The Sound Blaster Zx: A Gamer's Review
Here on GameCrate we've previously covered sound cards and DACs, detailing exactly what they are and what kind of value they hold for someone who is primarily a gamer rather than a die-hard audiophile. After doing my research for that article I felt that sound cards were a nice piece of extra hardware, and that they could improve your audio experience, but I wasn't convinced that gamers really needed one in their rig.
I felt that most people would be better off investing in some kind of external DAC rather than trying to deal with the hassle of an internal card, both for concerns about electromagnetic interference and because in my experience some sound cards come coupled with preset sound configurations that can upset the delicate audio environment of a game as the developers imagined it.
The Sound Blaster Zx blows those notions out of the water.
For the last two weeks I've had a chance to get some serious hands-on experience with a Creative Sound Blaster Zx, undoubtedly one of the best options on the market for sound cards these days. I put it through its paces, and I'll take you through the whole process from start to finish -- including blind test with avid gamers as judges.
Ease of installation is a big concern for sound cards, as with many rigs utilizing dual GPUs the space around a PCI slot can be a precious commodity. In the case of the Sound Blaster Zx, installation was a simple process, and overall the sound card doesn't take up a massive amount of space (though because I don't run multiple GPUs I had plenty of room to place the card). Fair warning though, if you're already tight for room in your case, the Sound Blaster Zx won't help the situation, and could either necessitate a new motherboard or doing some graphics-card-Tetris-wizardry to make it fit in a PCI slot.
A lot of PCI expansion cards suffer from a seemingly fragile nature, making it difficult to ensure an optimal connection to your PCI port while simultaneously reaching the back of your case to screw in securely. Fortunately the Sound Blaster Zx feels extremely well crafted right out of the box, and even when I had to use a bit of tough love to make sure it was securely in the slot as well as secured by its back screw I never felt any give in the silicon or the EMI shielding that gives the Sound Blaster Zx its distinctive style.
Best of all, the device worked immediately. The red LEDs lit up and after a few minutes of installing and updating drivers I was set to go.
The Blind Test
Our testing focused on the difference between the audio of the Sound Blaster Zx and the onboard audio of my motherboard, an ASUS Maximus VI Formula which has full surround sound support and comes coupled with the ROG Supreme FX Formula audio chipset. The intention of our testing was to focus on whether there's a significant difference between the average PC gamer's current audio experience and that of a high quality sound card. To keep things simple the only settings I changed between my Realtek audio drivers and the Sound Blaster control panel defaults involved switching over to 5.1 surround sound to take full advantage of our Roccat Kave XTD analog headset.
During the testing process I played several clips for a solid minute, giving our subjects plenty of time to analyze the sound. At the end of the clips, after having our judges turn around, I would switch the plugins from our headset from one audio system to the other and do a quick check to make sure the audio was outputting correctly. I would then repeat the same audio clips so they could compare their experience. At the end of the testing I asked them to identify which set of samples were outputted from the sound card, which were outputted from the motherboard, and what primary differences they could identify.
The Judges and Results
A PC Gamer for just shy of a decade, Mick prefers multiplayer or cooperative shooters that allow for construction or building of any kind.
Mick felt like there was a lot of sound coming at him, more than what he was used to hearing from his PC at home, and after fine tuning some of the settings for bass on the headset he began to smile in enjoyment as he got it, in his own words, “Just right.”
The audio in general seemed shallower. “It felt like when the second sample played the sub/bass was just gone.”
Dedicated console gamer who, despite being terrified of horror games of any kind, plays them religiously.
Emily found that she liked the deep clear tone of the audio, and thought that the vocals and guitar came through nicely.
When we switched over to the motherboard audio she said, “Sounded quieter and I couldn't hear as much tone difference when the song first started. The guitar especially sounded really shallow and soft in comparison.”
Our results were overwhelmingly positive in favor of the Sound Blaster Zx. Both of our judges where able to immediately tell the difference between the Sound Card and the onboard audio, and each stated that they preferred the audio of the Sound Blaster far beyond the audio of the default motherboard. The general consensus was that it seemed you could pick up more of the audio using the sound card, and that the bass was much more pronounced, but as far as the actual quality of the sound we couldn't tell if it was better or just slightly louder and clearer.
Personal Testing and Performance
I ran the Sound Blaster Zx through a large range of gameplay testing in order to verify my theories about where the card would excel and to see if I could notice any actual improvement in my competitive play.
