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Creative Sound Blaster X7 review: Great features and good sound, but fills a narrow niche

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Ever since the dawn of the sound card, the PC has been able to perform the many of the functions of specialized equipment. While audio-specific add-ons themselves have dwindled in popularity due to the prevalence of higher-quality onboard sound, companies such as Creative keep churning out newer, and in this instance more unusual, products.

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Creative Sound Blaster X7

The Good

The Creative Sound Blaster X7 is a jack-of-all-trades USB amp with that offers unrivaled features and connectivity for the money. Sound quality is up there with dedicated DACs. The volume knob is handy for PC desktop use.

The Bad

Better hi-fi amplifiers can be had for the price. No remote control beyond the smartphone app. Build quality isn't as good as you'd expect for a $400 component. The headphone detection circuit is poor, and hooking up surround sound is a pain.

The Bottom Line

The Creative Sound Blaster X7 offers a ridiculous number of features for the money and sound quality is generally very good, but its appeal is limited.

The Creative X7 is an almost-ridiculous Frankenbeast of features, the most obvious being the onboard stereo amplifier. While we've seen USB amps combined with DACS before, there have been none as PC-specific and yet feature-rich as this one.

Despite some of the compromises inherent in building a hybrid sound card amp, it was the performance of the 100-watt amplifier that won us over. We've long been fans of Creative's sound cards but we had poor expectations of the X7's abilities to drive a pair of speakers. It surprised us with its sound quality, giving a "bona fide" audio component at the same price a run for its money.

At $400 (£399, AU$549) the Creative X7 is undeniably expensive for a sound card, but it offers a neat "one-stop" solution. It may end up being the only one of its kind, but it can still appeal to people who want to record to their PC.

Design

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Whether unconsciously or not, the triangular shape of the Creative X7 mimics the design of a well-known set of speakers used in mixing studios--the Triple P Designs' "Pyramid" speakers. This could be a nod to Creative's own prosumer arm E-MU.

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The "pyramid" is quite tall, at almost 6 inches high. The front of this black device (also available in limited-edition white) is dominated by a large metallic volume knob, which sadly doesn't light up. Below is a honeycomb grille that hides the onboard noise-canceling microphone and two buttons: a Power/Bluetooth toggle and and an SBX enhancer control. At the very bottom lives a 3.5mm microphone input plus a 3.5mm and a ¼-inch headphone output.

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At the rear are the speaker connectors, assorted inputs and outputs, plus a toggle for choosing between 4-ohm or 8-ohm speakers but as most consumer speakers are 8 ohm you probably won't need to touch this. Also be aware that you'll need to buy a separate power pack to enable 4 ohm operation.

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A couple of things grate in regular use, and they mostly relate to turning the unit on or plugging things in. First the power/Bluetooth button is unpleasant to push: the action is spongy and the plastic surfaces scrape against each other. Thanks to a recent software update, at least you can now leave it powered on. Secondly, the feet are insubstantial and the unit will move whenever you push a button or try to plug something in, unless you steady it with one hand.

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Screenshot by Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Unlike almost all other amplifiers at this price, the Creative X7 doesn't include a remote. Instead it can be controlled by the X7 Control app for iOS and Android, which pairs via Bluetooth.

Features

Let the embarrassment of riches begin! Here's the Cliff's Notes version: the Creative X7 is a USB DAC/soundcard which offers Bluetooth streaming plus a 100W amplifier and two headphone outputs.

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The X7 features the Burr-Brown PCM1794 DAC the company has used before on its high-end cards and it decodes up to 24-bit/196kHz. The sound card has an onboard Dolby Digital decoder, which is good for TV, streaming sources and many discs, but if you want to decode the DTS HD-Master Audio or Dolby Digital TruHD audio from Blu-rays, you'll need to look for another solution like a newer HDMI-equipped graphics card.

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Like most "high-end" sound cards, the X7 has swappable op-amps (above)--via a hidden flap -- which means you can tweak the sound if you so desire.

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While this product is heavily skewed towards PC use it can be used for connecting other devices including: USB hosting for iOS/ Android, optical S/PDIF for TVs and gaming consoles, plus an RCA Line-In for analog connectivity to other sources. While these will work without connecting to a PC they will also be available as recording inputs if you do.

Be aware there is no way to select inputs on the Creative and it will happily play as many sources at a time as you have connected, including Bluetooth.

