I am no stranger to Creative Labs and their Sound Blaster series of sound cards. Back in the day I used them in my own computer builds because of their sound quality. Since then the majority of my music listening happens while I’m on the go, so I just haven’t had the need for that type of peripheral in a long time. Although, I’ve fallen a bit out of touch with the sound card market that doesn’t mean I stopped having an appreciation for good sound from a computer either. I’ve been on a slow grind at getting back good audio quality in all my devices. My latest upgrade was a portable DAC for on the go listening. So I found it rather fortuitous that someone from Creative Labs reached out to me via Twitter asking if I wanted to try out their new Sound Blaster X3 USB DAC with Super X-Fi technology. How could I say no to an opportunity to like that. I was already contemplating a DAC for my laptop. This would just give me a chance to test one out a lot sooner than I expected. So, of course I jumped on it.
Once it arrived I was surprised to see that the Sound Blaster X3 was not the only thing shipped in the box. Next to it was Creative’s own Aurvana Special Edition with Super X-Fi headphones. A nice added touch as it’s designed to compliment the X3 since it also has the same SXFI technology built in to it. I’ll share a bit of my thoughts on the headphones later. Right now it’s the DAC that’s of more interest to me, so let’s get on to the juicy stuff…
Looking at the X3 you can’t deny it’s sleek yet simple looking design that will fit into any desktop setup. It’s form factor and size along with its’ smartly placed controls and ports makes it very user friendly which is a must since its’ targeted audience are desktop computer users. On the front you’ll find your standard 3.5mm microphone and headphone jacks. While the back houses multiple connection points; four 3.5mm ports that are dedicated outputs for front (L/R), side (L/R), rear (L/R) and center / subwoofer) speaker connections, a 3.5mm line-in port, an optical-out (TOSLINK) port and a USB-C port. These connections allows it to be used with most speaker configurations up to a 7.1 surround sound system, the X-Box or PlayStation gaming systems, any Windows or Mac computer and even the Nintendo Switch. So all of your music, movie and gaming connection needs are covered. On the top there are three buttons (four if you count the big volume dial in the center which will mute sound or initiate Bluetooth pairing at a push), one to control the microphone’s audio balance, one to switch modes, and one to toggle Super X-Fi on and off.
As you can see the X3 is a well thought out piece of hardware. Ultimately, though, what really counts are how the internal components work together and do they bring good audio to your ears. Inside is a 600Ω headphone amplifier along with a 32-bit / 192kHz AKM AK4458 DAC chip. This should allow you to use high-end headphones and play high-resolution audio files. In addition is their custom in-house designed Super X-Fi Ultra DSP chip giving the X3 it’s own unique sound signature and the ability to simulate a multi-speaker system through your headphones on top of the standard sound modes.
To access many of the features and properly setup the X3 you have to download the SXFI and SB Command software applications to your mobile device and create an account. These two apps enable many of the wireless features including updating the X3 firmware, picking the corresponding profile to match your headphones, adjust the equalizer, and more to get the most out of your listening experience.
So to get started I treated the X3 no different than anything else I’ve bought and shared my thoughts on in the past. That means I spent a lot of time with it, simply “playing around” with the features before conducting any actual testing. Surprisingly, it didn’t take much time to feel comfortable toggling through the modes without double checking and tailoring the equalizer so focusing on just the sound experience came pretty quickly. Having the apps installed on my smartphone setup was pretty easy as I did the two most important things first. Performed the head mapping setup which does require some assistance from another person and then picked the matching headphone profile (there are many) for the headphones I was going to use. Deciding to use several headphones including the Shure SE846 IEMs, Beyerdynamic DT 240 PRO, and Creative’s own Aurvana Special Edition with Super X-Fi as I was curious to see how the X3 would handle each one and would there be any major sound differences. After doing so I was glad to see or hear in this case that they all produced much cleaner and clearer sound and were also audibly louder without degrading the sound when compared to being plugged straight into my laptop. Knowing the X3 performed well as a simple DAC it was time to test out the different modes and Super X-Fi technology.
