Sound BlasterX AE-5 Pro Gaming Review
Sound BlasterX AE-5 Pro Gaming, Audiophile Gaming At Its Best!
Having been around since before the dinosaurs our very first experience with a sound card came in the form of a “Multimedia Upgrade Kit” from Sound Blaster. Adlib had a similar kit for $30 less but we went with Sound Blaster because the name was cooler.
The kit consisted of an ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) sound card, 1x speed CDROM, and a small set of unpowered speakers. The tag on that was $469.00 and we were the first ones to have a multimedia computer in a University of 6000 students. Fast forward more years than we care to comment on and Creative Labs sends us the Sound BlasterX AE-5 7.1 Channel 32-bit 384KHz sound card to have a shot at.
We can tell you the thrill of laying hands on the BlasterX AE-5 is just as good as the first time we heard a song pop out of that $469 kit decades back. This beauty is aimed at the gamer crowd and has everything and more than you need to game! Inside that slim card is a high-quality DAC, RGB, and dedicated headphone amp. Sound Blaster moves into the RGB arena with grace and style and even includes a LED strip controlled by the card and accompanying Sound Blaster Connect 2 and an elegant software suite that covers from gaming to concert hall quality sound quality.
Now sound cards have taken a back seat to high-end motherboard sound with fine gold Caps and high-end gear they rattle on about endlessly and frankly, we have always preferred a discrete sound card. While the onboard sound is good and getting better you still miss details and nuances of sound that you just can’t get anywhere but from a discrete sound card.
A few newer boards up in the stratospheric price range offer headphone amplifiers and a few other bells and whistles but if you want the full-fledged audiophile quality and Sound Blaster Scout advantage over your virtual enemies there’s just no better card than the Sound BlasterX AE-5 to get it. While it’s geared for gaming we walked it through a massive audio collection as well as a dozen or so games and found it left nothing wanting on the gaming board or audio end of things. Here’s one of the things we like about discrete sound cards, you don’t have to keep paying for high-end built-in sound, you move it from machine to machine and those warm rich tones follow you from rig to rig.
Features & Specifications
Just to tickle your curiosity the Sound BlasterX AE-5 is a Saber32 Ultra Class High-Resolution sound card with DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) with Xamp. Xamp is a new headphone amplifier that drives a dual channel amplifier for headphones that use a 2 channel (Bi-Amplification) amp for both right and left earphone cups.
We ran the Sound BlasterX AE-5 on a high end set of Sennheiser HD 660S, the original HyperX Cloud and a Razer Kraken V2 we had around the lab. Of the 3 the Sound BlasterX AE-5 excelled at the 3.5mm connection headphones and performed well with the USB Kracken but the Kraken being USB was a little muddied by the connection (Not the Sound BlasterX AE-5). We went full out 7.1 channel with Pyle 7.1 Channel Home Theater System we borrowed and the 7.1 (used in 5.1 mode) speakers blew our minds in combination with the Sound BlasterX AE-5. You forget the quality of good 7.1 surround sound with a set of headphones on.
We do have to say the ultra-low 1Ω output impedance drives 16-600Ω headphones perfectly and takes headphone sound to a new level.
Aurora Reactive Lighting System
We were playing with the Aurora RGB system on the Sound BlasterX AE-5 and synching up colors with the system and placing the LED strip discretely and it dawned on us that for $29.99 we could add 3 more strips and literally have a Disco inside our computer-controlled from the Sound Connect 2 software. When we say Sound Blaster stepped into RGB elegantly we mean it. The only thing we didn’t like about it was the RGB connector placement which makes it hard to hide the wire. With 3 more strips, we don’t think that will be a problem and the 16.8 million color combinations won’t hurt your feelings any.
BlasterX Acoustic Engine
Sound Blaster has a long history of bringing almost endless option software to bear on its products allowing everything from one click acoustics to fine tuning the sound for your particular preferences and the Sound BlasterX AE-5 is no exception. We’ll cut that short here and cover it more a little later.
Frankly, Scout 2.0 took us by surprise and floored us! Scout 2.0 is an accessory system that connects to your Droid device and gives you directionality on your immediate threat enemies. Yes, you heard it right it’s an Enemy radar that helps pinpoint upcoming threats and allows you to plan better pathing to get the drop on those sneaky buggers! Cheating? No, the technology actually exists to pinpoint enemies on real battlefields using an array of microphones connected to a computer; this is merely gaming catching up to reality. We’ll be covering PR more in depth later.
