Ask a veteran gamer about the Sound Blaster name, and they’ll share tales of how the firm’s sound cards were mandatory in almost any gaming rig. Back in the DOOM era it was the MIDI support, while later years were all about EAX and onboard effects processing. Halcyon days of yesterday’s gaming.
Then, everything changed. Motherboards with built-in sound became... okay. USB headsets and speakers became a thing. Overnight, the line-out socket withered on the vine, like an audio appendix.
But now, Creative Labs is back with the Sound BlasterX AE-5. Aimed squarely at gamers, this PCIe card has an impressive 32-bit/384 kHz DAC, a dynamic range of 122 dB, and (because this is 2017) full RGB lighting. Even so, can it beat today’s typical audio setup? The TL;DR: surprisingly and undoubtedly yes. If you’re prepared to put up with a few quibbles, this sound card delivers audio bliss.
As most of us tend to game with headphones these days, Creative’s secret sauce with the AE-5 is to provide a dedicated solution, using dual-amplifiers for left and right channels in order to minimise crosstalk and enough power to drive studio-grade headsets. That’s on top of the ESS ES9016 SABRE32 Ultra digital to analog converter - a popular pick that’s only a step down from pro-grade kit.
That attention to detail continues with grounding the headphones socket separately to the other connectors, using German-made WIMA film/foil capacitors in that dual-amp, and wrapping the whole package in a metal EMI shield. Creative have also used their quad-core Sound Core3D digital signal processor to provide further enhancements and effects.
- MSRP: $149.99
- Audio/DSP Processor: Sound Core3D
- Channels: 5.1 discrete speaker out 7.1 virtual headphone surround
- Interface: PCIe
DAC: ESS ES9016K2M SABRE32 Ultra DAC
- Max Playback Resolution: 32-bit/384kHz
- DNR: 122 dB
- THD + N: 0.00032%
ADC: Sound Core3D
- Max Recording Resolution: 24-bit/96kHz
Headphone Amp (600Ω): Custom-designed discrete headphone amp (Xamp)
- SNR: 116dB
- THD + N: 0.0009%
- 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), 1x Intel Front Panel header, 1x Molex Power In, 1x RGB LED Header
- Additional Features: RGB Illumination with included 30cm/10 LED strip and 1x LED extension cable
At $150, the Sound BlasterX AE-5 is at the upper end of consumer sound cards, landing between the firm’s older Zx and ZxR cards. It’s also similarly priced to the Sound BlasterX G5; a USB sound card and headphones amp that also works with XBox One and PS4. Crucially though, the AE-5 is the only card in the lineup to offer 32-bit/384 kHz resolution.
Because the AE-5 has a clear focus on headphones audio, we wanted to test it with a reasonable mix. At the low end was Apple’s EarPods - those ubiquitous and cheap in-ear noisemakers. Moving up to a typical gaming headset, we used the SteelSeries Siberia Elite Prism, mainly because it comes with a 3.5mm jack adaptor. For the high-end, we used Sennheiser’s Momentum Wireless cans in wired mode, and with noise cancellation off and on.
We also tested the AE-5 with desktop speakers, in this case using the Audioengine A2+ twin speaker setup.
Output from the Sound Blaster card was compared with two types of motherboard audio: the Gigabyte GA-Z87-D3H (using Realtek’s ALC892 DAC at 24-bit/192 kHz), and the ASUS ROG Impact VII (with the SupremeFX Impact II DAC, also at 24-bit/ 192 kHz). We also tested against a basic external DAC, in this case using the Roccat Kave XTD Digital and using the speaker output.
For our music sources, we used Reddit’s /r/headphones Audiophile Spotify Playlist, focusing on Bubbles by Yosi Horikawa and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, with High Quality (320 kHz) playback enabled. We also used World of Warcraft: Legion and Destiny 2 as our primary games tests.
Straight out of the gate, the Sound BlasterX AE-5 surprised us with high levels of amplification, easily doubling the output of other sources at similar volume levels. However, even once this was adjusted, the clarity of Creative’s card was far in excess of the what you’d get with a standard motherboard, and even managed to audibly beat the other sources in our test. Music would sound tinny and flat on the cheaper end, while the more mid-priced comparisons was muffled and muddy in mid-range. By comparison, the AE-5 was consistently even, delivering crisp detail across the audio spectrum.
Likewise, with headphones, the difference in audio quality was noticeable regardless of which pair we plugged in. Audio separation was prominently noticeable across all our tests, with detail and richness improving as we moved up to better quality headsets.
Gaming tests produced a slightly different result. In-game music, although brighter, didn’t seem to sound more detailed, which possibly suggests a lower sampling rate in order to save file space. That said, the difference in layering was huge - winds swirled around the Broken Isles in a way that gave goosebumps, and the ambient noises on Nessus were full of small details. Rather than becoming a mash of noise, weapons fire and combat also felt more distinct, contributing to the soundscape rather than overriding it.
Beyond the basics, acoustic adjustments are possible through Creative’s SB Connect software. General equaliser modifications are easy to make, and presets are included for most common uses. The app also enables tweaks to clarity, bass boosting, and mic vocal effects using the on-board DSP.
Putting the clear audio benefits to one side, does the Sound BlasterX AE-5 warrant a spot in our systems? Creative Labs has tried to make that decision a little easier for us by incorporating an RGB lighting controller, and bundling an adhesive/magnetic light strip. Further packs of strips can be bought direct from the firm, should you want even more luminous coverage inside your case.
Configuring the lights is easy enough using the same SB Connect app, which offers a number of static, pulsing and rainbow effects. Unfortunately the Aurora Reactive technology missed one opportunity that would have made it a killer feature, and that’s sound responsiveness. After all, it would have been an easy way to differentiate from the lighting tech offered by Corsair, Razer, NZXT, etc, by having lights that wave to the beat of your tunes.
There are also more practical considerations, like rooting around the back of your rig to plug in a headphones cable, or sacrificing quality to use the unshielded and poor quality front panel jack built into the case. Creative’s Zx and ZxR cards have got around this problem by using an audio breakout with volume dial, and it would have been great to see this as an optional RGB-lit accessory.
Headsets with mics have also started to move away from twin 3.5mm jacks, opting for USB instead. Even speakers have got in on the act, with USB appearing along the legacy connectors. Is the Sound BlasterX trying to solve a problem that no longer exists?
The answer is: it depends. If you’re obsessed about minimising desk clutter from external amps or breakout boxes, yet care about sound quality, you’ll want to go for the Sound BlasterX AE-5. If the PC is the centre of your entertainment world, it makes sense to go for an option that can deliver great audio to desktop speakers as well as headphones.
If clutter is less of an issue, an external amp and DAC might be the way to go. But, in these cases, you’re looking at a solution that could be more expensive, hogs your USB sockets, and would probably provide lower audio resolution. It’ll get the headphones socket closer to the front of your desk, but it’s a hefty bill to pay - especially when a 3.5mm extension cable would also work.
Just as you’d want to pair a GTX 1080Ti with a stonking 4K monitor, it also depends on what speakers or headset you’re coupling with the sound card. If you’ve got the right gear, the Sound BlasterX AE-5 is an amazing card that absolutely deserves a spot in your rig. If not, it might be time to dust off that holiday wish list.
- Rich, detailed, clear sound
- Dedicated headphones amp
- Built-in RGB lighting control
- Cheaper than an external amp & DAC
- RGB isn’t sound reactive
- No audio breakout box, making the headphones socket a fiddly reach
The product discussed in this article was provided by the manufacturer for purposes of review.