The Creative Labs ZxR sound card proves that on-board audio still is nowhere close to overtaking the versatility and audio quality of a dedicated sound board. After about 25 years in the audio card industry, Creative’s ability to keep pushing the bar higher is remarkable – even if the current generation of audio products may offer more than the average user might require.
The first Creative Labs card I ever owned was a SB16 – back in the ms-dos days before Windows 95 arrived on the scene and when a lot of pc games were still happy with the sound coming from their pc speakers. Installing that card meant a huge leap forward in how I enjoyed my games, but my tastes and level of experience have since developed and left me wondering how much of a difference a sound card could still offer now that digital audio has become somewhat of a commodity product for PC games.
Imagine my surprise when two weeks of testing made me realize that the on-board audio in our PC setups had actually been a bottleneck for our PC-based tests of headphone/headset products. Of course they were all tested with hi-fi setups as well so our conclusions are still valid, but re-testing them with the ZxR provided us with remarkable new insights. Top-end speaker and headphone solutions really shine within games and applications now, as the new Creative card emphasises their audio quality and at the same time exposes shortcomings in others – but let’s back up before we start talking audio quality.
The new Z-range by Creative actually has three different flavors for those looking to add a high-end sound card to their system. The Z features the base card and an external microphone unit, the Zx adds the ACM (or Audio Control Module) to the mix and the ZxR rounds off the selection by adding a daughter board that primarily adds extra options for those looking to do high quality recordings. Both cards have gold-plated connectors and advanced shielding and grounding technologies, ensuring minimal distortion and maximum audio fidelity.
In terms of connectivity, the main board features 1/4″ connectors, RCA output and 3.5mm outputs – when combined with the range of cables that Creative supplies this ensures connectivity with anything from a set of headphones to a high-end amplifier. The card supports 5.1 audio, but most (if not all) 7.1 systems can handle this and spread the audio evenly across the remaining channels. Still, we were surprised to find that 7.1 wasn’t included in such a high-end and high quality card. In our tests, we used both external speakers and headphones for pc-based testing, and hooked up the system to an external amplifier for further audiophile testing and recording tests.
Setup and software
Setting up the card is a breeze, as the driver software is self-explanatory and the ACM is easy to connect. Being able to position the unit close to your keyboard enables you to easily hook up and detach a set of headphones, which is extremely convenient when switching from external speakers to the personal audio experience that headphones offer. This may not seem like a big deal because on-board solutions often use connectors at the front of the computer case – but there’s a big difference in audio quality that we’ll discuss later and it’s good that this hasn’t come at the expense of user friendliness.
Creative offers a full set of features through their SBX software solution, including advanced surround features for both speaker and headset systems. If you’re using speakers, the ZxR allows you to add ‘virtual speakers’ to your environment, thus getting around the 5.1 limitation. Surround virtualization for headphones is also present, and works with any stereo headset. When you add standard features such as equalizer settings, volume normalization and bass boosting, you’re looking at a complete software package here. You’ll also find options to configure and enhance several voice-based features on the card, catering to the Voip and multiplayer crowd – the ACM includes a beam-forming microphone to this end as well.
Which bring us to the audio quality – which is easily the best we’ve heard out any pc setup so far. Using high quality DTS, FLAC and 320 kbps mp3 recordings, we were able to distinguish subtle audio cues in songs that we previously only heard using dedicated hi-fi audio hardware. Individual tracks within songs don’t blend together, but make each instrument come across wonderfully well – whether it be piano, guitar or bass. The ZxR offers up a soundstage that does justice to the best of headphones and speakers, with excellent range and depth. If we have to offer one note of criticism it’s that some tracks sounded a little too bass-heavy for our liking, and those required some tweaking with the settings to get them sounding just right. We’re glad the ZxR can offer up plenty of range for this to be manageable, but we would have liked a sound that’s a bit more neutral in terms of bass emphasis.
It’s in games where the ZxR really shines. Music listening always has us comparing the experience to what’s possible on hi-fi audio, but it’s gaming where we really noticed a leap forward. This was especially true for games that were developed with immersive sound in mind, such as the Metro games, the recent Thief or F.3.A.R. The clarity of the sound, especially over the surround channels, really enhanced our experience – in some cases even to the point of backtracking to make sure we heard what we heard. Take for example a subtle change in how your footsteps sound based on being in a large or smaller space – effects we never picked up on before but that were obvious with the ZxR.
Competitive gamers will also benefit from the ZxR’s audio fidelity over all channels (perhaps due to the top grade hardware components that were used for the surround channels and not just the main stereo channels). Being able to pinpoint the direction and distance of your opponents and other audio cues more precisely offers an edge to the best players out there, and the high fidelity delivery of the ZxR provides just that edge. The only negative we found is the bass emphasis and subsequent need to tweak your settings a little. Games that are heavy on explosions and loud effects may have you reaching for the equalizer controls sooner than you’d like, but thankfully this is an issue that is easily remedied.
All in all, the ZxR has shown us that there’s plenty of life left in the sound card industry. We haven’t even touched on the high quality recording aspects that this card offers through its daughter board, which also offers connectivity to a surround sound setup through spdif – a handy feature when hooking up a gaming pc to a home entertainment system. If you’re in the market for a high end audio solution that far exceeds what your on-board audio chip can push out, then be sure to check out Creative’s Z-range of sound cards – you, like us, will be surprised at home much further the envelope can be pushed. Recommended!
For more info, see http://www.creative.com/g/p/sound-blaster/sound-blaster-zxr