Creative Sound Blaster X7 review

creative x7 reviewI have had, built and tweaked many PCs in my time and Creative Sound Blaster is a name synonymous with PC audio for me. However, as the audio processing on motherboards got better I found myself not adding a specialist card. In the last few years though, I have got more involved with Hi-Fi audio and now have my desktop computer going through a mini stack of separate DAC and amp to drive some bookshelf monitor speakers as well as a dedicated headphone amp – but could the Sound Blaster X7 be a more compact all-in-one solution?

To be honest, I am only really familiar with Creative’s Sound Blaster internal PC audio cards so, when I was asked to check out the latest and greatest in the range, that’s what I was expecting. Instead, when I saw the X7, I was greeted by a futuristic-looking pointy thing.

The X7 is presented as a desktop-meets-home theater amplifier, DAC and headphone amp with Dolby decoding thrown in for good measure. Is this Sound Blaster a Jack-of-all trades or master of none?

Sound Blaster X7 design

I rather like the X7’s prism-shaped casing. It’s not huge (6 x 5 x 5.5 inches (W x H x D)) but, as I have my CM Storm Stryker sat on my desk (well, as I bothered to fit it with braided cables and LEDs I want to be able look at it!), I could either encroach on my partner’s work area and have the headphone stand attached or remove the stand and sit the X7 under my monitor. The latter was my forced choice in order to maintain PC-user harmony.

white x7The case is finished in a neat matte black with yellow-gold lettering and highlights but, upon checking out the Creative website, I see that they also have a limited edition white version which looks rather tasty (yeah, that’s it above – nice isn’t it?) and would definitely look great with my set-up. I applaud the fact that Creative has gone with white lights for the front panel display on both versions though.

All this adds up to what I’d call a grown-up looking bit of kit. Yes, I know that I’ve already admitted to having lights in my PC case but all too often things that are aimed at gamers/PC enthusiasts seem to be peppered with needless and garish designs.

creative x7 headphone stand pcOn the front panel, you’ll find a large, silver volume control knob, 3.5mm headphone out, 6.3mm headphone out and 3.5mm mic-in jack – not to mention that behind the grille is a built-in stereo mic.

Both headphone jacks can be used simultaneously for when you’re feeling friendly and, while the built-in stereo mic works great for Skype and Google Hangouts, it’s also handy for venting at your ‘team mates’ when they accidentally kill you for the eighth time.

Turn the X7 around and you’ll find just about every sort of audio input you’ll ever need. The X7 will happily squirt out 5.1 channel audio too, if that’s your thing.

The detachable headphone stand and being able to power two sets of cans from the 600-ohm headphone amp are certainly neat touches for the average user but Creative also knows that a lot of PC owners like to tinker.

creative sound blaster x7 op-ampFor those who can’t help but look at kit to see how they can upgrade it, The Sound Blaster X7’s op/amps can be swapped out for alternatives should you have a particular preference. All you have to do is flick open the door on the bottom of the device to get at those handily socketed parts. For the more gadgety out there, the X7 comes loaded with Nichicon ‘Fine Gold’ capacitors, New Japan Radio NJM2114D and Texas Instruments LME49710 op-amps – all decent specs but, you know, for the customisation.

Sound Blaster X7 performance and connectivity

Under the hood of the X7 you’ll find a Burr-Brown PCM1794 127dB digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) which supports high-resolution audio playback of files up to 24-bit 192kHz.

You can hook up the X7 to a PC or Mac via USB, plug in your telly using optical audio and even connect your mobile phone or tablet with it thanks to its built-in NFC chip and Bluetooth 4.1 radio.

The Sound Blaster X7 features the SB-Axx1 multi-core Digital Signal Processor (DSP) which is capable of voice processing, audio restoration, proprietary effects processing and is also a certified Dolby Digital 5.1 decoder.

creative sound blaster x7 rear panelIt has a special patented EMU32 bus capable of processing up to 32 concurrent audio streams. This allows the Sound Blaster X7 to handle multiple audio inputs and outputs.

Sound Blaster X7 sound

For me, it makes sense to start with the X7 plugged in to my PC and powering my pair of Q Acoustic 1010 speakers.

The Sound Blaster is a nice balanced listen and the power is certainly there. For gaming especially there was decent depth and the stereo imaging was pretty darned good. Flicking on some tracks from Spotify Premium and Hi-Res tunes on TIDAL it doesn’t fair so well when a/b testing with my own set-up. I found that, when compared with my Musical Fidelity rig, the X7 lost some of the transparency and involvement I have grown accustomed to.

