Creative Sound Blaster ZxR Review

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Viktor King

Sound has been that unfortunate catch-22 for too long.

'We don't need sound cards' because multi-core processors have enough reserve firepower to do audio effects.
'Audio effects are too processor-intensive' so games never implement them.

Over the last decade we've gone from one base sound, pitched, shifted, and distorted to suit the environment *back* to ten different footstep sounds and distance-staggered microphones at the firing range.

When Microsoft killed DirectSound3D, Creative's EAX was suddenly orphaned. XAudio from the XBox was 'good enough'. OpenAL was supposed to evolve into 'ray-tracing with sound' but instead stagnated, and we still need third-party software such as BlueRipple Sound to even get Head-Related Transfer Function on headphones.

We can demand all we want, but if the XBox won't do it, Windows won't do it. It all comes back to the death of DirectSound3D and EAX. If USB-driven headphones can imitate surround sound but bypasses the sound card on a PC, we all get to sit and rotate - but without positional audio.

Creative needs to step up to the plate, and so does the journalism. It isn't enough to make tinny sound warmer, or more crisp. That's primarily why no one cares. Why the latest Dream Machine doesn't even mention audio. There is room on a sound card's PCB to process audio effects without taking away from the CPU or GPU, and a dozen software solutions that are hardly ever used in AAA titles without hardware support from Creative only feeds the whiny reasoning as to why is isn't done at all.

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beta212

About time, however this is not even a decent first impression......I have the Zx version, and it was a definite improvement over my old x-fi. I've been able to hear stuff in old songs that I've never been able to hear before, and without any noise if you connect from the back. Personal impression: Drivers are a HUGE improvement, not the old bloated stuff we used to have. Sound is must clearer, you'll notice much more detail with headphones. Crystalizer still sucks and gives all music a tinny sound, TURN IT OFF. Bass also seems unnaturally strong by default, but could be just me and my headphones, you might like it that way. EMI "shielding" doesn't seem to do much, each time my 660 starts to spin up it's fans there is a lot of static noise if you listen to quiet songs through the control module, but that could also be due to the 660 just sucking or getting a defective control module.
Also I don't know if this card works with virtual surround over stereo earbuds as I don't have any earbuds, I would appreciate if somebody took the time to see if the the virtual surround really works. In general: HUGE improvement, some features still suck, but they suck less.

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noobstix

If I'm not mistaken, is that a 2-slot sound card? Well I'd probably wouldn't drop that much on a sound card like that. Hell, my mobo setup right now leaves me barely any room for expansion cards (I'm probably gonna upgrade in the future though). I'm not gonna make any explicit opinions on Creative products (well maybe except that the Fatal1ty headsets are overpriced junk) but let's just say that my SB X-Fi Xtreme Audio was making GW2 unstable.

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SpecNode

Daughter card doesn't take up a PCI slot.

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vistageek

This is what MAXIMUMPC calls a soundcard review? Too bad it's not April 1st.

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Noshei

NIC card

Really!

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squarebab

If you listen to hi-resolution files up to 24bit/192kHz then you need to have a sound card that can handle them. I use an Asus Xonar but only as a pass-through to an external DAC/amp. The Xonar allows me to keep Windows and the motherboard from putting their grubby hands on my music. The Xonar has a decent DAC/amp if you don't want to spend extra for stereo components. As for Creative, their sound cards were so buggy and unreliable for so long that I gave up using discrete sound cards all together until I discovered hi-res music. The current line-up of Creative cards may be worthy contenders, but as long as Asus keeps me happy I won't give Creative another look.

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limitbreaker

I'm sorry to say that you've completely wasted your money.

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bigrigross

lol, you people who have never used a sound card and have only used integrated make me laugh. There is a very big difference in sound when using a dedicated sound card. Especially when using high end headsets and watching blu-rays. Before you start trolling, you should actually try using one and actually see how it works your worthless troll. I have owned several sound cards and they are always better than integrated.

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limitbreaker

"YOU PEOPLE"? That's very insulting but I'll let it pass since you dont know anything about me and haven't read my other post on this article.

I'm actually using a X-fi titanium and I have the sennheiser HD598.

