The segment of classic, once very popular, sound cards is on the brink of survival today, and it is caused by several reasons. First, the onboard motherboard sound is becoming of more and more high quality every year. Second, the card priced at about $100 is still a kind of compromise – the sound and opportunities are better than of onboard ones, though it is difficult to say about professional level. Indirectly, it is confirmed by dynamics of production of similar products, as something new appears almost every year...
However, this niche of the market is not closed completely, and some interesting things are still available. From the latest ones we can recall a card of Creative Z series, presented in 2013. Today we will be reviewing the latest of them - SoundBlaster Z, which differs from the more expensive Zx and ZxR merely in the absence of external adjustment module. In General, the solution is quite similar to the well-known ASUS while D1 and DX, but some additional points still exist.
The card is sold in a very presentable packing.
The set’s content is very modest: Creative SoundBlaster Z, driver disks and a beam forming microphone.
It is obvious, that the final price fell literally at the expense of each trifle, since often the company completes even much less qualitative products with a full set of cables. Here we don't have any cable: either optical or analogue.
The card's outlook is worth separate mentioning. For giving a luxurious effect, the card is enclosed in an aluminum EMI shield with a round window, and there is a decorative slip with lighting over the central chip.
Creative Sound Blaster Z casing – only decoration.
The card Creative Sound Blaster Z is made of black textolite.
All this doesn't have any technical sense, and is made only for the marketing purposes. It is much more pleasant for the user to give money for something allegedly massive and powerful, than for a set of standard chips.
However, if you remove the screen and turn off the plastic, you'll find a tiny chip of Creative CA0132 which doesn't need additional cooling, the screen and lighting... It is DSP processor. By the way, it can be met even as a part of top motherboards, since architecture very flexible.
For frontal outputs qualitative DAC CS4398 is used, that's why here the card bears a strong resemblance to ASUS products. Thus, if considering Creative SoundBlaster Z as a variant for receiving a high-quality sound, it is worth using stereophonic speakers.
There is a separate output for the headphones, theoretically supporting any models with impedance up to 600 Ohms. It can be considered as a great advantage of the card, especially as the output works from the same CS4398, only through other operational amplifiers. We'll speak later about the possibilities of such a solution to compete with the external device.
Analogue jacks are located traditionally very close, therefore there can be difficulties when using high-quality thick plugs. Thus the microphone input is combined with a linear one in one jack. But, unlike many competitive products, Creative SoundBlaster Z is provided with the full-fledged optics (SPDIF receiver CS8416).
Software and effects
The design of the card is quite classical; however, the software has some innovations, which are focused on gamers and active users of network technologies. The main one is connected with the included microphone.
The microphone allows adjusting width of the taken beam for cutting undesirable sounds. This function works rather well, so it is possible to communicate in Skype even with the music turned on. The system of noise reduction works less effectively, sometimes even incorrectly, therefore, it is recommended to use contingently. The voice change is carried out quite accurately.
As for the rest, the program shell is a typical interface with a set of necessary functions. It is possible to install the type of the used system, and to adjust basic points. For example, there is a very useful function of setting the cut frequency for a subwoofer that is useful for the owners of combined systems.
Naturally, there is a mixer for all inputs and outputs, an equalizer, etc. Profiles of the user can be saved, or on the contrary ready game options can be taken.
Testing, personal opinion
For testing the audio card we used the widespread software of RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.2.3, having performed all preliminary settings under the technique of the manufacturer.
The results are obtained by the simplest mode of connection of Front-out – Line-in, because of what we didn't receive the figures declared by the manufacturer, since the parameters of the input are much lower than the characteristics of DAC of frontal channels. Nevertheless, it is possible to state a low noise level which reaches a level of-100 dB even in such conditions.
Subjective listening was carried out in comparison with ESI Juli@, and when using monitors of middle class, subjectively we didn't hear any difference. It indirectly confirms the excellent quality of the frontal channels suitable for the organization of a stereosystem.
The output for the headphones didn't make such a good impression. It provides good volume, but the sound loses in details, therefore the quality is comparable only to the simplest amplifiers.
Generally, if we speak about the headphones priced at $50-100, this option can be used, but if higher price range variants are mentioned, the most optimal solution would be connection of the third-party amplifier to the frontal output.
As a whole the card Creative SoundBlaster Z will be a good choice for the people, wishing to combine the high quality of sounding and the advanced functions of communication in games and the Network. The model is obviously not focused on audiophiles, since high-quality DAC are installed only in the frontal outputs, there is no opportunity to change operational amplifiers, etc.
For its price the novelty provides rather high level of sounding, has à good onboard amplifier for the headphones and optical inputs. The microphone with a changeable beam width is a side benefit. It works quite accurately, and offers good opportunities for games or Skype.
Creative Sound Blaster Z price
Creative SoundBlaster Z can be bought for $90, and the next competitor seems to be ASUS Xonar DX, which is slightly cheaper.
ASUS Xonar DX
The architecture of the solutions is very similar, as well as the quality of playback. Besides, ASUS has the advantage of a low-profile design, suitable for the small cases. Whereas the Creative attracts by more expanded set of effects and an included microphone.
- reasonable price
- high-class transformers (front)
- adjustable microphone in a set
- poor package