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Sound Blaster X7 review: Audiophile performance without the audiophile price

Michael Brown | Nov. 27, 2014
The sound card is pretty much dead, but the high-end PC audio market is thriving. Most of the action is in USB DACs coupled with headphone amps, and Creative's new Sound Blaster X7 can fill that role. But this device can do much more, and its application isn't limited to personal computers. This Sound Blaster can also be used with gaming consoles, smartphones, tablets, DVD players... just about anything with an audio input or output.

If you prefer wireless streaming via Bluetooth, the SB X7 supports that, too, using your choice of the aptX or AAC codecs. The box can support two Bluetooth devices at once, and it supports NFC (near-field communication) Bluetooth pairing. Just tap your device against the side of the cabinet.

Creative's SB-Axx1 audio processor forms the heart of the Sound Blaster X7, which renders it suitable for PC gaming as well as critical-listening sessions. The SB-Axx1 is a DSP (digital signal processor) that's capable of voice processing, audio enhancement, audio effects, and decoding Dolby Digital soundtracks. The chip can decode audio bit streams with up to 24-bit resolution and at sampling rates up to 192kHz.

As I mentioned in my intro, the SB X7 can't decode Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, in part because it's not outfitted with an HDMI input and output (TOSLink doesn't provide sufficient bandwidth for those codecs). That's not enough to prevent me from connecting an SB X7 to my home-theater PC, because Creative's box has higher-end DACs and a much better headphone amp than my A/V receiver does (and my A/V receiver can't perform as a USB audio device).

The SB X7's DAC is a high-end Burr-Brown PCM1794 that delivers an extremely high signal-to-noise ratio of 127dB. A Burr-Brown PCM4220 handles conversions from analog to digital for recording to a PC's hard drive from the onboard mic, mic input, or line-level inputs. Like Creative's own audio processor, both of these parts support up to 24-bit resolution and sampling rates up to 192kHz.

Audio effects

Creative has developed an entire suite of signal-processing software — SBX Pro Studio Technology — that runs on the SB-Axx1 chip. Some of these apps are designed with gaming in mind, while others are useful for just about any audio application. You can manage these effects using Windows software on your PC or an app for your Android or iOS device. Using a mobile device also gives you the ability to control the volume from across the room.

The music I care most about I either buy on CD and rip to FLAC, or I buy in high-definition form and download (from services such as Bowers & Wilkins' Society of Sound). As such, I generally prefer that my audio playback gear processes that audio as little as possible. But I am also occasionally tempted by bargains and freebies from places such as Amazon and Google Play, which sometimes arrive in the form of MP3 files. I also listen to audio-streaming services (I'm a Google Play Music All Access subscriber, and I also like what Slacker has to offer).

Those tracks don't offer the highest fidelity, but Creative's Crystalizer software can very effectively restore life to them. Other SBX Pro Studio effects let you add a pseudo-surround-sound effect and boost bass response (as well as adjust the crossover frequency), using sliders in the apps or Windows software to control the impact of each effect.


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