30-Years In The Making - Announcing The Sound BlasterX AE-5 From Creative

👤by Tim Harmer Comments 📅12.06.2017 20:53:01


Audio experts Creative Technology have been mainstays of the PC landscape for longer than many of you, dear readers, have been alive. Thirty years on from the release of their very first discrete soundcard - the venerable Creative Music System - technology has moved on leaps and bounds in not only fidelity but also the generation of dynamic 3D sound. This year, with the reputation of the Sound Blaster range to live up to, Creative are announcing a brand new sound card which takes a step towards unifying their audio know-how with new endeavours in the audio and peripheral market.

The Sound BlasterX AE-5 - the Audio

E3 is the debut outing for the Sound BlasterX AE-5, a brand new design billed as Audiophile-Grade and with the 'World’s Best PC Headphone Amp'. Although aimed at audiophile gamers willing to shell out a little more for the benefits of a discrete audio device - rather than either motherboard audio chipsets motherboard and affordable USB options USB - it also changes things by broadening functionality.

Of course, high quality audio remains the AE-5's priority, and facilitating that is a brand new DAC, the 122dB 32-bit/384kHz ESS Sabre™. Typical sound output is via 5.1 rear connectors, but the AE-5 also includes a headphone output and custom-designed 600 Ohm discrete headphone amp. Proprietary Sound Blaster audio enhancement technologies also litter the spec. list, built up through the experience of multiple product generations.

"Xamp Discrete Headphone Amp

Delivering an industry-leading gaming headphone amplification experience, the on-board headphone amplifier is custom-built using discrete Xamp transistors and audiophile-grade WIMA® film/foil capacitors in a dual-amp design to satisfy the most demanding needs of today’s intense games and high-resolution audio. Experience the difference of a discrete dual-amp design as each audio channel is individually amplified to deliver pristine, uncompromised audio. Plus, the high heat resistance of the German-made WIMA capacitors greatly reduces noise and audio interference. The Xamp’s ultra low 1 Ohm output impedance also makes it perfectly capable of driving sensitive in-ear monitors as well as studio-grade headphones from 16 Ohm to 600 Ohm.

122dB DNR Sabre-Class DAC with Industry Leading Audio Processing

At the heart of the Sound BlasterX AE-5 sound card is the quad-core Sound Core3D audio DSP and a 122dB ESS Sabre-Class DAC that instantly boosts regular motherboard audio with up to 32 times more clarity. The premium audiophile-grade DAC with its high dynamic range indulges users with up to 32-bit/384kHz lossless playback and true audio fidelity for high-definition audio in games, movies, and music.

Updated, refined and perfected through years of being the leader in sound processing, Creative’s AE-5 is feature-packed with the latest and greatest version of Creative’s award-winning audio processing and algorithms that improve music, movie and gaming experiences. The legendary Sound Blaster technologies provide fully customizable DSP-powered audio enhancements, crystal-clear vocal reproduction, in-game voice communication enhancements, 7.1 virtual surround sound and other advanced audio technologies."




RGB Lighting Control - A First On A Soundcard

The most unexpected feature on the Sound BlasterX has to be the inclusion of a 4-channel on-board RGB LED controller, the first time a soundcard anywhere has been equipped with this functionality. The RGB controller is powered by the Aurora Reactive Lighting System, Creative's own proprietary scheme which is shared by their Katana RGB speaker system, Siege M04 mouse and Vanguard K08 keyboard.

Of course, an RGB controller is nothing without lighting to control. In addition to surface-mounted RGB LEDs on the card's PCB, users can attach up to four LED strips which can be customised using the Sound Blaster PC Connect software. Available lighting effects should be pretty broad, and more should be revealed in that regard closer to market availability in July.


The Katana Speaker System


Scout 2.0 - Shhhh, Don't Tell The ESL!

Environmental awareness is critical in high-level gaming, and has been one of the driving factors in ever more realistic implementations of virtual 7.1 surround-sound for headsets and other stereo speaker systems. In a cacofony of sound, you as the player much isolate not only the important, but also figure out exactly which direction it's coming from. Not an easy task.

