Published on November 9th, 2015 | by Greg0
Creative’s Sound Blaster X7: Your PC’s Audio Superhighway
A chill is in the air- the approaching storm of awesome gear that is sure to grab your attention, and a fair bit of your wallet, this holiday season. We’re not writing up the year-end, best-of lists, but our eyes are now peeled for every item that might deserve a spot, ranking and testing and considering each product reviewed in 2015. Today, we bring you the first half of a duet, each of the pair certainly able to stand by itself, but an ideal combination for the computer gamer or desktop user music lover who has some extra space. Tomorrow, we’ll look at a set of speakers that are custom-made to complement today’s audio solution.
The Creative Sound Blaster X7 is a multi-purpose digital-to-analog converter, amplifier, and computer soundcard that offers an incredible array of features, all serving to move your computer’s audio into the audiophile world. Most computers have a small built-in soundcard- a small part of your system that takes the digital signals running around your operating system and converts them for use with your speakers, which you probably plug in via a headphone jack. Creative has been creating super-powered soundcards for decades- but few folks want the hassle of opening up their cases and installing a new card now, and if you have a laptop, you want an external solution. Not to mention that audiophile speakers are often unpowered, requiring an amplifier. Combinations of these different items exist, and at first glance it may seem like a receiver of sorts, but this is an all-in-one box that can drive headphones too, connect to your phone or tablet, and even offers 5.1 channel playback with built-in Dolby Digital decoder. And it comes in a cool prismatic, pyramid-shaped form factor that is definitely unique.
The hardware itself boasts some impressive specs, featuring a dual-channel 100-watt amp, an onboard noise-canceling microphone, Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity with apt-X and NFC pairing, and critically, high-resolution 24-bit 192kHz decoding via a Burr-Brown chip. Meant to connect to passive speakers, the main rear output are beautiful gold-plated two-way binding post terminal connectors. Unusually, dual front headphone outputs are also available in both the standard 3.5mm mini-jack style and the more serious 1/4″ size, along with 5.1 surround sound analog connectivity, and an optical S/PDIF port. There are even a profusion of other input options- USB for iOS and Android tablets and smartphones, optical S/PDIF for gaming consoles and televisions, plus an RCA line-in for other analog sources. Unfortunately, you can’t really toggle between inputs which limits it’s use for home theater use and can be a little awkward- but we primarily tested with Windows 8 and Windows 10 computers (and tomorrow’s Creative EMU XM7 speakers).
Creative’s Sound Blaster X7 isn’t a small investment- either in terms of cost or physical space. You’ll need to set aside a fair bit of room, similar to a small subwoofer, which may be tough on a small desk. Ideally, the headphone output would be easily accessible, and of course, it needs to be fairly close to your computer. Once setup, though, you’ll quickly find your computer audio taken to the next level- competitive with many of the audiophile DACs we’ve seen with more features than just about any competitors. Play your favorite action movie through your computer and the difference between a tiny DAC and typical 2.1 setup versus the X7′s massive amp is more than sharply audible, it makes it hard to go back to your TV, much less your laptop’s tinny sound. There are some interesting design decisions- the front panel SBX enhancer control is handy and an app that can control EQ settings was nifty. But there are also a few oddities, like the lack of a remote and the obvious absence of HDMI connectivity. For surround connectivity, there are probably better options out there, but for anyone with stereo passive speakers and a desire to get the best audio experience from their PC, then the Creative Sound Blaster X7 should be at the top of your wishlist. It’s available now as tested in black or a limited edition white version, starting at $399.99.