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Penterax

Telling someone else he wasted his money is insulting, and puts you in the category of a name-calling troll. I don't care what you have at home and how good you think your ears are, you are demonstrating nothing here but a Creative fanboy attitude.

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limitbreaker

That doesn't make any sense, I don't see how I demonstrated favoring creative in any way. If anything I've said the opposite...

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SpecNode

X-FI titanium? Non-HD version?

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limitbreaker

I wish I had the hd version but I have the fatal1ty version which has a lower dba. It's a good card, good enough that I dint need to upgrade . Unfortunately the HD version didn't exist then :-(

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squarebab

Be specific, troll. Now that you've completely wasted my time please explain to me how I've completely wasted my money. And since you are so sorry, please use your best apologetic tone.

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limitbreaker

I'm not a troll, I specified why in an earlier post. Just please scroll down... I didn't mean to provoke you.

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squarebab

Replies shouldn't require the original poster to read back through the entire thread to decipher your comment. Your reply came off as snotty and sarcastic.

You are wrong about discrete sound cards. My onboard sound cannot handle 24bit/192kHz files. In addition, not only does the Asus Xonar isolate the music files from the noise generated from the motherboard and other components, but it also bypasses the Windows muxers. The output from the s/pdif ports is clean, unaltered, and bit perfect, which is exactly what I want going to my external DAC.

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limitbreaker

You're right about the comment, I guess I was just being lazy.

As for your onboard, I'm not sure what you have for onboard but modern boards should be able to handle 24/192 stereo sound. I doubt that anyone has so much interference that even a digital optical/coaxial signal would be effected, if so then you've got bigger problems on your hands. As for the the rest, there are always software solutions to get the desired sound.

I'm personally just using my Radeon 6450 hdmI for full hd surround for my htpc and I've got a very expensive sound system, I would get a discrete sound card if it made any difference in quality (even if they were capable of that quality outside stereo sound)

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tetris42

Hey limitbreaker:

I realize this is a very subjective test, but before I bought my Xonar DX, I used my motherboard audio for about a week and made a point of listening to songs I was very familiar with (they were compressed though, just OGG, not lossless). Once I installed the Xonar, I went and listened through all those songs again and I could definitely hear a difference that sounded better (this was with a 3.55mm plug on DT 770 Pro headphones). Granted, it wasn't an ENORMOUS difference, but I'm sure it would be a bit of a shock going back to onboard audio after being used to my Xonar now.. I wouldn't be so quick to claim it's just noise from the motherboard and that's all, I really seemed to hear more subtle frequencies on it than I did from the onboard audio. I can say without a doubt it sounds better than onboard audio, definitely wasn't a waste of money for me.

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limitbreaker

I guess I haven't been clear enough, I absolutely agree that discrete is better, all I'm saying is that if you're using a digital output into a real amplifier instead then the discrete will have no effect except for encoding/decoding which can all be handled from software. For my expensive sound system, I don't personally use onboard but only because I need hd surround which both discrete and onboard can't handle because of the lack of hdmi output. Ironically, your video card is the best digital audio output unless all you need is digital stereo.

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limitbreaker

(Double post)

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squarebab

The software solution worked poorly. I was routinely forced to go to Control Panel to force the onboard to defualt to fhe source I wanted to listen to: USB gaming headset, J. River Media player (which uses WASAPI playback), and everything else. The discrete soundcard switches seamlessly between all sources. On board sound should be able to handle 24/192 files, and they should be able to completely isolate all files from interference, and they should be able to bypass Windows muxing, but they don't. And even if they did they wouldn't be able to match the performance of most discrete sound cards. It's like the difference befween onboard video and discrete video cards.

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kitsunekaji

I just love how everyone is chiming in with their comments on this review!
Why? You learn so much from just reading what has been said. The different types/levels of listeners voice their opinions, as well as how they get to their audio "sweet spots".
One thing really does ring true though...
If you love sound that much, do your research, get the right equipment, and just enjoy!

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spoontr

I've been thinking about something from the Sound Blaster z family.

Is it worth upgrading to a sound card if all I'm doing is taking the optical out and going directly to speakers (in this case the Audyssey Media speakers)?

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Danthrax66

If you are gaming then you will get the 3d positional audio, if you aren't then no I wouldn't.

