Reviews
Sound Blaster ZxR
Sound Card

By Jorge Figueiredo - September 2nd, 2014

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Recently, we reviewed the PCI-express-based Soundblaster Audigy Fx. A “budget card”, the Fx is comparable to on-board audio, as the core is a RealTek chip – the same one used in many all-in-one motherboard solutions (and if not the same, then definitely similar). Now, what if you were looking to spend a little extra money on your desktop’s audio solution; what would you choose? Creative Labs sent us the Sound Blaster ZxR in an attempt to help us answer the question. The answer? From its distinctive look to its powerful audio delivery, this card is almost perfect for gamers with some scratch looking to take advantage of audio goodness – both in-game and out-game.

For a long time, Creative Labs enjoyed the enviable position of being the top dog of desktop audio (if you checked the numbers). The Sound Blaster line was arguably the best, and was a reason to be excited about gaming. Then, for a while, Creative Labs seemed to slip; their products were not as compelling and other manufacturers started to elbow their way into the market with some very impressive hardware. Then, last year, Creative Labs seemed to seriously address the competition once more with several new offerings across a few different spaces. Some products were some were decent enough (Sound Blaster Audigy Fx), and other were hits (like the Sound Blaster Evo Zx headset and the Airwave bluetooth speaker). The Sound Blaster ZxR definitely belongs in the latter category; it is clearly Creative Labs’ flagship card.

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Great packaging makes it easy to figure out what’s inside.

The ZxR comes in a very cool-looking box. While packaging really doesn’t have any direct effect on the actual performance of a product, it certainly has an effect on our brains – and Creative Labs has decided to start the user experience right from the store shelf. Aside from the logos, technology breakdown and contents list, Creative Labs has created a work of art. I really liked the numerous “windows” in which I could take a look at the important parts of the card, specifically the side of the box that had a transparent membrane through which to view the different I/O ports (with a handy breakdown printed below the window). Inside the box, the cards are nestled securely in foam, with three distinct “sections”: the cards, the desktop controller, and the cables and connectors. Again, it’s a frill, but it really makes setting things up a little easier.

Aside from the ZxR main card and the dB Pro Daughter Card, the ZxR bundle includes a ribbon cable (to link the two cards), the desktop Audio Control Module (ACM – extra I/O, microphone, and volume control), two mini-jack to dual RCA cables (male and female mini-jacks), an optical cable, a driver disk, and a quick-start guide. Essentially, the ZxR bundle comes with everything you need to get up and running right away, since the cables will accommodate most external speaker configurations. I was a little disappointed that there was no coaxial SPDIF cable in the box (and no SPDIF jack on either card); I own a Cambridge Sound Works DTT2500 system, and my previous card (the Asus Xonar Essence ST) was able to interface with the DTT2500 control box via coaxial SPDIF. It’s not the end of the world since I can still take advantage of the surround functionality of the speaker system via two cables – it’s just not as elegant a solution1.

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Box contents.

Both the base card and the daughter card are shielded, giving them not only a great look, but also isolating them from noise interference. The main card interfaces with the motherboard using a PCI Express 1.0 connection and acts as the main touch point to your audio system. The I/O header has left and right 1/4-inch jacks (for headphone and microphone input, though I have the ACM module plugged into the two 1/4-inch jacks, as per the quick-start guide), left and right RCA jacks (for front speakers), and two 1/8-inch connections for both center/subwoofer and rear speakers. The daughter card has no direct interface to the motherboard even though it takes up a slot along the back of your desktop; instead, it connects to the main card via the included ribbon cable. While not overly long, the ribbon cable provides enough slack to give you some placement options within your case. The I/O header on the daughter board has RCA Auxiliary inputs and optical connections that provide an extra layer of recording and monitoring.

