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Lifewire / Emily Ramirez
Full-featured EQ Software
EQ Presets tailored to Gamers & Film Enthusiasts
Sound could be better
EQ on by default
Requires 2 PCIe slots
No native 7.1 surround support
Audio Control Module may cause distortion
The Sound Blaster ZxR is a decent, versatile sound card, but one that’s been outclassed since its 2013 release—for that $250 MSRP you can get better hardware with a better interface or better sound, but the ZxR still has a place for those that love the completeness of the Z-Series software bundle.
The Sound Blaster ZxR sound card was a great card in 2013. In 2019, however, the ZxR has started to lag behind the competition. It provides pretty clear audio, but it requires two PCIe slots and costs $250 MSRP. Compare this to products from other audio card manufacturers, such as ASUS and EVGA, which been able to provide better audio performance for as little as $160. That said, the Sound Blaster ZxR isn’t without merits: it has a lot of inputs and outputs, extensive EQ software, and still produces quality sound. It also has features gamers need, such as treble boost and voice isolation, and it accommodates 6.3mm auxiliary input and output.
The Sound Blaster ZxR features a black and red chassis on its main and daughter boards, brightly accented in gold around the transistors and back plate. Together, the cards have enough outputs to natively support a 5.1 surround sound speaker system. They have 2 RCA outputs, 2 3.5mm outputs, two RCA inputs, one optical TOSLINK input, one optical TOSLINK output, one 6.3mm microphone input, and one 6.3 headphone output jack. The ZxR also comes with an Audio Control Module (ACM), which is Creative Labs’ take on an amplifier and on extending the 6.3mm connections. It has both 3.5mm and 6.3mm inputs and outputs so you can choose where you’d like to plug in your headphones and microphone. On the ACM’s face lies a big, plastic volume knob that controls the headphones’ loudness.
For users who may own higher impedance headphones, the amplifier can comfortably drive headphones with up to a 600 ohm impedance. Unfortunately, the volume control on the ACM works passively by altering the output impedance, which can distort audio on headphones with high inductance like the Sennheiser HD800 (see “How Low Should Output Impedance Be?”). A better and only slightly more costly solution for Creative Labs would have been to have the knob control the ZxR’s in-built volume control rather than try to do it passively. The HD800 sounded fine when plugged directly into the sound card and using the system volume control.
To install the hardware, we popped open our mid-size PC tower and inserted the sound card and daughter board into two available PCIe slots. Creative Labs had the foresight to build the main card with a PCIe 1x slots, giving the user flexibility in where they connect their cards to the motherboard. Once the cards were secured, we plugged the headphones and microphone into the corresponding jacks.
It’s difficult to recommend the aging ZxR at its inflated $250 MSRP.
Unfortunately, configuring Creative Labs’ drivers and software suite was a much less intuitive process. The ZxR’s outputs are controlled via the Sound Blaster Z-series Software, where users can select whether they’re listening with their headphones or their speakers, apply EQ effects, and more. By default, the software is set to output to speakers with several different EQ effects turned on. We had to manually switch it to headphone output and turn off EQ; the software does not automatically detect which jacks are in use.
Once the EQ effects are turned off, the Sound Blaster ZxR provides beautiful sound. While it wasn’t quite as clean or crisp as an enthusiast audiophile amplifier, such as the OPPO HA-1, it was solid for a system that costs a quarter of the HA-1’s price. On the HD-800s, the bass came across slightly muddy, but the ZxR provides solid quality for consumer-grade headphones like the Sennheiser GSP300 or the Sony MDR-7506. As our our headphone buying guide suggests, most headphones under $250 will not be sensitive enough to meaningfully distinguish between the ZxR and the HA-1.
Should you happen to own dynamic headphones, you should find their impedance curve. Dynamic headphones with a high impedance may be distorted by the ACM, thanks to the ACM’s high resistance. How your headphones will be affected depends on their impedance curve: for the HD800s, for example, there is a peak at 100Hz (this range captures electric bass and the lower octaves of guitars), so the upper bass range is boosted relative to the other frequencies in the audio. Increasing the volume on the ACM reduces its output resistance and in turn reduces the distortion, but it may be easier to plug equipment directly into the sound card and use the system volume instead.
For the tinkerers out there, Sound Blaster provides a myriad of audio adjustments through their Z-Series software package. Here, you can EQ any frequency between 20 and 20,000 Hz or activate “Crystallization,” “Scout Mode,” and “Theater Mode.” Crystallization adds punch to the audio’s treble, making voices stand out against the background. Theater Mode is similar to Crystallization, but it tries to only boost voices instead of the entire treble range. We found it great for watching videos. Meanwhile, Scout Mode is squarely aimed at gamers. It theoretically makes enemy noises like footsteps louder.
For the tinkerers out there, Sound Blaster provides a myriad of audio adjustments through their Z-Series software package.
When testing Scout Mode in Overwatch, we did not find the adjustment helpful; Scout Mode made our enemies’ and our allies’ movements louder, making it harder to tell where the enemy was coming from. Without adjustments, Overwatch’s audio already makes the enemies’ movements louder than your allies’, making Scout Mode not only ineffective but an active detriment to gameplay. Other games that strongly rely on situational awareness have also likely invested the time into making enemies’ movements noticeable. Overall the software modifications Sound Blaster provides are situationally useful but not the comprehensive range of options we’d like to see at this price point.
The Sound Blaster ZxR retails for about $250, on par with other high-end consumer audio cards. Its 6.3mm audio and microphone jacks, coupled with support for headphone impedance of up to 600 ohms, gives the listener flexibility in the rest of their audio setup: no need for 6.3mm to 3.5mm adapters or extension cords. One major hardware disappointment is its lack of 7.1 surround compatibility, which is something many sound card enthusiasts prize in a high-end sound card. There are also a number of other products with better sound quality for less than the ZxR’s $250 MSRP.
As we’ve already emphasized, it’s difficult to recommend the aging ZxR at its inflated $250 MSRP. You can find a number of sound cards for significantly less that provide competitive performance, though they generally don’t offer the same robust software package as the ZxR.
For a fraction of the price ($99 MSRP), you could get your hands on the Schitt Audio Fulla, an external DAC/AMP set that covers 16 to 300 ohm headphones with plenty of power and has a clean, no-nonsense design. While it doesn’t offer the level of software support as the ZxR (those who want to dive deep into live microphone sound manipulation may not find what they need), for the consumer looking to delve into Hi-Fi audio this is an excellent deal.
At the $215 mark, still well below the price of the ZxR, the EVGA Nu audio card performs as well as external DAC/AMPs in the $1,000 range. It also has minimalist software which Sound Blaster devotees may find a little feature-light, but even given the dearth of software options the EVGA Nu is the clear winner.
For about $160, the Asus Strix Raid PRO delivers better audio than the Sound Blaster ZxR and a control module that’s more useful than the ACM. The Strix’s “control box” has a button to turn EQ presets on and off, to change output between headphones and speakers, and all the features of the ACM (save 6.3mm jacks). The EQ button, which Asus calls the Raid button, is especially useful for gamers to switch between modes in-game.
A good card that’s showing its age.
The Sound Blaster ZxR is a quality, expensive sound card, with comprehensive software features and the hardware to power great consumer headsets and microphones. The ZxR sounds good, and gamers will not be disappointed by the ZxR’s power, but audio purists and 7.1 surround fans can find cleaner performance with fewer bells and whistles for the $250 asking price of the ZxR. It’s a card that hasn’t aged well since it’s 2013 release, and one that’s been largely overshadowed by some of its competitors in the interim.