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limitbreaker

That's true but the new SB cards use THX recon3d, maybe there are alternative ways of getting that.

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limitbreaker

No it is not, as the sound card wont actually amplify the audio it self directly anyways because with optical, the only thing that may make a difference is whether your on board software can encode DTS/AC3 or not. As long as you're using Optical/coaxial/HDMI, it would be almost always a complete waste to get a discrete sound card. The main reason you'd want a discreet is for the crisp high quality sound amplying that's also shielded from interference/noise, you can only take advantage of that with an analog output like headphones or pc speakers. I know a guy who spent 1200$ on a home theater amp to get very high quality sound and then went and bought wireless speakers, I would have laughed if it wasn't so sad, i guess he didnt put 2 and 2 together... if the speakers are amplifying the sound them selves then what is the amp doing exactly? all he has is a 1200$ switch box lol

as for AC3/DTS, if you're willing to use these horrid lossy format then you shouldn't be worried about sound quality anyways. Optical is only great for HD stereo sound, it doesn't have the bandwidth for HD surround.

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spoontr

Ah. Well that makes my life easier and my wallet a little happier. The Audyssey Media speakers are stereo, and they sound pretty good already. If I need headphones, I just plug in my DAC (Fiio E07K) and use that, and my webcam as a mic.

It sounds like with my current setup, the SBx would be just a waste of money.

Thanks, limitbreaker.

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limitbreaker

You're quite welcome sir :-)

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unGOOD0127

Seriously? I'd be embarrassed to submit what you just posted and call it a first impression--much less a review.

You gave no references to what music (artist, songs, quality) you played (if any), you made no mention of the experience using its software. (This last one is a deal-breaker for creative cards.
I love Creative hardware but I WILL NOT BUY creative gear until there are stable third-party drivers available.
This is due to the fact that the same team of monkeys that will eventually bang out all the works of Shakespeare moonlight as software programmers for Creative.)

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Danthrax66

The drivers for these cards are perfectly stable.

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dgrmouse

Danthrax wrote, "The drivers for these cards are perfectly stable."

HAHA. I hope this is sarcasm, because Creative has a long history of writing buggy software. Microsoft stopped supporting the DirectSound API because sound cards (it didn't explicitly mention CL, but that's where the finger was clearly pointed) were the number one cause of BSOD crashes. The drivers, in addition to being (then, as now) buggy and horrendously bloated, aren't even well supported. Please take a look at their OpenAL developer's page and see how poorly supported it is - this should give you some indication of how developers see Creative: they don't. Going forward, the only games that will feature OpenAL are the ones using old engines that already had support.

If you need better audio than you can get onboard, then getting a digital signal out to an external device is going to be so much more satisfying than another junk Sound Blaster. Don't believe the hype.

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tetris42

Creative is worse than that. They've threatened to sue an independent guy who released WORKING drivers for their cards for free, saying "they had the right to choose not to update their drivers" (not the exact quote, but close). The idea was they wanted to wait until the NEXT soundcard line-up to release updated drivers so they could force people to buy it. I owned an Audigy for years and I'm not buying from Creative again. I've bought a Xonar DX about a year or two ago and have been quite satisfied with it.

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PCWolf

& this is why I no longer buy Creative Products. Great hardware, but the drivers have always been a Bad Joke. If Creative used it brains & hired the Guy to work for them & fix their crappy drivers instead of hiring Layers to sue him, Then I would still be a Creative Customer. I will NEVER Purchase anything from Creative ever again!

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dgrmouse

Honestly, even their hardware is nothing special. Gravis, Aureal, and several other companies have produced budget hardware for PC users that's been equal or better than CL. CL's business has long been in introducing wacky standards and licensing them out - a business that MS pretty much shut down when it introduced DirectSound. And now, with no direct hardware support through DirectX since Vista and almost no software support for CL's "value adds", such as EAX and OpenAL, there's really little that CL has to offer to customers or licensees. This, too, is why the hardware has been getting simpler instead of more complex.

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The Mac

ahh....fond memories of my gravis ultrasound...

i just dug it up a few weekends ago doing some cleaning....

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SpecNode

Don't trust these guy with audio reviews, they obviously know nothing of audio products, poor review.

What headphones did you test with? The control pod will degrade audio if you used it.

