Creative Labs has been on something of a roll in 2019. The company has diversified into all kinds of gaming products from keyboards and mice to headsets and speakers. At the same time, Creative never lost track of its PC audio roots, and its flagship Sound BlasterX AE-9 delivered the goods with its high-end SABRE-class DAC and external breakout box with tons of connectivity options. You can't really stuff a PCI-Express card into a notebook or many small form factor PCs, however. For audio enthusiasts who need a USB solution, the $119.99 Sound Blaster X3 is the newest external audio device out of the peripheral maker's labs, and that's what we have on the table today.
Much like their desktop counterparts, built-in notebook audio solutions have largely been "good enough" for a while, but one area that laptop audio suffers is in the number of output options. Every laptop we've reviewed in recent months has had fairly weak speakers and a single four-pole combination headphone jack. Due to the lack of internal expansion slots, those systems need an external audio solution if you want to output, for example, digital audio over optical or analog audio with 7.1 surround while at your desk. The same is also true for many small desktop PCs, like Intel's NUC family or even a mini-ITX desktop PC where the single PCI Express slot is filled with a graphics card. The only way to improve audio quality is with an external DAC.
|Audio Processor||Creative Labs Super X-Fi UltraDSP|
|Connectivity||1 x ⅛" Front-out Jack
1 x ⅛" Rear-out Jack
1 x ⅛" Center / Subwoofer-out
1 x ⅛" Side-out Jack
1 x TOSLINK Optical-out
1 x ⅛" Headphone Jack
1 x ⅛" Ext. Mic-in Jack
1 x ⅛" Line-in Jack
1 x USB Type-C port for PC / Mac
|DAC Signal-to-noise Ratio||115 dB|
|DAC Total Harmonic Distortion||0.0004%|
|Maximum Playback Quality||Playback Resolution (Stereo): PCM 16-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Playback Resolution (Stereo): PCM 24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Playback Resolution (Stereo): PCM 32-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Playback Resolution (Optical Out): PCM 16-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Playback Resolution (Optical Out): PCM 24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Surround 7.1: PCM 16-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Surround 7.1: PCM 24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Surround 7.1: PCM 32-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Dolby Digital Live: 16-bit, 48.0 kHz
|Recording Quality||Mic-in: 16-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Mic-in: 24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
What-U-Hear: 16-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
What-U-Hear: 24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Line-in: 16-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Line-in: 24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
|Headphone Impedence Supported Range||Total Headphone Impedance Range: 32Ω - 600Ω
Low Gain: 32 - 149Ω (1.2V RMS @ 32Ω, 1.5V RMS @ 150Ω)
High Gain: 150 - 600Ω (2.3V RMS @ 150Ω, 2.9V RMS @ 600Ω)
|Audio Enhancement||Sound Blaster Acoustic Engine
Virtual 7.1 Surround
|Software||Sound Blaster Command (Windows / Mac)|
Much like the more expensive Sound BlasterX AE-9, and its more affordable AE-5 variant, Creative Labs built the Sound Blaster X3 to play back 32-bit / 192-kHz audio streams. The ESS SABRE DAC from the much more expensive model is gone, but the Sound Blaster X3 is still capable of driving headphones with high impedance ratings of up to 600 ohms. The sound from those headphones should still be pretty clear and noise-free as Creative rates the X3's playback signal-to-noise ratio at 115 dB. Unfortunately the headphone jack doesn't detect the microphone on the four-pole 1/8" headsets that come with some phones, like the AKG headset which comes with the Galaxy S10+. The headphones work fine, but the Sound Blaster X3 couldn't record without using a dual 1/8" splitter.
This little box has all sorts of jacks beyond headphones, too. Four 1/8" analog outputs provide enough channels to drive an analog 7.1 surround setup. The Sound Blaster X3 also has a dedicated microphone input, a stereo line-level input, and finally a TOSLINK optical output for Dolby digital audio passthrough. Unfortunately DTS audio decoding from the Sound BlasterX family isn't present in this new device. There's also a USB Type-C connector on the back for use with the included cable.
The three buttons on the top of the unit give quick access to several features without digging into the Sound Blaster Command application. The left button with a microphone icon mutes and un-mutes the connected microphone with a quick tap. Press and hold this button to turn Audio Balance—which automatically balances multiple sources, including the PC and line input—on and off. The Mode button switches among several EQ modes. This includes music and movies, but also controls the footsteps enhancer feature called Scout Mode and EQ for Super X-Fi (which we'll discuss in great detail later). Press and hold to put the Sound Blaster X3 in Direct Mode, which bypasses the Super X-Fi UltraDSP and enables higher playback quality modes. Lastly, the SXFI button turns Super X-Fi on and off for the headphone input with a quick press, or switches between headphone and speaker output when held. Each of these modes has a colored LED indicator, all of which is outlined in the online documentation.
Console Audio Expansion
Creative gave the Sound Blaster X3 capabilities to do more than just PC audio, too. Along with Mac compatibility, the Sound Blaster X3 can work with the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch in docked mode. These consoles detect the Sound Blaster X3 as a discrete USB headset, and feed it audio as one. This lets you use any analog headset you want with your console. Console users still have access to the various EQ modes and Super X-Fi, but you won't get discrete or virtual 5.1 or 7.1 modes, and there's no Dolby Digital Live functionality on tap. Still, these added features are a nice way to boost the utility of Creative's newest external sound card, and might be a good way to give a favorite analog headset new life.
Next up let's take a look at Sound Blaster Command and what's different about the software experience with the Sound Blaster X3 over its pricier predecessor.