Do you keep in mind Sound Blaster? For a short second in time within the 90s, these sound playing cards had been a necessary improve for any gaming PC. They gave you a spot to plug in your pre-USB joystick for bouts of X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, in addition to considerably higher audio high quality than no matter was constructed into your PC – for those who had been fortunate sufficient to have something in any respect. Nowadays although, even primary motherboards embody built-in audio with completely fantastic high quality, loads of inputs and fancy software program options – that you have in all probability by no means used. And after all, GPUs can pipe out digital surround sound over HDMI too. Surprisingly maybe, new Sound Blaster playing cards are nonetheless in manufacturing as we speak – and after testing Creative’s new flagship mannequin, the $350/£299 AE-9, I believe discrete audio continues to be value contemplating as we speak. Here’s why.
First, high-end fashionable sound playing cards can really substitute a number of different audio gear. The AE-9 is an ideal instance, because it comes with each a sound card that goes in your PC and an ‘audio management module’ or ACM that sits in your desk, joined by a mini HDMI cable (and a stern warning to not plug anything into the mini HDMI port). The ACM serves as each a headphone amp and an audio interface, with room to plug in each ¼ inch and ⅛ inch headphones plus XLR, ¼ inch and ⅛ inch microphones (with optionally available +48V phantom energy). You can even plug in auxiliary units, like your smartphone or MP3 participant, by way of phono inputs on the again of the field. Meanwhile, the sound card itself consists of 4 line out ports (two phono, two ⅛ inch) plus optical out and in, permitting a full set of 5.1 surround-sound audio system to be linked. As nicely because the AE-9’s built-in Acoustic Engine processing, you can too go for Dolby Digital Live and DTS Connect Encoding – sadly, the newer Dolby Atmos and DTS:X requirements aren’t supported, nor are 7.1 surround sound setups·
While audio interfaces just like the FocusRite Scarlett typically embody extra knobs to show and switches to flip (there’s solely a quantity wheel, a three-point impedance swap and a few additional buttons on the AE-9’s ACM), there’s sufficient right here to deal with simplest use instances – like hooking up a powered XLR condenser microphone for streaming, recording a musical instrument or holding each headphones and audio system linked always. Having every thing in a single place, as an alternative of break up throughout a number of packing containers, is handy if somewhat messy.
If you do not have your audio system inside straightforward attain or a quantity wheel in your keyboard, you will additionally admire having the ability to shortly and exactly modify your playback quantity as wanted with the ACM’s wheel. I discovered this notably got here in helpful for 1v1 conditions in Counter-Strike, the place listening to a single errant footstep can imply the distinction between wonderful victory and an ignoble knife within the again. If an ambulance comes blazing previous your flat when you’re attempting to clutch, for instance, having the ability to increase the quantity with out shedding focus is a god-send.
Speaking of footsteps, the AE-9 additionally features a scout mode which boosts the quantity of all sounds as much as a sure threshold. In testing this mode for a couple of hours, I did discover it turned simpler to listen to footsteps in quiet moments, however my inner reckoning of how distant these footsteps had been was completely misplaced. I finally determined towards utilizing the mode, however it could possibly be useful for anybody that is arduous of listening to in a single or each ears or performs in a really noisy atmosphere. The similar goes for the particular recreation profiles discovered within the Sound Blaster Command software program, which have a tendency so as to add distracting results reasonably than any compelling options. For single-player video games, these could be alright, however for something aggressive I might advocate sticking with a impartial copy.
You may additionally think about a high-end sound card just like the AE-9 for those who’ve observed static or different interference on playback or recording. Despite fashionable enhancements to motherboards and energy provides, low cost or poorly designed fashions can nonetheless introduce hisses, hums and different annoying noise. This is somewhat annoying once you’re listening to music at low volumes, and much more so once you’re really attempting to file a podcast or stream your gameplay. The AE-9 makes use of one thing Creative name CleanLine, which corrects for the facility provide ripple attributable to high-end GPUs and tries to make sure a superbly clear enter.