One of the features that sets the ZxR apart from a number of other sound cards is the external ACM. The ACM (which has a nice, long braided cord) features a dedicated volume control that feels solid and weighty. Because of this, the volume adjustment is more precise, allowing you more fine-tuning of the loudness of whatever you are listening to. On the left side, the ACM features 1/4-inch jacks for headphone and microphone input; on the right side, there are 1/8-inch ports. It’s nice to have this amount of flexibility, as not all headsets have the same connectors (and while adding adapters between your headphones and your audio processor might be a solution, it still adds a point of failure). The ACM also has an on-board beam-forming microphone, which is handy if you only have a pair of headphones (without a microphone). The array follows a set priority list, so if you plan to use the beam-forming microphone, you should ensure that you don’t have any other microphones plugged into the 1/4-inch and/or the 1/8-inch jacks.

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The Control Panel.

Installation of software is easy and takes very little time. The included disc had no issues installing with Windows 8.1 64 bit. I opted to install all of the applications just to have them on hand. Following the disc install, I ran the Creative Labs auto-update feature, nabbing myself the latest and greatest versions of all installed products. Again, this did not take very long, and everything went off without a hitch. Configuration of the card took no time at all, thanks to the Sound Blaster control panel, making for a very smooth installation experience. The Control Panel is a cinch to access (it sits down in the task bar, and is activated easily), and contains a number of different options to completely tailor your listening experience. SBX Pro Studio, for instance, allows you to play with the surround sound, bass and dialog volume settings. On the flip side, there are no delay controls (like I have on my home theater receiver); I’m not sure if this is an oversight, or if it was perhaps a design decision made due to the fact that most people’s PC speakers are actually fairly close together (thus nullifying the need to adjust delay)2. Other menu items include CrystalVoice (all things microphone input, including digital processing), Scout Mode (an “in game assist” that enhances certain sound ranges), Speakers/Headphones (configuration of your listening hardware) and Cinematic (surround encoding options). For further tweaking, you can take advantage of a Mixer and an equalizer. In addition, you can create custom profiles that are easily accessed, so that you can customize your gaming and listening experiences, depending on what you would like to play or do.

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The board interface looks small – but it packs a big punch.

Speaker tests were performed with the Cambridge Soundworks DTT2500. While not a true 5.1 system from a pure processing standpoint, the DTT2500 does come with an averaged center speaker, creating a fairly compelling experience. Headset tests were done using both the SteelSeries 9H headset and the Sound Blaster Eco Zx headset. Each headset was plugged in using an analog connection (rather than USB, which would activate their on-board DSP chips). For the tests I didn’t adjust anything in the control panel, opting to leave the ZxR on its default settings just for a reference.

First order of business? Music. I am so used to testing music on hand-helds (for headphone reviews) that I was nearly knocked out of my chair. I had not made many adjustments in the control panel, so I wasn’t expecting the sound to be perfect out of the gate – but man, the sound field is beautiful through this card. Regardless of music type, track quality was fantastic with very little noise (thanks to the 124dB signal-to-noise ratio, there was practically none in most cases – unless it was a bad master to begin with). Whether it was an MP3, or a loss-less track through iTunes, the output to both speakers and headphones was sublime. Clarity of each track was fantastic, and the many facets that made up each tune were quite distinguishable without each sounding abnormally isolated. All three main areas of sound were well-represented, yet none of the overpowered the other (unless that was the intention of the artist). Bass was powerful, filling the room thanks to the sub/speakers (or the headset drivers) without being overpowering (or hollow-sounding). Highs were very crisp without sounding “tinny”, and mids bridged the gap without difficulty. What was amazing was how much more of each song that I could hear; I actually had to uninstall the card and check the music with my previous card (which was impressive to begin with) just to make sure.

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All of these connectors are included.

