Creative Sound Blaster ZxR Versus Onboard Audio - HotHardware

Creative Sound Blaster ZxR Versus Onboard Audio

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Back in the day (which, for you youngsters, is a scientific measurement of time reserved for anyone who used to walk to school during snowstorms, uphill, both ways), integrated audio solutions had trouble earning respect. Many enthusiasts considered a sound card an essential piece to the PC building puzzle. Depending on how far your PC gaming roots go back, you may recall fierce competition in the discrete audio space between AdLib and Sound Blaster, two heavy hitters that pretty much pioneered the category.

While AdLib would eventually end up as a footnote in the history of PC audio, the Sound Blaster brand lives on. It's been 25 years since the first Sound Blaster card was introduced, a pretty remarkable feat considering the rise of contenders between then and now, as well as the diminished reliance on discrete audio in the gaming community. Whereas a sound card once played a crucial role in offloading audio tasks and freeing up CPU cycles for higher framerates, today's multi-core processors aren't bogged down by onboard audio solutions. Gamers aren't as quick to adopt discrete audio solutions these days, but rather than throw in the towel, Creative has managed to reinvent its Sound Blaster line time and again to draw interest from gamers and audiophiles alike.

Sound Blaster ZxR Stock

Today we're looking at the Sound Blaster ZxR, Creative's flagship audio solution for PC power users. It's also one of three available cards in Creative's ultra high-performance Z-Series of sound cards, the ZxR being the top-end solution. It boasts a signal-to-noise (SNR) of 124dB that Creative claims is 89.1 times better than your motherboard's integrated audio solution. It also features a built-in headphone amplifier, beamforming microphone, a multi-core Sound Core3D audio processor, and various proprietary audio technologies.

On the following pages we'll examine the Sound Blaster ZxR in detail and figure out what kind of audience is best suited for a card of this caliber. To do that, we'll compare the ZxR to onboard audio and offer up some subjective analysis based on what we hear, as well as look at any potential impact in gaming performance. Enough chatter, let's get started.

Creative Sound Blaster ZxR Sound Card
Specifications & Features
Audio Processor:
Audio Resolution:
Digital Audio Converter (DAC):
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR):
Maximum Playback Quality:
 
Frequency Response @96kHz:



Frequency Response @192kHz (Stereo Direct Only):
16-bit to 24-bit Recording Sample Rates:
16-bit to 24-bit Playback Sample Rates:
Maximum Recording Quality:
I/O Ports (Main Card):


I/O Ports (Daughter Card):


Audio Control Module / Front Panel Connectivity:



600 Ohm Amplified Headphone Output:
Swappable OP-AMPs:
Included Accessories:
Compatible With:
OS:
Warranty:
Price:
Sound Core3D
24-bit
Burr-Brown
124dB
5.1: Up to 96kHz
Stereo Direct: Up to 192kHz
Front Channel Out: 10Hz to 45kHz
Rear Channel Out: 15Hz to 45kHz
Center Out: 10Hz to 45kHz
Headphone (33 ohms): 10Hz to 45kHz
Front Channel Out: 10Hz to 88kHz
8, 11.025, 16, 22.05, 24, 32, 44.1, 48, 96 (kHz)
8, 11.025, 16, 22.05, 24, 32, 44.1, 48, 96, 192 (kHz)
Up to 24-bit/96kHz
Headphone: 1 x Amplified 1/4-inch jack
Speaker Out: 2x RCA (L/R) 2x 3.5mm jacks (Rear, C/Sub)
Microphone In: 1x 1/4-inch jack
Line In: 2x RCA (L/R)
Optical Out: 1x TOSLINK
Optical In: 1x TOSLINK
Volume Control Knob Built-in Beamforming
Microphone
Headphone Out: 1x 3.5mm jack, 1x 1/4-inch jack
Microphone In: 1x 3.5mm jack, 1x 1/4-inch jack
80mw TI TPA6120r
Yes
Audio Control Module (with Beamforming microphone built-in)
PC - PCI-E x1 Connection
Windows 7/8, Mac OS X
12 Month
$249.99 MSRP ($199 street) -- Find it @ Amazon



In case the specs didn't make it clear, Creative is promoting studio grade playback and recording. The card has Burr-Brown ADC/DACs, Nichicon "Fine Gold" capacitors, and a 600ohm headphone amp for clean audio. In plain people speak, this isn't a sound card built strictly for gaming, but also professional quality audio for musicians and audiophiles, too.