In my testing with a Blue Ember XLR condenser mic, I did discover a considerably cleaner sound than utilizing my motherboard’s built-in resolution. There can also be a bunch of software program choices to regulate the mic enter additional by cancelling out echoes, lowering noise and equalising the sound to regulate bass and treble. There’s additionally a voice morph function that means that you can sound like an orc, robotic, dwarf or child. These aren’t a lot use for skilled recording, however they’ll actually brighten up a boring spherical of Rainbow Six Siege.
Beyond including new options, the AE-9 simply sounds good. It’s arduous to place this into phrases as I am not a devoted audiophile, however each my Audioengine A5+ audio system and Sennheiser HD 598 headphones sounded brighter and extra detailed than they did utilizing built-in audio constructed into my X570 Aorus Master. Compared to the Cambridge Audio XS DAC I beforehand used with the headphones, it was a more in-depth contest, however the AE-9 nonetheless got here out on prime.
This in all probability should not be too stunning once you take a look at the sound card itself, which is residence to a flagship-grade DAC – an ESS Sabre 9038 able to 32-bit 384-kHz high-res audio – plus fantastic gold capacitors and even swappable op-amps that can help you change the finer traits of the sound going to your audio system or headphones. The AE-9’s bi-headphone amp can also be highly effective, able to driving delicate 1 ohm IEMs or demanding full-size headsets with as much as 600 ohms of impedance. At each stage, Creative appear to have paid strict consideration to the elements and supplies they’re utilizing – as you’d hope for a £300 sound card.
Despite nailing the execution in virtually each space, there are nonetheless a couple of flaws with this product – and some downsides to going with a sound card over your motherboard’s built-in resolution, a USB headset or HDMI out out of your graphics card to a receiver. For the latter case, fashionable A/V receivers have a tendency to supply extra superior surround sound codecs together with DTS:X and Dolby Atmos, which may’t be matched by the AE-9 and its help for as much as 5.1 surround sound.
Next is the requirement for a free PCIe slot in your motherboard and a six-pin PCIe energy enter. On most full-size desktops, this may not be a difficulty, however it could take away the AE-9 from competition from these with smaller ITX motherboards or highly effective graphics playing cards utilizing up their six-pin PCIe energy cables. The precise energy enter on the AE-9 can also be poorly designed, with so little clearance across the plug that the clip that secures the cable barely match and I wanted to make use of appreciable pressure to insert and take away it.
The management module may be simpler to make use of. Adjusting the quantity up and down with the wheel is smart, as does muting by urgent within the wheel, however switching between headphones and audio system is clumsy – it is advisable press and maintain for precisely two seconds, and it’s totally straightforward to underestimate the timing and find yourself switching off your sound on the actual level you wished to listen to it on the best audio system. The ACM additionally weighs little or no, so you will find yourself pushing it again in your desk until you maintain it in place with the opposite hand.
A software program choice to make the little-used SBX button – which toggles post-processing results – into an enter swap would go a protracted option to fixing these annoyances. Unfortunately, it would not assist the opposite large concern with switching from audio system to headphones, which is that almost all internet apps cease enjoying and should be reloaded. By comparability, swapping between totally different audio units in Windows works seamlessly. Despite these complaints, none of those points have tempted me to return to my earlier built-in audio for audio system and USB DAC for headphones setup.
So the place does this go away us then? While entry-level sound playing cards are a factor of the previous, high-end options just like the AE-9 just do sufficient to justify their consideration. If you need a greater audio listening expertise for music and video games, decide up a stable headphone amp/DAC and headset. If you need to get into the world of content material creation, XLR or USB mic can assist considerably. But in order for you each top-notch sound high quality and a variety of recording choices, the AE-9 is a intelligent all-in-one resolution that justifies its premium price ticket.