I focused on two games in particular: Outlast and Metro: Last Light. The former is an intense horror game wherein your only defense lies in your ability to hide and accurately predict the AI of the numerous patients in Mount Massive Asylum, while the latter is a post-apocalyptic jaunt through the dejected ruins of Moscow's metro line trying to save humanity from the monsters both human and nonhuman that threaten the last tender thread of life in the metro. The commonality between the two? Both games are focused on immersion, making you forget the real world and fall totally into theirs -- a trait that a sound card like the Sound Blaster Zx should be uniquely catered towards. As a final test I also ran through several matches in Battlefield 4 and Planetside 2 just to see how it performed on a competitive level.
I've played Outlast before and consider it one of my favorite horror games; something about the minimal hud, the atmosphere, and the flat out insanity of the entire environment always makes my breath short, my heart pound, and my pants have this habit of trying to crawl off my legs and hide in the fridge. Good times. Loading it up with the Sound Blaster Zx felt like another matter entirely, and honestly, I wish I had someone with me when I played it.
Something about the ambient noise immediately changed when I finished loading Outlast. I could hear more subtle details that I hadn't noticed in the past, faint screams that were too muted for me to fully catch. Maybe I was just paying more attention, but right off the bat it set my teeth on edge, and it felt like as I was already going into every encounter just a little bit more keyed up than I normally would be.
Anyone that plays horror games knows that the key to survival is keeping that tiny little box of instincts screaming for you to run at every sound perfectly under control. You have to keep your cool, you have to think through your fear. Panic is always your first enemy. Using a sound card takes that already difficult task and raises it up a notch. I found I was already breathing heavily before I ever even saw one of the patients of Mount Massive Asylum, because I could hear so much more of the environment, and because all the things I used to be able to hear popped so much more vividly in my headset. I only played for about an hour, and honestly I quit because I needed a long break from that world more than because I actually accomplished much in game.
Metro: Last Light is another favorite game of mine, and although it's a horror game in its own right I've always been much more fascinated by the world itself, and the skill level it takes to survive in Ranger mode where HUD elements are limited and death is a single mistake away at any given moment.
I found that I had similar results when it came to overall immersion, but I enjoyed added bonus in a slightly better ability to sense depth of sound. I could hear the exact location where the mutant hunting my tender bumflesh was in exquisite detail -- theoretically an advantage that should make the game easier on some level. Unfortunately, hearing the exact location where the mutant hunting my tender bumflesh was in detail is a singularly terrifying experience.
I've always felt like a hunter when I played Metro: Last Light in the past. I've played it enough that I know the rules that govern the world by heart. The Sound Blaster Zx did a lot to change that, making me feel less like a predator and much more like prey. It now took a conscious effort at times to make myself move forward. I felt for the first time the same sense of horror that I usually catch when I play a horror game, the sense that maybe I didn't have the courage to take another step down the next tunnel. That maybe I should just go curl up in a ball and take a nap, safe and warm in my bed. Something about the Sound Blaster Zx gave new life to a game that I already cherished deeply.
My next stop was the battlefield, both past and present, with Battlefield 4, and Planetside 2, two fast-paced competitive shooters that are my general go-to if I want some casual competitive fun. As I played I did my best to compare the sound of footsteps and call outs that are known to give enemy players away before their guns ever fire. Unfortunately I felt that this was one of the areas that the Sound Blaster came up a little short, maybe I wasn't listening closely enough, but I couldn't tell a noticeable improvement in my ability to actually hear enemies as they moved above what I get out of my headset running off my mobo. Don't get me wrong, with the Sound Blaster Zx I could noticeably hear a difference in sound, explosions felt whumphier, vehicles and tanks seemed like they creaked, rumbled, and teetered a little more realistically as they zoomed past, but although when I did catch the sound of enemy troops nearby they sounded a little more clear, they were still often lost in the clash and grind of the battlefield.
The Sound Blaster Zx is a fantastic piece of hardware, and lends itself extremely well to any application that you throw at it. Across the board it makes audio exponentially more satisfying, but it really shines for games that are focused on high immersion gameplay. Games that are already easy to get lost in are suddenly almost impossible to pull yourself away from, games that you thought you had already fully experienced are subtly enhanced in a way that draws you back in with a weight even heavier than nostalgia.
As far as competitive play the Sound Blaster isn't likely to make you a better player, but hardware tricks rarely do more than help with consistency and make it easier to improve. What the Sound Blaster does do is make the worlds we run to just that much more real, just that much more satisfying, and just that much more fun.
In a world where sound cards are no longer glorified, and are often left in the development dust, the Sound Blaster Zx's manufacturer Creative has continued to improve and enhance an aspect of gaming that many of us are missing out on. For a society that loves music as much as ours it seems like it should be a natural transition to carry over that passion for audio into the gaming worlds we love, and the Sound Blaster Zx is the bridge to do just that.