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Creative Sound BlasterX Vanguard K08: Surprisingly Capable

By Gareth Harmer on October 15, 2017 | Hardware Reviews | Comments

Creative Sound BlasterX Vanguard K08: Surprisingly Capable

The Sound Blaster name has been synonymous with PC audio for as long as I can remember. I was including Sound Blaster cards in my very first gaming rigs, back before on-board sound came built into most motherboards, and it’s a name that still carries weight in gaming circles today. But why would a veteran audio firm decide to enter the highly competitive peripheral market?

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As it turns out, the Sound BlasterX Vanguard K08 Keyboard is part of the company’s strategy to extend beyond helping gamers perceive the environment, and into aiding reaction and execution based on that perception. This explains the Perceive, React, Execute branding and those unique PRES mechanical switches supplied by OMRON, which make an appearance in the firm’s first pro-gaming keyboard. As an opening effort, the Vanguard K08 is surprisingly capable and full-featured, with several pleasing design choices that make it a solid addition to the Sound BlasterX pro-gaming range

Specifications

  • MSRP: $179.99 (currently $139.99)
  • 109 programmable keys
  • Dimensions: 215mm (149mm without wrist rest) x 465mm x 37.6mm
  • Weight: 1288g including cable & wrist rest
  • USB 2.0 cable with braided sheath and 2 plugs (k/b & pass-through)
  • Low profile KeySwift key caps
  • Media keys, Windows lock key and brightness control
  • Rotary volume control and mute key
  • Programmable Aurora RGB lighting system with 10 presets
  • 2 position adjustable height
  • Detachable wrist rest
  • USB 2.0 pass-through port
  • 26-key rollover with Anti-Ghosting technology
  • PRES custom OMRON mechanical key switches rated for 70 million actuations
  • 1.5mm key actuation, 3.5mm total key travel
  • 45g key actuation force

Design & Finish

Compared to most other keyboards that we’ve looked at recently, the Vanguard K08 has a tight and compact design that avoids dominating the desk. The standard layout has been complemented by a single strip of macro keys down the left-hand side, adding minimal extra width. A bank of media keys has been added to the top-right, including a windows-lock and brightness toggle, but this is also a small-sized addition. Nestled next to these is a volume roller and mute button to round out the media set.

Bundled in the box is a solid plastic wrist rest, with two hooks that slot into the underside of the keyboard, making it very easy to remove. Two plastic feet can also be found underneath the back of the keyboard to increase the typing angle, providing solid grip and stability when in use. Although plastic, the whole frame is solidly built with no flex or give, even under intense gaming. The included braided cable adds to that premium feel, as does the USB pass-through socket tucked underneath the media button housing.

Aesthetically, the Vanguard K08 has a clean design that uses sharp lines and angled corners, avoiding some of the excessive moulding and styling that’s sometimes found with other brands. A glowing X sits next to the media buttons on the top right, but the LED colour can be changed or even deactivated in software. Elsewhere, the Sound BlasterX Pro Gaming logo has been lightly embossed on the wrist rest, leaving an overall impression that’s less gaudy and more classy, even for an RGB lighting keyboard.

Keycaps & Switches

Several years ago, I made the switch from an old membrane keyboard (the classic Logitech G15) and moved over to mechanical switches. Since then, I’ve grown to favour Cherry MX Reds for gaming, even though they’re noisy, and prefer the linear force profile over anything with a tactile bump. Even so, I’m full of contradictions, and generally use a laptop with chiclet style keys for any heavy typing sessions. 

As a result, the PRES switches in the Vanguard K08 were always going to be a hard sell. Developed in conjunction with OMRON, these have a tactile force bump that’s very noticeable at first, even though they require the same 45g force to actuate. That said, the actuation point is slightly higher at 1.5mm instead of the usual 2mm, making them slightly more sensitive. One surprising change is that the tactile bump makes me less likely to ‘bottom out’ making the overall experience much quieter than before.

