Creative Sound Blaster X3 USB DAC Review

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Hi everyone, hope you are all staying safe and well. I have an audio product to review and it is an interesting one.
Creative have been around for decades, from the earliest PC soundcards under their Sound Blaster branding I remember wanting an AWE32 badly for better gaming sound, which back in the late 90’s was pretty terrible from products on a budget. Creative’s sound products were considered the benchmark for a long time with other manufacturers even making their components “Sound Blaster Compatible”.
Anyway enough history, today I have on my desk an External USB DAC, a separate DAC is promoted by many as a way to get the best audio quality out of your system. The Creative Sound Blaster X3 is a midrange offering hoping to tempt in people looking for quality audio.

Creative Sound Blaster X3 USB DAC Specifications & Features

Weight
330g
Dimensions
129 mm x 129 mm x 40.6 mm
Dynamic Range (DNR)
115 dB
Max. Playback Quality
Sampling Rate (Playback) :
Direct Mode:
Playback Resolution (Stereo): PCM 16/24/32-bit / 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Playback Resolution (Optical Out): PCM 16/24-bit / 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Surround 7.1: PCM 16/24/32-bit / 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Dolby Digital Live: 16-bit, 48.0 kHz
Max. Recording Quality
Line-in:
16/24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Mic-in:
16/24-bit / 48.0, 96.0, 192,0 kHz
What-U-Hear
16/24-bit, 48.0, 96.0, 192.0 kHz
Connectivity Options (Main)
1 x TOSLINK Optical Out, 1 x ⅛″ Rear Out, 1 x ⅛″ Center / Sub Out, 1 x 1/8″ Headphone / Headset Jack, 1 x 1/8″ Ext. Mic-in Jack, 1 x ⅛″ Front-out, 1 x ⅛″ Side Out Jack, 1 x USB Type-C port for PC / Mac, 1 x ⅛″ Line-in Jack
Headphone Amp
Supported Headphone Impedance: 32–600Ω, 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 Technologies
CrystalVoice
Scout Mode
Supported Operating Systems
Windows® 7, Windows® 8.1, Windows® 10
DAC
Dynamic Range (Stereo): 115 dB, THD+N (Stereo): 0.0004%
ADC
Dynamic Range: 104 dB, THD+N: 0.0017%
Power
USB Bus Powered, USB-C

Creative Sound Blaster X3 USB DAC Closer Look

soundblaster x3 box top

Arriving in a nice sturdy box we have a rendering of the device along with names and a whole host of features; Super X-Fi is a very interesting feature to customise the sound to your head, Scout Mode aims to increase audio cues such as footsteps in a game to add an audible advantage, 7.1 surround and Dolby Digital capabilities offering multimedia features more familiar with home entertainment systems and with the device working on both PC’s and Macs it is aiming itself at a larger group of users and not just gamers.

soundblaster x3 box bottom

The bottom of the box brings us lots of details in various languages, of course for an audio product it will all boil down to the performance.

soundblaster x3 box contents

The box contents are actually a little more minimal that I would have expected, the only cable included is the USB to Type C to connect the device to your computer, I would have liked to see some more cables and adapters included such as a USB Type C to Type C cable for those Laptops and Macbooks that no longer feature a full sized USB port. Optical cables and some audio splitters/adapters would also be very useful. Here we get the device, the one cable and a fair amount of manual and information cards.

soundblaster x3 top view

The Sound Blaster X3 itself comes in a tidy package, a little larger an Apple TV box, so it shouldn’t take up too much space on your desk. The dial and buttons feel like quality audio controls should, the dial is very smooth and has some weight behind it with gentle notches when turning that offer good feedback. It does look very good too, in fact the comparison to an Apple TV box is quite accurate.

soundblaster x3 front view

Tilting up the device we get to see the two front ports, these consist of two standard 3.5mm stereo audio jacks a microphone input on the left and a headphone output on the right, here is where a splitter cable would have been useful as if your headset is only supplied with a 4-pole multi jack single connector you would have to go out and find one for use with the X3. The big positive here is that this DAC offers a microphone input, a feature missing from many of it’s competitors.

soundblaster x3 rear view

Examining the back of the unit we have many more ports. Line outs for a 7.1 surround system enabling the X3 to take your audio signal and split it directly. A line in for an external audio device, as the X3 gets its computer audio over USB this allows a second audio input signal to match the inputs on many motherboard audio setups. Next we have an optical output connector, these offer a cleaner signal to the receiver and are generally only found on mid to high end motherboards. Finally we have the USB Type C connector for power and computer audio.

soundblaster x3 bottom view

With the lack of any ports or buttons on the sides we bring ourselves to the base of the unit. The interesting part here being the decent rubber feet that stop the DAC sliding around, some regulatory info and a serial number make up the rest of the features here.

soundblaster x3 type C cable

The supplied cable is pretty standard, no fabric sleeving or any other premium features, however this should remain mostly hidden and not moved much so it should work just fine.

soundblaster x3 testing

To test the DAC I have assembled three sets of headphones that are already of a decent quality. Top left is the AIAIAI manufactured Fnatic Duel, these have been my daily drivers for quite some time now offering fantastic comfort and audio quality. Then we have the never-to-be-underestimated Edifier headphones, these do not feature a microphone but offer an incredible quality for what are essentially portable over ear headphones. Finally Creative’s own Sound Blaster X, as a standard headset these are actually the weakest of the three when it comes to audio quality but are incredibly comfortable and sturdy.

soundblaster x3 powered on

When plugged in the X3 is recognised and lights up straight away. The illumination is quite subtle and not overbearing, overall it does look very good. Now let’s get the software loaded up and see how this thing performs.