Creative Scout Mode is an algorithm designed to enhance subtle sounds sounds to be more prominent during gameplay, and has been a feature of the Sound BlasterX software suite for some time. Scout goes one step further by interfacing with your smartphone and in real-time indicating the position of important sound events relative to you. Think the motion detector in Aliens, but as a smartphone app.

Technical Specifications

Audio/DSP processor:- Sound Core3D

Channels:
- 5.1 discrete speaker out
- 7.1 virtual headphone surround

Interface:- PCIe (1x slot)

DAC:- ESS ES9016K2M SABRE32 Ultra DAC

- Max playback resolution: 32-bit/384kHz*

- DNR: 122 dB

- THD + N: 0.00032%

- ADC: Sound Core3D

- Max recording resolution: 24-bit/96kHz

Headphone amp (600 Ohm): Custom-designed discrete headphone amp (Xamp)

- SNR: 114 dB

- THD + N: 0.0009%

- Output impedance: 1 Ohm;

- Headphone impedance range: 16 – 600 Ohm;

Connectivity:

- 3 x 3.5mm line out (front, rear, center/sub)
- 1 x TOSLINK optical out
- 1 x 3.5mm headphone out
- 1 x 3.5mm microphone/line in
- 1 x Intel HD audio front panel




Our Thoughts

During an event last week ahead of today's public unveiling we were treated to a sneak peak of the Sound BlasterX AE-5, and had the opportunity to put questions to Creative. The team were keen to underline the fact that with the AE-5, and other recent products such as the Vanguard keyboard and Siege Mouse, Creative were seeking to leverage both audio know-how and decades of experience in developing utility software for the PC.

The ESS Sabre DAC is perhaps the most obvious upgrade over the Sound Blaster Z series. The frequency response is up from 22 bit / 192kHz to 32 bit / 384kHz, and clearly Creative want us to come away with the impression that it's a great partner for a high-quality stereo or 5.1 speaker system. The same goes for the 600-Ohm headphone amp. So, great with typical 'gaming audio' sound (heatsets and desk speakers), but hopefully not an impedement to a great experience when more expensive sound systems are the order of the day.

Partnerships with gaming professionals such as Epsilon eSports have clearly informed their design practices, whether it be the fast-response Omron mechanical switches on the Vanguard K08 keyboard or the Scout 2.0 application. Such feedback is extremely focussed, but a wider sampling will be more important when iterating on the Sound Blaster PC Connect software. A few wrong moves and it could be a millstone hanging around their neck, but inspired design could bring both lighting and audio to life. Done well, we'd like to see reactive lighting not only to bombastic game soundtracks, but also more subtle cues picked up on by Creatives own Scout Tracker algorithm.

Later this year Creative should be opening up their Aurora Reactive Lighting System API to users, setting their own creative juices to work. For now however they're hard at work adding as much polish as possible to the launch experience of the AE-5.

Priced at ~£140, it's positioned between the older Sound Blaster Zx and ZxR models. It doesn't include the exotic break-out port hubs of the Zx and ZxR, but the inclusion of a RGB LED controller pushes the value up. Combine that with the higher quality components and you have a very temping proposition.

One final note - it's not clear in the supplied images but the AE-5 includes an 4-pin molex connector on the rear of the card (alongside the front panel connector). We're not quite sure exactly what this is for - dedicated LED power, or aux power for the audio components - but it does mean that you will need a spare molex from your PSU to take full advantage of it.

Pricing and Availability

The Sound BlasterX AE-5 will be available in July 2017 from www.creative.com and at authorized dealers priced at £139.99 (inc V.A.T.).

A special white edition the Sound BlasterX AE-5 will also be available soon exclusively online at www.creative.com, and while the standard version will come with a single 30cm LED strip with 10 LEDs, this special Pure Edition will include four LED strips.

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