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

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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.

7.1 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 9
  • Sound 7
  • Value 7

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.

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

x7-screen.jpg
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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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