Creative Sound Blaster AE-9: Subjective Audio Performance in Games and Movies
Now is a good time to talk about all of the gaming and video-focused enhancements Creative baked into the Sound Blaster AE-9's BlasterX Acoustic Engine. The on-board BlasterX Acoustic Engine DSP can add several different effects to the audio output. While we'd never use these on music, they do have interesting applications for games and videos.
Virtual 7.1 surround, which attempts to mimic a full home theater setup using just a pair of headphones is the most useful of the various effects. It was much more convincing to our ears when listening with the Sennheiser HD 280 and HD 600 headphones than with the Shure in-ear monitors. Scout Mode attempts to make quiet sounds like in-game footsteps louder so that you can hear them more clearly, which in theory gives you a competitive advantage.
Crystalizer adds quite a bit of high-frequency information to the signal. With the slider set around 1/4 of the way up, we found the effect could add a bit of sibilance to voices in YouTube videos that otherwise sounded a little muddy. Bass boost is a very self-explanatory effect that tries to add some punch to the low end. Smart Volume applies dynamic range compression to the audio so abrupt changes in loudness aren't a shock to your ears. The slider in this case controls the overall volume, rather than how much compression the DSP applies. Dialog+ seems to be a pretty straightforward equalizer trick that bumps up frequencies where human voices often reside to make dialog stand out.
The AE-9 comes with pre-baked profiles for several high-profile esports titles, like CS:GO, PUBG, and Dota 2. Each game's profile dials in what Creative thinks are the perfect effects chain for the selected title. Most game profiles that come bundled from Creative use more than one or two of the effects, and more often than not they're subtle additions, not wild manipulation of the unadulterated audio stream. One missing feature that might have been nice is to detect when a supported game is running and switch to its profile automatically. Instead, we had to open Sound Blaster Command and flip through the list to find a game to apply its profile. Since we wanted to spend the majority of time with pure audio, this was kind of annoying to do constantly. When the Sound Blaster AE-9 is in Direct Mode, SBX profiles don't affect the audio, since the DSP is bypassed.
In Fortnite, we decided to have a go at Scout Mode, which introduced an odd limitation: SBX profiles can't be enabled while Scout Mode is active. Creative made it work this way to prevent an overly-compressed mess. Fortunately, toggling Scout Mode off will re-enable any other previously-active profiles, and it can be hotkeyed. The effect seems to just be a compressor—everything was louder when it was on, not just quiet sounds. Footsteps were louder, sure, but everything was equally loud. Up-close gunshots were no quieter than distant ones, and we found the effect to be more confusing than helpful. On the other hand, Fortnite's SBX profile turned in some very convincing Virtual Surround effects. As we ran past noisy objects, we could easily track from which way the sound originated.
To test out what the AE-9 could do with surround soundtracks in movies, we fired up Avengers: Infinity War and jumped straight to the final battle in Wakanda. The Cinema SBX profile was very heavy-handed with just about every effect turned up more than half way, but Virtual Surround was flat-out impressive. We turned everything else off and just enjoyed watching the Hulkbuster-equipped Bruce Banner get his but kicked and Thanos get his birthday wish. Just like a true surround setup, the sounds came from everywhere, and projectiles whizzed by realistically. Headphones with Virtual Surround enabled won't replace a receiver any time soon, but it'll work great for late-night movie binges while others sleep.
Speaking of home theater setups, the AE-9 integrated perfectly into our setup. Better yet, we didn't lose one of our S/PDIF ports just to plug in the PC; the audio card can automatically pass whatever's coming in the optical input right back out of the system including DTS and Dolby Digital. Sound Blaster Command also includes Dolby Digital Live and DTS Digital Surround encoding, so any stereo or multi-channel audio source can be played back with your favorite surround codec.