Pulling off the caps, each switch contains an RGB LED and diffuser in a central pillar, with the switch itself surrounding it. Two pairs of contacts are used in case one oxidises or traps grit, making each switch more reliable. The caps themselves are matte paint coated translucent plastic, which slot onto the switch with four plastic feet to create smooth travel regardless of the angle used to strike it.

After about a week of extended use, I’ll admit that I grew used to the Vanguard K08 PRES switches for gaming, once I popped open the rear feet. I wouldn’t say that I fell in love with them (our own Chris Coke and Suzie Ford are fans of similar switches used in other keyboards), but I do appreciate the quieter experience.

Lighting & Programmability

Straight out of the box, the Vanguard K08 dazzled me with a scrolling wave of rainbow colour washing across the keys. The effect is enhanced by the white backboard that sits behind the keys, reflecting those colours up through the gaps between each cap, and framed nicely by a thick black bezel. Sound Blaster also had a few more tricks up its sleeve once the software was downloaded, with a number of additional lighting presets to create further effects. If you’re not used to an RGB keyboard it can be a vivid display. 

Because each keycap has its own LED, the RGB lighting is intense, particularly as Sound Blaster have chosen a thicker, bolder typeface for key lettering that lets the illumination pour through. In order to tone things down a bit, there’s a brightness toggle to drop the illumination or even turn it off completely, and it’s a feature I was grateful for as my gaming sessions stretched into the night.

It’s not all pretty lights, however. The audio mute key and windows lock buttons both flash when they’re active, making them a distraction that blinks in the corner of your eye, particularly if (like me) you tend to have your PC muted most of the time.

Once downloaded, the Sound Blaster Connect app is designed to help configure lighting presets, record and configure macros, and tweak performance. Unfortunately, the version used on our test rig (3.1.20.2) was an initial disappointment, with many of the features blocked by BitDefender Total Security. Once whitelisted, the application was stable, allowing me to set up custom lighting configurations for my current stack of games.

That configuration capability is quite sophisticated, particularly when it comes to lighting effects. Complete board effects can be applied, including a wave of up to 6 different colours to ripple across the board. Alternatively, individual keys can be set to a specific colour, or even pulsate. It would be great to group keys together into banks and apply effects to all of them in one go, but multiple keys can be selected with ctrl+click. 

Although it’s an early version, there are a couple of ways in which that feature set could be improved. One is to automatically detect which game I’m playing and switch lighting or macro sets automatically, instead of having to change them around in the control panel. Another is to allow lighting and macro sets to be easily exported, imported and shared with others, enabling gamers to get the most out of their purchase quickly. I’d also like the ability to punch a macro key to play a specific lighting set (say a quick burst of wave), but that’s just so I can show off when streaming.

Closing Thoughts

The Sound BlasterX Vanguard K08 is a solid and well-made keyboard, representing a strong first entry into pro-gaming peripherals. Features such as the sturdy build quality, braided sheath cabling, volume roller and minimalist aesthetics all add to that premium feel, with no hint of flex or creak even under heavy use. The accompanying Sound Blaster Connect app already includes a bundle of features to satisfy most gamers, and I hope to see it improve over time to support today’s nomadic gaming lifestyle.

Those custom OMRON PRES switches are a tougher sell, as the tactile bump and quiet operation reminds me of those legacy membrane keyboards. That said, over a week of testing they’ve gradually grown on me, and I’ve not found myself reaching for the old Cherry MX Red board that previously dominated my desk. And speaking of desk space, I’ve definitely appreciated the Vanguard K08’s compact profile, giving me space to throw down a more luxuriant mouse mat on my cramped workspace.

For current membrane keyboard users, the tactile feedback and lowered profile might be ideal as a first trip into mechanicals. For existing Cherry aficionados looking for a quieter life, the OMRON switches might be the solution, shrouded in a solidly built and high quality frame. While it might not be to everyone’s taste, there’s certainly a lot to like about the Sound BlasterX Vanguard K08.

The product discussed in this article was provided by the manufacturer for the purposes of review.

Pros

  • Great build quality
  • Compact and minimalist design
  • Quiet operation
  • Good customisation in software

Cons

  • Annoying blinking mute & windows key lock lights
  • Software could do with more usability features
Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.