Unlike some previous generations, this is a single-piece sound system with a single slot footprint so if you want to go small footprint HTPC chassis it’s entirely doable. The Sound BlasterX AE-5 is geared for gaming and we did plenty of that but we are entirely happy with its music abilities and precise sound reproduction.
We found the location graphic extremely helpful in planning our install and pointing out features like the 122DB Sabre-Class DAC running at 32-bit/384KHz with hi-res lossless playback. We were a bit surprised that the card needs a (optional) Molex to provide extra power for the RGB but once we saw the dancing RGB we quickly forgot all about the Molex. Earlier we mentioned RGB connector placement, the graphic shows you the placement and our PSU cover made it hard to tuck that away using just one LED strip just a minor inconvenience.
We covered this in our Specs table but look at the requirements, a core i3 or Equiv AMD processor, Windows 7 or above, 1 GB Ram, over 600MB HD space and of course at least a PCIe 1x slot.
Sound Connect 2 is really a deceptively complex suite of software controlling everything from lighting to a graphic equalizer and a ton of preset
Just on this one page (we have more for later) you handle lighting, profiles (including custom), audio profiles, equalizer settings and audio settings. You also control Scout Mode, Voice clarity settings, and voice morf. Yes voice morf, you know you want to do “Luke I am your father”.
We didn’t get to play with equalizer much but we are more used to an Equalizer with sliders but it shouldn’t be a big learning curve.
The sound enhancement page is just that you can tweak to your ears content.
Scout Radar requires an additional download to your mobile device but once you get used to seeing where the Sound BlasterX AE-5 hears your enemies at you are spoiled. Sound Blaster sets them up and you knock them down.
Packaging & Unboxing
Our Sound BlasterX AE-5 arrived in good condition and Creative Labs punched up the RGB aspect of the AE-5 and considering it’s the first RGB sound card rightfully so.
The back of the box is a multilingual paradise explaining the key features of the BlasterX AE-5.
Inside the top of the box, we find an accessory box.
Now we are getting to the good stuff the Sound BlasterX AE-5 well protected in resilient foam and an antistatic plastic covering.
After emptying the box you get a good look at how protected the AE-5 really is, not even a box tossing delivery service could damage that.
Digging into the accessory box we find:
- 1 x LED Strip (30cm/10 LEDs)
- 1 x Extension Cable
- Quick Start Leaflet
- Warranty Leaflets
The install was fast and easy to understand and we had the Blaster AE-5 up and running in minutes.
A Closer Look
It’s been a couple of years since Creative released any new sound cards but with one glance you can see cards have gone from green PCB to aesthetically pleasing accessories. Looking at the card you wouldn’t think of the DAC (Digital to Analog) converter and Xamp dual amplifier for each ear cup on your favorite headphones.
The BlasterX AE-5 Pro Gaming card only requires a 1x PCIe slot but for Aux power it also needs (optional) a Molex connector we’ll look at in a few. Hard to believe so much sweet sound coming out of a single PCIe port on such a small card. Spoiler: Be prepared for the first large explosion when wearing your headset it will probably make you jump and your heart thump.
The business end of the card shows a pretty standard 5.1 setup but the card does offer virtual 7.1. We found ourselves wondering what would happen with the Kraken using the Krackens virtual 7.1 with the virtual 7.1 on the BlasterX AE-5 but both card and headset handled it well and our brains didn’t melt so virtual away to your heart’s content.
Connectivity Options (Main)
- 1 x TOSLINK Optical Out
- 1 x 1/8″ (3.5mm) Mic In/Line In
- 1 x 1/8″ (3.5mm) Headphone/Headset Out
- 1 x 1/8″ Front Out, 1 x 1/8″
- Rear Out, 1 x 1/8″ Center/Sub Out
On the connector side, there’s the standard FCC warning and identification sticker. Knowing RGB well by now those lines up top are sure to be pumping out some great RGB. The small card pumps out 32-bit 384kHz playback with a 122dB DNR, and ultra-low distortion and jitter.
The back of the card we find the Molex connector and the front panel header. For those wondering the front panel, header pushed out just as sweet sound as the sound out on the connector end of the card.
On top, the card is the RGB connector for the LED strip, not the handiest place for it and a tad hard to hide the wire but get creative and it’s doable.
The back of the card is patterned in white and black and fairly unremarkable.
Then finally there’s the sticker shot verifying model number and FCC warnings.
So what does the RGB do for you?