For outputs, the X7 has gold-plated two-way binding post terminal connectors for passive bookshelf and tower speakers, 5.1 analog connectivity for surround sound, optical S/PDIF-Output connectivity plus the aforementioned 1/4-inch and 3.5mm headphone outputs. Creative says the "headphone amp" is able to drive high 600Ω impedance headphones such as the Beyerdynamic DT 880 or Sennheiser HD 600 .

If you want to feed a full surround system, and most sound cards including the X7 allow for this, then things do get a little trickier. While you can use the two amps for left and right, it has two 3.5mm minijacks for sub/center and rears which means you'll need to use a separate amp or powered speakers for those channels (to make matters worse, breakout cables for the rear and center/sub channels are not unfortunately included). As a result, the easiest and best-sounding way to use this sound card for surround is to ignore the onboard amps and output to an AV receiver via optical or the analog outputs.

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Screenshot by Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Creative X7's driver comes with a preset for the complementary E-MU XM7 speakers ($269.99, £229.99), which also includes a toggle for Warm, Neutral or Energetic.

Performance

Whether you're playing games or listening to music, Creative's history as one of the leaders of PC sound becomes clear: this is a talented performer. While it works as a standalone stereo amplifier, we tested it mainly in its ability to function alongside a PC.

What it doesn't do well is surround sound due to the stereo nature of the amplifier. It would have been great if the subwoofer output was broken out into its own dedicated RCA rather than the fiddly 3.5mm-to-stereo jack shared with the Center channel. As it was, neither output worked when connected directly to a subwoofer. For gamers looking to add bass oomph to their stereo setup this would make a poor choice of "card."

Compared against the earlier X-Fi Titanium HD slot-in card, the X7 was smoother on the close miked vocals of "It's a Wonderful Life" by Nick Cave as the X-Fi could be a little ragged with the spitty second verse. But if you prefer more bass weight, the Titanium added a tad more low end propulsion to Nick Cave's songs.

We were surprised to hear the differences between the Creative's onboard amplifier and the one in the Teac A-H01, even when using the Creative's DAC as a source for both. The deep, descending bassline in The Beta Band's "Life" is a test for any system, and the TEAC only got it half right with the notes in the middle of the run softer than others. The Creative fared much better with only one note toward the bottom a little quieter. The Creative was able to give the notes more detail, too, pronouncing their rough edges, where the TEAC just made them "bass."

The Creative worked better with fuller-sounding speakers like the Audioengine P4s or even the Bowers and Wilkins 685 S2 . At Creative's recommendation we hooked up a set of Chane A1rx-c speakers, but found that the ribbon-tweetered speakers were too thin-sounding with no dynamic punch. While you could also say the GoldenEars Aon 2s have a transparency similar to the A1rx-c's (and really have no business being powered by a "plastic" amp) in combination with the Creative they had a better grasp of the musical message than the Chanes.

The headphone amplifier worked as advertised and sounded similar to other sound cards' onboard headphone amps. When paired with the Philips Fidelio X1 it was able to give a well-rounded presentation with excellent bass weight for computer games and movies. One thing that we found irksome was that the unit wasn't able to detect headphones plugged into the unit while off. You had to turn the X7 on and then plug in headphones, and if you were already playing something this could lead to a burst of disruptive noise -- bad news if it's late at night.

Lastly we hooked up the E-MU XM7 speakers and having listened to these separately on an NAD C 356BEE and found them way too bright, we can say this sound card is the only way we'd use these speakers. Unsurprisingly the dedicated "neutral setting" was the best as it tamed the XM7's cutting top end and didn't add too much mid-bass. Turning the EQ off just made the XM7 unlistenable again, and you may want to consider another set of speakers instead of having to mess with EQ settings.

Conclusion

Like a PC, the X7 does so much it's easy to miss where its "sweet spot" is, but if you can answer yes to all of the following, this is the product for you: A) you're looking to set up a two-channel system on the desktop; B) you have a set of decent-sounding passive speakers; C) you want to record on your computer.

While Bluetooth, external connectivity and a dedicated headphone amp are nice features, the Creative X7 is primarily set up for listening to PC music on hi-fi speakers. This blend of features, combined with strange looks, makes X7 somewhat of an odd duck, but it does manages to exceed our modest performance expectations.

If you're not looking to power a set of speakers, or want to watch surround movies or games, you can save some money and go for the Sound Blaster ZXR (the update on the excellent Titanium HD ) as it has some of the same features as the X7 including the handy desktop microphone and volume knob.

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Creative Sound Blaster X7

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 9Sound 7Value 7