It’s astonishing to think that Creative has been in the sound business for thirty years. In the early days of PC gaming, the Sound Blaster 16 was seen as an essential upgrade for any DOOM, Myst or X-Wing player. But today’s gamer is more sophisticated: streaming, Youtubing and voice chat are all part of that new mix.
For this anniversary year, Creative has responded with two new product launches that are both rather special. Heading up the range is the flagship AE-9, but our focus today is the Sound Blaster AE-7 - a sleek upgrade card with performance that could rival external amp + DAC bundles. By using high-end audiophile-grade components, this might be a great pick for gamers and budding content creators alike.
Like the Sound BlasterX AE-5 that we reviewed in 2017, the AE-7 is a massive leap in audio quality from the built-in sound that’s integrated into most modern motherboards. You don’t need to be an acoustic snob to hear the difference, just a reasonable pair of headphones or speakers that can show what the card is capable of. But it’s the additional touches that Creative included in this anniversary card that make it almost perfect for me.
- MSRP: $229.99
- Audio/DSP Processor: Sound Core3D
- Channels: 5.1 discrete speakers out, 7.1 virtual headphone surround
- Interface: PCIe
- DAC: ESS Sabre-class 9018
- Max Playback Resolution: PCM: 32-bit/384kHz. DSD: DSD64
- DNR: 127 dB
- THD + N: -120dB 0.0001%
- ADC: Sound Core3D
- Encoding: Dolby Digital Live / DTS
- Headphone Amp (600Ω): Custom-designed discrete headphone bi-amp (Xamp)
- Output Impedance: 1 Ω
- Headphone Impedance Range: 16 – 600Ω
- Connectors: 1x TOSLINK Optical Out, 1x 3.5mm Mic/Line In, 1x 3.5mm Headphone/Headset Out, 3x 3.5mm Line Out (Front, Rear, Center/Sub)
- Additional Features: External Audio Control Module (plugs into card Mic In and Headset Out)
As I unpacked and installed the Sound Blaster AE-7, it became clear that Creative has been listening carefully to community feedback. The RGB implementation and Molex power connector are gone, leaving a clean white LED-lit logo that silently screams class. There’s also no front panel audio connector, which may seem surprising until you realise that most cases use cheap cables and jacks that are prone to noise and interference. It makes for a beautifully clean upgrade inside the case.
Instead, Creative bundled an Audio Control Module with the AE-7 - a separate breakout box with 1/4” and 1/8” jacks for both microphone input and stereo headphones. The module also has its own microphone array if you’ve just got some cans, and a very smooth volume knob that’s separate from the Windows output level. Yes, it’s a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but it’s also incredibly welcome.
The other area where Creative’s been listening is with the bundled software, and the new Sound Blaster Command is an absolute joy to use. I found it very easy to set up the card for both my speaker and headphones setup, and a number of profiles are already included. It’s the same story when tuning the card for particular games, as many popular titles have equaliser and processing settings ready to go.
Creative has also thoughtfully included a simple Direct Mode switch that disables all EQ and post-processing, making it very easy to preview stream recordings and YouTube work without any audio effects being applied unintentionally. This is a huge boon to content creators that want to be able to proof their work before publishing it to an audience.
The Sound Blaster AE-7 was compared against on-board audio from the following two motherboards:
- Gigabyte GA-Z87-D3H (using Realtek’s ALC892 DAC at 24-bit/192 kHz)
- ASUS ROG STRIX z370-G (with the SupremeFX S1220A DAC, also at 24-bit/ 192 kHz).
As before, I used the Reddit /r/headphones audiophile Spotify playlist with streaming quality set at maximum. For gaming, I played Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers and Destiny 2. Dolby Digital Live and DTS playback was not tested due to setup limitations.
Audio output was tested using the following:
- Audioengine A2+ twin speaker setup.
- Apple Earpods
- Sennheiser HD598SR open-back headphones
Listening through the /r/headphones playlist, it was incredibly easy to hear the difference between on-board sound and the Sound Blaster AE-7. Madeon’s Imperium was clean and clear despite the amount of stage presence in the track, and Yosi Horikawa’s Bubbles had incredible clarity and precision.
That feeling of presence continued into Fleetwood Mac’s Chains, and going off-playlist into the Eagles’ Journey of the Sorcerer and Max Cooper’s Emergence. Being able to hear much more texture and detail is a hallmark of Creative’s sound cards, regardless of the music genre.
Even so, the difference is much more pronounced with good quality headphones or speakers. The Apple Earpods made spotting the differences much tougher, and I’d strongly recommend getting a good set of headphones or speakers (without USB!) if you’re considering the AE-7 for your rig.
On gaming, the results were similar to the AE-5. Music didn’t feel as if it got much uplift, and this is probably due to the compression and sampling used. But it was much easier to distinguish between music, movement, and using abilities. Combat was much clearer, instead of being the usual mush of noise.
The Sound Blaster AE-7 shows that Creative has been listening. It discards the RGB distraction, instead focusing on audio quality and connectivity in a great anniversary package. The bump in specification to a better quality DAC and inclusion of a breakout box make this not just a gamer’s card, but a budding content creator’s too. And for those who want to go pro, there’s always the AE-9.
Paired with good quality speakers or headphones, the Sound Blaster AE-7 delivers an incredibly crisp, clear and rich experience. It doesn’t matter whether you’re listening to Spotify or levelling up in your MMO of choice, the difference is clear even to the untrained ear. And if your PC is the centre of your entertainment world, the Dolby Digital Live and DTS encoder will likely be very welcome.
The only snag might be the price, as $230 is a hefty chunk of cash. While the upgrade from motherboard audio is definitely money well spent, moving from an existing Creative card might be harder to justify. Luckily, the firm has an upgrade plan running currently that shaves 15% off the list price for existing Sound Blaster customers.
Ultimately though, if you want a sound card that straddles the middle ground between high-end gamer and budding content creator, the Sound Blaster AE-7 is an incredibly compelling choice.
- Crisp, clear audio
- Easy and intuitive software
- Clean and classy look
- Very useful Audio Control Module
The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for the purpose of review.