Sound cards are typically the last thing your average gamer thinks about when upgrading their system. With advances in onboard sound, most people tend to skip the sound card and put that money toward a bigger and better graphics card, a solid mechanical keyboard, or just about anything else.
Creative Labs wants to influence your purchasing choices, and their SoundBlaster X AE-5 sound card makes an interesting case for the revival of the sound card in today’s gaming landscape. Have sound cards gone the way of the dinosaur, or are they still relevant in today’s gaming? With this sound card, Creative Labs is doing everything they can to convince you of the latter.
You can pick up the SoundBlaster X AE-5 for $149.
The AE-5 is a PCIe card, so it doesn’t require any additional power, unless you want to use the included RGB lighting strip. It’s fairly small, measuring just 5.7 x .8 x 5 inches. The card has a connector for the RGB lighting strip, a MOLEX power connector for the RGB lighting strip, and a front board audio to let you use the outputs on the front of your PC with the AE-5.
Since every piece of hardware is basically mandated by law to include RGB lighting these days, the AE-5 has its own RGB lighting strip. The strip itself is about 12 inches long and contains 10 individual lights, and can be attached to the side of your case. You can configure both the color and effects in Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster Connect software, letting you match the lighting with your graphics card or whatever else lights up inside your system. It’s definitely pretty, but unless you have a windowed case and are smart with how you position the lighting strip, you aren’t going to get much benefit from it. Still, it’s a nice extra. The card itself also lights up as well.
The AE-5 has five outputs: Line in/Mic in, Headphone (both 3 and 4 poles supported), Front L/R, Rear L/R, Center/Subwoofer, and Optical out. All these outputs allow for a flexible, robust setup – you can have headphones, speakers and subwoofer, and a microphone all plugged in at the same time. However, I wish the outputs were more clearly labeled. As is, you either have to strain your eyes to look at the output’s tiny icon, or look it up in the manual. A basic color coding scheme would’ve made my setup all the easier, and it baffles me how something so simple could’ve been omitted.
The AE-5 also offers a SABRE 32 DAC with 32-bit 384kHz playback, which is practically unheard of in consumer soundcards. While it’s cool Creative Labs is pushing into new frontiers, this number is mostly hype. To put this perspective, let’s define bit depth and sample rate.
AE-5 has made a huge splash on the scene, and could single-handedly revive the sound card industry for gamers and audiophiles alike.
In short, bit depth is how many bits of audio your computer can record. The more bits, the more “room” your recording has to house your sound. Sample rate is how many times your audio is measured per second. Basically, the higher the bit-depth and sample rate, the more accurate your recording will sound to the source.
While 32-bit 384kHz playback sounds like it’ll make everything sound better, it won’t. Even the most hi-def lossless music you’ll be listening to will be at 24 bit depth with a sample rate of either 44.1 or 48 kHz, making the 32-bit 384kHz playback of the AE-5 flat-out overkill. You could make a case that such a high bit-depth and sample rate is an attempt to future proof for a world in which 32-bit recordings are the norm, but the human ear just can’t reliably perceive the difference between those bit depths and sample rates. While I can’t knock Creative Labs for including 32-bit 384 kHz playback, I highly doubt many people are going to utilize its full potential, unless you’re listening to raw audio of nature documentaries or something. It should also be noted that the AE-5 can only play back 32-bit audio, not record it.
All that being said, the AE-5 is an absolutely terrific card for listening to hi-def audio, and more than suitable if you want to get into prosumer home recording, mixing, and mastering. Just don’t let the numbers fool you into thinking you’re getting something you’re not.
The AE-5 uses Creative Lab’s new Xamp headphone amplifier. If you don’t know what a headphone amplifier is, chances are you don’t have expensive enough headphones to need one. For those curious, however, a headphone amplifier is what powers the headphones, allowing them to output sound. Lower-end (sub $100-ish) headphones don’t require enough power to need a dedicated amplifier, as the one already in your computer is enough. Better headphones need the power of a dedicated amplifier to produce a clean and undistorted sound at their peak volume, and give a full-bodied, detailed soundscape at “normal” volumes. In short, with more power comes greater volume and a more natural sound.
What separates Xamp from other headphone amplifiers is that it individually amplifies the left and right channels, which according to Creative Labs significantly boosts performance and sound quality, pumping lossless audio into each earcup. While this is a tough one to hear the difference, I can say that there was practically no bass roll off (you’ll often find a lack of bass frequencies in lower-end amplifiers) or sound leakage from one channel to the other. Unlike the 32-bit 384 kHz playback, the Xamp amplifier is a true difference maker, especially for those who crave those bone-rattling bass tones.
All the impressive tech specs in the world don’t mean anything if they don’t translate into real world performance. So how does the AE-5 sound? Whether I was playing games, watching videos, or listening to music, one word kept coming out of my mouth, and that was “wow.”
Everything sounds great on this card, and you can immediately and easily hear the difference between the AE-5 and onboard audio. It’s like lifting your head out from underwater. Everything is so vibrant and life-like – the highs, mids, and lows have tons of power and bite to them, getting right up in your skull. Games especially felt incredibly vivid and immersive. It honestly, truly felt like I was there when playing first person shooters, with frantic firefights booming loudly while character dialogue still came through clear and distinct. Third person action games had a similar punch to them, with sweeping orchestral soundtracks perfectly underscoring the sharp clangs of sword swings and viscous flesh wounds.
Using the AE-5 is the only time virtual 7.1 surround sound felt like something more than a gimmick, as it honestly put me into the world without making everything sound flimsy and muddy. Obviously, you’ll need a decent pair of headphones or speaker setup to fully appreciate the AE-5’s raw power, but if you make that investment, the AE-5 is a serious game-changer.
Customizing Your Sound
Creative Labs offers a ton of customization options with their Sound Blaster Connect software, from various DSPs designed for games, movies, and music you can use to enhance the soundscape, to EQ adjustment and Creative Labs’ Acoustic Engine sonic adjustments, to various speaker setups.
I loved the game DSP, though I found the others to be a little too forceful, and just switched them off. Some of the Acoustic Engine settings were really nice for specific situations – specifically the surround sound for games, and the crystallizer for evening out compressed audio from YouTube videos and other streams. Scout 2.0 is the only one that feels too gimmicky to me. It’s essentially a phone app that uses in-game sound as a sonar for you to detect nearby enemies. Not only is it essentially cheating in competitive play, it’s distracting to constantly look at your phone in the middle of a game. It also just doesn’t work very reliably.
Overall, the software package is pretty powerful and customizable. My only concern is that the UI is a bit clunky and tough to navigate. As it is, you’ll be fumbling around the software when you switch between tasks and applications, something that eats up valuable time that could be used to record or play games.
I also encountered some issues with the software not correctly saving my preferences, and some odd crashes here and there. Here’s hoping Creative Labs gets around to patching it, as a card that sounds this good shouldn’t be hampered by buggy software.
It’s All In The Cards
Are sound cards back? It'll take more than one product to make that happen, but AE-5 is a great step in that direction. If you’ve got high-end headphones or speakers and want to get the most of your equipment, the AE-5 is more than worth the investment.