Sound Blaster AE-9 Review: Pristine High Def PC Gaming Audio

Creative Sound Blaster AE-9: Subjective Audio Performance in Music

Since the bi-amped headphone output is one of the Sound Blaster AE-9's biggest differentiators, we went straight to three sets of headphones for out listening tests: Shure's SE 425 in-ear monitors, Sennheiser's HD 280 Pro headphones with 64 ohms of impedance, and Sennheiser's HD 600 open-back cans with a nominal 300-ohm impedance rating. Each of these have a distinct place in any music lover's life, and as luck would have it, each of them requires a different setting on the AE-9's impedance switch. And then finally, for laughs, we threw in the AKG-tuned Samsung headphones that come with the Galaxy S10+. When connected to a phone, these in-ear monitors have have some seriously uneven audio, and we think they'd benefit from foam tips instead of the rubberized membranes that come with them. 

Before we got too wrapped up in listening to our favorite music, we looked for a sound floor. To test, we loaded one of Presonus Studio One's demo projects, Da Guv'nah by Phat Hat, and adjusted the main output so the song would peak at around -48 dB. Then we exported a 16-bit, 44.1-kHz WAV file, which is the resolution supported by the project, ensuring the beginning and end of the song have a few seconds of silence. Then we could safely crank the headphones all the way to listen for background noise. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the headphone amp's rated 123 dB SNR, we could find none with the headphone amp. That stands in contrast to the Realtek ALC 892 on our testbed's MSI MPG Z390 Gaming Plus motherboard connected using the front-panel header, where the noise floor was faint but audible at maximum volume. The ALC 892 might be acceptable to most users, but the Sound Blaster stood tall above it in this test.

studio one spectrum

Music testing was performed using Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) rips of some of our favorite songs from a few CDs: Queen's A Day at the Races 2011 re-master, Stone Temple Pilots' Purple, Carly Rae Jepsen's Dedicated and Gerald Finzi's Five Bagatelles performed by Robert Plane. Most crucially, we disabled all BlasterX Acoustic Engine tweaks for this test. We primarily listened to music with the HD 600 cans, and the commentary below comes from notes we took while listening. Occasionally, we would take a break to swap them out for something else or just take them off to give our ears a rest. 

A couple of songs from A Day at the Races were up first. Bohemian Rhapsody has a huge dynamic range, which was perfectly preserved while listening to it on the Sound Blaster AE-9. We didn't hear any compression when listening to the PC's built-in audio, either, but the faint background hiss was still there. The ALC 892's audio also had a lot more high-frequency sound in the signal, which tired out our ears after a while. We didn't have that fatigue after listening to the Sound Blaster AE-9, even though the volume levels were similar. Tie Your Mother Down has a solid 70s rock beat that also sounded excellent on the AE-9.

From Purple, we listened to Big Empty and Interstate Love Song, which are two of STP's best-known tunes. What stuck out to us was how clearly Dean De Leo's guitar work shone through. Interstate Love Song has some really complex chords throughout the verses (which his brother Robert De Leo demonstrates on-stage in this YouTube video), and we felt like we could pick out each note. Big Empty has an amazing bass line, and it was well-defined, too. The CD release of this song from 1994 has some distortion in the louder sections, which is unfortunate, but that's hardly the Sound Blaster's fault.

sb command eq off
The correct EQ settings for music

To get a feel for how modern recordings sound on the AE-9 (and because my daughter requested it), we subjected ourselves to the synth-heavy pop sounds of Carly Rae Jepsen's Dedicated. First of all, we were surprised to find that we liked the music. Second, it sounded great. There's an intentionally-pumping compressor keyed on (we think) the kick drum that drives Now That I Found You, which is a lot of fun, and the track dutifully pumped and breathed through the headphones. Party For One also sounded great...y'know, from a critical-listening perspective. 

Finzi's Five Bagatelles is a nice, relatively modern clarinet suite with string accompaniment. Heavily-produced music like the earlier selections can hide flaws in audio hardware by just overwhelming listeners with a wall of sound. This classical (well, post-modern) piece could expose a weakness, but we found none. Every instrument is both well-defined and warm-sounding without being muddy or harsh. We don't know how to describe it any other way: it was just pleasant to listen to the recording on the Sound Blaster AE-9.

After we had our fun, we performed a couple of blind listening tests using the other people in our household. We swapped between the PC's built-in audio and the AE-9 while the test subjects sat with their backs to the PC, so they couldn't see what we were doing. We would sometimes begin with the PC, and other times begin with the AE-9, and swap between the two while playing songs of their own choosing. Around 80% of the time, the test subject chose the AE-9 as the audio source that sounded better. Both subjects remarked how difficult it was to pick a winner, though. They're not trained musicians or audiophiles, and these results may indicate nothing other than both sources sounded good to them. Still, even to the untrained ear, the Sound Blaster AE-9 was preferred the vast majority of the time.

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