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Lifewire / Emily Ramirez
Comes with a beamforming microphone
Great EQ software
Sound could be better
No 7.1 surround support
The Sound Blaster Z is a decent audio card with a solid microphone and a comprehensive EQ software package. While its sound is a step up from most motherboards’ audio, there are better options at this price for those who prioritize sound quality.
The Sound Blaster Z is the entry card in the Z-Series sound card line-up. For about a hundred dollars, Creative Labs delivers good if unexceptional audio, 5.1 surround sound support, a great microphone, and a comprehensive EQ solution that suits gamers, film watchers, and tinkerers alike. There are better sound solutions for the price, but they don’t come equipped with as many features as the Sound Blaster Z.
The Sound Blaster Z is sleek and svelte. On the exterior, the Z card has a heavy, red metal casing that guards the PCB from electrical interference. On the inside, the Sound Blaster Z relies on a Sound Core 3D chipset, a MAX97220A 125 milliwatt headphone amp IC, and high-quality Nichicon capacitors. It delivers a 116 dB SNR, which is a lower noise interference rating than most budget motherboards. The card offers ASIO support, 24-bit 192 kHz stereo direct audio, and 5.1 surround support.
Unfortunately, Sound Blaster does not provide a frequency response for the card (humans usually hear sounds between 20 and 20,000 Hz). Its main channels include a mic input, a headphone output, 3 line-level speaker outputs, and an optical SPDIF input and output. All auxiliary jacks are 3.5mm. The card connects to the motherboard via a vacant PCIe slot of any size. The included beamforming microphone is small and has a clip so it can be attached to the top of monitors. It’s a nice addition from Creative Labs, and it’s plug and play. There’s nothing spectacular about the card, but it looks and feels nice, and it provides the necessities.
Setting up the Sound Blaster Z is not difficult, but there are a few things to keep in mind if you want neutral sound. To install the hardware, we plugged the card into an empty PCIe slot, and we installed the drivers from Creative Labs’ website. When we first listened to music with the Sennheiser HD800, it sounded awful; five minutes into the experience, we realized that a bunch of EQ settings are on by default. We turned off all sound modifications in the Z Series software suite and noticed a significant improvement in the quality of the audio. None of this was difficult to do, but it is aggravating that Creative Labs enabled EQ by default. As for the microphone, we just had to plug it into the mic input and then open our recording software.
The 125-milliwatt headphone amp was enough to drive the HD800, which is great news for those with high impedance cans. The sound was good, but not great. Mids and bass are recessed, meaning the sound lacked richness. The card was also not fast enough to keep up with technically demanding audio, such as blast beats in metal or trilling and 64th notes on classical instruments. These details are relatively minor, however, and less discerning ears may never notice. None of these are details that will stand out unless you own $300+ headphones.
On the pro side, the sound is clear and crisp, the treble and upper mids are excellent, and the lows are reasonable. The microphone also sounds crisp, and it does a great job at reducing the ambient noise. When gaming, the sound stage was good, and the “Crystallization” EQ preset was great for communicating with teammates and boosting treble (footsteps, explosions, etc.). Movie watchers should be similarly pleased by the Dolby encoding support, designed to boost immersion and engagement via a film’s audio.
The sound is clear and crisp. The treble and upper mids are excellent, and the lows are reasonable.
The Sound Blaster Z uses the Z Series software. We’ve previously reviewed the software in our Sound Blaster ZxR review, but we’ll include a summary here. The software has the standard EQ settings, like bass boost and virtual surround, which perform as promised. However, we struggled to find utility in more niche EQ settings, such as Scout Mode, and we would have been satisfied with a more basic EQ menu.
The Sound Blaster Z sounds good for the money. It is better than a cheap onboard motherboard sound chip, but a price tag of about $100 is a bit steep given the lackluster audio quality. For the same price, there are higher-quality external amp-DAC solutions, and the $100 may be better invested into acquiring higher-quality headphones or speakers. The Z Series software, while convenient, isn’t a card-selling feature, and the Sound Blaster Z sounds worse than modern high-end motherboard audio, such as the MSI Carbon Z370’s onboard sound. The card may be a worthwhile buy if your audio system is being held back by, say, integrated Intel audio or Realtek audio, which are some of the cheapest and most basic audio configurations in modern motherboards.
The Sound Blaster Z is a middling card at a middling price, and while it outclasses budget cards for both performance and value, its $100 MSRP looks steep when compared to alternatives at the same price point, particularly if your primary criterion is sound quality.
It does shine against some of the cheaper Creative Labs offerings, however, like the Audigy RX (MSRP $55). In testing, we found the Audigy RX did not improve our audio experience and underperformed compared to our MSI Carbon Z370 onboard audio and our MSI GS70 6QE onboard audio. Read our review of the Audigy RX here.
The Sound Blaster Z is a middling card at a middling price.
On the opposite end of the price spectrum, the EVGA Nu (MSRP $249) is a phenomenal card released in 2019. It is built with expert craftsmanship in tandem with Audio Note, a high-end audio company. The card was audiophile-worthy, with sound that held its own against $1,000+ dedicated audio setups, and while it’s significantly more expensive than the Z, every penny is justified. Read our review here.
For about the same price as the Sound Blaster Z, you could buy the Schiit Fulla (MSRP $99), an external Amp/DAC machine. It’s extremely well built, and its dual high quality LMH6643 output amplifiers can deliver up to 550 milliwatts, over four times the Sound Blaster Z. That’s plenty of wattage for most headphones under $250, and the Schiit Fulla delivers a high quality audio experience.
A solid choice for gamers, but underwhelming for audiophiles.
The Sound Blaster Z delivers good sound and a robust software suite in a $100 package. There are better sounding options for the price, but the Z does add value by way of a solid microphone and a comprehensive EQ package. We recommend this product to gamers looking to make the most of a treble-focused sound.
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