But before we get into that let’s take a quick look at what Super X-Fi (SXFI) is exactly. Basically, Super X-Fi takes a high-end setup like your 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system for example and reproduces that experience through your headphones. While this is not an impossible task, it isn’t an easy one either. Anyone who understands how sound moves through spaces and has listened to sound bars can tell you. Some get it right and others are just varying levels of failure. So to test this out I watched various parts of movies with good moving sound effects not just explosions or flyovers. The result was very impressive. From what I could hear SXFI got everything I played right. It’s more than just accurately passing objects from left to right it’s also very accurate with overhead sounds and subtle transitional sounds around you like echos for example. There’s an immersive depth to it that can’t truly be explained with just words. So, yes SXFI does exactly what it says it does when watching movies.
Applying the same type of test to music is a bit different. I found using SXFI in this instance more like being at a live recording session or at a live concert depending on how the music was originally recorded. Like with movies you still get that immersive feeling but with music that was already recorded live it extends that effect that may be a bit too when listening to some types of recordings. Since all recordings aren’t mastered and produced the same way it all boils down to what you are listening to. Some songs sounded better with SXFI on and others with it off.
For gaming I enlisted the help of my son Cameron, since he’s an avid PC gamer with a decent setup. After setting up the X3 for him, I turned on the Footsteps mode while he was playing Destiny. Although, he had to get use to it, he did hear more background sounds than before and everything seemed enhanced. He heard things he’d otherwise ignore or miss entirely. When I asked him if he liked it and would you use it on a regular to play games like Destiny? And do you think it would up your game? He said “Yeah, actually I did and I probably would use it for games like Destiny. A lot of even hardcore gamers (excluding pros) really underestimate the value of sound in a game. Even very small details of sound can give away a fair amount of info and the X3 helps with that quite a lot.” So I think it’s safe to say that this mode would be a boost for gamers especially when playing FPS games like Destiny or Overwatch where surrounding noises are important to the game play itself.
My thoughts would not be complete if I didn’t include a few words about the Aurvana SE headphones like I said I would. Although, it’s designed to compliment other SXFI products like the X3, I did use it with my on the go setup to get a feel for them and “loosen them up a bit” first. The Aurvana SE has a nice wide sound stage which which I believe is due to the built in SXFI. The result is that it worked very well paired with my smartphone and DAC setup. In terms of sound quality they are bright and although they can handle a fair amount of bass they lack some punch I’m accustomed to, yet still provided nice depth and sound clarity. I personally prefer my Shures for commutes and travel because of their portability but the Aurvana SE provides a more relaxed listening style and fit which is easier on the ears and better suited to my at home usage. This is because they are light weight and have a fairly light touch when wearing them. You don’t feel heavy pressure on the sides of your head so extended use isn’t an issue. Even with the light touch of the headphones sound isolation was still very good. Other than the fact that the cord is on the short side and the low end could be better I found them to be a very good for when I just want to kickback and relax while listening to or watching something.
Creative did a good job of combining their Sound Blaster sound card with a good DAC, high ohm amplifier and their SXFI technology with enough sound modes into a sleek and well thought out design that will not only up you listening experience but your gaming experience as well. It’s a more natural and immersive surround sound experience that can make you think you’re listening to more than just headphones. The X3 is a well executed product that shows that a great sound experience doesn’t only have to come from home theater systems; they can also come from our computers with just a set of headphones.
Personally, I like the X3 a lot and in my opinion Creative Labs put together an excellent product and implemented it with precision. I say this because there were moments were I listened to specific sections of a movie long after what I needed to hear had past. The sound experience kept me engaged even when I was suppose to move on to something else. This is what good audio is about. Capturing and captivating you and not letting you go which is something you can not physically measure. And unlike internal sound cards this one can be used on whatever computer you’re using without having to remove anything more than a cable should you change your entire computer or switch game systems. This is a define plus for laptop users who obviously can’t swap out these types of internal parts. In the end I think the Sound Blaster X3 is a fantastic addition for anyone looking to easily upgrade the audio quality of their computer or gaming system. So, if you are looking to do just that, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t at least try out the Sound Blaster X3 USB DAC.