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

Sound Blaster X3: Input Quality and Audio Production

The Sound Blaster X3 only has a couple of inputs: a 1/8" line-level stereo input, which is good for routing a secondary audio source like your phone through the device while using it with your PC, and a single 1/8" microphone input on the front. Fortunately, the microphone input provides phantom power and as a result can drive our test microphone, the miniature Rode VideoMicro, to capture some voice samples. We combined a sample with other samples we've taken previously: the Sound BlasterX AE-9's XLR and 1/8" mic inputs, and the Avid Mbox 3 we used for comparison. This allows us to compare audio quality across a range of devices, and we can hear them thanks to hosting these clips on SoundCloud. 

rode videomicro sound blaster x3
The Rode VideoMicro is meant for a DSLR camera but works great with the Sound Blaster X3

You can use any microphone with a 1/8" connector with the Sound Blaster X3, and the nicest one we had on hand was the Rode VideoMicro. This small cardoid-pattern condenser microphone require +48v phantom power, which the device supplies, and picks up plenty of sound in our office. The cardoid pattern is named because it's shaped like a heart, and indicates that the microphone is directional. Cardoid-pattern mics don't pick up noise behind them, so sounds you don't want, like the fans in your PC, are reduced in volume unlike an omnidirectional microphone.

In the clip below, you'll first hear how a cheap headset and the VideoMicro sounded on the more expensive Sound BlasterX AE-9 when we reviewed that card, and then how the Rode microphone sounds with the Sound Blaster X3. Unfortunately our test headset, which is the AKG headset which comes with the Samsung Galaxy S10+, wouldn't work with the Sound blaster X3 because the headphone jack isn't equipped to pick up the microphone.

First off, it's shocking how nicely the Sound Blaster X3 captures a very cheap (under $60 on Amazon) condenser microphone. If all you ever wanted to do was capture your voice for a video voiceover or a podcast, or to stream on Twitch on a budget, this is a simple way to go about it. For under $180 total, you can get a decent microphone preamp in the Sound Blaster X3 and a cardoid-pattern condenser mic with a windscreen, and the result was pretty nice all things considered. Secondly, the Sound Blaster X3 sounds much more impressive than the rather expensive Sound BlasterX AE-9. Overall we're happy with these results. 

Audio Production on Sound Blaster X3

On its internal cards, like the Sound BlasterX AE-9, Creative provides a low-latency driver which provides direct access to the inputs and outputs of the hardware via the Audio Streaming Input/Output (ASIO) protocol created by Steinberg. The Sound Blaster X3 doesn't need any drivers at all to do its work, as it just uses the USB Class Audio driver built into windows and macOS. That's what provides compatibility with the PS4 and the Switch, so this isn't a surprise. However, Creative doesn't provide an ASIO driver for this external device, which limits its audio production chops. USB isn't the ideal protocol for audio production anyway, since there's quite a bit of overhead involved. 

That means to test its abilities, we had to turn to ASIO4All, a universal ASIO WDM driver for any Windows-compatible sound device. While the project hasn't been updated in over two years, the current ASIO4All release works just fine on Windows 10 1909 with the Sound Blaster X3. The ASIO4All control panel correctly detected the Sound Blaster X3's 8-channel output, but routed all 8 of those channels to the stereo headphone port when we set the device to headphone mode. It also sees a stereo pair of inputs. Unfortunately, it doesn't separate the line input from the microphone, but it does hear the mic on both the left and right channels. That just means you won't be able to use the built-in mic and line inputs together. Most likely you'd really only want to capture from a line-level source like a mixer in the first place, so that's not really a big drawback. The microphone did well in voice tests, but this setup isn't practical for guitar cabinet, and a single input is a complete non-starter for a drum kit. 

The Sound Blaster X3's inputs and outputs showed up in Studio One without any fuss

A bigger drawback is the latency penalty associated with a wrapper like ASIO4All. At 48 kHz, the ASIO4All control panel defaults to 512 samples. That works out to 10.7 milliseconds of latency in both directions. That on its own isn't terrible, but there's some processing happening between the input and output, and that's still true without any plugins attached to any of the tracks. Even with the buffer reduced to 64 samples in Presonus Studio One digital audio workstation (DAW), we could not monitor the microphone just to capture our voice test without inflicting a speech jammer effect. We had to stop monitoring the track to get that small sample captured.

Virtual Virtuosos

On the other hand, playing back virtual instruments with our Novation LaunchKey 49 was not similarly affected. We had no problem banging out keyboard riffs because this eliminates the audio capture side of the equation, which appears to be where the majority of the delay happens. With Native Instruments Kontakt instantiated on a track with several existing drum, vocal, and other audio tracks had already been recorded, Studio One reported plug-in latency to be around 7.5 milliseconds. With our 64-sample buffer factored in, we're only talking about 10 milliseconds of total delay. Since sound moves at approximately one 1.125 feet for every millisecond, that's the same lag you'd hear if you were around 12 feet from an amplifier—totally indistinguishable to anybody but Eddie Van Halen or Yngwie Malmsteen.

studio one performance sound blaster x3
Performance in Presonus Studio One was admirable for a sound card not meant for audio production

If playing a VI is easy enough, then using the Sound Blaster X3 for other tasks, like mixing and beat creation, should be a breeze. If you're working with a step sequencer or piano roll, then you can easily handle the small amount of latency produced by the Sound Blaster X3. In a mixing test of a real, complex track, we fired up one of the Studio One sample projects: Da Guv'nah by the New Orleans rhythm and blues band Phat Hat. This project has around 40 tracks including a multi-tracked drum kit, live horns, and tons of vocals. Studio One had no problem playing this back with a 64-sample buffer and only used around 13-15 percent of our Core i5-9600K processor without any clipping or stuttering. Unlike an interface with a dedicated ASIO driver, that's as low as sample buffers go in ASIO4All. 

Since the input options are pretty limited, we can't give a full seal of approval to the Sound Blaster X3 for audio production. However, for a bedroom studio that has an outboard mic preamp for vocals or guitars, or otherwise relies on virtual instruments, it does a pretty nice job of handling any DAW's workload. Just be sure to use the Audio Direct mode on the Sound Blaster to make sure you're not affecting the audio between your DAW and your ears.

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