Obviously, when comparing the output from my PC’s on-board audio to headphones and those going through the X7 then there was a leap in definition and clarity. I tested the X7 using closed-back headphones (Oppo PM-3 and NAD VISO HP50) as I doubt if the majority of gamers would use the open-backed variety. I do enjoy first person shooters and the X7 had me looking over my shoulder more than once!

x7 under monitorDetail levels are pretty decent. It’s not going to scare my Musical Fidelity V90 separates but I think it’s safe to assume that Creative and MF are after different sectors – not to mention buyer’s account balances (the Musical Fidelity V90 bits are roughly twice the price of the X7).

My brother has just shared a play list of rock hits from the 70s and 80s, one of those rare cross-overs for us, and pumping the likes of Foreigner’s ‘Cold as Ice’ through the Q Acoustic speakers is pleasant enough and I’d dare say that, for most people, the X7 would make a fair foundation for a good office/bedroom system.

Hooking the X7 up as the amp in my main system I had the optical out from my Panasonic VIERA TX-47AS740B going in to the Sound Blaster and then out to my Tannoy Mercury V1i speakers, as well as giving it a run with an Evolve Audio SB-2501 soundbar with wireless woofer that I currently also have for review, and the X7 makes a decent fist at covering all the bases.

App and software

x7 android appThe dedicated app for the X7 ( available for both iOS and Android (above)) has an impressive range of settings. There is also an X7 Control Panel for Mac and Windows desktops – all of which can be grabbed from the website.

x7 configureWith Creative’s software, you get help with the initial set up via the configuration wizard (above) and after then you can manually change your speaker/headphone preferences, run some quick diagnostic checks as well as mess around with the X7’s equaliser. Overall, the software is functional, easy-to-use and fairly quick to setup.

X7 graphicWhat I did like was Scout Mode – an effect which amplifies footsteps in first-person shooters. I found this little setting very handy as those heightened footsteps and other give-away noises helped to keep me alive a little longer. Cheating? Nope, simply using the tools at hand dear boy 😉

As mentioned before, this Sound Blaster can decode Dolby Digital and output six discrete channels (front right/left, surround right/left, center, and a subwoofer for LFE).

The ‘SBX’ switch on the front panel does seem to give tracks some extra punch (it ramps up the lows and low mids) but unbalances the sound tonally to me because of what it’s adding, almost masking.

However, the SBX Pro Studio section of the control panel is quite a fun thing to play with. This suite of audio playback technologies hands you the tools to create a realistic surround sound effect, even from a regular stereo set-up, make speech clearer, or the ability to tweak it so that you can hear specific sounds in a gaming environment.

The SBX Crystalizer (adds some zing), SBX Bass (for boosting low-frequency effects, or LFE), and SBX Smart Volume (for minimising abrupt changes in volume, such as during commercial TV breaks).

Again, I found these best used with movies or games as I am more about transparency than artificially boosting levels with my music.

Sound Blaster X7 conclusion

Creative has certainly packed loads into the Sound Blaster X7’s prism-shaped case.

In this well-designed sound centre you get a capable DAC and stereo amplifier as well as Dolby Digital smarts for movie watching.

Creative have not forgotten its PC gaming fans and I think this is where the X7 excels. Soundtracks sound huge, effects are clear and, thanks to Scout mode, I spent more time in-game enjoying all of this than respawning.

That said, you have more connections than you can wave a zombie’s dismembered arm at. Not only good quality speaker posts but a range of micro and full-size ports.

soundblaster x7 prism floydIf you use your PC for music, gaming as well as watching shows and films and are looking for a smart all-in-one system then I would suggest definitely testing the X7 out with some decent bookshelf speakers – you’d be doing it a disservice hooking some budget bins to it.

You have more wriggle-room with headphones but really go for a decent set of cans whether you’re listening to music or gaming.

If you’re building a new rig then really consider adding the Creative Sound Blaster X7 in to your budget (and desk space) – you’ll be getting a DAC, Bluetooth receiver, amplifier and headphone amp in a smart package.

I’d also recommend the X7 for those who live in their bedroom, whether still at home with parents or flatsharing as this one amp does have the skills to multi-task.

The Creative Sound Blaster has an RRP of £330 but, at the moment, you can snaffle one for £288 on 😉