There's a lot going on with this two-card solution. We'll talk more about that in a bit, but in the meantime, don't fret if you're short on ports -- the daughtercard doesn't actually plug into a PCI-E slot, though it does screw into an available slot-mount (and connects to the main card via the included ribbon cable).
 

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So I bought the Sound Blaster ZX and it also has the Audio Control Module. However, it has a problem where the sound quality is actually reduced if you plug your inputs into that instead of directly into the card, so I've foregone that module altogether.

 

Did you notice or was it known for that audio quality downgrade on this particular model's ACM? If not, I may consider upgrading. I love my ZX but it wouldn't hurt to have something that's better.

 

Here's the one I have now: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009XDWUCQ/ref=oh_details_o09_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

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I stopped needing to buy a creative sound card back with the DFI LANparty UT NF4 SLI mobo that shipped with a Karajan sound module which was a daughter card to get some of the sound stuff way from the mono which added digital noise wayyy back in the day, a decade ago? Effects in games and audio music still sounded better on a creative or even a high end Turtle Beach Montego. After that HD and digital audio rolled became the norm and it seemed creative started releasing far more SKU's per product release and diluted its own marketshare. Cards like the ZxR still make me drool and no high end PC for any duty isn't complete without a discrete sound card!

Love the comparison review.

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nfs3freak; I believe any ACM reduces the quality of audio versus direct input, but I could be wrong.

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Thanks. I presume that's probably the case.

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I have the old X-Fi fatal1ty, never tried onboard, so i wouldn't know the difference but I'm happy with what i got, so i would be glad to see this modern comparison to see if it even matters.

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If you are referring to the PCI-Express version (Fata1ity Professional), it is roughly identical to the base Sound Blaster Z (and includes the identical software bundle and uses the same driver); my own factory-refurbished version even includes the same beamforming microphone included with the Sound Blaster Z/Zx/ZxR. The Fata1ity Pro replaced a PCI bus X-Fi low-profile XtremeGamer, which has a rather problematical addressing flaw at the 4 GB level - therefore problematical for x64 OSes (from anyone). The Fata1ity Professional - like the Z that succeeded it - will work in ANY PCI-Express slot - including that often-ignored x1 slot above the first x16 slot (which is where mine sits in my ASUS P5G41-M LX2, a mATX motherboard with the Intel G41 chipset). Also. both solutions work with SteamOS (they are detected as Intel HD Audio devices - which is proper) and any Linux distribution that supports Intel HD Audio.

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I have always loved and used creative sound cards in my builds. My latest Z card is amazing and I'm glad I don't have to unplug my speakers to use my headphones.

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Back in the days of Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 it was a must to have something separate. The onboard audio on the motherboard was junk and SoundBlaster had always been my go-to choice.

I currently (hangs head in shame) am using the onboard Realtek audio and it does a fine job, but I will be looking to do some recording and upgrading to a Z or better might make a huge difference from the onboard where I can't quite get the recording levels I want.

Time to upgrade? I'm thinking so.

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WendellBeverly1:

Back in the days of Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 it was a must to have something separate. The onboard audio on the motherboard was junk and SoundBlaster had always been my go-to choice.

I currently (hangs head in shame) am using the onboard Realtek audio and it does a fine job, but I will be looking to do some recording and upgrading to a Z or better might make a huge difference from the onboard where I can't quite get the recording levels I want.

Time to upgrade? I'm thinking so.

yeah it was.. if you didnt have a Creative SB card.. your PC sucked lol. Now... I dont see the need. Personally im not an audiophile so im good with the onboard. The realtek setup with SB Cinema app is pretty good on the MSI gaming 5 mb

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Anyone have any comparison for between a ZxR and the EVGA Z87 Classified (Core3D onboard)?

I have no complaints with the audio the board puts out, but I am always looking for improvement and I am curious if this would provide any real benefit from an audio quality standpoint.

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