Sound BlasterX AE-5 Review: Subjective Audio Performance
Our listening tests focus mostly on the Xamp headphone amplifier with a pair of Sennheiser HD 570 headphones connected to the Xamp headphone output. I’ve had the HD 570’s since 2002 and it was my first set of quality headphones. It’s on its third headphone cable and second set of foams, but I’m extremely attached to it and can’t bring myself to replace it with something else. Fortunately, I’ve listened to the HD 570’s using various onboard motherboard audio codecs to external DAC’s, so I’m familiar with the quality and shortcomings of it. Audio quality is subjective and my preferences lean towards detailed highs, punchy mids and tight bass.
The Sound BlasterX AE-5 was installed in my desktop sporting a ASUS Z97-A/USB3.1, Intel Core i7 5775c, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Ti reference card, 32GB of DDR3 RAM and a Corsair RM1000x installed in an Inwin 805 case. Our subjective audio tests were conducted using a variety of music, movies and gaming scenarios.
All music listening tests were performed in Direct HP mode so no DSP effects were applied to get a feel for unadulterated sound from the BlasterX AE-5's ESS Sabre DAC. I played a variety of FLAC audio files using Foobar, including plenty of Lindsey Stirling, Eminem, Jason Mraz, Ed Sheeran, The Band Perry, Bruno Mars and pretty much anything I had in my music collection.
The first song played was Lindsey Stirling’s Brave Enough featuring Christina Perri and my first reaction to the Sound BlasterX AE-5 was simply “wow." In the 15 years that I’ve owned the Sennheiser HD 570’s, it’s never sounded this good, even with my beloved Sound Blaster X7 and E5. The Xamp headphone amp is extremely good and produced warm and full sound with outstanding imaging that made me imagine all the instruments being played when I closed my eyes.
Moving onto Gavi’s Song, another Lindsey Stirling track, my amazement continued. The instrumental track inspired goosebumps with every note from the violin and piano. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Bon Bon feat. The Teaching is another instrumental track I enjoyed immensely on the Sound BlasterX AE-5 – the crisp details of the tambourine notes really stood out.
Instrumental tracks simply sound amazing on the Sound BlasterX AE-5. The entire Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon album was up next and the first track, Speak to Me, and its eerie speaking and trippy sound effects, that would sync up perfectly to The Wizard of Oz, once again sent chills, while Breathe eased things with its mellow vocals, soft beat, subtle percussion work.
With more popular mainstream music, like Ed Sheeran’s Perfect and Imagine Dragons’ Believer, the Sound BlasterX AE-5 continued to impress with clear vocals and warm bass notes. Music playback is where the Sound BlasterX AE-5 is shines and shows deserves its $150 asking price, heck it even makes the Justin Beiber vocals on the Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee remix of Despacito tolerable. The only annoyance I had with this sound card was that it made my Sennheiser HD 570’s headphones sound extremely good, but revealed their shortcomings, so I have to resist the urge of upgrading to a set of HD 650s.
However, the Sound BlasterX AE-5 makes a good case for avoiding gaming-specific headsets as you can get these surround sound effects without having to compromise music playback quality.