Software

Well, there are two stages to the setup here, the first directs us to the Apple Store or the Play Store to grab an app.

x3 setup

The Super X-Fi app gets you to create an account then it wants to take picture of your ears and face, now this is a little tricky as your head components need to line up with the app’s capture frames, this means you need a second person to assist with setup unless of course you rig up an external screen to your phone or tablet so you can see what the camera is looking at. Anyway after getting the Mrs to take the correct photos, they were uploaded to my profile and I was back at the PC ready to get started with the Sound Blaster Command application.

Soundblaster Command Main screen

After a pretty painless install we are met with the Sound Blaster Command software where we get to tune the audio to suit not only our preferred levels but also situations and specific uses. On the main page we have SBX profile selections where there are crafted presets that you can jump to if you don’t want to go too deep into tweaking the audio. My favourites are the Music preset which makes even MP3 playback absolutely sublime and the Gaming preset which manages to balance both game audio and voice chat extremely well, increasing clarity which is a very impressive ability. You can also save custom presets.

In the Acoustics Engine area easy visuals aid further adjustments. One really handy feature on all the tabs are the little exclamation marks which offer up explanations as so what some of these functions do that can help take the confusion out of what are some complex audio tweaks and configurations that are not always named after a particular standard.

Soundblaster Command Super X-Fi

Moving down the tabs we get to the Super X-Fi configuration, this is where the head scanning mobile app comes into its own. Using your account credentials created earlier the software downloads the results of the head scan and creates a custom personalised audio profile, there is also a dropdown box for the type of headphones, there is a good long list of supported devices however I could not find any of my test units in the list even the Sound Blaster X were missing. Hopefully this will fill out over time. Setting and testing the Super X-Fi configuration was not a great hit with me, my experience equated to pressing the loudness button where more bass and a general louder experience is artificially imposed on the audio playback.

Soundblaster Command Equaliser

The equalizer tab is an interesting one, instead of the usual HiFi sliders that we are all used to there is a waveform and you can drag points up and down the waveform in the corresponding frequencies, it gives it a great visual oscilloscope look while behaving as expected with traditional sliders. Individual bass and treble boosters sit here being able to go both above and below the flat base level.

Soundblaster Command playback settings

In the playback tab, we are offered a representation of connected devices, the DAC does detect what is plugged in and will offer up some interesting optional direct mode filters to shape the sound along with an audio quality that I would expect to set at the source rather than in this window, so I will leave it at maximum. Once you have selected a layout you can test the sound playback channels which is useful rather than trial and error with a different application.

Soundblaster Command recording settings

In the recording tab, there are many configurations available to aid in amongst other things, eliminating unwanted noise, background and harshness. Voice alterations or morphing are also present which can be great fun.

Soundblaster Command scout mode

Scout mode is an interesting setup that works alongside your selected audio configuration, this mode takes audio cues in games such as footsteps or weapon reloading and highlights them. I did not personally get a great benefit from this however I don’t play at such a level where it would be.

Soundblaster Command Dolby encoder

The encoder tab is for use with the Optical out connection to a receiver, this encodes the audio signal from the source into Dolby Digital, pretty good for watching movies and other surround experiences.

Soundblaster Command mixer

I really like the mixer on the X3, individually handling all the available sound inputs and outputs allows for setup management at a detailed level, very impressed with how this works. The cogs at the end are for balance so the main volume sliders are less cluttered.

Soundblaster Command advanced settings appication

Skipping past the “Bo Pedersen” tab which is just personal account information we get to the Advanced Settings tab which is split into two sections the first of which being Application. Here you can set your language, choose to run when Windows starts and check for Application Updates.

Soundblaster Command advanced settings device

In the Advanced Settings for Device you can reset everything to factory default which can be useful with so much customisation available. Firmware and Driver updates are also here which should help keep the device working well.

Final note is that at the bottom along with the Microphone and Audio sliders, you can switch between Headphones and Speakers and also select SBX profiles without entering their specific menu tabs whichever menu you happen to be in.

The Creative Sound Blaster X3 USB DAC Review: The Verdict

First impressions, well what can I say? Out of the box the sound is like Alcantara, the audio quality improvement over onboard sound is immense. The build quality of the unit is sturdy and in keeping with many quality external devices, think Apple TV and you will have a good idea of the feel of the materials. The software really makes this DAC come to life with so many configuration options to tweak the audio to suit not just style but purpose, I find it very clever indeed. I am less sure about the Super X-Fi feature which has a little bit of a ‘snake oil’ feel to it and should this not be present on the device it would not diminish the overall impression. Software quality is good, it was a little unstable at times on my X299 rig, but on my Ryzen system there have been zero issues.

Testing the three different headphones I found improvement in sound quality on all of them the X3 bringing even the weakest Sound Blaster X headset up to a more than acceptable audio quality.

What’s hot:

  • Superb Acoustic Quality
  • Excellent Sound Configuration Options
  • Handles both Audio Inputs and Outputs
  • Quality feel of device, dial and buttons

What’s not:

  • Super X-Fi sounds forced and artificial
  • Some setups will require adaptors and cables not included
  • Occasional stability issues with the driver

Conclusion

I am a DAC convert! Such devices have been on my radar for some time but never had I thought the benefit would be enough to push such an upgrade ahead of others on my system. Creative have released this X3 DAC at around the £110 mark which is a comparable price with other good quality USB DACs. The fact that this also handles Microphone and Line inputs is a bonus as many only handle headphone output. Good build quality and fantastic audio quality out of the box far outweigh the few niggles of a lack of adapters and cables which could have been included. I am more than happy to award the Creative Sound Blaster X3 not just our Gold Award but the Performance Award to go with it.

Soundblaster x3 gold awardSoundblaster x3 performance award

Thanks to Creative for sending a sample of the Sound Blaster X3 USB DAC in for review.

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