"One thing struck us immediately: The ZxR tries too hard. On default, the card seems tuned for, well, younger tastes—kids who like music turned up really loud with a boatload of bass. On more delicate music selections, the card is too heavy-handed"

No, and kids don't buy these cards. Maximumfail, this is not a proper audio review.

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Danthrax66

He is 100% right about being tuned for "young people" by default they have bass boost on in the drivers. He makes it sound complicated but in reality you uncheck a box.

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Ashton2091

I've been reading MaxPC since I got my first PC (Packard Bell haha), I've always been able to trust their reviews.

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dgrmouse

I don't mean to attack Gordon personally, but I don't trust his reviews. I enjoy the technical how-to guides, though I don't generally benefit from them anymore, but I don't particularly trust his positive reviews. The guy is either totally sold out or has just bought into all the corporate PR nonsense. The same is true of much of the staff. Somehow, they've been trapped: they think they aren't Maximum enough if they don't support the latest overpriced "Xtreme Enthusiast Edition" product. Seeing them recommend a $700 paint job for a PC as if it were something that any of them would ever buy on their own dime is perhaps the most obvious and disgusting example. It's just plain dishonest, and it casts a pallor over any other product that they review favorably. Do you really trust the recommendation to buy a $70+ aftermarket cooler, a $300 motherboard, or a $200 case from the guys that think a $700 PC paint job is a good value? You shouldn't.

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dgrmouse

"Smooth will shoot the outside of a case for a mere $300, and will do both inside and out for $700. In our book, that’s a bargain for a case that makes a serious style statement."

Not trustworthy.

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jimmthang

Maximum PC Editor Jimmy Thang here. The quote you're pulling from is from our budget-is-no-concern Dream Machine PC. That's where we go beyond even out best of the best parts. Would we recommend a fancy (and really nice!) paintjob like that for a typical user? Of course not! But considering sky's the limit, we found it to be a pretty good deal for what it was!

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Renegade Knight

If they are a PC reviewer seems like they could review just fine from that angle.

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SpecNode

Maybe...

Are they using audiophile headphones though or typical crappy PC gaming headphones.

Why not discuss the on-board DAC, capacitors, headphone amp, etc.

Their articles are for the lowest common denominator is seems.

If you want a much better review at least go here:

http://www.custompcreview.com/reviews/creative-sound-blaster-zxr-review/17756/

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limitbreaker

MaximumPc is great but don't expect a 14 page in dept review here. (that's not what I want from MPC and I love this site) If that's what you want there are other sites for that, guru3d is great for that kind of detail if they're covering the hardware in question and they're never biased so you know that you can trust it as opposed to Tom's hardware.

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The Mac

ummm...this is not an audiophile magazine.

Its a computer power user magazine.

The review is just fine in that context.

as a computer user, i dont give a rats ass what they used (or listened to, when they do print that, ive not a clue who the groups are), all i want to know is does it sound good, and is it worth upgrading from my x-fi HD Titanium.

It answers both those questions.

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Peanut Fox

I disagree with you on this one Mac. With this review there's little point of reference. For example it's stated that it sounds good, but good as opposed to what? Onboard, a USB headset, wireless Bluetooth ear buds?

There's a very obvious zero point for hardware when they do a review of a PC, and you can even reference that zero point for the performance of individual components (CPU/GPU). However, looking at things here there is no point of comparison, so how does a person know this sounds good especially against what they have?

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The Mac

i guess my requirements arent that stringent

It sounds good, and dont upgrade if you have an xfi.

That's all i need to know.

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nsvander

I have used a stand alone card for years and years, ran out of slots once, and tried the onboard audio, it was very metallic and compressed sounding. The same music with the same speakers using an Audigy card was night and day. I then upgraded to an XFi for the last 2 rigs, and I will never use onboard again.

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JCCIII

‘On more delicate music selections, the card is too heavy-handed, also, after being tweaked to turn down the bass, the card makes everything sound a bit muddy.’

Therefore, how can Creative’s Z, Zx, and ZxR get an 8? Really? This stuff has lost its way!

Try a DAC. The 1600, by stereo-link, is what I use. Sound is important; treat it that way, and it will do the same for you.

Sincerely, Joseph C. Carbone III; 4 April 2013