Audio tests of movies were no less impressive. Various formats (AVI, MPG, iTunes Digital and even DVDs) all sounded equally fantastic. As with the music tests, the source that was pushed through the speakers conveyed audio of great clarity with lots of power. Movies like Iron Man and RoboCop sound brilliant; every servo can be heard, and explosions will rock the room (or your ears, if you’re using headphones). And yet, other films like Planet Earth, and Lord of the Rings fill the room with full environmental noise; ambience is established, creating a wonderful sense of immersion. Surround sound is also effectively managed – even with a 4.1 system, making the ZxR a great audio solution for movie-watching.

Sound Blaster found their niche so long ago by catering to the gaming crowd. While I was very impressed with music and movies played using the ZxR (and would recommend the card highly, simply based on those two aspects), I would say that the Sound Blaster’s best feature (and number one reason to grab it off the shelf) would be for playing games. Audio quality in games seems to get better every year, and the ZxR responds in kind to anything that I play, providing realistic-sounding audio that clearly pays tribute to the hard work that developers put into their games. Much like music playback, the ZxR really brings out the individual sounds in games without taking away from the whole. Games that I had played before contained sounds that I hadn’t heard, enhancing my experience3. Quality was consistent between in-game audio from the engine and the cut-scenes, regardless of which game was in the hopper. Above all else, dialogue was clear, without ever having to enable the dialogue enhancement option in the SB Pro Studio menu, in the Sound Blaster Control Panel.

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The ACM makes life easier.

In Skyrim, for instance, I found that subtle changes in environmental noise really made for an immersive experience; walking from the expansive outdoors into an abandoned cottage sounded so real that I had to look around the room to reaffirm my real life location. When in-game audio (from great programming) and a set of speakers can invoke the sense of confinement from this transition, you can bet that the sound card is doing a great job acting as the intermediary. Meanwhile, games like Battlefield 4 (which can, at times, have a far more aggressive sound-scape) end up becoming near-cinematic experiences in which you move between tense, quiet moments (listening for quiet footsteps through the underbrush) and frenzied moments when cover has been blown (and blown up) in a hail of bullets and RPGs. It is a testament to the quality of the sound card when you can close your eyes in the middle of a quiet environment and know exactly from which direction your enemy is slowly approaching through the underbrush. All of the games that I tested (and there were quite a few) sounded great with the ZxR – no exceptions.

You can bet that the sound quality is due to the new processing power built into the card in the Sound Core3D chip. Digital Sound Processors are impressive in some of the headsets that I have tried, but the ZxR seems to raise the bar considerably (and then beat those other processors into the ground with that bar). Moderate use of the DSP on the ZxR yields compelling results, which speaks to the quality of the card. What this all amounts to is an enjoyable experience while playing games, watching movies, or listening to music. The ZxR does a fantastic job interpreting the sound from every source, and conveys it masterfully to the speakers or the headphones4. It also does a great job capturing sound, thanks to low-latency connections (and that handy beam-forming microphone coupled with CrystalVoice – which makes things sound pretty crisp and clear).

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The daughter board adds more ways to connect. Let the fun begin!

The Sound Blaster ZxR audio card is like Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way. Studio-grade quality components and excellent software combine to make this a mighty force to contend with. There are many features that I didn’t talk about in this review (mostly because I didn’t really need to use them – and neither would your average consumer), such as the amplified headphone output (600 Ohms) or the “swappable” OP-AMPS – but these are things that gear-heads with more experience than I have will surely love to check out. This card sits at around the $250 mark – so it’s not cheap; but it is definitely worth the money if you’re looking for the best high-end audio bang for the buck.

1 – Or, I just need to go out and buy a new system that uses an optical interface. Hee hee!
2 – Or maybe I am just a nit-picky jerk?
3 – I also tried the “Scout Mode” option in the Control Panel than enhances certain ranges of sound to help you in various games. Much like the SteelSeries 5H-V2 it really does work (better than the 5H-V2, in fact) – but I keep it disabled, as it is an unfair advantage, plus it makes the sound field uneven to my ears.
4 – Yep. Out of the box, the ZxR sounded better than the Xonar that I had spent a long time tweaking for each general area of listening (Music, Video and Gaming).

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