Ministry Of Sound - The Under-Appreciated World Of PC Gaming Audio (Part 2) : Sound Blaster ZXR

8/13/2013 11:52:50 AM

Sound Blaster ZXR

Oh so good, yet oh so bad

Price: $270

Aimed at enthusiast PC gamers like us, the ZXR is Creative’ s cream of the crop sound card. We whacked it into a high end gaming rig to see how it would go, pumping audio through a $4,000 set of 5.2 Cinema Paradigm Monitor speakers and subs, as well as a set of Audio Technical ATH-A500X headphones. Let’s hear the outcome.

Sound Blaster ZXR

Sound Blaster ZXR

The main card hides its silicon goodies behind and attractive red shield, keeping nasty EMF emissions at bay. It’s powered by the Creative Sound Core 3D chip, which was also found in Creative’s last round of cards, the Recon3D series. This time around it’s surrounded by top-shelf components, unlike the Recon3D’s questionable choice of parts. Expensive Burr-Brown Digital Audio Convertors are the centerpiece, as well as the high quality TPA610A2 co-amp which is used to drive headphones up to 600 ohms. If you don’t like the sound of this co-amp, you can swap it out for one of your choosing, a great feature for headphone aficionados. Premium Nichicon capacitors are the final jewel in the audio crown.

In addition to the main sound, card is a small daughter board, the DBPro, which connects via ribbon cable. This includes another Recon3D chip onboard, and houses the SPDIF I/O ports, which we used to connect the card to our Pioneer amplifier. Both Dolby Digital Live and DTS Connect are supported, and we tested both modes.

Creative claims that these components deliver a sound card with a Signal to Nose Ratio of 124dB, which should make it the clearest gaming card on the market. Replacing our usual sound card, the ASUS Xonar D2X, the ZXR initially revealed slightly more detail than the ASUS predecessor. It wasn’t a huge leap, but then we played Battlefield 3 and noticed how much better the positional audio of the ZXR was. The D2X gave good 3D audio, but the ZXR absolutely smashed it, making it much easier to place incoming enemies. Turning on the Sound Blaster’s Surround feature, the soundscape became even more believable; while a dash of the Crystallizer setting gave our sound effects a little more crunch. We were in sound card heaven, and spent the night testing a range of games, blown away by the impressive detail and positional audio coming through our home theatre speakers.

And then, the next day the software’s auto updater loaded new drivers. Oh dear.

Suddenly the positional audio went crazy, swapping the front with the back, and the sub with the rears. It was truly bizarre, and even carried over to the headphone tests, were right became left, front became back. So followed three days of deleting drivers, PCI slot shuffling, and reinstalling drivers, but we couldn’t get the card to perform correctly again.

Sound Blaster ZXR

We thought that the days of sound card problems like this were well and truly behind us, but apparently not. It’s such a shame – when this card works well, there’s nothing like it, especially if you’re using high-end speakers. And we haven’t even touched on the Audio Control Module or advanced voice capture features, not to mention the myriad of other cool touches. This could be a truly great product that enthusiast gamers must have… it’ll just take some solid driver development to deliver on the potential.

·         The best positional audio and clarity

·         So many features

·         ACM module

·         It stopped working properly

Houston, We Have A Problem

We spent three days working with Creative’s team to figure out why we had such weird channel swapping issues. The excellent news is that they were able to reproduce the issue when using the same Gigabyte Sniper G1 motherboard as us, which is the first step in solving the problem. Creative stated to us that compatibility issues will be solved in future driver updates, and we’d be very surprised if they don’t resolve it in the very near future. As soon as they do we’ll post and update in the magazine, but until then it’s wise to avoid these products if you’re running a PC with a heavily loaded PCIe, bus, such as SLI setups or with multiple PCle devices. Those of you with a single GPU or few PCIe devices should be fine.

Verdict: 7/10

PCPP hopes to use the ZXR as our benchmark sound card for all future audio tests…once Creative delivers working drivers.

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