Creative Sound Blaster ZxR Versus Onboard Audio

Subjective Analysis

So we've determined that you're not going to side-step a video card upgrade to improve framerates by buying a discrete sound card -- today's multi-core processors and systems in general are far to powerful to be bogged down by in-game audio chores. But what about audio quality in music, movies, and games? That's what this section is all about.

Music and Movies

Sound Blaster ZxR Equalizer

Creative knows its core audience consists of gamers who want to feel that gut punch from deep bass, and out of the box, the Sound Blaster ZxR definitely delivers that kind of playback. We cranked the volume and fired "Shots" by LMFAO featuring Lil Jon, and when the bass line kicked in, we started to wonder about the structural foundation of our environment.

If the club atmosphere is what you're into, you'll love the stock performance Creative delivers. Otherwise, you'll want to spend some time tweaking the equalizer to fit your audio preference. Feeling lazy? Cycle through the preset configurations and see if there's one that suits you.

Once you fine tune the performance of the Sound Blaster ZxR, you'll be rewarded with a richer and cleaner listening experience than your onboard audio can deliver. That doesn't mean the $15 speaker set you picked up on a blue-light special at K-Mart will miraculously put you in the middle of a symphony, but if you're rocking a halfway decent set of speakers, they'll come to life.

Image Source: Flickr (MarkScottAustinTX)

A good test to see if you've balanced out bass performance with mids and highs is to play a Gangstagrass CD, and that's precisely what we did. The band's unique blend of rap and bluegrass makes it easy to see if the bass is overpowering and if anything else needs tweaking. Several songs offer up a mix of delicate vocals, the high pitch of a fiddle, twang of a banjo, and hard hitting bass. "Trouble Everywhere I Go" and "In My Aching Heart Shadows Linger" are two of the better examples for testing audio, and when we auditioned them, the Sound Blaster ZxR (once tuned) made it easy to separate the different elements.

Watching movies offered a similar upgrade experience, though perhaps not as pronounced since it's a more visual experience than an audio one. Still, the effects hit harder and cleaner, and of course you have Dolby technology to lean on as well.

Playing Games

One of Creative's proprietary technologies is something called Scout Mode. When enabled, it uses noise and echo cancellation along with some exclusive audio algorithms intended to help you hear your enemies sneak up on your from far away. Your mileage will vary depending on the game. We're a bit indifferent to the effect, though some gamers swear by it.

Metro 2033

Of much more interest to us is the overall boost in audio quality. Bombs and explosions hit harder, and subtle sound effects are not only more easily noticed, they're more crisp and realistic sounding, at least as much as your speakers will allow them to be. What that essentially means is that your speakers become the bottleneck for your audio when you're running a card like the Sound Blaster ZxR. There is a noticeably difference between onboard sound and the Sound Blaster ZxR when gaming, which is also true for music and movies.


An increasing number of gamers have moved on from elaborate speaker setups to headphones, and this is an area where the Sound Blaster ZxR excels as well. Not only does the ACM make plugging headphones in convenient, but it has a built-in 600 Ohm amplifier to boost your audio (just make sure your headphones can handle the boost). Depending on the quality of headphones, the difference between onboard and the Sound Blaster ZxR is arguably most pronounced here.

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