sound via Headphones
  • Also very good with attached speakers driven by on-board amplifier
  • Unique design
  • Decent connectivity for various types of users

Cons

  • Expensive if your use is limited and you're not taking full advantage of everything on offer

Creative Sound Blaster X7 Review

Overall, in terms of audio quality and playback the X7 did a very reasonable job of producing high quality music playback via headphones and speakers. Personally that is all I would use it for and as such I’m not sure it is the product for a wide audience. As a headphone preamp and DAC there are better solutions out there for less money. As a stereo amp we have the same issues. As a gaming sound card with built-in mics the market is even smaller in our opinion as it costs the same as a next gen console and that is before you add quality speakers or headphones. And let’s be honest here, what is the point of the DAC and audiophile grade components if you are going to connect cheap active or passive speakers or headphones? We used £4,000 worth of speakers with the X7 and although that is over the top to stress test its audiophile pretentions, you will still need to buy a decent pair of speakers or headphones to get the benefit, so it's more expense. Plus, however much it says it is a home cinema product, it isn't in the slightest. It is a nice concept idea and it has been executed as well as you could expect, we just struggle to see the audience for it considering the expense involved.

The problem is the fact that unless you attach good quality speakers or headphones, good quality sources and use more than one of the solutions on-board you are just not getting the full value out of the X7. This all means that the market for this product is limited, and that impacts on the final score. It is just not entirely sure what it wants to be when it grows up, which is a shame as it sounds bloody good.

Scores

Build Quality

.
.
.
7

Connectivity

.
.
.
7

Ease of Use

.
.
.
7

Sound Quality

.
.
.
7

Features

.
.
.
7

Value for Money

.
.
.
.
6

Verdict

.
.
.
7
7
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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