The sound card is back—but does your PC need one anymore?
If you think of your PC as a lifeboat full of components floating in the Atlantic Ocean after one of those ARM-based subs put two fish into the side of the PC’s troop transport, you can better understand the plight of the sound card.
With limited supplies in the lifeboat and a thousand nautical miles to get to land, who do you think the CPU, GPU, mobo, RAM, case, and HDD picked to throw overboard? Yup. Sound card gets to join modem, NIC card, and MPEG-2 decoder in Davy Jones’s PC, which by the way, has a hell of a mod to make it look like a locker.
The ZxR caters to audio enthusiasts who want high-fidelity input options.
Well, maybe, just maybe, the sound card still has a few tricks left in it. That’s what Creative is promising with its new line of Z-series cards. The line comes in the Z, Zx, and ZxR trim. The $100 SB Z is rated at 116dB and comes with a beam-forming mic, the $150 Zx version adds a nifty Audio Control Module that features both a 1/8-inch and 1/4-inch mic and headphone ports, as well as a large volume knob and microphone array. The top dog is the Creative Sound Blaster ZxR. For a hefty $250 you get the ACM plus a daughter card with higher-end, pro-grade analog digital converters as well as optical and RCA S/PDIF inputs and outputs. The ZxR card also uniquely features swappable Op-Amps, heavy-duty ground planes, and Burr-Brown digital analog converters rated at 127dB. Once the sound gets out of the card, Creative rates it at 124dB, though. All three cards support 600-ohm amps to drive really big cans, too.
The processor is Creative’s Core 3D chip, which the company says is a quad-core DSP with 1,200 MIPs. That sounds like a lot, but the 20K1 chip in the Creative X-Fi boasted 10,000 MIPs. But such is the way of the PC. With quad-core processors standard and six- or eight-core CPUs goldbricking, there’s not much need for excessive amounts of processing power on a sound card. The old paradigm of benchmarking for frame-rate comparisons in a sound card is, frankly, outdated.
What matters most is how it sounds. Sound card reviews have long taught us that memory for audio isn’t as good as our memory of how things look, so immediate A/B testing is the only way to ever test audio. Rather than put the ZxR against another sound card, we put it against its likely competitor: integrated audio, using the high-end Asus P8Z77-V Premium board with Realtek ALC898 codecs. We tested using 24-bit/96KHz audio files as well as Blu-ray encoded audio. Finally we tested the card in several games, including Hitman: Absolution and Call of Duty: Black Ops II multiplayer.
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. With the sound tweaked for our tastes, however, the audio was clearly cleaner than integrated with less of the metallic rasp that cheaper motherboard audio can have. We also preferred the ZxR for movies—but also after being tweaked to turn down the bass, which tends to make everything a bit muddy. In gaming, the ZxR had the clear edge in Hitman: Absolution—switching from the onboard to the ZxR was almost as pronounced as going from mono to stereo. We were particularly anxious to give the card’s Scout Mode a spin. Scout Mode specifically amplifies footsteps to give you an “edge,” theoretically, in gaming (no, it’s not really cheating). Unfortunately, it didn’t help us at all in CoD: BLOPS2, but we also admit it could be the underlying audio engine in the game that was unimpressive to us. We’ll have to go through a larger library before we can pass a final verdict on Scout Mode.
So, where does the ZxR stand? If we had an existing add-in card, such as the still-excellent X-Fi or Asus Xonar, we would not upgrade. But if your motherboard has the worst sound implemented in history (and a lot of them do), it’s time to go discrete, and the Z or Zx are good choices. The ZxR is best suited only for those looking for high-end audio-input needs.
As is, we think the sound card still has some life in it. It’s not a given that it’ll continue, but slotting in a sound card is a value-add no matter what your friends or your PC budget tells you.