It makes your discrete sound card stand out and shine.
The RGB can sync with your chassis choice of ambiance or rainbow it for a visual buffet.
Let’s throw a little Rainbow party inside the computer.
Want to run some demonic red while Diablo runs across the screen and blood splashes from your blade?. The color effects with a full RGB system are just endless and you can even let the BlasterX AE-5 run on mood so it punctuates game play or audio on its own. If this thing could fetch a beer we know men who would marry it.
Sound Blaster Connect 2
Since the last iteration of SB software, they have simplified the software but it is still so full featured it’ll take a while to learn the intuitive program. Over on the left is where most people will experiment at first with all the presets. The presets are from general gaming, video down to game specific like Counter Strike Global.
The equalizers looks a little strange at first but just grab the line at any point and drag it to set your equalizer. This is one area where we would have liked to have seen a more traditional slider equalizer.
The acoustic engine gives plain explanations below each option a feature we like a lot. Not everyone is a dyed in the wool audiophile and these explanations go a long way to smooth the learning curve.
Scout 2.0 is an amazing little piece of work and can help locate enemies based on their sound position on the map. We found Scout 2.0 to be well more than 90% correct so we were popping headshots right and left.
The voice area is a lot of fun and ranges from the acoustic clarity of team communications to morphing your voice to a Darth Vader like modulation. Warning: you can spend a couple of gaming hours here!
Lighting is an area we spent some serious time in and with a little practice you can sync the colors, use presets, turn the Logo off and set external lighting effects (the LED Strip).
Sound Blaster includes a registration page to make it easy to register your product.
Under the speaker setting you can choose your style of speakers or headphones further enriching your audio experience.
Settings are just a general settings area and you can check for updates here and decide if you want the program to run on windows startup.
CPU: Intel Core i7-7700K
Motherboard: Asus ROG Maximus Code
RAM: 32GB Kingston HyperX 3200Mhz
SSDs: Kingston KC1000 480GB
Chassis: Corsair Spec-04 Carbide Series
EVGA 74.83 CFM Fans Extra Testing
OS: Windows 10 Professional X64
Testing sound cards is a bit subjective but we went the full route and listened to everything on our Asus Maximus IX code built in audio then swapped over to the Sound BlasterX AE-5 Pro Gaming. We ran a good cross section of games like Diablo 3, Halo, Skyrim, Starcraft, Battlefield 4 and a couple others.
The music we set a 2TB collection of music to songs we are intimately used to hearing and know every note and nuance including songs with known background noises and voices.
We also loaded a collection of sound effects and walked through explosions, animal sounds, yodeling, wind rustling through trees and over 400 other sounds recorded from the true source of the sound. These weren’t electronically hopped up sound but actual recordings of sounds used for insertion into sound rendering recordings.
The video we used YouTube, Amazon Prime, local channels, NetFlix, DVD’s and BluRay. We limited video to shows and movies we have seen multiple times like the Die Hard Series, Lethal Weapon and the Expendables. We even broke down and listened to a classic musical (The Sound of Music see the torture we go through!).
In short, we played and listened to so many different sources we almost missed Walking Dead which was an entirely new treat with the Sound BlasterX AE-5 driving the sound!
Testing & Performance
Once we calibrated the microphone team communication during gaming were crisp and clear while the bombs and bullets ripped into the terrain and buildings in our immediate area. Tossing a grenade has a whole new meaning with the Sound BlasterX AE-5 powering the explosion. Team responses are clearer while effects are clean and clear with distinct sharp tones. Overlapping effects were distinct and easy to distinguish. Compared to onboard sound team communications were clearer and fewer mistakes made due to the distinct clarity of the Blaster AE-5.
The Virtual 7.1 gaming audio works terrifyingly well! One minute you’re stalking through cover and you hear the lightest snap of a twig or whispering voice and you have it pinpointed, crouch and slowly turn into the enemy while you roll a grenade burn a clip and roll to cover. Unexpected effects like incoming mortars set your heart pumping and the BlasterX AE-5 puts you inside the game.
We broke out our Nvidia 3D set with a Samsung 120Hz monitor and went full depth 3D into a crowd of zombies playing Left 4 Dead 2 using the virtual 7.1 and the BlasterX AE-5 had us in the middle of the room surrounded by flesh eating zombies with noises coming at us from every direction and it gave Boomers a whole new meaning! The racking of the 10 shot automatic shotgun gave that satisfying chachuck and we could hear the shells bounce off the ground a new layer of immersion we’d never noticed. You might take notice that there’s no need to pay extra for a headset with a lot of virtual effects as the Sound BlasterX AE-5 will provide all the variety you need!
