Sound Blaster X3 Review: Portable Super X-Fi Audio For PCs And Consoles

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Sound Blaster X3: Gaming and Movies

PC games don't quite benefit from the Super X-Fi head profiling technology as much as music does. We first took the Sound Blaster X3 for a spin in the current blockbuster hit Gears 5. Personally, I hadn't really enjoyed playing many games with a headset in the past for the same hard-panning problems that can be apparent while listening to music through headphones. Super X-Fi fixes that stereo sound field problem, but the simulated room adds a ton of echo to quiet scenes with characters conversing. Gears 5 is full of that sort of thing—Del and Kait just won't stop talking—and Super X-Fi mode intrudes more than it helps.

Gaming With the Sound Blaster X3

with laptop sound blaster x3

The problems persisted in other games that we played, too. Control happens almost entirely indoors, and Super X-Fi really thickened up all the natural reverb of The Oldest House. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has its own excellent ambient soundtrack and headphones mode built into the game, so Super X-Fi really just got in the way. Super X-Fi is an innovative concept, but it doesn't apply globally to every use case. This technology was created for music, so that's not a deal breaker. Just press the SXFI button and turn it off. Instead, Creative has a couple of other tricks for gamers up its sleeve.

cout mode sound blaster x3

Scout Mode, which makes quiet in-game sounds louder, is included with the Sound Blaster X3. This feature basically works the same as it does on the Sound BlasterX AE-9. Everything that's quiet or distant is made louder, and in theory this should make it easier to identify where your opponents are in a game of Fortnite, for example. We're just brutally bad Fortnite players, and Scout Mode didn't fix that, however it definitely did what it said it would. Distant sounds were much louder, which had the unfortunate side effect of making us think we were under fire sometimes when we weren't. Once you get used to it, Scout Mode does become a useful feature, though. 

While gaming with Super X-Fi is a nice bonus on the PC platform and Scout Mode has its uses, the real draw for gaming with the Sound Blaster X3 and a nice pair of headphones is simulated 7.1-channel Virtual Surround. We looked at this in depth with the Sound BlasterX AE-9, and found Creative's audio work to be very convincing. We're happy to report that Virtual Surround on the Sound Blaster X3 works just as well as it does on its pricier PCI Express sibling. In Gears 5 when we got ambushed from behind, we could hear the Swarm as if it was really behind us. The 7.1 Virtual Surround effect was very convincing, and we're likely going to go back to revisit the world of Sera headphones in tow once this review is done.

meeting of the minds

While a lot of our PC gaming time was spent with Gears, other games benefit from Virtual Surround, too. Racing games are always an aural treat in surround modes, and Project Cars is a great example of a realistic racing game with great audio. Engine sounds roared all around us in simulated surround, and we could hear our opponents creeping up behind us or, more likely, zooming past us when we wiped out yet again. Diablo III's audio cues to find off-screen monsters have always been helpful in a surround setup, and they're just as helpful with simulated 7.1 surround in a nice pair of headphones. The real test for simulated positional audio is to close your eyes and listen, and then go where the sounds are. Never did it lead us in the wrong direction. 

Sound Blaster X3 - Super X-Fi for Consoles

Since the Sound Blaster X3 also works with a docked Nintendo Switch and Sony PlayStation 4, we tried it out with both of those consoles. To control the Sound Blaster X3, we needed to download the Sound Blaster Command mobile app and connect the Galaxy S10+ to the console via Bluetooth. In console games, Super X-Fi wasn't ideal, but without any processing the audio produced by the Sound Blaster X3 was pristine and clean. We played through a few rounds of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and got some moons in Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch, and the games sounded great just listening to them on any pair of headphones. Our PlayStation 4 Pro gaming fared just as well while we swung through the streets of New York in Marvel's Spider-Man or went toe-to-toe in Soul Calibur VI. Everything sounded clean and crisp. 

soul calibur 6

While we're not going to pack away our home theater system any time soon, the Sound Blaster X3 would be a fine way to experience console games in a dorm or apartment when the neighbors are sleeping. The only drawback is the lack of Virtual Surround on the consoles; that's a Mac and PC exclusive. Since both the Nintendo Switch and the PS4 see the Sound Blaster X3 as a USB headset, we can understand this drawback, but the absence of Virtual Surround is still a drawback, regardless of the cause. Ideally some sort of HDMI passthrough device could pull the audio stream out and virtualize it in our headphones, and that would give it universal compatibility. Note that the Xbox One isn't currently supported by the Sound Blaster X3's headset mode. 

At Home in the Home Theater

Since the Sound Blaster X3 has a S/PDIF optical output, it only made sense to plug it into our Dolby and DTS-compatible home theater receiver and watch a movie. Unlike the more expensive Sound BlasterX AE-9, the Sound Blaster X3 can only pass through a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital Live-encoded stream. There's no DTS support on hand for Creative's external device. Another downside is that the optical output on the X3 doesn't support 7.1 codecs like Dolby Atmos. While this might disqualify the Sound Blaster X3 from a very high-end setup, the good news is that just about every Blu-Ray disc or streaming service can serve up Dolby-encoded 5.1 audio for the optical connector to output. 

friend from work
"He's a friend from work." 

Thor Ragnarok sounds great on just about any speaker system, and so we fired it up. The Dolby Surround logo LED lit up on our receiver and 5.1 surround audio played throughout the film. We didn't have a discrete analog 7.1 speaker setup on hand, so we couldn't really test its analog surround output chops, but we don't expect any problems there. We did spend some time listening via both 7.1 Virtual Surround and Super X-Fi while watching the movie. As it did with games, Virtual Surround impressed us in this action-heavy flick. Super X-Fi wasn't really our preference when the audio source had positional information, but the option is there and it worked just as well here as it did in games, filling the simulated room with sound. 

Stay tuned for the next section, where we'll take a look at the Sound Blaster X3's audio production capabilities. 

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