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

Creative Sound Blaster AE-9: Audio Production Capabilities

The Sound Blaster AE-9's breakout box includes a single balanced XLR / Tip-Ring-Sleeve (TRS) combo jack and +48 volt phantom power. We don't know about you, but to us this thing just screams to be tested in an audio production environment. Many features need to fall into place for this to happen. The pre-amp in the breakout box needs to sound excellent and have a low sound floor. Most production software, like Reaper, Pro Tools, or Presonus Studio One, need ASIO drivers that can deliver low-latency audio capture and playback. Fortunately, the AE-9 has ASIO drivers, and much to our delight, we could play back some fairly complex projects with the driver set to two milliseconds of latency. 

asio playback performance
Studio One's CPU utilization while playing back The Guv'nah by Phat Hat

Bear in mind that reported latency is in only one direction, and the full round-trip latency includes another two milliseconds coming back along with whatever latency is caused by plug-ins. That adds up, and if a project has too many intensive plug-ins, even a powerful PC will start to fall behind. To combat this, many dedicated audio interfaces can let you monitor inputs directly on the box, rather than make that round trip. Sound Blaster Command has a Listen to This Input checkbox on the microphone setup screen that does something similar, but it adds quite a bit of latency, which tells us that the audio is still going to the PC and coming back, rather than being monitored directly. Still, this doesn't preclude the AE-9 from being a capable streaming or podcasting audio solution if it captures high-quality audio, so we should check out the microphone input anyway.

Creative in no way aimed the Sound Blaster AE-9 at the audio production market, but it has ASIO drivers so why not put it to the test? We compared it against an oldie-but-goodie, Avid's Mbox 3 Mini. While the Mbox has been discontinued for a couple of years, the preamp sounds great and the requisite driver and monitoring support is there even for Windows 10 version 1903. We started to wonder, "could we  really retire our aging USB interface?" A sound card like the AE-9 that can not only play back every audio encoding stream known to man, calculate positional audio on the fly, and handle audio production is the dream. Let's see if the dreams can come true or if we're in for a rude awakening. 

mic test
Mic Test Using Studio One

The samples below were all captured in Studio One Artist, Presonus' entry-level digital audio workstation (DAW). We captured four samples in total using the Mbox and the AE-9 with an Audix i5 dynamic microphone and an AudioTechnica AT2020 large-diaphragm condenser. Condenser mics need +48 volt phantom power to operate and are quite sensitive. By contrast, the dynamic mic needs no additional power but must be much closer to the subject to pick it up well. Both types of microphones are popular for recording since different mics produce different results on the same voice. After capturing those nicer mics, we started scrounging around to record with anything we could get our hands on, which was the mic in the AKG-tuned Samsung headphones and a Rode VideoMicro.

This is the first place where we really see the Sound Blaster AE-9 fall down. Every sample recorded with the AE-9 is noisy. We did as much troubleshooting we could think to do before finally settling on these samples. The ACM breakout box needs the 6-pin PCIe power connector and we needed the ACM to access its mic inputs. At first we just plugged the same power cable that's connected to our graphics card to the sound card to keep the wiring tidy. We added a second PCIe cable to our Corsair RM750X (2018 version) to eliminate any noise potential. We also swapped XLR cables, tried three different PCI Express slots on our motherboard, and enabled noise reduction in the Sound Blaster Command application. None of that helped.

After all of that, these samples represent the very best we could get out of the AE-9's microphone preamp. Since all three microphone inputs (XLR, dedicated 1/8", and combo headset 1/8") are all controlled by the same input, we also made sure that we used an 1/8" to 1/4" adapter with our  HD 280, so that that plug didn't somehow interfere. None of this made any difference. The XLR input is just not suitable for uses where the quality of the audio is critical. The lesson to take away from this, beyond the obvious that the AE-9's mic input isn't made for audio production, is that the preamp you plug the mic into is at least as important to getting it right at the source as the microphone itself. The Mbox 3 Mini has a much better pre-amp and made even the $20 VideoMicro very usable for audio work. 

We've been pretty hard on the Sound Blaster AE-9 here, but there's perspective to be had. The card performed great for playback, and it did so with low latency. That means it would be suitable for use in a performance environment using something like Ableton Live. The card is also quite capable for folks who want to build beats or record virtual instruments, too. Since the ACM breakout box has line-level inputs that have no need for a preamp, folks who want to record stereo pairs could do the job with a separate mixer with its own preamps too. 

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