Creative Labs has been a mainstay in the world of PC audio for more than 30 years. In that time, they’ve built an impressive reputation. Their product line is expansive, covering everything from gaming products to professional audio equipment, to peripherals, and it’s one we’ve been excited to explore this year. Today, we’re reviewing my hands-down favorite peripheral we’ve tested this year: the Sound BlasterX Katana Under Monitor Audio System. Whether you’re a gamer or just an audio lover, this is the soundbar you need to own.
- MSRP: $299.99
- Speaker Configuation: 2.1 (soundbar, subwoofer)
- Peak Power: 75RMS/150W
- Driver Count: 5
- Resolution: 24bit/96kHz
- Surround Sound: Dolby Digital, Virtual 5.1 Channel
- Design: Tri-Amplified Design
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2, AUX-in, USB FlashDrive, Headset out, USB Audio, Mic-in, Optical-in
- Illumination: RGB underglow
Dimensions (H x W x D):
- Soundbar: 2.4 x 23.6 x 3.1 inches
- Subwoofer: 5.1 x 11.8 x 13.1 inches
- Soundbar: 3.3lbs
- Subwoofer: 8.8lbs
Katana. It’s an apt name because, to steal the language of game marketers everywhere, it’s quite the weapon for your desktop arsenal. In virtually every way, there’s more here than meets the eye, making this one of the most impressive and highest value products I’ve ever reviewed. It’s built well, packed with features, and sounds bigger and better than it has any right to at this size.
That’s no exaggeration. Every person I’ve shared the Katana with has been astounded at just how much sound this little system is able to push. Inside it’s small body - less than two feet wide and only two-and-a-half inches tall - are four discrete drivers, two for mids and two for highs, backed by a powerful 5.25” subwoofer. Each set of drivers and the sub are powered by their own DSP amplifiers and the sound is crystal clear, even at ear-splitting levels. The shocker, though, is just how wide of a sound that tiny soundbar can produce. Listening to music and games, you’d think I had bookshelf speakers at each corner of my desk instead of four small drivers under my monitor. When I show the Katana, I wait for the “wow” moment and it always comes.
Looking at how it’s built, it’s clear that Creative wanted to one-up the rest of the industry. For $300, you not only get a ton of extra wattage (75RMS/150W Peak Power), but also lots of extra features.
Let’s start with connectivity. You can connect via USB, of course, but also Optical, Bluetooth 4.2 (no aptX, sadly), 3.5mm for aux inputs, and even have it read from a USB flash drive. You can connect a gaming headset to it or standard headphones. There’s even a standalone mic input, resulting in a cleaner capture with less white noise, and the handful of voice-change options in the software suite. It also connects to PlayStation 4 consoles with the ease of plug and play.
Under the hood, there’s true audiophile consideration here. Since each set of drivers is powered by its own amplifier, I didn’t notice any distortion at all until I hit 38 out of 40 on the volume. We live in a duplex and this was too loud to comfortably be in the same room with it, so I could definitely see it working for small-to-medium parties. The real clincher, though, is its ability to reproduce hi-res audio, up to 24-bit/96kHz or 320kbps MP3s over USB. I couldn’t find any details on it, but the headphone jack has some juice to give extra volume and headroom to every set of headphones I threw at it.
It also feels like a premium product. It’s not cased in cheap plastic. The body of the soundbar is brushed aluminum with nice metal grills. The buttons on the top are textured and both the power and effects buttons light up to let you when when they’re on. The Sound BlasterX logo is the only bit of gloss to be seen. And yes, if you attached a hilt to it, the straight lines and angles would make it look a bit like a katana.
If RGB is your thing, the Katana has that too with its underglow. I know what you’re thinking - why does a soundbar need RGB? The answer is it probably doesn’t, but since this is a PC peripheral, it actually fits in better than you might think, especially next to other RGB items. Honestly, for my own setup (pictured above), it’s pretty much the centerpiece that ties everything together with my tower tucked out of sight. There are nine presets to choose from and you can customize each for speed and up to seven different lighting zones.
The speakers are great, that much is clear, but what about the software? Happily, it’s very well done. The layout is clean and easy to understand. There are a number of preset EQs for music and cinema, but even a few for specific games like Overwatch or Battlefield 1. Of course, if you’d like to set your own, you can and then save it as a custom profile, even with its own lighting scheme.
What I unexpectedly found myself loving was Creative’s Acoustic Engine. The AE encompasses the additional audio effects (SBX) powered by the Katana’s sound processor. Here you can set dials for Immersion, Crystalizer, Smart Volume, and Dialog+. Immersion widens the soundstage by adding a touch of reverb without actually degrading the quality; I usually turn features like this right off because bad reverb is bad no matter what. Here, I turned it all the way up for the widest soundstage possible. Crystalizer promises to “ensure that every audio detail is heard.” Used in moderation - 30 of 100 was my sweet spot - this works remarkably well at bringing out individual instruments and adding some sparkle to your audio. Smart Volume undermines big volume shifts - great for commercials if you’re using it to watch Hulu - and Dialog+ raises the frequencies of the spoken word for VOIP. These last I didn’t use as much but still worked well.
These are features when done poorly would be worth writing off and too often are. Instead, the natural clarity of the Katana, plus the wider soundstage of “Immersion” and enhancement of “Crystalizer” inspired me to pick up a whole second item with SBX built in: the Sound BlasterX E5 Headphone DAC/Amplifier you’ll see in an upcoming project. They really are that good.
Even though I love the overall package, I’m not the biggest fan of how it’s controlled. Discrete buttons aren’t preferable to a smooth volume knob, for example. There’s also a couple of options you can only control using the IR remote, like keeping the display on at all times (important if you want to customize its readout) or the level of bass (separate from the bass in the EQ). The volume issue can be sidestepped with media keys or controlling the volume in windows, but the four bass levels? Keep that remote someplace safe because without it you’re stuck. All in all, though, these feel like nitpicks in an otherwise great package.
Put simply, for $300 you’re not going to find a better soundbar for under your monitor. Before testing the Katana, I had a pair of speakers and subwoofer from Logitech that I adored. If you had asked me then, I would have told you they were one of the best values in desktop audio. Today, there is simply no way I’m going back from the Katana. While I wish the remote wasn’t quite as necessary as it is and that there was a volume roller instead of buttons, those are nitpicks. This is an audio system that is worth every cent of its asking price and you shouldn’t hesitate to give it a try.
The product discussed in this article was provided by the manufacturer for purposes of review.
- Excellent sound with a surprisingly wide soundstage
- SBX effects are great
- Hi-res audio playback with lots of connectivity options
- Very well considered design, inside and out
- Some bass and display options are remote-only
- Volume buttons instead of a roller