We put a lot of emphasis on the Sennheiser HD 660S and HyperX Cloud to test the dual amplifier and there was no lack of head rocking sound what-so-ever!
Music testing we went with everything from Rap, Classic, Rock, Soft Rock, Heavy Metal, and a select group of music with background noises picked up in the studio by accident. While we prefer 70’s and 80’s soft Rock we went full gambit with everything from Box Stereo Speakers, Bluetooth Razer, higher end Logitec, and yes even Sound Blaster speakers you’ll get to gander at a little later in the month. Currently, Xmas looms and there’s nothing that says Xmas like a little Blaster under the tree. You may make more expensive choices but Creative labs leverages in at over 400 Million users and at times following the crowd pays off.
We worked extremely hard at getting the recliner into perfect listening position, put all 3 sets of headphones in reach, a couple of sets of speakers nearby and sweated our way through 92 songs in total. Some of the songs multiple times listening for studio acoustic accidents and guitar riffs with fingertip sliding noise and discovered a whole new world of audio that left us wanting more. We like deep booming bass with an edge of clarity, punchy midranges that stand out and treble that punctuates with sharp clear notes un-muddied by digital effects.
For the most part, we went true 2.0 sounds but ventured into the 2.1 Dolby realms for heavy concussive bands. Oddly enough Dr Hook and the Medicine show was the most interesting rendition with their “cover of the Rolling Stones” hit which is full of good natured banter and studio sounds.
While aimed at gaming the Blaster AE-5 excelled at music and gaming and really shines on high end headphones. When you can feel the bones vibrate and transmit sound on earphones set at a reasonable level you know you are onto good headphone amps and the BlasterX AE-5 Xamp lacks nothing for head shaking clear sound.
Now movies test audio equipment like no other genre. From music in a pub to huge explosions you don’t know what’s coming next and movies don’t have the audio continuity of other media. Action adventure movies go from whispered conversation to huge explosions with cars flipping straight into fully automatic weapons fire and do it a matter of a few seconds. Now drive all that through an HTPC with a discrete sound card like the BlasterX AE-5 and it takes a lot of the load off the CPU and built in components and offloads it to the Sound Blaster audio processor turning the movie into an audio feast making you anticipate the next tire screech.
We went through the entire Expendables franchise, a good portion of the Matrix series and enough Die Hard to find ourselves staring at the sun coming up and making its first little crack. Hearing new sounds in old favorite movies just adds to the experience and once you experience it on a Creative Labs Product you’ll rethink the whole onboard audio thing.
The audio clarity is leaps and bounds above the built in audio on high end televisions and when onboard audio gets muddy the Sound Blaster AE-5 punches out the clear crisp sound the director and sound manager of the movie intends for you to hear and sadly that’s one end of the audio experience often overlooked on video.
Final Thoughts & Conclusion
Having gone from that rudimentary Multimedia Upgrade Kit to today’s sound puts us in a unique position. While our first Sound Blaster product introduced us to the potential of computer audio the Sound BlasterX AE-5 shows us the decade’s long leap to Audio perfection.
The Xamp dual headphone amplifier gave both ear cups explosive sound with a well defined clarity and crispness we thought only possible in a sound recording studio.
Sound Connect 2 is good for just going in and having a good time morphing and playing with the kids or going whole hog and recording and rendering sound exactly like you want it.
Music was clear, clean and deeply rich in nature taking your audio experience to a new level. The Sound Connect 2 panel allows you to use an ordinary, no effects, set of headphones like a high end virtual 7.1 set costing hundreds of dollars and does a better job than the headphones can dream of.
When it comes to sound go with the pro’s at Creative Labs with their seemingly endless line of Sound Blaster products. The $150 price tag is worth every cent and carried across a couple of builds is a pretty reasonable price to pay for higher quality gaming, movies, and audio. You can spend thousands of dollars on components and arguably get a little better sound but if you have that argument with us you would lose because we have experienced sound as it’s meant to be on the Sound BlasterX AE-5 Pro Gaming.
Sound professionals and audiophiles alike can enjoy the Sound BlasterX AE-5 but just opening the box and looking at that quality in your hand is worth the paltry $150 investment knowing you just made one of the best investments for your entertainment enjoyment a person can make! Happy Blasting!
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